In his biannual address to the Legislature, the chief justice of Texas' highest civil court told lawmakers that "if innocent people are rotting in prison for crimes they did not commit, we certainly have not achieved justice for all."
Jefferson pointed to statistics showing that over the last 25 years, 117 Texans have been exonerated — 47 of those by DNA testing, the most nationwide. Those figures are not new, but Jefferson used them to again call for "a commission to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases and to establish statewide reforms." ...
Jefferson said cases overturned by new DNA evidence "leave us with the distinct impression that we today suffer from a systemic deficit in our collective approach to the way we decide how to administer criminal justice." He mentioned the case of Michael Morton, an Austin grocery store inventory manager who spent 25 years in prison for his wife's slaying before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2011.He also called for rethinking the widespread practice of issuing Class C misdemeanor tickets for student misbehavior in school, the Texas Tribune reported:
Two years ago, in his last State of the Judiciary speech to Texas lawmakers, Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, argued that tickets and citations for minor, nonviolent offenses by students should be a last resort. “Charging kids with criminal offenses for low-level behavioral issues exacerbates the problem,” he said. “Of course, disruptive behavior must be addressed, but criminal records close doors to opportunities that less punitive intervention would keep open.”Bravo, Justice Jefferson, bravo!
As he returns Wednesday to deliver a new State of the Judiciary address, Jefferson is pushing a trio of specific recommendations for how to keep students with behavioral issues from entering the criminal justice system as adults.
Senate Bill 393 would end the practice of ticketing for students with disciplinary problems that are currently considered criminal misdemeanors, and replace it with a system of “progressive sanctions,” including warning letters, community service and referrals to counseling. SB 394 would expand confidentiality for youths who have had misdemeanors dismissed, to keep their records clean. SB 395 would allow juveniles convicted of certain nonviolent offenses to settle their court costs through community service, or have them waived if they are indigent. All three were authored by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.
Ticketing for nonviolent misdemeanors forces students to go to court, Jefferson told the Senate Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday. In addition to being a waste of resources, he said, that practice makes it more difficult for students to turn their lives around. “What used to be, in our day, a trip to the principal's office now lands you in court,” he said. “We're overcriminalizing low-level, nonviolent offenses in the classroom ... and then they're on a path to our criminal justice system.”