Texas is in the midst of a “sea change” in its criminal justice system, driven mostly by local prosecutors determined to reduce jail and prison population numbers, speakers told a conference at the University of Texas at Austin this week.
Joe Moody, Speaker Pro Tempore of the Texas House of Representatives, said state legislators of both parties appeared willing to have an “honest conversation” about rethinking traditional approaches to punishment.
“We are looking for (solutions) at the intersection of justice and mercy,” Moody, a Democrat, told Texas journalists, advocates and educators participating in the two-day symposium on “Transforming Texas Justice,” held at UT Austin’s Moody College of Communications.
The conference was organized by the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice, which also publishes The Crime Report.
Skeptics contend that efforts to move beyond cancelling prison construction plans and shutting down existing facilities have attracted scant support from lawmakers. Texas closed eight prisons between 2011 and 2017, with little or no impact on crime rates—investing most of the savings in diversion programs.
National commentators have often pointed to Texas’ dramatic prison moves as an example of how a “tough-on-crime” state can switch gears on criminal justice. But Moody conceded that efforts to kickstart sentencing reforms have so far produced few results.
Nevertheless, Moody and others at the conference celebrated the successful, and often overlooked, attempts by Texas authorities in several key jurisdictions to change the system.
Kim Ogg, District Attorney of Harris County, the state’s most populous region, described her efforts to persuade the 87 police agencies under her jurisdiction, to decriminalize marijuana possession. With some exceptions, individuals caught with marijuana in their possession are assessed a $150 fine, and diverted to treatment or a four-hour class.
“The hardest sell” to the police was to make the lower penalties available to everyone—including those with prior criminal records, Ogg said—an approach she admitted defied traditional law enforcement thinking.
Ogg said that while Texas remained among the states rejecting legalization of recreational marijuana, the softened drug enforcement strategy in many areas of her county basically had produced the same result.
(At this year’s legislative session, Texas legislators legalized hemp while rejecting a bipartisan bill to decriminalize pot possession—a measure some commentators argued will make it harder to prosecute marijuana offenses.)
“The easiest place to attack mass incarceration is in drugs,” she said.
A similar strategy has been launched by Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot in approaching homelessness in his jurisdiction—usually a misdemeanor offense. Creuzot, a former judge, has directed his attorneys not to prosecute homeless individuals and instead work with community services to find housing and services.
“Nothing good happens to a person who goes to jail for those offenses,” Creuzot told the conference.
In one of the state’s rural areas, Nueces County DA Mark Gonzalez has directed his attorneys not to penalize individuals who reject plea deals by toughening the charges against them during trial.
“Nobody should be penalized for exercising their constitutional rights,’” said Gonzalez, a former defense attorney, noting that too many young prosecutors are over-eager to reach convictions at the cost of ignoring due process.
Gonzalez conceded that this would make some judges unhappy because it slowed down the system.
Nevertheless, he said, he tells his attorneys, “don’t try to make your mark with someone’s life.”
All three prosecutors admitted they often faced tough opposition from local judges, police and county commissioners. In many of the state’s rural counties, traditional approaches to crime and punishment prevail.
Safe Streets & Second Chances
But even in areas like prison reform and reentry, innovative practices are gaining traction.
Fourteen Texas prisons, for example, have agreed to participate in the Safe Streets & Second Chances program, a national pilot project funded by the Charles Koch Foundation to improve skills counselling and health services for inmates in the period before they are released into the community.
“It’s an attempt to build self-esteem and overcome the stigma of reentry,” said John Koufos, executive director of the “Safe Streets” program.
All the speakers at this week’s conference made clear that justice reform in Texas still faced formidable obstacles.
“But unless you’re willing to put your neck on the block, nothing is going to change,” said Creuzot.
More details about the Texas symposium for journalists, are available here.