State committee tasked with improving Texas’ criminal justice system sits unfunded, unused for over a decade

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lawmakers don’t have enough information to manage Texas’ criminal justice system, and they should create a legislative committee to study the system’s most pressing problems and create reports with guidance and improvements — that was the assessment of a state review in 2006.

Texas legislators heeded that recommendation. The next year, in 2007, they created the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee. The committee is composed of House and Senate members and is tasked with digging into Texas’ most pressing criminal justice issues and creating biennial reports with strategies to address problems and find solutions.

Too bad none of that is happening.

Though it remains enshrined in Texas law, a KXAN review has found the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee has existed only on paper for years. Though it appears active in state records, with new members appointed by Capitol leadership, no work has been done since 2009. The committee has no funds, no staff, does no analysis of the criminal justice system and submits no reports required by statute to the state Legislature.

The bill that created the committee, 2007’s Senate Bill 909 by State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, arose from recommendations made in a 2006 Sunset Advisory Commission review of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The Sunset Advisory Commission examines state agencies and government bodies and recommends improvements or that the entity be eliminated.

Alycia Castillo, director of policy and advocacy at Texas Center for Justice & Equity, said SB 909 was a “massive bill” with lots of different provisions that mostly related to parole and probation. Maybe, she said, the creation of the committee was “an afterthought.”

Regardless, the committee exists in statute and could be doing important work and should be utilized.

“Now more than ever, it’s really crucial and urgent that we get some meaningful, significant oversight in our criminal legal system,” Castillo said.

The committee remains active, and Whitmire is listed as its presiding officer. A representative of Whitmire’s office acknowledged the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee has not been funded or staffed since 2009. Whitmire lists his chairmanship of the defunct committee as one of his legislative career accomplishments on his website. He did not agree to an interview. His office did not provide answers to specific questions sent by email, including why the committee has not been funded and whether there would be a push to staff and reactivate it.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, pictured right.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, pictured right.

KXAN spoke with several criminal justice advocates and experts. None could explain why the committee has been defunct all these years, but all said the state would benefit from its oversight.

“By having this committee essentially not be used, we’ve lost a lot of time and potentially a lot of harm has been incurred, because we have chosen to not look into some of the most challenging aspects of our society, and that’s dealing with individuals that’ve been incarcerated,” said Alex Cogan, manager of public policy and advocacy at The Arc of Texas, which works to improve conditions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Gap in oversight

In its 2006 review of TDCJ, the Sunset Advisory Commission explained how gaps in oversight needed to be filled.

From 1983 to 2003, Texas had the Criminal Justice Policy Council, which evaluated the overall effectiveness of the state’s criminal justice system and acted “as an independent agency to identify and analyze criminal justice problems and advise the Governor and the Legislature in developing strategies to solve those problems,” according to the Sunset review.

Former Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the Policy Council’s appropriation in 2003. After that, the state had no entity that would provide “comprehensive and ongoing analysis of the criminal justice system to determine its effectiveness or help plan for its future,” the Sunset Advisory Commission found.

Other organizations and committees stepped in to provide some oversight, but they didn’t have the ability to do overall evaluation of the system, according to the Sunset review.

The Legislative Budget Board created the Criminal Justice Data Analysis Team in 2004, but that group didn’t take over the Policy Council’s duties to study the system as a whole or make recommendations for improvement. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, House Corrections Committee, Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations Committees oversee individual criminal justice agencies, but they have to use information provided by those agencies to “try to develop an overall picture of the criminal justice system,” according to the 2006 review.

“Having four different committees evaluating information coming from several different criminal justice agencies does not provide consistent, comprehensive information on which to base future criminal justice policy decisions,” according to the 2006 Sunset Advisory Commission report. “In addition, these committees do not have the staff, resources, or expertise necessary to research and analyze the effectiveness of the entire state criminal justice system.”

‘Mind boggling’

Diana Claitor, cofounder and former executive director of the Texas Jail Project, called the lack of funding for the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee “mind boggling.”

“The question to us is why this important committee would not be funded to do, essentially, work that can save lives and change the way prisons and jails operate in Texas. Why?” Claitor said.

There is much work to be done on criminal justice reform and not enough legislative oversight to accomplish it. Other legislative committees that deal with criminal justice issues “barely skim the surface,” she said.

“Yes, we need more oversight, desperately, especially considering how many people Texas locks up in jails and prisons,” Claitor said.

Brennan Griffin, deputy director at Texas Appleseed, said his organization has been heavily involved in criminal justice issues at the Texas Legislature, but he had not heard of the committee.

“Just in the last couple of years, if we’d had a committee looking at the coronavirus response in prisons and in Texas jails, I think we could have gotten some better outcomes,” Griffin said. Texas Appleseed is a nonprofit public interest justice center.

Texas Appleseed spent months getting data from just five Central Texas jails about how they are handling COVID-19. The Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee, if it were functioning, could have obtained that information much more quickly and been able to use it to make suggestions in the most recent legislative session, Griffin said.

The Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee could be particularly useful, because it brings together both sides of the Capitol. Coordination and buy-in from both the House and Senate would increase the chances of solutions being passed and implemented, he said.

The committee is also authorized to contract with a university or other entity to help assist with its duties. The inclusion of a research institution, Griffin added, also makes this committee important.

House and Senate legislative committees often have interim charges and look into different issues, but usually don’t engage a university to bolster their research, he said.

“Whenever we can engage that kind of really data-driven approach by true experts in these fields, I think it leads to better outcomes,” Griffin said.

Cogan said these in-depth studies and reports can lead to real change.

“A lot of money could have been saved, potentially lives could have been saved and certainly traumatic experiences prevented,” Cogan said. “I would like to see this committee utilized and a report be produced, so we can make progressive change.

In a fiscal analysis of SB 909, the Legislative Budget Board said it could not estimate the cost of creating the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee, because it could vary depending on how it is staffed.

Near resurrection

There were attempts to resurrect the committee and use it in 2013 and 2014, but none came to fruition.

In 2013, Castillo said her organization worked on another bill, House Bill  2650, that would have brought the committee back into public awareness and expanded its purpose. Among other things, the bill would have added jail inspection reports to the committee’s tasks and created a confidential way for incarcerated people to send concerns to members of the committee. That bill never passed.

Another piece of 2013 legislation, Senate Bill 1003, did pass. The bill tapped the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee with hiring an independent organization to study the state’s solitary confinement conditions, but without committee funding advocates struggled to find a way to pay for it, according to reporting by the Texas Tribune.

Funding on the horizon?

After hearing from KXAN about the committee, advocates said they would be pushing for the commission to be utilized in the future.

Krishnaveni Gundu, cofounder and executive director of Texas Jail Project, said her organization is planning to submit its recommendations for interim charges to the Legislature and “will be strongly recommending the need for this committee because the issues with solitary/ad seg, restraint chairs and related concerns have grown exponentially due to the pandemic.”

Castillo said TCJE would also recommend language for an interim charge for the Legislature to expand the use of the committee.

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