Like practically every other issue confronted by the Legislature, criminal justice reformers ended up with a mixed bag of moderate accomplishments, watered-down deals and failed bills. They even drew a veto from Gov. Greg Abbott, who struck down a Good Samaritan bill that would have protected people from prosecution if they call 911 to report a drug overdose. Apparently saving lives isn't as important as being tough at any cost. And that's a cost that adds up. On average, Texans pay $51 a day to keep someone in a state prison and $59 to keep someone in jail, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. In contrast, it is only $1.56 to supervise a probationer. So while U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is working at the federal level to pass legislation that would allow low-risk prisoners to spend more time in home confinement instead of in prison, state legislators have kicked that can down the road.Grits would add to that critique a failure to pass any meaningful reform on the Driver Responsibility surcharge. (DPS did to commit to Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Chairman Larry Phillips that it will roll out more Amnesty periods in the near future.) And asset forfeiture legislation appeared promising on the front end but stalled out thanks to opposition from leadership.
Despite pre-session hype, legislators failed to pass legislation that would lower penalties for nonviolent offenders, notably state Rep. Joe Moody's bill to decriminalize marijuana. No wonder the Department of Criminal Justice general revenue budget grew by nearly half a billion dollars for the next biennium. All that money does little to actually reform prisoners and help them become productive members of society. Legislators even ignored some of the lowest-hanging fruit among criminal justice fixes: Treat 17-year-olds as juveniles rather than adults. Intensive juvenile detention and probation programs can put kids back on the right track, and federal law compels Texas to change this standard. But apparently, legislators are content plucking teenagers out of society just as they approach adulthood and surrounding them with hardened criminals.
Texas doesn't make it easy when people leave prison, either. A bill to "ban the box," which would prevent state agencies from asking about one's criminal history on job applications, passed the state House but not the Senate. Supported by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, and the conservative Koch Brothers, this initiative is supposed to help convicted felons get their foot in the door for job interviews before having to reveal their records. As Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said in a radio interview last year, there's "a lot of young men who are minorities, in their early 20s, have a felony conviction on their résumé, and now they're unemployable."
Perception of success is relative: Some good things happened this session, and we didn't take too many overt steps backward (a few). But compared to what should have been done, what needed to be done, it was a disappointment.