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Behind the Negative Headlines, Some Bright Spots for Criminal Justice Reform in Texas

The recently concluded session of the Texas Legislature was a graveyard for the big criminal justice reform bills that advocates thought would pass. Despite the bad press, reform advocates tout a litany of smaller victories.

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Texas’ 86th Legislative session came to a close last month with criminal justice reform advocates lamenting lost opportunities like the Sandra Bland Act — which died in the House of Representatives thanks to what Texas Monthly called “a fit of idiocy and confusion” — and the failure of marijuana sentencing reform. A session that began with cautious optimism for policies like bail reform, pretrial diversion programming, limiting three-strikes rules, and expanding air conditioning in sweltering prisons ended with bills failing left and right.

But beyond the unfortunate headlines, the session nevertheless had key bright spots for criminal justice reform legislation ranging from women’s justice issues to occupational licensing reform. We discussed the session with three staff members of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition: Executive Director Leah Pinney, Senior Policy Attorney Lindsey Linder, and Senior Policy Analyst Douglas Smith.

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Arnold Ventures

How would you evaluate this session in terms of criminal justice reform?

Leah Pinney

Last session was a challenge for us, but this session we saw more gains. We saw pieces of legislation we’d worked really hard on move their way through both chambers and come out on the end. We were tracking 90 different bills that were related to criminal justice and youth justice issues — some of them we had a direct interest in, and some we were actively working on with our partners. Of those 90 bills, 79 made it through, and a number of those were signed by the governor. So I’d say this was a successful session. I’d also say there is a lot more work to be done, and we’re looking forward to that.

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Arnold Ventures

I’m a little surprised to hear that, because some news outlets have been saying this session was a disappointment for criminal justice reform. There were some high-profile bills, like the Sandra Bland Act and marijuana sentencing reform, that didn’t pass.

Lindsey Linder

I think it depends on what your priorities are. We saw a lot of stories as the session came to an end framing it as a let-down for criminal justice reform, which came as a bit of a surprise to us in the Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition. We actually saw the vast majority of the bills we supported going into session get passed. Some of them didn’t have everything we wanted, but we made progress on pretty much all the priority issues we established. All the things that didn’t succeed, we were sad they didn’t go through. But we also tried to be really thoughtful about how we set our priorities. We tried to anticipate opposition and to put our bills in the best position we could.

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Arnold Ventures

What were some of your biggest successes this session?

Lindsey Linder

One of our top priorities was women’s justice. We started a women’s justice campaign in 2018 and were really ambitious in setting out some reform goals through some reports. Texas incarcerates the highest number of women in the country, and that number has been growing at twice the rate of men. They’ve been much less impacted by criminal justice reform over the past few years, so we thought it was important to pay them some attention and try to bring those numbers down. We were actually blown away by the support we saw in the Legislature. In total, we sent eight women’s justice bills to the governor — which is amazing, considering we expected to only get one. It was everything from extending educational opportunities to women in the system to transforming conditions of confinement in the county jails and state prisons. Only one of those bills was vetoed, H.B. 3078, which would have created a clemency review panel for survivors of human trafficking or domestic violence. A huge number of women in the system are there for crimes relating to their victimization. So we were really sad to see that vetoed, but all the others were signed by the governor.

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Arnold Ventures

Tell me more about House Bill 650, which people took to calling the Women’s Dignity Act.

Lindsey Linder

That bill addresses conditions of confinement for women in our state prison system. We have over 12,000 women incarcerated in Texas prisons, and 81 percent of them are mothers. We did a very extensive survey of incarcerated women across the state, and the feedback was heartbreaking. There were tons of issues related to not having access to the right quantity or quality of feminine hygiene products; being separated from their newborns immediately after giving birth while incarcerated; having issues of re-traumatization by male guards; having male guards in facilities where women prisoners are changing or showering; issues with their children not being able to visit them as often as they’d like. H.B. 650 was an omnibus bill that addressed all those issues.

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Arnold Ventures

How did bills relating to youth justice do this session?

Lindsey Linder

I did not feel this was a very successful session for youth justice. One of our top youth justice issues was raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18. With Michigan raising the age to 18, Texas is about to be one of only three states in the country to treat 17-year-olds as adults in our criminal justice system. That’s an issue we have been fighting for a number of years, but we have opposition we haven’t been able to overcome.

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Arnold Ventures

What were some other legislative successes this session?

Douglas Smith

One thing that was really significant was occupational licensing reform. Right now, occupational licensing authorities have sweeping powers to deny licenses to people with criminal histories. We did a data project to find out the professions that were most impacted and crafted a piece of legislation that mirrored some of the best occupational licensing acts in the country, working closely with the National Employment Law Project. TCJC did much of the research and bill development, and our coalition partners rose to that. Goodwill made it a central issue. Prison Fellowship, a Christian prison ministry, made this their baby. And our conservative partner, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, made sure this was a top issue for conservative lawmakers. The bill passed both chambers unanimously and was signed by the governor shortly thereafter. So we were super proud of that one.

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Arnold Ventures

Why is occupational licensing reform so important?

Douglas Smith

The number one factor in determining the risk of recidivism is employment. The faster you get someone a job, the less likely they are to reoffend. If someone has left prison without skills, they’re extraordinarily at risk of reoffending. But when people do pursue licensed occupations, of which there are hundreds in Texas, their criminal history often acts as a barrier to getting a license. By and large, if you have a criminal history, they can deny you a license whether or not your offense relates to that profession. This bill mandates that occupational licensing agencies can only deny a license if your offense is directly related. And now the licensing boards, if they deny a license, have to say to the applicant the exact offense factors and rehabilitation factors that it considered.

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Arnold Ventures

Another major criminal justice success was the abolition of the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), right?

Douglas Smith

Absolutely. Stakeholders have been trying for three sessions now to end the DRP. The program didn’t reduce the number of accidents or DWIs, as it was intended to do. It just created an enormous financial burden on people who were already on the margins and kept them in a state of perpetual debt. And then they kept getting arrested for driving with a suspended license, because they couldn’t afford to pay the fees to get their license reinstated.

Leah Pinney

It was very clear that there was no ideological support for this program and it needed to be repealed. The hurdle was identifying an alternative funding source, because the funding collected by the DRP went to support trauma hospitals. Fortunately, a broad coalition of advocates were able to identify a mechanism to fund the trauma hospitals. So we were extremely proud of getting that passed and signed by the governor.