Texas’ law-and-order reputation is well-deserved, deriving from the nation’s busiest death chamber and an incarceration rate that towers over nearly every other nation on the planet.five of six main recommendations from the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel, with recording police interrogations for serious offenses the last, extant item. And Texas rapid de-incarceration among juvenile offenders, highlighted in this DMN graphic, has been something to behold, all accomplished during a period when juvenile crime declined. The paper also praised a new statute limiting Class C tickets written by ISD cops for violating school rules.
Yet the state is slowly earning recognition on another level — the smart-on-crime level — where both ends of the political spectrum question the wisdom of warehousing low-level offenders and where individual rights are not smothered by the power of the state.
This year’s Legislature enacted dozens of new laws, most of which take effect Sunday, that help move Texas from an outlier on criminal justice and further into a position of leadership in some areas.
The reasons are many. An emotional driver is Texas’ embarrassment of having freed more innocent prisoners on DNA evidence than any other state. Then there is the emerging liberal-conservative alliance that has made headway in demanding more effective and affordable ways to address crime than keeping jails and prisons stuffed.
On the adult side, Texas receives credit nationally from people as diverse as Grover Norquist and Eric Holder for its 2007 probation reforms. But Texas has failed to double-down on that much-ballyhooed strategy. While Texas' 2007 reforms merit praise, there have been three legislative sessions since then in which nothing more has been done on that front. Texas has not reduced adult incarceration levels nearly as boldly as we have on the juvenile side. In the meantime, California has been forced to de-incarcerate under a federal court order, leaving Texas with significantly more people locked up than the Golden State, despite their larger population.
The News highlighted a budget item that hasn't received a great deal of attention: "Lawmakers also freed up court fees that had previously been collected for an indigent defense account but were held hostage to balance the state budget. The infusion allowed the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to boost its annual formula allocation to counties for public defenders by $15 million, reaching $35 million this year. Well-known as a tough conservative, Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, lobbied hard for those dollars." The editorial concluded:
That doesn’t mean the 2013 Legislature couldn’t have done more to reform criminal justice. It left important items on the table, such as bills to decriminalize possession of trace amounts of illegal drugs and to reclassify possession of small amounts of marijuana as a fine-only misdemeanor. Another would have created a panel to study court-confirmed exonerations to find more ways of improving the justice system. The time may come for those proposals, and this newspaper is hopeful.That's a pretty good assessment of where we are. The Texas Legislature has largely reached a consensus that incarceration shouldn't be further expanded. The open question is whether they can muster the political will, as they did in the juvenile arena, to roll it back.
Texas prisons still hold more people than the populations of Richardson, Colleyville and Addison combined — with 67,000 more in county jails. It’s a relief, at least, that lawmakers seem to realize that enough is indeed enough.
MORE: I can't recall if I've supplied Grits readers with a link to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's 20-page summation of what the 83rd Texas Legislature did on criminal justice, but here is is (pdf) if you're interested.