The Sandra Bland Act came in with much fanfare this legislative session, as it was intended to ensure another incident like Bland’s never happens again. As with most legislation, it was altered throughout the process, but does the final version of the bill resemble what activists were asking for from the beginning?
Bland was found dead in a Waller County jail cell following a questionable traffic stop that sparked outrage and protests. The traffic stop also reignited a decades-old fight in Texas over whether police should have the authority to arrest on the basis of fine-only, or non-jailable offenses, such as failing to signal a lane change, driving with a broken taillight, or failing to wear a seatbelt.
A provision prohibiting arrests for those offenses was included in the bill, and a standalone bill targeting that practice was also filed. Unfortunately, neither the standalone bill nor the provision survived legislative hurdles and both died in the Texas House.
Bland’s sister said stripping away the provision was “gut-wrenching” and that the final version of the bill “painfully misses the mark.” While it is frustrating that the underlying reason for arresting Ms. Bland was not addressed this session, the Sandra Bland Act provides other much-needed reforms that will be sure to save lives in the long-term.
What is accomplished through the revised bill is investigative reform for jail deaths, diversion for mentally ill and drug-addicted defendants, and reforms making it easier for those with disabilities or mental illness to receive personal bonds.
Because of the bill, jail deaths will now be investigated by independent law enforcement agencies. If implemented as intended, the bill will also divert mentally ill and substance abuse defendants to a treatment facility rather than a jail cell.
The original provisions of the bill that targeted police accountability were removed by author State Sen. John Whitmire as police groups claimed it would hinder their ability to work.
If enacted earlier, the bill would have done little to stop what happened to Bland, so it isn’t what activists were asking for. However, what this legislation provides is an opportunity for future legislators to further enhance provisions and continue the dialogue regarding necessary reforms.
Lawmakers have signaled their intent to work on prohibiting arrests for non-jailable offenses and pre-textual stops, but activists need to hold them to it.
In a vote of 137 to 0, the House gave the bill its final approval. It is now up to Gov. Greg Abbott to sign it into law.