Monday, July 13, 2020

Five years after #SandraBland's death, eponymous Texas legislation gains new momentum

It's hard to believe Sandra Bland died five years ago today.

In my world, her death was like a starting gun. It quickly became clear her story resonated deeply, not just among black people but among Texans generally and around the wider world.

My former boss Shakira Pumphrey told me she and some of her friends became obsessed with Bland, watching old videos on the dead woman's Facebook page and scouring social media for clues about her life.

Bland's example, and Timothy Cole's, and Michael Morton's, and Anthony Graves, and a bevy of others remind us: In the world of criminal-justice reform, as often as not, stories sell policies.

Sandra Bland's death set off a whirlwind two weeks for me that culminated with most of the major players in the Texas criminal-justice reform movement meeting in my living room to hash out strategies, roles, and priorities ahead of a much-watched Texas House County Affairs Committee hearing, led by Chairman Rep. Garnet Coleman. For a sense of those priorities, see this item I wrote heading into the hearing. Broadly, they were eliminating Class C arrests, bail reform so she wouldn't be stuck in jail for lack of money, and new training and regulation at county jails related to mental health and suicide - largely recommendations from Michele Deitch about national best practices. Of those, only the jail regulation piece passed.

The Houston Chronicle last month ran an item by Taylor Goldenstein suggesting renewed energy from the George Floyd protests could finally push the Class-C arrest piece over the finish line. We've never gotten that provision through the Texas Senate in any way, shape or form. Now, though, in the #DefundPolice era, the Sandra-Bland legislation looks doggone moderate!

Politically, it may be less of a hot potato, but as criminal-justice policy reforms go, this would still be a big deal. Best guess: Class C misdemeanors account for 10-12 percent of arrests statewide, an estimate corroborated by research from Texas Appleseed and from my own group, Just Liberty

And in an era of partisan rancor, this legislation continues to provide a rare example of bipartisan agreement. As the state GOP convention meets this week electronically (somehow), several Senate District conventions recommended making the Bland legislation a state GOP legislative priority.

One final coda to this reminiscence: Twenty years ago, it was a white lady's story driving the narrative - a mom from Lago Vista, Texas named Gail Atwater. In 2001, the US Supreme Court handed down Atwater v. Lago Vista, and in response:
the Legislature passed a law ... disallowing arrests for most Class C misdemeanors, but the bill was among Rick Perry's first round of vetoes in 2001. In 2003, Perry vetoed another bill which would have required law enforcement agencies to have written policies stating when their officers could arrest for Class C misdemeanors, and the Legislature has not seriously addressed the issues since.
Though the legislation enjoyed bipartisan support, after Rick Perry vetoed versions of the bill twice, we all gave up. It wasn't until a) Rick Perry was out of office and b) Sandra Bland's story provided an opportunity that it made political sense to revive that effort.

Maybe in 2021, two decades after that initial veto, some version of this legislation can finally pass. I don't personally know any other, better way to honor Sandra Bland than to try to get that done.


Steven Michael Seys said...

My own case predates Michael Morton's by three years, it was 1984, and I had no one advocating for me from the outside. Thirty-two and a half years of sweltering Texas incarceration and four years into forever parole and I still can't get the evidence tested for DNA. I'm convinced that the lawyers involved in protecting the State from its bad reputation already know my innocence and intentionally prolong my ordeal for whatever reason they can cobble up in their minds. It's uncanny how many parallels there are between my case and Morton's. He was exonerated while I am still reporting monthly. All the laws for reform won't amount to a hill of beans if the people charged with upholding those laws won't do so.

Debbie said...

I, too, could not shake Bland from my mind or soul in the weeks after her death. I wanted to know about her life, not just her last days, and I ended up doing months of research and reporting:

I just looked into what's happened with suicide in Texas county jails since Bland died five years ago this week. It's not good. Rates are down (slightly) only for white men. For Black men, Latnxs of both genders, white women and especially Black women, they're up. Two Black women reportedly died of suicide from 2009 to 2014. Then came Bland in 2015, and from that year to date, 10 Black woman have died--a 500 percent increase and 2020 still isn't over.

Here's more, with data coming mostly from the Texas Justice Initiative:

Unknown said...

She will never be forgotten. The whole nation is watching Texas,