Monday, December 28, 2015

Criminal justice reformers dubbed 'Texan of the Year'

The Dallas News' selection of criminal justice reformers at the Texas Legislature - specifically Rodney Ellis, John Whitmire, and Ruth Jones McLendon, who they collectively dubbed the "Texas Justice League" - as their Texans of the Year was an interesting and welcome choice.

It's welcome because it further highlights the extent to which criminal-justice topics came to dominate the political landscape in 2015, in Texas just as much as across the rest of the country. Interesting because, while reformers had a successful session, it wasn't wildly so. In that sense, the declaration was more of a lifetime achievement award for the three Democrats named than a statement about what was accomplished in 2015. (And if you're going to focus on 2015, why not give props to Chuy Hinojosa who got so much done on forensics reform?)

Also, I don't agree with the "behind-the-scenes political players" who "uniformly described a strong reluctance among rank-and-file Republicans to embrace criminal justice reform." Grits isn't sure whom they interviewed, but rank-and-file Republicans are largely supportive whenever they get to actually vote on reform measures. It's been GOP leadership, especially in the House, which won't move the bills. While these three Dems all deserve recognition, one could easily have identified Republicans - like James White, David Simpson, Konni Burton or John Smithee - to add to their list. In a 2-1 R controlled Legislature, realistically nothing happens just because Democrats want it.

To me, the gifting of Texan of the Year status speaks more broadly to how much the terms of debate have changed in recent years regarding criminal-justice politics in Texas, and at a rapidly accelerated pace throughout 2015.

A lot has gone into changing those terms of debate. Much credit must go to stories like Steven Chaney's and Sandra Bland's, which have fundamentally altered how the justice system is discussed in the press and in political circles. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, key Right on Crime signatories, and a handful of conservative legislators and donors have worked tirelessly in right-wing circles to make it politically safe for Republicans to back small-government justice reforms. Meanwhile, the largest state-level criminal justice reform movement in the country has grown up in Texas to match our largest-in-the-nation prison population, providing considerable expertise, momentum and grassroots oomph to reform efforts.

So, while the Texan of the Year award justly acknowledges these three legislators' achievements, it's also a recognition of a real volteface on criminal justice. In the past 20 years, Texas has gone from a raging bipartisan consensus in favor of mass incarceration - with Ann Richards and the Democrats seeking to out-tuff the Rs with a largest-in-the-history-of-the-nation prison building spree - to an equally bipartisan effort to bring back common sense to the justice system, exhibiting real leadership on innocence, forensics, indigent defense, and sentencing.

By 2015, the terms of debate had shifted 180 degrees from the Ann Richards lock-em-up era to such an extent that, at a legislative hearing soon after Sandra Bland's untimely death, Tea Party affiliated members spoke out as or more strongly against anti-liberty police practices than Democratic liberals on the panel.

In that sense, "Texan of the Year" status is justified for the reasons stated in an accompanying editorial:
The reason this newspaper focuses so much on [criminal justice] is simple: The system has been inherently unfair for decades, wrongfully sending people to prison, or worse, and ruining lives. Change was long overdue. If someone didn’t step up to fight for reforms, this state would continue to rank among the worst in the nation. Texas is now celebrated as a reform leader.
To be clear, in terms of the number of proven false convictions and our tops-in-the-country incarceration levels, Texas continues to "rank among the worst in the nation." But the arguments against addressing that situation have withered away over time. In 2015, it became clear reformers are winning the debate. But politics isn't debate club and it remains to be seen if that will translate in 2017 and beyond to actually ending the era of mass incarceration. That may require Justice League participation of a different order.


Thomas R. Griffith said...

Grits, instead of promoting, dismembering and adding your personal picks to Tenga's DMN D dominated personal picks, please consider taking time to create what would be the very first GFB Criminal Justice System Reformers - Texans' of the Year. Doing so without mixing up singular and plural and of course devoid of singling out one gang affiliation over the other(s). 'Others' is in reference to Is, surely one of them has done something worthy. You could do the picking and choosing, or put it up for GFB Readers Choice.

While you are considering, as you are fully aware, there are a crapload of humans not affiliated with any of the political gangs that have fought the long & hard fight in endeavors to assist the state as a hole in reformation of its 'Rigged' CJ system. Should you take time to launch, this time next year, folks will promote GFB's version over a lop-sided shout-out to fellow Ds. Anyway, it's just an idea that would allow Texans' to pick Texans' of the Year vs. politicians and their donors. Thanks.

Therese HENGST said...

Amazing how politics fuels the judicial system instead of justice, truth, and fairness... So glad for the Innocence Project of Texas, and others like sad that it is sho needed in Texas and everywhere!