2015: An agenda for criminal justice

It may come as a surprise to some, but Texas is widely viewed as one of the nation’s leaders in criminal justice reform. The reinvestment strategies pioneered in the Lone Star State have been held up by national organizations as model reforms, so it’s no surprise that Texans are enjoying the lowest statewide crime rates since 1968.

Never content to rest on its laurels, the Texas Legislature has already shown great interest in furthering these successes in the current session.

After several high-profile abuses both nationally and within the state in recent years, the Legislature has signaled interest is protecting citizens from rampant excesses related to civil asset forfeiture. Six bills have been pre-filed concerning the burden of proof the state must meet to keep property absent a criminal conviction, reporting standards and how forfeiture money may be spent. While this debate has proved quarrelsome, an overwhelming majority of legislators appear committed to preserving the property rights of innocent Texans while ensuring the fruits of criminal activity are still confiscated from those actually convicted.

With the issue having received a good deal of attention during the interim, it’s no surprise that no fewer than seven bills have been filed on the decriminalization of truancy, a Class C misdemeanor in the state. Texas is one of two states (the other is Wyoming) that directly employs the criminal justice system to deal with students skipping school, putting a great burden on local courts — there were 76,000 such filings in fiscal year 2012 alone — to say nothing of the cost to the students’ education.

The prospective legislation ranges from implementing graduated sanctions for truants to full repeal of the Class C misdemeanor. It’s important to note that even if truancy is fully decriminalized, sanctions can still be imposed by juvenile courts. The Legislature has shown it understands that the criminal justice system is no venue for meting out discipline for minor misbehavior (i.e., Senate Bills 393 and 1114 from the 2013 legislative session), and we’re optimistic that lawmakers will apply the same understanding to truancy.

Perhaps the most contentious item of criminal justice policy will be the debate over raising the age of the criminal court jurisdiction. Put more simply, the Legislature will decide if 17-year-olds belong in juvenile courts or should remain in the adult system. The body of scholarship shows that 17-year-olds in the juvenile system generally have better outcomes, though the scale of the effect is under debate by some researchers. Further complicating matters is the unavoidable (and perhaps sizable) fiscal note likely to attend such legislation. While juvenile probation costs more per day than adult probation, the Legislature must balance that with the fact that juvenile probation produces better results, including fewer revocations to incarceration that impose significant long-term costs.

Finally, the Legislature has shown interest in removing barriers that face those seeking to earn an honest day’s pay. Lawmakers have filed several bills (and one successful amendment to House rules that requires bills licensing a new occupation to indicate such in the caption) that would strengthen the ability of entrepreneurial Texans to enter the free market and earn a living with minimal government intrusion. Given current trends, we believe that the Legislature is interested in both reducing the barriers to competition and removing onerous criminal penalties associated with occupational licensing, and will pass legislation to this end.

Texas is well-regarded nationally for the criminal justice reforms it has enacted over the last decade, and the state has the potential to capitalize on that success. The Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition, made up of groups from across the ideological spectrum, has come to a consensus on policies that are sure to give Texans the best outcomes for their tax dollars in terms of public safety and cost control. The legislative agenda adopted by this group contains recommendations that all interested Texans, whether conservative or liberal, can support.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Derek Cohen

Policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation

@CohenAtTPPF

Marc Levin

Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice

@MarcALevin

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