Even so, now that the dust has settled following the veto period (and the Governor vetoed a couple of good criminal justice bills based on deeply flawed reasoning), Grits must admit that the big reform bills passed this session, taken together, constitute a pretty impressive array of criminal-justice policy accomplishments. They just weren't the things most people were focused on when the session began. To me, these are the highlights, in no particular order:
- Adjust property thresholds for inflation. Passed as an amendment after a senate bill failed to get a House floor vote, this legislation will reduce incarceration for property crimes at the margins in a move Grits has advocated for years. The big budget impact will come from shifting state jail felony charges to the misdemeanor courts and reducing the proportion of theft cases charged as serious felonies based solely on the property valuation.
- Diligent participation credits for state jail felonies. State jail felons can now earn sentence reductions through diligent participation in education, vocational, treatment, or work programs.
- Eliminated the pick-a-pal grand jury system. A significant change, Grits remains a bit emotionally winded from the drama surrounding its passage. I'd considered this a lesser reform in a sense because we were literally the last state to do it; Texas wasn't leading the way on this one, we were bringing up the rear. But smarter folks than myself assure me this is no small thing. While there's more to do, with hindsight I'm starting to feel pretty good about this one.
- Decriminalized truancy. Like grand jury reforms, this basically brought us in line with virtually all other states. But we're talking about diverting tens of thousands of juvenile cases out of the criminal justice system which is nothing to sneeze at. Between this and the state eliminating most Class C ticketing in schools last session (another John Whitmire bill), Texas has pretty quickly moved away from treating low-level juvenile behavior through the justice system.
- Shifted juvenile incarceration from state youth prisons to regional detention centers. Somehow the estimates for how many kids would be shifted to counties under SB 1630 declined over session. At one point, press accounts had the final number at 200-300 kids in youth prisons post-reform; by the end of session the estimates were 700-800 kids remaining, down from 1,100. Either would be significant but, having not tracked the bill closely, Grits remains unsure whether it's the estimate that changed or the underlying policy.
- Created innocence commission to study causes of false convictions. This is a well-timed project; Texas has passed all but one of the recommendations from the last such study panel.
- Afforded habeas corpus relief to defendants falsely convicted based on junk science. Grits readers are sick of hearing about this one, but I'm still giddy the governor signed this thing.
- Provided counsel for habeas corpus petitioners in agreed cases. In innocence cases or other situations where the state agrees a defendant is entitled to relief, judges must now appoint a lawyer. This will also provide a vehicle for representation of clients convicted of crimes which were later struck down as unconstitutional.
- Expanded jurisdiction of the Office of Capital Writs to include forensic writs referred from the Forensic Science Commission. Likely few cases will be referred in the near term - they got no additional budget to go along with the new authority - but the cases they do get are likely to be important, with the potential to impact big swaths of the system.
- Required licensure of forensic analysts by 2019. And with a license comes the ability of the state to revoke a license. This is a significant accountability reform.
- Provided notice to defendants when courts schedule an execution. Hard to believe that wasn't required before, but there you go (see a discussion here).
- Expanded access to post-conviction DNA testing: Every few years, the Court of Criminal Appeals says someone can't get testing done under Ch. 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Lege tells them they can. SB 487 was this year's version.
- Reformed sex offender civil commitment program. Not a complete fix for the failing program, since it didn't address the lack of available housing, but a big, important bill.
- Funding bodycams: The Lege approved a $10 million grant program for body cameras, though Grits is not so enamored of the rest of the bodycam legislation.
- Reviving in-person visitation: The Lege insisted that jails cannot eliminate in-person visitation when they expand to include video visitation, but grandfathered a baker's dozen facilities that changed their policies before the state changed the law.
Yes, with the exception of the property threshold and diligent participation bills, the Lege failed to address Texas' fundamental over-reliance on mass incarceration. But neither would it be fair to disparage or poo poo how much was accomplished.
MORE: State Rep. James White offered an addendum to this list.