The Texas legislative session began in the middle of January and lawmakers have many issues to consider. Criminal justice reform is taking up much of this session, with some changes being introduced for the first time, while others will be revisited.
Less Reliance on Cash Bail
Texas is not likely to get rid of cash bail altogether, as many other states have. However, lawmakers will consider legislation that will include better risk assessment when determining which individuals are held in pretrial detention, and which individuals are released on bail.
The reason for this reform is due to the fact that so many people are currently held in county jails simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. Accurately assessing a person’s risk to public safety, and only detaining those deemed a significant threat, will allow more people the chance to retain their freedom. It will also address the problem of overcrowded jails throughout the state.
Lower Criminal Justice Costs
Just as many people are in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay bail, others are there because they cannot afford to pay court costs and other expenses. A failure to pay charge can result in jail time, which results in even more overcrowded jails.
Lawmakers will try to address the problem and offer alternatives to high court costs. They will also consider options for other high fees, such as those associated with reinstating a suspended driver’s license.
Unfortunately, many women in jail are also mothers unable to care for their children. When this happens, the child often ends up in the Child Protective Services program, which is traumatic for the entire family. Legislators will consider new laws offering programs such as parenting classes, drug and alcohol treatment, and community services as alternatives to jail time so parents can continue to raise their children.
Rehabilitation for Low-Level Felony Offenders
The state jail system, which was designed in the 1990s with the intention of helping rehabilitate offenders, is failing. There are 17 facilities across the state, and they were meant to provide programs, such as substance abuse treatment, to low-level felony offenders. However, the rehabilitation component never came to fruition. Currently, those released from these prisons are even more likely to re-offend and end up back in the system.
Legislators will attempt to address the problem this year by creating rehabilitation programs in state jails. They will also determine the requirements for qualifying for these programs.
Tighter Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws
In Texas, police are currently allowed to seize property from citizens when they believe that property was used during, or is associated with, a crime. Law enforcement can do this even when the owner of the property is not part of the investigation. Tightening these laws is going to be part of the 2019 session after similar measures failed in 2017.
“The hope, of course, is that legislators will come together to create the proper reform needed this session,” says Stephen Hamilton of Hamilton Grant PC. “These laws, if passed, will provide many deserving people with the freedom to drive, parent, and become fully rehabilitated rather than simply punished for past actions.”