Texas Legislative Justice Reforms

June 07, 2017 by

The 85th legislative session saw its share of bills aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system. Many of the issues were sparked by incidents that occurred during the interim, like the death of Sandra Bland or the jailing of a rape victim in Harris County. Others festered for some time and finally were able to be introduced as issues that both Republicans and Democrats could stand behind.

Here are some of the major victories the session.

Houston Democrats State Sen. John Whitmire and State Rep. Garnet Coleman carried namesake legislation aimed at preventing another case like Sandra Bland’s. Bland was arrested in Waller County and, unfortunately, passed away in her jail cell. Her death sparked outrage from justice reform activists.

While the final version varied from the original and had some of the activist-driven provisions removed, it is still a step in the right direction. The Sandra Bland Act includes some data collection enhancements and de-escalation training, as well as independent investigation for inmate deaths.

Another namesake legislative victory this session was Jenny’s Law. This law stemmed from former Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson jailing a rape victim, Jenny. Jenny refused to continue testifying against her assailant, so she was placed in custody to ensure she did. While in jail over the Christmas holiday, Jenny was assaulted and injured. Senate Bill 291 was filed to make sure that never happened again.

Whitmire carried another bill to provide access to attorneys for witnesses and victims who are held in custody for the purpose of ensuring their testimony. To make sure that no victim has to endure such a stay, the law also permits them to request a hearing after 24 hours in custody and a follow-up hearing after 15 days.

State Rep. Terry Canales and State Sen. Chuy Hinojosa successfully passed legislation, HB 351, that will provide judges more discretion to use community service instead of fines and fees for indigent defendants. Also, under HB 351 judges will be able to determine someone’s indigent status upfront rather than waiting for them to be jailed for nonpayment.

Another bill targeting indigency was by State Rep. Senfronia Thompson and State Sen. Judith Zaffirini. The bill, SB 1913, requires courts to notify defendants about alternatives for payment for those who can’t afford to pay fines and fees. If an arrest warrant is issued for nonpayment, it can be withdrawn if the defendant appears, voluntarily, and makes an effort to resolve the issue.

State Sen. Konni Burton and Rep. Alma Allen filed HB 1426 to bolster reentry opportunities for those who complete a community supervision agreement. This helps reduce barriers to entry because upon completion of the community supervision, an offender will no longer face licensing restrictions outside of financial, public safety, and teaching professions. However, authorities retain the right to deny a license if the offense was related to the professional license the person is seeking.

HB 34 by State Rep. John Smithee and State Sen. Charles Perry requires recording of interrogations for some felonies. This was a recommendation from the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Panel. Currently, no state law requires recordings for interrogations, so while it isn’t as broad as many wanted, it is an improvement. This bill is aimed at preventing convictions of innocent defendants like Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife. Morton actually testified on behalf of the bill. The bill also requires changes to photo lineups to ensure that victims and witnesses don’t misidentify defendants.

While some issues like raising the age of criminal responsibility, prohibiting arrests for non-jailable offenses, and reforming the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws died this session, there’s much to be optimistic about.

Advances were made in some areas, lost in others, but many doors were open to further the dialogue about issues plaguing Texas’ criminal justice system. With effort during the interim, there’s no reason that those remaining issues won’t be addressed next session.


About the Author

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