Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Viewing the 2018 mid-terms through a Texas #cjreform lens

There are many lenses through which to view the 2018 mid-term elections. On this blog, your correspondent examines Texas politics and policy through the lens of a criminal-justice reformer, so let's think about the election in that vein for just a moment.

At the national level, the only viable criminal-justice reform proposal out there is the First-Step Act, with Sen. Chuck Grassley's sentencing-reform measures now amended onto it. Neither Dems taking the US House nor a few extra R senators should affect the ability of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to muster 60 votes, given substantial Democratic support, so nothing should change on that front. It will pass, or not, during the lame-duck term. And there's no other significant federal #cjreform on the horizon, outside of whatever the President and Kim Kardashian may be cooking up.

At the Texas Legislature, changes were significant, but not seismic, and not entirely in reformers' favor. Two R senators lost their seats, including Republicans' most ardent criminal-justice reformer, Konni Burton. That's a blow. She's responsible for the most important if unheralded decarceration legislation (increasing property theft thresholds) that Texas ever passed.

The other R senator who lost, Don Huffines, supported abolishing the Driver Responsibility surcharge and eliminating red-light cameras, but otherwise shied away from criminal-justice reform issues and was never much help, though neither was he a hindrance. He was willing to be the fifth or sixth R vote in the Senate for a justice-reform measure; Konni was willing to be the first.

With Dan Patrick, John Whitmire, and Joan Huffman all returning, the senate will feel quite familiar on the #cjreform front. Those players' opinions and dynamics dominate all the major justice-related issues on the eastern side of the capitol and have not changed.

On the House side, Democrats picked up 12 seats. That exceeds (my) expectations and puts them within striking distance - nine seats - of taking control of the lower chamber in 2020 prior to redistricting. It also means that, if the Dems caucus together, any nine Republicans who want the lower chamber's top committee chairs could collaborate - as did Joe Straus and his lieutenants - and choose a Speaker of their own. That prospect was unthinkable when there were only 55 Democrats in the House. But I could imagine ten Republicans bailing on a Dennis-Bonnen speakership, for example, and deciding to place their own stamp on history. Time will tell.

Regardless, criminal-justice reform came out looking pretty good when one considers House elections. The Rs who were outspoken justice-reform supporters like James White or Matt Krause all came back. Indeed, Krause successfully fronted the topic as a wedge issue to blunt a challenger, Nancy Bean, who herself is a long-time justice-reform advocate, dating to the earliest days of the 21st century Texas reform movement.

Across the state, a number of Republicans in hot races turned to the Legislature's justice-reform record as evidence of bipartisanship and/or moderation, including Joan Huffman touting her support for correctional mental-health budgets. And R District Attorney candidates in both San Antonio and Dallas came off more sympathetic to reform than any Republican candidates for those offices in living memory.

Speaking of Dallas, even though national reformers opposed John Creuzot for DA in the primary, some of those same groups are now anointing him as America's next "progressive prosecutor." While that may be extreme - I don't expect Judge Creuzot suddenly to transform into Philadelphia's Larry Krasner - he did promise that within 90 days of taking office he would produce a plan for what the DA's office could do to reduce mass incarceration. Grits is very much looking forward to seeing that document.

Although no statewide elected officials were dethroned, judicial elections did reveal a chink in the Republicans' partisan armor: Democrats won 30 of 32 contested seats on the intermediate courts of appeal, including 19 previously held by Republicans. Reported the Texas Tribune, Democrats appeared to "flip four major appeals courts, taking back majorities in the judicial districts that serve Austin, Dallas and Houston. The 5th Court of Appeals, based in Dallas, has not elected a Democrat since 1992; on Tuesday, the 13-member court was set to elect eight Democrats, including a Democratic chief justice." As a result, seven of the fourteen intermediate courts of appeal in Texas now have Democratic majorities.

Further, Dems swept all 59 judicial seats at play in Harris County, including nineteen black women elected. All the misdemeanor court judges who opposed the civil-rights suit against the county over unconstitutional bail practices lost (as did one R who supported reform). And a new, 27-year old Democratic county judge was elected who wants to settle the bail suit, and boasts a legitimate #cjreform record (along with a poli-sci degree from Stanford and a law degree from Harvard). That may make the denouement of that complex drama unfold differently than it would have otherwise. The two sides will soon be briefing the 5th Circuit headed toward a final conclusion. At a minimum the contents of those briefs may now be quite different, and a settlement now seems more likely.

But outside of Harris County, from the perspective of criminal-justice reform in Texas, nothing major changed. Republicans still hold all the levers of control. Dems gained a little more influence in state government, but not yet real power. However, momentum for reform wasn't stifled, and on bail reform, in particular, a big  obstacle was removed.

We're in a transitional moment in national and state-level politics, and yesterday's elections had the feel of a violent maelstrom. But in the center of it, there was a calm surrounding prospects for bipartisan justice reform. Momentum for #cjreform didn't improve by leaps and bounds, but neither was it drastically harmed. In 2018, Texas candidates in both parties tended to view justice reform as a popular crossover issue with legs. That's a big change from just a few years ago, and the import of that transformation shouldn't be underestimated.

RELATED: For those interested, compare this item with Grits' pre-election analysis.


Anonymous said...

And looking on the bright side of things, Grits, you'll still have Sharon Keller to bitch about for the next six years! LOL

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's okay. There are plenty of politicians with whom I agree more frequently but personally like somewhat less. IMO, Judge Keller does a good job running the court and the Indigent Defense Commission, she's smart, and she's a solid writer. Those are all things I respect. I just disagree with her on many, many subjects. But I find her more personally agreeable than many people in politics.

Drew said...

Did you see this?

It seems like a judge from Harris county who lost his seat released all defendants that came before him in a passive aggressive bid for attention.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I did, I offered up a quick comment on Twitter.

Happy to see him go. Hope the Commission on Judicial Conduct or the state bar nail him for this petty, garbage behavior.

Anonymous said...

Here in El Paso the red light cameras only work against drivers that have license plates from American states. After a driver hits someone and/or runs a red light the bridge to Mexico is only a few miles away where Texas cops find it rather difficult to investigate. The next time the car enters the US it has a different license plate on it. All this reminds me of the article about the man who was successfully deported to Mexico 22 times. I wish MSM would give us the stuff we can use in everyday life instead of the usual media pablum.

Anonymous said...

So Right on Crime darling Sen. Konni Burton lost by less than 10,000 votes? Hmm. My take on that, if you're in a safe red district you might have the luxury of being able to piss off law enforcement and crime victims by cozying up to criminals, the media and the libertarian fringe. But if you're in a district where you might have to really battle it out with a formidable Democratic opponent, it might be handy to have not just the support of law enforcement--but the ENTHUSIASTIC support of the law enforcement. When offered the option of a bona fide Democrat on the ballot, I would venture to guess that not one Democrat voter in Burton's district felt any cross-over compulsion to vote for Burton because of her coddling of drug dealers, dope smokers, probationers and parolees. And it wasn't like she had the option of falling back on the support of the law and order faction within her Republican base by touting her tough on crime credentials. While I have no doubt that the smart on crime intelligentsia throw some really cool parties up and down Congress Ave, a little more support from her sheriffs and the folks who back the blue in her district might have served her better in hindsight. Oh well, Soft-on-Crime Konni can always run as a Democrat next time.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ 4:38, that's a silly interpretation, Konni's ouster was about many things, mostly Trump, but there's scant evidence of a secret LEO backlash! In fact, clearly her and other Republicans' polling told them #cjreform was a popular issue with swing voters and Tea Party activists alike, since so many GOP candidates in tight races were adopting #cjreform messages (including candidates who won like Huffman and Krause). But the straight-ticket Beto voters did her in. In truth, if it were 2020, when straight-ticket voting will be gone, Burton's #cjreform record might have been enough to rescue her.

Anonymous said...

Maelstrom? Really? When Obama lost 63 seats in 2010, what was Grits calling that??

Have some perspective. Please.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@6:28, so you thought that was a typical election? Okay. Regardless, this blog is TX focused; your discussion of Obama/Congress is truly irrelevant to the topics discussed here.

IMO, in Texas (the only place I can knowledgeably speak to) Dems in 2010 brought knives to a gunfight. Bill White was no Beto O'Rourke, and only one party's grassroots base was engaged. This time, everyone came loaded for bear. "Maelstrom" didn't describe the outcome, which was less dramatic than in 2010, but the process, which was much more so.

Anonymous said...

Red Light Cameras and Little Elm, TX? Let's see, harass your tax payers with bogus tickets, example: Turning right on red with no on coming traffic"! Then turn it over to out of town lawyers to threaten those same tax payers when they refuse to not pay. Stay away from this town called Little Elm and if you are a military or veteran especially look out because they will sign off on the bogus tickets because of your vehicle tags displaying your service. Little Elm and red light cameras are rotten to the core. They do not respect service to this country either.

Linda said...

So, Grits, in your opinion what do you think will happen this term on Criminal Justice Reform? Do you think that Earned Time Credit will have a chance? What about the 5th Criminal Court of Appeals, any chance of more appeals getting heard? We need more people willing to help prisoners with Writ Writing that are sincere and legal, in my case it's all about thousands of dollars and NO results.. Any Comments... Keep up the good work

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Linda, it'll be hard to judge until we have a new Speaker, and even then I couldn't hazard a guess on ETC. As a general rule, it's easier to kill bills than pass them, so the odds at this point are AGAINST any given thing passing, even if odds are SOME reform stuff will pass. (Given 20 chances at something that happens one time in eight, and odds are you'll get a couple of wins.)

I think all the stuff that has bipartisan support has a chance. So that starts with bail reform, which Abbott endorsed, plus the stuff on this list. The Senate will continue to be the main, limiting constraint. The House has been more willing to aggressively confront #cjreform stuff, and unless some of the freshmen senators really step up, I suspect that will continue.

Anonymous said...

Slowly but surely young men are learning to stay at home and entertain themselves rather than drive their vehicles during late evening and early morning hours since a traffic causes subsequent arrest and prison.

Guys if you are going to do anything creative stay off the roads---especially during pumpkin time.