Despite calls for criminal justice reform, will Texas lawmakers add new crimes to the books?

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas District & County Attorneys Association, an advocacy group for prosecutors across the state, quipped on Twitter last week about state lawmakers’ effort to address criminal justice reform.

“Some things never change” was followed by a shrugging emoticon.

The TDCAA noted that out of the more than 800 bills filed ahead of the upcoming legislative session, 33 bills would create one or more new crimes, and 17 bills would increase the punishments for existing crimes, despite the expressed focus on criminal justice reform by many lawmakers.

Texas has more than 2,000 criminal offenses, already. But the bills, focusing primarily on gun control by Democrats, are unlikely to pass. Thousands of bills will be filed in the 87th Legislature and most won’t see the light of day—just 820 of more than 7,000 bills became law in the last legislative session.

Criminal justice reform advocates said they’re committed to fighting for fewer crimes and more realistic punishments.

“I hope policymakers will recognize that we need a system with a smaller footprint that focuses on addressing violent crime, addressing conduct that really imperils public safety,” said Marc Levin, chief of policy and innovation for Right on Crime, a conservative-leaning criminal justice reform organization. “Even for those things that are crimes, we need to look at what should subject someone to the possibility of arrest.”

Criminal justice issues will be at the forefront when lawmakers return to the Texas Capitol in January. The George Floyd Act, proposed by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson and state Sen. Royce West, would ban chokeholds and require police officers to step in when excessive force is being used by another officer.

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, said around 25 new crimes are adopted each legislative session. Still, he believes opportunities for reform like the decriminalization of marijuana will be the focus of the incoming legislature.

“If we are no longer in love with just locking everyone up for everything, let’s make that true,” Wu told KXAN. “Many of the things that we want to do have a side benefit that the Texas Legislature is going to love, and that is it’s going to save money.”

Before becoming a senior policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Doug Smith spent six years in prison himself for challenges connected to mental illness and substance abuse disorder.
Smith told KXAN that lawmakers often attempt to address the crime instead of a solution, like prevention, which he will advocate for in the upcoming legislative session.

“What we know is that increasing penalties doesn’t actually prevent property loss or harm to communities,” Smith said. “Increasing penalties just extends the amount of time that someone might be punished for that criminal activity.”

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