Even before the last gavel ended the 84th Texas Legislature, much of the media coverage began centering on the failures and disappointments regarding many key issues. Unfortunately, this gloom-and-doom rhetoric has overshadowed many unprecedented successes and reforms, particularly in criminal justice.
In fact, the 84th session has given Texas its most momentous criminal justice reform since 2007. That session, instead of spending $2 billion to expand prisons, lawmakers applied conservative principles such as personal responsibility and fiscal restraint to solve an overcrowding problem. Some $241 million was invested in probation and rehabilitative programs such as drug courts. The results were lower recidivism and incarceration rates, not to mention billions saved for Texas taxpayers.
This session has seen criminal justice reform in a variety of areas that, in the aggregate, rival the transformative changes in 2007. In terms of juvenile justice, Texas, assuming signature by Gov. Greg Abbott of House Bill 2398, will join 48 of the 50 states in decriminalizing truancy. Placing a greater emphasis on school- and family-based preventive measures will give youths a greater chance to become law-abiding, productive adults, while saving money long-term on prison costs. Moreover, Senate Bill 1630 will save $80 million by accelerating Texas’ progress in using community-based programs for troubled youths, rather than remotely located state youth lockups.
Sweeping changes also will reduce the threat that law-abiding citizens will be prosecuted based on unclear and often obscure laws. Specifically, HB 1396 codified the rule of lenity, which holds that if there are two reasonable meanings of a criminal statute, then a judge must interpret it in favor of the defendant. HB 1396, which awaits the governor’s signature, also created a commission to study the necessity of criminal penalties for activities outside the penal code, such as oyster harvesting or pecan tree thrashing.
Most importantly, Texas saw meaningful reform in offender re-entry. SB 1902 allows individuals who have been convicted of a low-level misdemeanor to petition the court to seal the record from the public, employers (except in sensitive fields such as education, health care, etc.) and landlords. This legislation gives those who made one mistake and who have shown they can become law-abiding citizens a better opportunity at housing and job prospects, thereby reducing their chance at recidivism.
Another re-entry reform bill, HB 3579, will provide an incentive for state jail felony offenders, such as those convicted of possessing less than 1 gram of drugs, to accept probation and abide by all supervision conditions. Upon doing so, they could, with the consent of the prosecutor and judge, have their offense reclassified as a Class A misdemeanor. Currently, many of these nonviolent offenders choose short stints in state jail over up to five years of probation, wasting taxpayer dollars and producing 60 percent recidivism rates.
Although the negative normally grabs the headlines, it is important to look at the many successes of the 84th Legislature that are going to have positive change for millions of Texans. I commend our lawmakers for continuing to make Texas the apex of criminal justice reform nationwide.
Glod is a policy analyst with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.