Lawmakers Give Justice Reforms In Texas A Boost
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on July 1, 2015.
In the past 10 years, Texas has significantly restructured its corrections and criminal justice policy. I had the privilege to be at the center of that movement as chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee, working with my then-Senate counterpart, John Whitmire, D-Houston, to shepherd reforms through the Legislature to avoid an oncoming catastrophe in the Texas correctional system.
With comprehensive and serious reforms, we were able to avoid massive expected prison population growth and create a new mindset about criminal justice in Texas. Instead of throwing money at the problem, Texas made the system more efficient and effective. To date, the state has saved taxpayers an estimated $3 billion and Texas has its lowest crime rates since 1968.
The Texas Legislature has held that spirit of sensible reform for a decade, forging ahead this year with a second wave. The 84th legislative session passed bills that will improve the use of “diligent participation credits,” such as enrollment in education programs, that will help lower recidivism rates. The Legislature also passed a bill expanding eligibility for nondisclosure orders, which would seal minor offenses from public access, and bills aimed at the indemnification of landlords from ex-offender lease risk.
Thief monetary thresholds raised
This legislative session also brought citizens much-needed change in the area of over-criminalization. A bill was passed that codified the Rule of Lenity, an essential and long-held doctrine that requires a judge to construe objectively ambiguous criminal statutes in favor of the defendant. With the proliferation of criminal offenses for behavior never before criminalized and often vaguely written, it is important to grant protection to individuals who may have never realized that they were committing a crime. Further, for the first time in 22 years, Texas increased its property-theft monetary thresholds to put them in line with current inflation levels. This change brings property theft crimes back to their original legislative intent and allows prosecutors to expend time and resources against more severe property crimes.
Lawmakers also showed clear interest in the youth of the state with numerous reforms affecting the juvenile system. New truancy policies will lower the number of juveniles brought into the criminal justice system by decriminalizing the offense and providing alternative options to courts faced with truants. Other changes will lower the number of juveniles in the system being shipped off to distant state facilities, usually far from families, who are often an important part of their rehabilitation. These reforms will continue to save tax dollars and increase public safety.
Records to be automatically sealed
Among other juvenile reforms, the Legislature streamlined the process for protecting juvenile offenders who committed delinquent conduct or conduct in need of supervision, by allowing automatic sealing of these low-level juvenile records after time for prosecutorial dissent and a hearing, if requested. Many minors and their families do not know that their juvenile records are visible to the public or cannot afford to petition the court to get them sealed. By making the sealing of records automatic, Texas has given minors a much greater chance at overcoming their youthful errors and dramatically increasing their chances at economic prosperity, while greatly reducing their likelihood of future criminal activity.
After decades of assuming that locking up more people was the best way to reduce crime, states across the country have figured out that they can scale back imprisonment and still protect public safety. In 2015 alone, Utah, Alabama and Nebraska have all passed comprehensive sentencing and corrections reforms; West Virginia took steps to reduce incarceration of juveniles in their state for misdemeanor or status offenses, and Alaska began major work on a second wave of reforms. The list goes on – Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi – and while each state tailored the reforms to fit its system, they have looked to Texas for inspiration.
Texas is becoming the shining beacon for criminal justice reform across the nation and this session has made that light shine brighter. However, there is still work left to be done. For instance, legislation that would have placed 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system did not get to the governor’s desk, keeping Texas as one of only 11 states that has not raised the age. A study regarding its future implementation did pass, therefore I am confident this important reform and similar criminal justice reforms will continue into the 85th session.
Photo credit: Johnny Hanson/Houston Chronicle