Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Exploring areas of #cjreform agreement between Texas Dem and GOP state party platforms

So, the results of Just Liberty's "Justice Needs a Platform" campaign are in and - having adumbrated reform measures in the criminal-justice sections of both the Republican and Democratic Texas state party platforms, including separate podcasts focused on reform planks proposed at each convention - let's take a look at areas where the parties agree.

 Before we do, though, just to get you in the mood, give a listen to Just Liberty's jingle created promote #cjreform in Texas' major-party platforms. (After the last couple of weeks, this ditty has been running through Grits' head near constantly.)

Having now established the proper atmosphere, here are the major areas where agreement between the two parties points to possible #cjreform legislation.

Raise the Age
Both parties agreed that Texas should raise the age at which youth are prosecuted as adults from 17 to 18 years old. Texas is one of only four remaining states that charge 17-year-olds as adults. When a couple of members of the GOP platform committee voiced opposition to the idea, another member I'd never met shut them down with references to brain science and research on child development. It was an impressive moment, because some of my Democratic friends like to claim that the GOP reflexively opposes science. On this topic, though, the platform committee voted pretty overwhelmingly to better align policy with scientific thought. The Texas House has twice now passed measures to make this change, with the Lt. Governor and the senate so far blocking it. Such explicit, bipartisan support could be a game changer.

Marijuana policy
Here's an irony: At the Texas Legislature, the only person ever to propose marijuana legalization was Republican state Rep. David Simpson, who wanted to "treat it like tomatoes." The furthest a Democrat has gone is state Rep. Joe Moody's bill proposed the last two sessions to make pot possession a civil offense punishable with a ticket. In the party platforms, though, those positions are reversed. Democrats favor full-blown marijuana legalization (they're already spending the tax money!), while Republicans essentially endorsed Moody's bill: "We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time." On this topic, Just Liberty followed the lead of the indispensable Heather Fazio from Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, who has been pushing for these platform planks since 2014. The GOP also approved a platform plank promoting expanding the use of medical marijuana to more ailments and called on Congress to change it from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug. (Your correspondent isn't completely clear on the difference, but as I understand it the change would allow more medical research.)

Cease arrests for Class C misdemeanors
Both Texas state political parties included platform planks suggesting law enforcement should stop arresting people for Class C misdemeanors for which the punishment is only a fine, not jail time. On the GOP side, the plank read simply, "We call upon the Texas Legislature to end the practice of jailing individuals for offenses for which jail is not an allowable consequence under the law." (Under Texas law, those are Class C misdemeanors; Class Bs are punishable by up to 6 months in jail.) The Democratic version calls for, "legislation that requires people suspected of minor, non-violent misdemeanors be issued summons to appear in court rather than placed under arrest," and ending "the practice of arresting individuals for offenses that call for a citation." Sandra Bland's case was prominently discussed in both party's discussions on these planks. Readers may recall that a similar provision was removed from the "Sandra Bland Act" passed in 2017. During debates over that bill, it came out that a whopping 11 percent of all arrests in Harris County are for Class C misdemeanors, a proportion possibly boosted because of intake screening practices by the Harris County DA. State Reps James White and Garnet Coleman filed legislation to make this change last time, along with Senators John Whitmire and Konni Burton. This could be a bipartisan bill that comes back and passes.

Eliminate the Driver Responsibility Program
For the first time, planks calling to get rid of Texas' Driver Responsibility Program made it into both party platforms. The GOP platform reads, "We call upon the Texas Legislature to abolish the Driver Responsibility Program and immediately restore the driver licenses of the citizens whose licenses were suspended by the DRP and to cancel their debt." Sounds good to me, how about you? Democrats, by contrast, focused on the issue in the health care section, calling for "stabilizing trauma center funding by repealing the Driver Responsibility Program fees, which many Texans cannot afford and never pay, and replacing the funding other budgetary means."

Require criminal conviction to seize assets
Both parties endorsed eliminating civil asset forfeiture, requiring a criminal conviction beyond a reasonable doubt before the government can seize someone's property. This issue seemed to have momentum in 2017, but was mainly pushed by conservatives and embraced by Republicans. Its inclusion in the Democratic platform may help to give it a little extra bipartisan oomph.

Require written or recorded consent for roadside searches
Both parties endorsed legislation to require officers to get written consent to search a motor vehicle if they don't have probable cause and consent is not recorded by a body-or-dashboard-camera. Essentially similar legislation passed in 2001 and was vetoed by then-Gov. Perry, who also vetoed weaker legislation on the same topic in 2005. Now, with a different governor and bipartisan support, this common-sense policy may have new legs. Honestly, in the wake of the Sandra Bland episode and given the broad-and-deep array of 21st century police reform proposals our there, this idea that seemed (and was) controversial back in 2001 today looks almost like a no-brainer and relatively small potatoes. The proliferation of cameras - both police cameras and the public's - certainly has altered the terms of debate on the topic. But accountability at roadside searches remains important and this is still a good idea.

Militarization of police
Both platforms suggested restricting militarization of police through the federal government's 1033 program that provides military surplus equipment to domestic, civilian law enforcement agencies. The Democrats want to "reject" the "continued receipt" of such equipment. The GOP platform called for transparency including new "reporting and training standards" and a requirement that the governing body of any law enforcement agency formally vote to accept 1033 program equipment. Transparency is always helpful, and "training" may get to an Achilles heel of the program: Many local agencies don't have personnel trained on specialized military equipment they receive, so it falls into disuse. If agencies must report what they have, demonstrate that they're training on the equipment they get, and submit 1033-equipment requests to their city council or commissioners court, that would eliminate a lot of the BS.

End debtors prisons
This one may be my personal favorite: Remarkably, both parties embraced a reform that would essentially eliminate the use of debtors-prison practices for most criminal-justice related debt, relying on regular commercial collections processes, instead, and essentially ending "warrant roundup" practices. The GOP platform called for the Lege to "enact laws that end the incarceration of individuals because they cannot pay tickets, fines, and fees for Class C Misdemeanors, including traffic." The Democrats wouldn't limit the idea to Class Cs: They supported, "ending the practice of sending poor people to jail or prison for inability to pay fines and court costs." Between those two stances, there's definitely enough overlap to get a bill passed. House Corrections Chairman James White, an East Texas Republican, filed essentially this legislation last session. (Thanks to former House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden for making sure it got into the platform on the GOP side.)

* * *

Those are the major areas where #cjreform platform planks for Texas' two major political parties include overlap. There are still areas of disagreement, certainly (e.g., they're diametrically opposed on capital punishment), and the Democratic platform articulates a more aggressive reform agenda than does the GOP on more topics (e.g., Dems want to make crime labs independent, and explicitly called to "reduce mass incarceration" and "end racial profiling.") But there are enough spheres of concurrence to identify areas primed for major, bipartisan legislative pushes with a good chance to succeed.

To be clear, party platforms typically aren't decisive in legislative votes. Most #cjreform bills that ever passed in Texas since the turn of the century weren't included in either party's platform document. But as markers for where the two parties stand on the issues, these common threads certainly point to practical possibilities for bipartisan collaboration. That, plus identifying allies in both parties willing to join us in pushing these reforms, really were all Just Liberty could ask for from this campaign.


Anonymous said...

I'm thinking the 17 year old who shot all those kids recently in Santa Fe High School probably didn't help the "Raise the Age" cause very much.

Anonymous said...

If the age is raised to 18 I would expect that there will be unprecedented numbers of juveniles being certified to sit in jail and stand trial as adults?

Anonymous said...

Excellent idea to cease arrests for Class C misdemeanors! Municipal courts are going to hate this! Carrollton plays this fun game where they hold docket at 8:00am and if you show up at 8:01 or happen to be in the bathroom when docket is called, or go into labor...they revoke your client's bond. They won't reset the case until you post a new $$ bond. Seems like denying D the right to jury trial/due process but what do I know? The muni judge's petite tyranny goes unchecked bc hey, it's only a class C.

But with no arrest, no bond. No bond, less leverage. Less leverage, less tyranny.

On the other hand, it may not be great to lose the option to have D pay the fine with time served if he doesn't have the money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:31, the Santa Fe shooter could and would be certified as an adult. In reality, that case has nothing to do with this debate.

@8:42, almost certainly not "unprecedented." Crime is WAY down from the '90s. IMO it's doubtful we get back to those certification levels anytime soon. I agree there may be more certifications if we RTA. That's both understandable and not a significant problem.

@9:42, I don't think anyone would miss the "time served" option. Do you think people would sit in jail to pay off their Visa bill if they could? Not many.

Anonymous said...

Unrelated, I just saw this quote again and I thought of Grits and all the "Well we all know the truth..." Commenters:

"When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science."
William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

Anonymous said...


Why don't you write an op-ed for the various state papers regarding the agreement between the two parties on these issues? With all the talk of tribalism it would be timely.