SENATE PANEL ADVANCES BAIL REFORM, FENTANYL BILLS
(AUSTIN) — The Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved legislation on Tuesday that would answer two of the seven emergency items laid out by Governor Greg Abbott last month: bail reform and dealing with the fentanyl epidemic. The latter issue is in response to a national epidemic of deadly overdoses. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 70,000 Americans overdosed on potent synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, in 2022, making it the leading cause of death of Americans aged 18 to 45. Last session, the Legislature approved a bill that would enhance penalties for manufacture or delivery of more than one gram of fentanyl. Houston Senator Joan Huffman says that in the last two years, we've learned that even smaller amounts can be deadly. Her bill, SB 645, would raise the penalty for manufacture or delivery of less than one gram from a state jail felony to a third degree felony. If a sale leads to a death, the penalty would go up to a second degree felony, which carries a potential sentence of two to twenty years in prison. "This is designed to address the 'one-pill scenario' where due to the lethality of fentanyl compared to other illicit drugs, it only takes one pill to kill," said Huffman.
Houston Senator Joan Huffman's bill would enhance penalties for manufacture or delivery of less than one gram fentanyl.
Huffman said she is conducting a wide-ranging effort to combat the spread of this drug in the state. "We have reached the critical point in the fentanyl crisis here in Texas, we have no choice but to take a comprehensive approach to this complex issue," she said. That includes SB 1319, also passed by the committee Tuesday, which would enhance overdose reporting. In her capacity as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Huffman said she is also including $18 million for overdose prevention education and opioid reversal drugs in the Senate budget draft. "This record amount of funding will provide overdose reversal medication for law enforcement, first responders and healthcare providers, schools, and community organizations," she said. Additionally, she is ensuring $147 million in funding for DPS crime lab services to help prosecute fentanyl related crimes. "It is flooding our border, it is killing our citizens at an alarming rate," she said. "We have to act." Huffman said she plans on introducing another bill later this session that would permit district attorneys to charge with murder anyone suspected of dealing fentanyl that results in an overdose death.
For bail reform, the committee unanimously approved SJR 44, also authored by Huffman, a measure largely similar to legislation passed out of the Senate three times in 2021. It would ask voters to amend the state constitution to permit judges to deny bail to violent or sexual offenders who pose an ongoing threat to public safety or represent a significant flight risk. "It has become starkly clear that our local officials making bail determinations day-in and day-out need this tool to protect the people of Texas from future harm," said Huffman. In cases where bail was denied, judges would be required to explain their reasoning and would also be directed to use the least restrictive means of confinement available.
Before it can be put on the ballot, however, it must be approved by a supermajority of two-thirds of each chamber. During the 87th Legislative Session, and in the first two special sessions in 2021, the bill easily met that threshold in the Senate, but couldn't win the required 100 votes in the House. In the meantime, Huffman said the threat to public safety continues. "This bill has been delayed now for a couple of years, I think it has cost lives to be honest," said Huffman. "I want to thank Governor Abbott for putting this on emergency items so we could do it quickly and get this bill moving. I think it's absolutely critical that this bill passes."
The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, March 8th, at 11 a.m.