Here Are Four Key Criminal Justice Issues in the Texas Legislature

Texas lawmakers are likely to take a close look this legislative session at how law enforcement and civilians interact with each other.

Key members of the Legislature have said they want to address the rights — and responsibilities – of both police and the Texans they are charged with protecting.

Some lawmakers want police to know that the state has their backs by equipping them with stronger bulletproof vests and passing hate crime legislation that would recognize law enforcement as a protected class. Legislators are also likely to debate whether to improve jail safety, allow 17-year-olds to be treated as juveniles and not adults in criminal matters, or require police and teenagers to learn about how to best interact with each other.

Police protection

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After an ambush in Dallas last summer left five officers dead, state officials pushed for more police protections.

“At a time when law enforcement officers increasingly come under assault simply because of the job they hold, Texas must send a resolute message that the State will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement after the attack.

Some lawmakers want taxpayers to pay for bulletproof vests that can sustain high-caliber rounds of ammunition for all patrol officers. Others want targeting police officers to be treated as a hate crime. Several lawmakers want teenaged students and police to learn in classroom settings how to interact with each other.

Senate Bill 273 by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would mandate that ninth graders learn about the rights, responsibilities and “proper behavior” of civilians and law enforcement. Sen. Royce West’s Senate Bill 202 would mandate instruction for ninth graders and law enforcement officers. West, a Dallas Democrat, also wants Texas driver’s handbooks and the written portion of the exam to include questions about encounters with law enforcement.

The Whitmire and West proposals would “explain to the students if they have contact with law enforcement officers what the law enforcement officer is expecting from them,” said Kevin Lawrence, executive director at the Texas Municipal Police Association, which supports the curriculum change. “But also, what they should be able to expect from officers.”

West and Whitmire said they plan to combine their proposals. Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he would carry similar legislation in the House.

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Opponents of the proposed lessons in school question the effect they would have.

Instruction on how to act during an encounter — along with requiring more police officers to don body cameras — could save lives and improve public safety, said Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“I can’t begin to tell you what body cameras are going to do,” he said. “That’s definitely a game changer. We’re going to be able to see what transpired. I think some officers that might have in the past been demanding will now know they’re being videotaped.”

State and federal officials in the wake of Dallas sought harsher punishment for people who target police – making the offense a hate crime. It is currently a hate crime in Texas to commit an offense based on a victim’s race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.

Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, filed legislation that would add “peace officer, a firefighter, or emergency medical services personnel” to the list, saying “we simply cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while our officers are under siege.”

Critics, though, say people who target police already face severe punishment in Texas, and officers can can simply take off their uniform, a privilege that people of a certain race, background or orientation does not have.

Accountability and transparency

Lawmakers and advocates are pushing for better oversight of prisons and enforcement of the state’s mandate that law enforcement agencies report data on officer-involved shootings.

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This month, Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, filed a bill that would create an independent ombudsman’s office for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The office would focus on “investigating, evaluating and securing the rights of offenders,” according to the legislation. The agency already has an ombudsman’s office, but it serves as a one-stop shop for general information about the department for elected officials and the public. It does not conduct investigations.

Late last year, criminal justice policy expert Michele Deitch proposed an independent ombudsman to monitor county jails.

“It’s necessary,” she told The Texas Tribune. “We realized that we needed to do that back in 2007 for the juvenile system. We needed to put that in place when we realized we didn’t know what was going on in these facilities and kids were being hurt, and we’ve seen the extent to which having that ombudsman increased transparency about what was going on in the facilities and made the kids much safer.”

“We need to be taking those same steps with protecting our inmates in the jails and making sure that there are ways to identify their concerns, address their concerns and make sure that they’re being kept safe,” said Deitch, also a senior lecturer at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs and School of Law.

Critics, however, are concerned about costs.

While Miles’ proposal focuses on what happens behind bars, another lawmaker is looking to account for what happens during interactions with police. Two years ago, the state began requiring law enforcement agencies to report to the state attorney general all incidents of officer-involved shootings. Now, state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, has put forward a bill that would restrict state dollars to agencies that fail to report those encounters.

Sandra Bland

One of the biggest faces of criminal justice reform is Sandra Bland, a black woman from Illinois who was arrested in Waller County and later found dead in her jail cell from what officials ruled a suicide. Her case spurred calls for reforms to what qualifies as arrestable offenses, how people are jailed and what happens to them after they are arrested, especially when they have a mental illness.

Coleman has said he will file legislation in Bland’s name that would prevent falsified jail documents, require jails to have on-duty medical staff available around the clock, improve the jail intake and screening process and improve training for staff. Those changes are part of the Bland family settlement with Waller County.

Reforms shouldn’t be restricted to Waller County, Coleman said late last year.

“One person ought to have what somebody else has and know they’re as safe going in a jail with two cells as one with 9,000,” he said.

Raise the age

The top issue for juvenile justice advocates this session will be pushing to raise the age of criminal responsibility from age 17 to 18. State law has considered 17-year-olds adults for criminal purposes for decades, but critics say the practice could do more harm than good to children, who they say have no business being locked up with adult offenders instead of being treated with 16-year-olds and younger people in the juvenile justice system.

Legislation to make the age change failed in the 2015 session, and supporters have vowed to try again. If Texas does not enact the change, lockups in the state would continue to risk being at odds with federal law – the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which bars 17-year-old inmates from being within “sight or sound” of inmates 18 and older. County jails have had issues being able to comply with federal law because of lacking resources.

One criticism last session was over the costs associated with such a change. There were questions then about whether juvenile facilities could handle all 17-year-olds being transferred from one system into another.

Several states automatically treat 17-year-olds as adults in criminal cases, while some do the same for 16-year-olds. In many cases, the severity of the crime can land a defendant in the adult court system regardless of age.

Read more stories about the Texas criminal justice system: 

  • How should Texas teach students to interact with police? Texas’ top criminal justice lawmakers are considering sending community leaders into public schools to teach ninth graders how to interact with police.
  • The 2017 legislative session opened without former state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a 26-year lawmaker who became a criminal justice reform titan in the upper chamber.
  • The July ambush of police officers in downtown Dallas was one of the highest-profile examples of the intense community-law enforcement divide in 2016.
  • Passion Star has spent nearly 14 years in Texas prisons, where she alleges she was repeatedly sexually assaulted, beaten and threatened. State officials have discussed settling the federal lawsuit Star filed over her treatment, court records show.

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