Eliminating LWOP for juveniles
Perhaps the bill passed with the most significant national implications was SB 839 by Hinojosa eliminating life without parole as a sentencing option for juveniles, substituting a 40 year minimum for juveniles convicted in capital cases.
Compensating the falsely convicted
The Texas Legislature this year approved and the Governor signed into law an expanded compensation package for innocent people who've been falsely convicted (HB 1736 by Anchia/Ellis), a bill I lobbied for on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas. Under the new statute, falsely convicted defendants may receive $80,000 per year incarcerated plus a like amount stretched out over a lifetime annuity. Meanwhile, SB 1847 by Hegar ensures that wrongfully convicted inmates released from prison aren't denied the same reentry services (see HBs 1711, 2161, below) given to actual offenders.
Corroboration for jailhouse informants
SB 1681 by Hinojosa/Gallego requiring corroboration for jailhouse informant testimony in order to secure a conviction was the only significant policy-related innocence bill that passed aimed at preventing future false convictions.
Shield law for journalists
A new "shield law" will give journalists including, in some instances, bloggers, qualified privilege from providing testimony about confidential sources.
Restoring inmate 'good time'
Though it's no longer the case that prisoners are released when their "good time" plus "time served" equals their sentence, HB 93 by Hodge/Hinojosa, authorized the Department of Criminal Justice to reintate "good time" taken away for disciplinary purposes, authority TDCJ wanted as an added tool for managing prisoner behavior.
Prisoner access to books
A new law made it easier for volunteer organizations to send books to TDCJ inmates by mail. Previously inmates could only receive books directly from the publisher. TDCJ will be adopting rules soon to implement the new policy.
Improving reentry prospects
Another good bill was HB 1711 requiring TDCJ to create reentry and reintegration plans for offenders released from TDCJ and establishing a multi-agency task force to coordinate reentry services. The conference committee went with language in the House version of the bill, described in this House Research Organization report (pdf).
Securing drivers licenses for ex-offenders
HB 2161 was an important reentry bill requiring TDCJ and DPS to coordinate to ensure that offenders leaving Texas prisons can get street-legal ID. According to the HRO, the bill would "require DPS to accept an offender ID card or similar from of identification issued to an inmate by the TDCJ as satisfactory proof of identification to receive a personal identification certificate" after DPS has had an opportunity, before the person leaves prison, to verify their identity. This is a big deal because DPS has historically refused to accept TDCJ ID cards as valid ID, making reentry in the immediate days after a convict's release from prison especially, needlessly difficult.
Temporary reentry housing authorized
Another boon to reentry was the authorization in HB 3226 by Madden/Seliger for TDCJ to pay for temporary housing for parolees who meet all other parole requirements but need a place to stay. TDCJ must create rules that control the payments which are generally authorized for parole-approved inmates if it costs less than what would be incurred incarcerating them.
Huntsville no longer sole point of TDCJ departure
As gas prices start to go up again, TDCJ should save significant money releasing offenders from the facility where they're housed or from "regional release centers" instead of processing everyone out through Huntsville after passage of HB 2289 by Madden/Whitmire.
Reentry and mental health care
HB 4451 by McReynolds/Hinojosa requires TYC to better coordinate continuity of mental health care for offenders receiving those services in youth commission facilities.
Indigency program for 'driver responsibility' mess
An amendment to the DPS Sunset bill requires the Department of Public Safety to establish an indigency program for its driver responsibility fee and establish rules to govern the process. The fee, which is quite high and stretches out over a three-year span, presently has about a 70% nonpayment rate.
Those were the main highlights on my own radar screen. Let me know what other good stuff passed this year that you were happy about.
UPDATE: Via email, Ana Yañez Correa helpfully forwards me this list of 31 bills (pdf) supported by the Texas Criminal Justice Coaltion that passed into law this session. Congrats, Ana, on your team's hard work.
MORE: New Office of Capital Writs. An astute commenter points out I failed to mention SB 1091 creating a new capital writs office to handle indigent habeas appeals in death penalty cases. According to the House Research Organization report (pdf) on the bill:
SB 1091 would create the Office of Capital Writs to provide legal representation for indigent capital murder defendants who were sentenced to death and were appointed counsel for a writ of habeas corpus. Courts would have to appoint the office to represent indigent capital defendants for habeas writs unless specific conditions in the bill were met.
The bill would repeal the current duty of the Court of Criminal Appeals to adopt rules for the appointment of attorneys for the indigent for habeas corpus writs. ...
The office would be allowed to represent defendants in death penalty cases only in proceedings for state writs of habeas corpus, legal motions related to preparing a habeas petition, and other state post-conviction matters other than a direct appeal. The office could not represent a defendant in a federal habeas review.