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Q&A

Bipartisan Reforms in Texas Will Help Crime Survivors, Boost Public Safety, and Prioritize Rehabilitation

Terra Tucker, Texas state director of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, explains how a coalition from both sides of the aisle successfully passed criminal justice reforms this spring.

Texas Capitol
Photo by Eric Gay/The Associated Press

This spring, the state of Texas passed two landmark public safety bills that aim to increase community safety and improve outcomes for crime survivors. House Bill (HB) 385 reforms the state’s probation system to focus on rehabilitation for Texans under community supervision while promoting public safety and saving taxpayer money. Senate Bill (SB) 957 ensures that crime victims’ eligibility for compensation is not compromised when they are unable to speak to law enforcement immediately after an incident.

Probation reform is particularly urgent in Texas. A recent report on the state found that up to 1 in 3 people eligible for probation choose jail instead due to financial constraints, 1 out of 6 people enter the prison system because of technical violations of their probation terms, and flaws in the probation system cost taxpayers an additional $85 million each year.

To address these shortcomings, Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ) State Director Terra Tucker led an effort that brought together crime victims — including people currently under supervision — and public safety officials across Texas to work with policymakers on bills targeted at the most pressing problems of the state’s criminal justice system. We spoke to Tucker about the problems with probation in Texas, the coalition that won bipartisan legislative victories, and how reducing incarceration and reforming community supervision can better serve crime victims while improving public safety and ensuring better outcomes for people under supervision.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Arnold Ventures

The Texas Legislature recently passed two landmark public safety bills, SB 957 and HB 385. What specific aspects of the criminal justice system do these bills reform?

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Terra Tucker

Senate Bill 957 is specifically a survivor bill. The Alliance for Safety and Justice is always trying to remove barriers to crime victim compensation to make sure survivors have access to needed services after they've been victimized. SB 957 says that survivors cannot be denied compensation benefits through the Attorney General’s office solely for not being able to cooperate with law enforcement at the scene of the crime or while they’re in the hospital. We know sometimes that's not the best time for people to talk to anybody.

House Bill 385 is a probation reform bill. It deals specifically with the conditions and practices of community supervision, safely reduces the number of people on probation, and also reduces the number of people revoked.

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Arnold Ventures

The Alliance for Safety and Justice used a unique approach to driving the legislation focused on probation, first producing a report on the issue and then doing advocacy work with a broad coalition of stakeholders. What was the advantage of this strategy?

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Terra Tucker

The Alliance for Safety and Justice pursues policy changes informed by the experiences of the constituents who we organize. Our members are survivors of crime, and no one knows what safety means better than they do. They have shown us that what survivors most want is for what happened to them not to happen to anyone else. They overwhelmingly believe that probation and rehabilitation are more effective than over-incarceration and long prison sentences. We stay grounded in that mission and look at ways to influence legislators.

For the probation reform bill, we secured the support of allies like Mark Holden at Americans for Prosperity and Tim Head at Faith and Freedom Coalition, who helped us line up key members to carry the legislation forward. We built relationships with influential groups like Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, Texas Probation Association, individual probation chiefs, and the judges who dictate how probation works on the ground.

Everything we do is based on constant interaction with survivors. We had meetings between legislators and survivors where survivors told their stories and explained why these changes were important to them. That part is crucial. In the end, this is about the stories and experiences of the people that legislation is really affecting. That’s why we also made sure that people who were on probation were in these meetings and conversations, discussing how if this bill had been in effect it would have changed their whole supervision period and prevented them from being revoked. Often, they are also survivors of crime, and the probation that they are on is not getting to the root of their issue. Policymakers don't always recognize that survivors of crime and people on supervision are often one and the same. Their stories give ASJ a unique perspective and a unique voice.

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Arnold Ventures

Over the past year the U.S. has been confronted with rising crime rates, and Texas is no exception. What are the public safety benefits of the probation reform bill?

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Terra Tucker

Needlessly cycling people in and out of the justice system, without addressing their rehabilitation and underlying challenges, doesn't make us any safer. This probation reform stops cycles of crime and incarceration. When a person’s probation is revoked and they go to prison, that often makes them worse off instead of better. It can undermine their own best efforts at succeeding and moving on, increase recidivism, and compromise public safety.

Arnold Ventures and the Pew Charitable Trust convened experts to identify best practices on probation, and they recommended that probation systems adopt shorter supervision sentences, focus on goals and incentives, and establish effective and appropriate supervision conditions, as well as develop individual conditions for payment of legal and financial obligations. Our bill touched on all those recommendations. It removes some of the conditions and ways probation can get revoked and allows people on probation to focus on their rehabilitation while remaining in the community, which helps break the cycle of crime and create pathways to success.

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Arnold Ventures

How will people impacted by the criminal justice system benefit from these changes to probation?

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Terra Tucker

This bill tries to relieve some of the financial burden on people, especially if they are indigent and can't afford to pay. Unfortunately, in Texas, community supervision is a defendant-supported service. That's a really unstable and unfair way to fund a probation system. When people can't pay in, for example as a result of COVID-19, then the state has to cut probation officers and increase caseloads.

This bill makes it clear how the system should consider a person’s ability to pay. It also reduces the term length of supervision by granting early termination for program completion, even if they're behind on fines and fees. It gets rid of duplicative classes and treatments. In general, it makes sure that rehabilitation is first and foremost, and that people are getting the services that they need to break the cycle of crime.

Overall, the bill is meant to help create meaningful incentives within probation. We have a lot of people who just don't participate in probation and instead take prison sentences because of probation’s unique hardships and inherent inequities. The mission for Arnold Ventures and ASJ is not just to reduce incarceration but to shrink probation, so fewer people are on supervision, and help deliver better outcomes for anyone who is on probation. We're hoping that reducing the conditions, making it easier to complete supervision earlier, and making sure that people know that they don't have to make life-altering and impossible choices just to pay their probation fees helps do that.

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Arnold Ventures

Built into the bill is an expectation of cost savings for taxpayers. Where does that come from?

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Terra Tucker

First off, there are savings from allowing people to complete supervision earlier. The state only pays a little into supervision, so there’s not a huge savings on supervision itself. But if a person is done being supervised, they can't get revoked and go to prison, which is where there's a large cost savings. We also want people to see that probation is working so they are willing to take probation instead of a prison sentence, especially if they’re able to remain in the community and perhaps even seek employment or other opportunities while on probation. That’s where this bill can help reduce costs.

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Arnold Ventures

In what ways can the experience in Texas form a model for other states across the country looking to drive new public safety legislation?

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Terra Tucker

When bipartisan reform happens in the nation’s second-largest state, that can lead the way for other states. We care about safe communities and helping people heal, and it’s important to work with everybody to make that happen. Texas had several counties that were already doing the right thing. We sat down and engaged with them, learned from them, and used their practices to inform this legislation. One of the most powerful things that you can do is engage stakeholders for the system that you're trying to change. It gives you credibility and makes them care about it.

Other states should look at doing specifically what we did, which is adopting shorter supervision sentences and focusing on goals and incentives. Establishing effective and appropriate supervision conditions is huge, and so is individualizing conditions for payment of legal financial obligations. It's really important that the conditions match the person's needs. If a state does these things, it frees up resources that can be invested in safety solutions that focus on violence prevention and responding to trauma, which is the most effective path to safety.

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Arnold Ventures

What’s next? How do these bills fit into ASJ’s larger strategy for criminal justice reform?

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Terra Tucker

Both our survivor bill and our probation bill were great first steps here in Texas. Now we can dive deeper into, for example, the perverse way the system is funded. A next step is to move to a more stable funding system for community supervision that maximizes resources for everybody involved. The same is true for crime victim compensation. Part of reform will be taking the savings from closing prisons and allocating it to community-based programs and services for survivors. Another area that we’re working in is record sealing, or expunctions. Old convictions can perpetuate a lifetime of consequences and punishments — for example, even a decades-old record can keep people from accessing housing and employment. When we get rid of those records it lets people work and support themselves, which reduces recidivism. Our main goal is to safely reduce the excessive number of people incarcerated and on community supervision in order to prioritize solutions that actually help make our community safer. When we focus on prevention, rehabilitation, and supporting recovery services for crime victims, we can actually better achieve safety.

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