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September 7, 2021

After being a modern criminal justice reform success story, is Texas back to its "tough and tougher" past?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Texas Monthly article fully  headlined "Who Killed Criminal Justice Reform?: The state was once a model of how to safely move away from mass incarceration.  Now the old politics of 'law and order' are back."  The lengthy piece is worth reading in full, in part because it details some political dynamics that extend far past the Lone Star State. Here are excerpts:

Rick Perry ... often boasted about his role in downsizing the Texas prison system.  When he became governor in 2000, the Texas prison population had quintupled over the previous twenty years — swelled by thousands of small-time drug offenders and others convicted of nonviolent crimes, who cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year to incarcerate with little clear benefit to public safety. Faced with this profligate use of tax dollars, Perry explained, he had had no choice but to speak truth to power.  “Let my people go,” the governor said, like Moses to Pharaoh.  Armed with this conviction, he signed dozens of bills that helped free the wrongfully convicted and kept nonviolent offenders from going to jail. 

The incarcerated population declined enough that Texas was able to close three prisons. The state’s reforms became a model for others, and justice rolled down like water.  As lawmakers were quick to point out, however, Perry was hardly parting the seas.  Mostly, he managed not to stand in the way of bills passed by the Legislature.  But even that was significant.  While the rest of the country was still carrying on in the tradition of the tough-on-crime nineties, Texas stood apart.

How times have changed.  If Perry’s successor, Governor Greg Abbott, launches his own presidential run, he will do so while proudly proclaiming that, like Pharoah to Moses, he held his ground and said, “Not so fast.” Abbott has joined a counterrevolution, allowing his antipathy toward Democratic officials to outweigh the effectiveness of policies embraced by much of his party.  Take, for instance, his treatment of Dallas judge John Creuzot, who years earlier convinced Perry to support drug courts, which offer treatment rather than incarceration for low-level offenders. In 2018 Creuzot was elected Dallas County district attorney and soon announced that his office would no longer prosecute small-time drug offenses and other petty crimes that often involve the poor, mentally ill, and unhoused.  He was quickly pilloried by Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who accused him of “abandon[ing] the rule of law.”

These days, the Legislature isn’t doing much reforming either.  During recent sessions, proposed improvements to the criminal justice system have been blocked by powerful police lobbies and their supporters in state government.  One of the most anticipated pieces of legislation this year would have barred police from arresting Texans for most Class C misdemeanors — including traffic violations, such as the one that prompted the confrontation that led to Sandra Bland being placed in the Waller County jail cell where she reportedly killed herself.  A somewhat watered-down version of the bill passed the House during the regular session with the support of the Republican Speaker — the culmination of years of effort from disparate groups. But it never even received a hearing in the Senate, where Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has revived the law-and-order crusade of decades past.  Its demise marked the third time in three sessions that a version of the bill has failed to pass.

Reformers have watched with a mixture of disbelief and dismay as the bipartisan consensus has crumbled. “This year it became evident that police reform of even the smallest sort cannot occur in Texas while Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick remain in office,” Austin writer Scott Henson recently noted on his criminal justice blog, Grits for Breakfast.

And it’s not just on police reform that progress has stalled. During the special sessions he called this summer, Abbott pushed legislation intended to reverse some of the gains made in fixing Texas’s archaic bail system.  For years, Texas cities, particularly Houston, have taken strides to reduce their reliance on cash bail, which ensures that many poor and mentally ill defendants arrested for comparatively minor crimes stay stuck in county jails for months. Bail reform is supported not just by criminal justice activists and Democratic local elected officials; Nathan Hecht, the Republican chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, has called for a complete overhaul of the way courts handle pretrial detention. But the bail bill pushed by state leaders aimed to strengthen the role cash bail plays.

Abbott and his allies are responding to a real issue, as well as a political opportunity.  Rising rates of violent crime, especially in large cities, have prompted politicians of all stripes to offer solutions.  For many, and particularly for conservatives, a well-worn playbook — more police, less tolerance toward even petty crimes — is an obvious answer.  In addition, the racialized backlash to the Black Lives Matter protests of last year has made some Republicans skittish about criminal justice reform.  Calls by some progressives to “defund” the police at a time when crime is rising have handed Republicans a winning campaign issue....

Many conservatives are wobbling because of larger political dynamics.  Police reform went from a relatively sleepy matter to a supercharged issue intertwined with the culture wars.  Republicans in Austin are peeved with the state’s big-city mayors, district attorneys, and county officials.  These figures, mostly Democrats, now serve as the face of the reform movement, loudly declining to prosecute low-level offenses and attempting to hold police responsible for misconduct.  The conservative news outlets and Facebook feeds that have amplified an endless stream of footage of protests and riots have made many viewers feel as if anarchy were descending on the country — and that the thin blue line needed to be strengthened, not “defunded.”

The rising murder rates in most Texas cities during the pandemic haven’t helped the movement either.  Violent crimes such as homicide and robbery are still less common than during much of the seventies, eighties, and nineties.  But that doesn’t make much of a difference in public perception.

There’s another significant factor contributing to the backsliding.  “This is a Trump thing,” Henson says.  During his time in office, the former president — who, on the campaign trail, exploited fears of crime, especially when suspects were Black or Latino — promised to punish wrongdoers and maintain order in ways that Republicans had recently deemphasized.  Henson says Trump’s approach rubbed off.  Patrick and Abbott have started talking tougher.  Speaker Dade Phelan, meanwhile, often talks like a reformer of the Perry era.

Those brief years may have been an aberration, rather than a fundamental shift in the state’s approach to criminal justice, Henson says.  The post–Civil War era saw the introduction of a regime of forced labor designed to control freed slaves and others who were regarded as undesirable.  During the sixties the Legislature responded to the civil rights movement by effectively trying to criminalize nonviolent protest.  In the nineties, Ann Richards bragged that she had added 75,000 prison beds and “cut parole by two thirds.”  And it’s easy to overstate how much progress Texas has made: Yes, the number of Texans who are incarcerated as a percentage of the state’s population continues to decrease.  But according to the most recent figures, our incarceration rate ranks higher than that of all but five other U.S. states.

Still, not everyone is as pessimistic as Henson. Marc Levin, the former Right on Crime policy director, thinks the sour national political climate could shift.  “We’re kind of seeing the crime rate level off” in major cities, he says.  (Though the murder rate has continued to climb, statisticians say the growth in the rate has slowed in the first six months of this year.)  It’s possible, he says, that last year’s crime spike was caused in large part by the disruptions of the pandemic and that things will soon settle down.

Though Trump’s rhetoric was often harsh, he signed important reforms into law, notably the First Step Act, which reduced some draconian federal prison sentences and sought to improve conditions in federal lockups.  Conservatives are now more willing to make substantial investments in the mental health-care system (such as updating the state’s aging psychiatric hospitals) and other alternatives to incarceration, Levin says.  He believes that the elements of the criminal justice debate that seem to trigger right-leaning voters — “antifa” and “defunding” the police — may lose their power to terrify.

September 7, 2021 at 04:09 PM | Permalink

Comments

Abbott is a complete Trumpkin. He has sold his soul to the stupid and fearful pearl-clutching racist "right."

The sad thing is that he is a smart man. He's just about as craven a GOP politician as you can find as far as completely succumbing to Trumpism.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Sep 9, 2021 10:50:43 PM

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