Monday, March 14, 2005

Perry's blue-ribbon panel shouldn't stop reforms now

The Statesman's Mike Ward brings the news that Governor Perry will appoint a nine-member panel this summer to review criminal procedures in Texas "from the police investigation to the last court appeal."

The new Criminal Justice Advisory Council will probably have nine members, including judges, prosecutors, lawmakers, victims' advocates, defense attorneys and legal scholars, to be appointed this summer. Perry said he anticipates that all meetings of the council will be open to the public.

Perry said he created the council in response to a series of recent court rulings raising questions about the fairness of Texas justice. The questions concerned death penalty decisions involving juveniles, people with mental retardation and foreigners; the adequacy of the appeals process; and continuing issues related to DNA testing and evidence testing at a Houston crime lab.

This is significant, I suppose, because it represents a very public recognition that the Texas criminal justice system faces major problems. But I'm no fan of the Blue Ribbon Commission approach. Don't get me wrong, the stated aim of the proposed commission merits praise:

[Perry] said the council will "study and make recommendations regarding changes in legal procedures that might be needed to keep pace with advances in forensic science, major developing legal issues that could affect our criminal justice system and changes in law that may be necessary to better protect the rights of both victims and the accused." ...

Such a council has been advocated by an array of lawmakers who question the fairness of various elements of the current prosecution and appeals system, and was recently recommended by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and members of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

That's all well and good, but there's no denying Perry is passing the buck. There's no great secret about what's wrong with the Texas justice system: What's missing is the political will to fix it. Given the negative reputation earned under his watch, a cynic might wonder whether the commission is designed to take potential negative campaign topics off the table for the 2006 elections. "We're taking that very seriously and I'm confident the commission will get to the bottom of it," it would be easy to say in response to any criticism. Problem is, the 2006 election is the last time voters will get a chance to hold this Governor accountable. By the time the next election rolls around Perry will have been governor for six years. It's time for him to do something about these problems; merely acknowledging them isn't enough.

The worst outcome would be if the proposed commission becomes an excuse to stop reforms proposed during the current legislative session. For example, Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis filed SB 659 which would require prosecutors to disclose key information about their snitches before trial, including:

  • Whether they received pay or immunity in exchange for testimony.

  • Whether witnesses ever recanted or changed their testimony.

  • A list of other cases where the snitch provided information.

  • The criminal history of the witness.

SB 659 would require all that information to be disclosed about snitch's testimony, then tell the judge to issue a ruling based on said information to determine whether the witness is reliable.

That's exactly the kind of missing checks and balances that could have prevented some of the highest-profile false convictions, such as the Dallas sheetrock scandal. We don't need any commission recommendations to tell us Ellis' bill is needed, or that the crime labs need to be held accountable, or drug task forces should be abolished, or that Texas police are using their discretion to search minorities more often at traffic stops. We know all that already.

The question is whether the Governor and the Legislature intend to do anything about it.

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