Thursday, May 30, 2019

Scaling back justice debt biggest #cjreform accomplishment of 2019 #txlege

Texas justice reformers will spend the next couple of years lamenting what the Texas Lege DIDN'T do in 2019 - e.g., reduce marijuana penalties, pass the Sandra Bland law, close the dead-suspect loophole to the Public Information Act - or else frustrated by new criminal penalties boosting sentences for petty offenses.

But it's worth giving legislators credit for what they DID do on #cjreform, and by far the most important measures relate to providing relief from justice-system debt:

Abolishing the Driver Responsibility Surcharge: The Texas Fair Defense Project estimates that $2.5 billion in justice-debt will be wiped off the books on September 1st when HB 2048 takes effect, and some 1.5 million people will be eligible to have their drivers licenses reinstated.

Eliminating red-light cameras: While a few cities have lengthy contracts which will keep red light cameras operating for years to come, the Legislature forbade new ones and eliminated the ability to deny vehicle registration or license renewal for nonpayment. These cameras affect on safety is dubious, at best, and are viewed by locals as revenue generators.

Limited automatic driver's license suspensions: HB 162 would end the practice of searching driver records to suspend licenses of people driving without them. Now, such administrative suspensions based on a government database search will be limited to people whose licenses are suspended for DWI, and those would be limited to 90 days. The Washington Post last year reported that Texas has more people with suspended licenses than any other state. This new law and abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge should go a long way toward knocking that number down.

Defined "undue hardship" in debtors prison cases: In 2017, the Texas Lege approved legislation to make it easier for municipal judges and justices of the peace to waive Class C fines and authorize community service. But many local judges had been defining the term "undue hardship" narrowly to avoid waiving fines. Amendments to SB 346 define that term so that more fines will be waived. This was a cleanup bill, but quite necessary: Although more than 50,000 people had fines waived in the 2018, for example, more than ten times that number sat out their Class C fines in jail.

Two of these - surcharge abolition and eliminating red-light cameras - were pushed by reformers for 12 years before finally passing.

Overall, Grits is disappointed with the 86th Texas Lege, and particularly the Texas Senate, which produced scarce little reform legislation of consequence and killed most of what came over from the House. These bills amount to a consolation prize. But as my father likes to say, that's better than a sharp stick in the eye.


Gadfly said...

A decade ago, when I was at Today Newspapers before it closed, Duncanville made as much yearly off red-light cams as Plano! Shows you what a gravy train they are with aggressive and ticky-tack enforcement.

Anonymous said...

How much influence do you think the class action lawsuit had on getting the legislature to finally do the right thing and get rid of the driver's responsibility program?

One thing for sure, they won't complain about the long lines at the dps.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm not sure the lawsuit was decisive, but every little bit helps. This had become a pretty significant political issue at the capitol by last session, and when that fell through, it made this path the main option. You couldn't find a legislator by 2017 who publicly supported continuing the program.

Anonymous said...

Was the failure to advance reform in the Texas Senate primarily due to Dan Patrick, or was it the members overall? I know Patrick killed decrim, but what about the rest? I'm starting to think cj reform is dead unless he is voted out or finds another job.

Anonymous said...

A Texas CJ reform "Marchout" (or 5K Walkout) is necessary in 2021 !!! No matter the agenda, no matter how small... we need to organize and STOP THIS POLITICAL, "DO NOTHING" MADNESS !!! Change is in numbers. Let's MARCH!!! -Angry Mom-