HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- At a time when Houstonians should be preparing for Thanksgiving, there is angst being felt across our area as murders and violent crimes continue to rise.
The Houston area recorded the 540th murder of the year on Wednesday, a 21% increase over 2020 cases, according to data from Houston police and the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
Thursday, ABC13's Ted Oberg and Houston Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg joined forces to get answers to your questions from some of the city and county's top law enforcement officials.
You can watch the entire town hall in the video player above or anywhere you stream Eyewitness News, including Roku, Fire TV and Apple TV.
During our one-hour town hall, we pushed leaders to list all the factors contributing to this trend, and the relationship between crime and changing conditions at the courthouse.
The town hall also focused on concerns related to bond reform, and the jump in the number of people released from jail on multiple felony bonds.
According to the Houston Chronicle, in 2020, 18,796 defendants were charged with new crimes while out on bond, a number that has tripled since 2015.
In the first six months of 2021, the Houston Chronicle also found 141 cases, including 31 violent felonies, where defendants were allowed to pay less than 10 percent of their bond amounts.
Our powerhouse panel for Thursday night's town hall included:
- Alex Bunin, Harris County Public Defender's Office
- Ed Gonzalez, Harris County Sheriff
- George Powell, former Harris County district judge
- Kim Ogg, Harris County District Attorney
- Michael Kubosh, Houston City Council member
Here are some of the questions our panelists answered from viewers during the town hall:
Q: How can we begin to feel safe again when going around in the city? What's being done to try to stop the rising crime rates?
Andrea Thomas, Humble
A: District Attorney Ogg said while efforts are being made to move low-level, nonviolent people out of jail or even removing them from the criminal justice system altogether, more has to be done to keep violent offenders behind bars.
"Most shocking is when offenders commit violations on conditions of their bonds, (and the bonds are) not always revoked," Ogg said. "Our law provides judges have the right to do that."
Q: When are Houston judges going to consider victims' rights more important than those committing atrocious acts and hold accountable these criminals?
Chris Yardley, Houston
A: "Some of the decisions the public holds the judges accountable for really are beyond their control to make," said Powell, who formerly served on the bench in Harris County. "They know the defendants have rights and they cannot violate those rights. It's very clear in the law, if they are going to remove a bail or provide no bail, raise bail, they need to hear the evidence first."
Bunin, the county's chief public defender, also weighed in on Chris' question.
"In the other situations, (judges) set very high cash bonds, which I think more people are making lately because the fees offered by bail bondsmen have gone down," Bunin said. "You've seen cases recently where people have gotten out on $300,000 bonds, and I've never seen that before."
Q: Why are leaders saying we are reforming our bond system when this is clearly failing and more violent people that belong in jail are being left out?
Wimberley Dean, Houston
A: While Harris County awaits a final ruling on a lawsuit it faces related to misdemeanor bonds, the district attorney said many informal changes have already been made by district judges. The same cannot be said, however, for felony bonds.
"There's been no felony bail reform. I heard a judge talk about it, all that they had done to informally reform bail," Ogg said. "Reform means improvement, everybody's for improvement, but it's got to work. It's not an improvement if the system creates a greater danger than we started with."