Criminal Justice Reform in Texas
“We have to have a change, something that will show the people of Texas that we are listening and we are ready to take action.”
- Rep. Nicole Collier, Chair of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee
It’s time we had a centuries-overdue conversation about deep and meaningful criminal justice reform in Texas and our nation. Texas has seen momentum in recent sessions around initiatives like body cameras, arrest release for intellectual or developmental disabilities, and de-escalation and mental health training as a result of criminal justice bills like the Sandra Bland Act.
However, recent events make very clear one immutable truth: we must do more to right the wrongs of the past and move this country forward to a place that is safer and more equitable for everyone.
In Texas, legislators have already started discussions around the topic and what changes can be made to current law to address meaningful criminal justice reform in Texas. In fact, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus sent a letter just last Friday to the Governor asking for a meeting to discuss the issues at hand together.
In this post, we will explore some of the most likely changes that could come about in Texas to address criminal justice reform.
Sandra Bland Act
This bill came about due to the death of Sandra Bland while in custody at a jail in Texas. Her death spurred reforms to mental health training, de-escalation techniques and required all officers to document all traffic stops whether an arrest is made or not.
However, there were other provisions originally included which were stripped late in the 2017 legislative session after significant pushback from law enforcement groups, including a prohibition on arresting a citizen when they are stopped by police for a fine-only offense. In the Sandra Bland case, she was pulled over for failing to use her blinker and died of suicide in custody only days later.
Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, author of the Sandra Bland Act, says that racial bias training is something else that was initially included in the bill but was stripped out. “We wanted it in the bill,” he said. “But we did get de-escalation training, and I think that’s helped in Texas. But we need to have racial bias, implicit-bias training, for all peace officers in Texas.”
The idea of large-scale decriminalization of marijuana has been around for a very long time. Only recently, however, have states around the nation actually taken it seriously and started to remove criminal penalties for possession and collecting sales tax income on the legal sale of marijuana.
In Texas, this issue is steeped in historical criminal justice concerns. In April 2020, the ACLU released a report stating that African-Americans are 2.6x more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Texas. While other states were removing criminal penalties for marijuana possession over the last decade, the rate of arrests for marijuana possession among black Texans (as compared to white Texans) increased from 2010 to the present.
With the pending economic shortfall in Texas coupled with real criminal justice reform pushes, it is very likely that marijuana decriminalization will be a much-discussed issue in the 2021 legislative session.
Other Legislative Ideas
Some lawmakers have mentioned filing legislation that would "further the use of personal recognizance bonds, which allow people to be released without paying cash and on the promise they will appear at their next court date."
During a recent interview with WFAA in Dallas, Rep. James White (Chairman of the House Corrections Committee) said that he would also like to see more training in de-escalation and the dangers of chokeholds by police officers. In the same interview, Rep. Carl Sherman mentioned that he would be filing legislation the "Botham Jean Act" which would require officers to keep their body cameras on with criminal charges for those who turn their body cameras off. Additionally, Rep. Sherman stated that he believes officers should not be paid while on administrative leave during investigations into their conduct. Both legislators also agreed with the idea of a "statewide use-of-force standard" when prompted.
Finally, Rep. Lorraine Birabil from Dallas states that she would like to file a bill that makes it a crime for a police officer to see an act of police brutality and not report it.
Whatever happens between now and January 2021, the legislature would be wise to keep criminal justice reform high on the priority list for bills to file. We cannot wait for the federal government - this is happening in our backyard and we have a responsibility to own it and fix it. This issue is only getting more serious and more divisive in our country. We need to heal, to take responsibility, and to take meaningful action for any real change to take place.