Pre-filed Justice Reform Bills

November 23, 2016 by

As pre-filing for the 85th Texas Legislative Session is well underway there have been a number of bills (both good and bad) related to reforming the criminal justice system. We ran through a brief list of some of the ones that caught our eye on during a Facebook Live session on the day pre-filing started, but we wanted to delve a little deeper into some of the legislation that Restore Justice USA will be following this session.

HB 50: Indigent Defense – State. Rep James White (R- Woodville)

This bill targets the costs imposed on indigent defendants. As we’ve written about, Texas municipalities often come under fire for operating what some see as modern day debtors’ prisons. While indigence, or inability to pay, is supposed to be taken into consideration when imposing fines or fees on a defendant, many times it isn’t – and defendants find themselves facing stiff punishments including jail time simply for not being able to pay.

White’s bill allows courts to enable indigent defendants to pay their fine through community service. It also provides the court with the ability to waive the fine if the defendant was indigent at time of sentencing or committing the crime, is a child, or would cause undue hardship.

HB 275: Repealing the Driver Responsibility Program – State Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock)

The Driver Responsibility Program is criticized by many. Often called a tax on the poor, the program levies surcharges, in addition to criminal penalties and court fines, on certain moving violations. While there have been bipartisan attempts to abolish the program in the past, lawmakers have yet to be successful.

State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Canton) has also filed legislation (SB 90) that would repeal the program.

HB 91: Occupational Licensing Reform – State Rep. James White (R-Woodville)

This bill requires all licensing authorities in the State of Texas, that have an eligibility requirement relating to criminal records, to review the requirement and make recommendations on whether they should be retained, modified, or repealed. The bill requires that these reports be sent to the Lt. Gov., Speaker, and each legislative member by December of 2018.

Occupational licensing in Texas is already excessively burdensome, but it is compounded for those seeking employment in these fields post-release. While some preventing those with criminal records from obtaining some licenses post-release is prudent, others are items for reform.

HB 103: Warrantless Cavity Searches – State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston)

In response to last year’s incident in which a Houston motorist was taken out of her car and cavity searched by police in public, Dutton filed this bill in an attempt to ensure that it never happens again.

HB 103 simply states that a peace officer may not conduct a cavity search on anyone other than someone confined in or committed to a penal institution without first obtaining a warrant authorizing the search.

HB 158: Recording of Grand Juries – State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) & HB 214: Recording of State’s Highest Courts – State Rep. Terry Canales (D-McAllen)

These two bills are aimed at increasing courtroom transparency. Dutton’s bill requires recording of grand jury proceedings involving a peace officer by either a stenographer or an electronic device capable of recording sound. These only pertain to cases where the defendant is a peace officer, and the bill goes on to require public discloser of the recording if the grand jury finds no bill of indictment.

Canales’ bill requires both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court to visual and audio record oral arguments and public meetings of the court and post them to their respective websites.

HB 325: Expunction for Nonviolent Offenses – State Rep. Terry Canales (D-McAllen)

This bill would permit the expunction of arrests records for nonviolent offenders if the person was placed on deferred adjudication community supervision, has not been arrested after the date of their offense, and five years have lapsed for a misdemeanor or ten years for a felony.

SB 109: Term Limits for Judges – State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Canton)

SB 109 would require the Supreme Court of Texas, with consultation from the Court of Criminal Appeals, to establish a limit on the number of terms a judge or justice may serve on any bench created under the state constitution, state law, or municipal ordinance.

SB 118: Broadcast Texas Board of Criminal Justice Meetings – State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas)

In an effort to increase transparency, this bill would require the TBCJ to audio and visually broadcast their meetings on their website and then archive them for later viewing.

The TBCJ is a nine-member board appointed by the Governor to oversee the Department of Criminal Justice. They have the ability to hire, fire, set rules and policies so ensuring transparency of their meetings is a priority for anyone monitoring TDCJ.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.