This commentary was originally featured in the Houston Chronicle on January 15, 2018.
As Texans seek to implement their New Year's resolutions, a safer, more just society should be at the top of the list. Fortunately, state lawmakers took many steps in this direction in 2017, but there is much more work to be done to ensure Texas remains a national leader in advancing criminal justice policies that enhance public safety, protect taxpayers and redeem lives.
Although somewhat obscured by Hurricane Harvey, which hit right as most bills passed by Texas lawmakers went into effect in September 2017, significant reforms were enacted that will reap dividends in 2018. First, Gov. Greg Abbott signed two similar bills, Senate Bill 1913 and House Bill 351, which seek to end the use of debtors' prisons in Texas. These bills require courts to provide alternatives to jail for people unable to pay fines and fees, such as traffic tickets and other Class C misdemeanors that do not carry a potential prison sentence. Instead, courts are instructed to offer payment plans and community service, as well as reducing fines to be commensurate with the person's income.
Second, Texas policymakers expanded the 2015 "second chances" law that, for the first time, allowed record sealing for convictions. The 2015 statute covered nonviolent misdemeanor convictions other than first-time DWI. The 2017 law adds first-time DWI and makes the 2015 statute retroactive, allowing many thousands of people with a single conviction from decades ago to clear their name. Research shows that once someone has been in the community without re-offending for several years, they are highly unlikely to commit another crime, and the scarlet letter of a criminal record creates barriers to employment and housing that worsen public safety outcomes while reducing economic productivity.
Furthermore, lawmakers took additional steps to prevent wrongful convictions by adopting HB34, which the Innocence Project calls the gold standard for jailhouse informant laws. Unsurprisingly, some people in jail will concoct stories about others who they allege committed crimes in exchange for a better deal in their own case. This has resulted in numerous wrongful convictions, so this legislation will require that prosecutors track the use of jailhouse informants and share with the defense, judge and jury any benefit that was provided to these informants in exchange for their purported information.
Author Mark Twain, who once said "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session," would surely be pleased that the Texas Legislature is only in regular session in odd-numbered years. However, there are plenty of chapters to be written in 2018 to lay the groundwork for continued criminal justice reforms in the 2019 session.
One way this work is done is through the process of interim studies, hearings and reports. Fortunately, these include some of the most important public safety priorities for the 2019 session.
Committees in both chambers are examining interim charges on the state jail system, which was created in 1993 for nonviolent offenders, such as those convicted of possessing less than a gram of drugs. With recidivism rates of more than 60 percent, research suggests better outcomes could be achieved through local programs that would hold these nonviolent offenders accountable while providing treatment for addiction and mental illness.
Also, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee is studying pretrial justice reform. An actuarial risk assessment instrument that looks at objective factors, such as if someone has previously failed to appear and if they have a history of violent crimes, should be used instead of a person's bank account to make pretrial detention decisions.
Texas now has its lowest crime rate since 1967 and has closed eight prisons over the last seven years. By continuing to advance policies that ensure incarceration is reserved for people who are a threat to our safety, not those we are simply mad at or who are actually innocent, Texas policymakers can ensure that 2018 brings a renewed commitment to a more effective justice system.
Levin is the vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime.