Thursday, March 07, 2013

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice backs innocence, juvenile justice reforms

Though the Texas Supreme Court only has jurisdiction over civil and juvenile justice cases, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson spoke out in his State of the Judiciary address yesterday on behalf of criminal-justice reform. Reported AP yesterday:
State Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson called for a special commission to investigate wrongful convictions, suggesting Wednesday that public faith in the legal system may be undermined given that Texas leads the nation in prisoners set free by DNA testing.

In his biannual address to the Legislature, the chief justice of Texas' highest civil court told lawmakers that "if innocent people are rotting in prison for crimes they did not commit, we certainly have not achieved justice for all."

Jefferson pointed to statistics showing that over the last 25 years, 117 Texans have been exonerated — 47 of those by DNA testing, the most nationwide. Those figures are not new, but Jefferson used them to again call for "a commission to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases and to establish statewide reforms." ...
Jefferson said cases overturned by new DNA evidence "leave us with the distinct impression that we today suffer from a systemic deficit in our collective approach to the way we decide how to administer criminal justice." He mentioned the case of Michael Morton, an Austin grocery store inventory manager who spent 25 years in prison for his wife's slaying before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2011.
He also called for rethinking the widespread practice of issuing Class C misdemeanor tickets for student misbehavior in school, the Texas Tribune reported:
Two years ago, in his last State of the Judiciary speech to Texas lawmakers, Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, argued that tickets and citations for minor, nonviolent offenses by students should be a last resort. “Charging kids with criminal offenses for low-level behavioral issues exacerbates the problem,” he said. “Of course, disruptive behavior must be addressed, but criminal records close doors to opportunities that less punitive intervention would keep open.”

As he returns Wednesday to deliver a new State of the Judiciary address, Jefferson is pushing a trio of specific recommendations for how to keep students with behavioral issues from entering the criminal justice system as adults.

Senate Bill 393 would end the practice of ticketing for students with disciplinary problems that are currently considered criminal misdemeanors, and replace it with a system of “progressive sanctions,” including warning letters, community service and referrals to counseling. SB 394 would expand confidentiality for youths who have had misdemeanors dismissed, to keep their records clean. SB 395 would allow juveniles convicted of certain nonviolent offenses to settle their court costs through community service, or have them waived if they are indigent. All three were authored by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Ticketing for nonviolent misdemeanors forces students to go to court, Jefferson told the Senate Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday. In addition to being a waste of resources, he said, that practice makes it more difficult for students to turn their lives around. “What used to be, in our day, a trip to the principal's office now lands you in court,” he said. “We're overcriminalizing low-level, nonviolent offenses in the classroom ... and then they're on a path to our criminal justice system.”
Bravo, Justice Jefferson, bravo!


Anonymous said...

My God, Grits, I'm about to need a roster and a scorecard to figure out the politics of all of this criminal justice reform legislation. Let me see if I get this straight:

Mutual Discovery: Prosecutors FOR; Defense Attorneys AGAINST;
Grits, Seemingly ambivilant.

Innocence Commission:

Wallace Jefferson (R) FOR;
Jeff Blackburn, IPOT, AGAINST;
Grits, IPOT, FOR.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:07, Blackburn didn't want an innocence commission like the one in North Carolina that was doing the actual investigations - it never really worked and he (rightly) thinks lawyers, not commissions, get innocent people out of prison. Simply studying the causes of false convictions post-exoneration, however, is a different kettle of fish.

On mutual discovery, IPOT has taken no formal position. My personal view is that the current bill goes too far but something along the lines of federal discovery rules would be worthwhile in order to mandate prosecutors' open files.

I agree, though, a scorecard would be helpful. :)

TEM said...

Exactly right on the juvenile part. Someday soon a large percentage of people will have some sort of criminal record.

ED said...

The solution for schools is "restorative discipline" an off shoot of "restorative justice." Neither RJ nor RD has been tried to any extent in "tuff on crime" Texas. RD has a 40 year history at Buxmont Academy in PA, an alternative campus for really bad behavior. GO to for more.

Anonymous said...

The National Institute of Justice has published an academic study of erroneous convictions, entitled: "Predicting Erroneous Convictions: A Social Science Approach to Miscarriages of Justice." From the publication blurb, the study "compared cases where innocent defendants were wrongfully convicted to “near misses” – cases in which an innocent defendant was acquitted or had charges dismissed before trial."

The link to the study is:

There is also a link to a website that summarizes the study:

Here is the link to the executive summary portion of the study report: