In the tug of war between the Travis County sheriff’s office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over new jail policies that limit cooperation between the two entities, neither apparently flagged a key flaw in the legal system that hindered justice: procedures for jail, bail and immigration enforcement that collectively can delay or block justice.
Last month, the sheriff’s office came close to releasing Gallardo-Gonzalez, who had been arrested and charged with continuous sexual assault of a 9-year-old girl. Though ICE had sought a detainer permitting its agents to take custody of Gallardo-Gonzalez, who was thought to be in the country illegally, the felony charges were not among those for which Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez automatically grants detainers by ICE. After making bail, Gallardo-Gonzalez was on track to being released with a GPS monitor. Hernandez did decide to honor the ICE request, which might have led to Gallardo-Gonzalez’s deportation prior to resolving charges against him.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore rightly halted actions for deportation to ensure that he faces justice in Travis County.
The case prompted Moore to take a hard look at gaps in the system. She then led efforts with ICE and Hernandez to close those gaps. That kind of cooperation improves public safety.
Moore told the Statesman’s editorial board the case and others like it have brought into focus aspects of the legal system that have been in the background of immigration politics, specifically deportation procedures that can expel suspects beyond the reach of Travis County prosecutors. She wants the guilty behind bars.
But it also shows another, more obscure element that also can complicate prosecutorial efforts: a bail bond system that might be missing the mark in felony cases in which bail amounts are set at levels that don’t reflect the seriousness of certain crimes or a suspect’s flight risk. In Gallardo-Gonzalez’s case, the bail was initially set at $50,000. After Moore’s intervention, it was raised to $250,000 – high enough to keep him behind bars until he goes to court.
Moore’s new approach aims to address such flaws.
As the American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski recently reported, Moore’s office worked with federal immigration officials to craft procedures that ensure suspects charged in pending felony cases face justice before possibly being deported. That makes sense for suspects trying to clear their names and victims who rely on the legal system for resolution. But it also ensures that those who are found guilty of serious crimes are held accountable.
For their part, ICE officials have agreed to notify Travis County prosecutors if they learn that a suspect arrested in the county by ICE agents has an unresolved local matter. That allows Moore’s office to take the case to court or finalize it with a plea agreement.
But the cooperation goes further, with immigration officials pledging to do the same if they realize a defendant who already has gone through the deportation process is about to be expelled from the country. In such cases, prosecutors could file court motions to have that inmate returned to Travis County for a trial or other legal proceeding.
Moore also sent a letter to Hernandez last month requesting her office’s cooperation: “To protect the public from the release of dangerous individuals facing felony allegations that may pose a flight risk, and to ensure that the criminal justice system has an opportunity to resolve pending criminal cases before a violent or dangerous offender is apprehended by or transferred to ICE custody, I am asking that your department notify us upon receipt of a request by ICE to detain individuals charged with offenses listed below.”
The goal, Moore said in the letter, is to give her office time to review felony cases before a suspect is bonded out of jail or transferred to ICE and “approach a judge with a motion to increase bond where appropriate.”
Hernandez has agreed to provide such a list.
The list of crimes Moore referenced is extensive, ranging from arson, intoxication assault and burglary of a habitation to continuous sexual abuse of a child, manslaughter and injury to a child, elderly or disabled person.
It goes far beyond the narrow list of crimes Hernandez named in her ICE detainer policy. As of last month, the sheriff’s office only is automatically honoring ICE detainers for cases in which a suspect is charged with capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous human smuggling, or if immigration agents obtain an arrest warrant.
Moore has mapped out some constructive steps. And it’s worth noting that the county’s bond system aimed at vetting defendants accused of misdemeanors or nondangerous crimes for quick jail release has the right focus, not to mention its savings to taxpayers. It’s no wonder lawmakers want other counties to adopt it.
Moore’s new approach in working cooperatively with ICE and the sheriff’s office strengthens that system and public safety. But it also blunts much of the criticism leveled by Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans who have bashed Austin and Travis County for being a “sanctuary city” and county, and as such they assert, permit dangerous people to be released back into the community rather than turned over to ICE.
Under Moore’s approach, dangerous offenders won’t evade justice by jumping bond or being deported. They will be prosecuted — and if found guilty, jailed.