Holiday Wish List for Criminal Justice Reform:
As it is Christmas, I wanted to send a word of hope to my clients and the community. Christmas is a time for generosity, second chances, and peace. I am reflecting on how we make the system work for the community, making our communities safer, and ensuring that justice is done. I think it is becoming a commonly held idea that our system needs reform and we need to back off the idea that we need to completely ruin someone to keep our community safe. I think the Texas legislature, which is going into session in January, need to hear from those of us who want common sense reforms.
There are five reforms I wish for this season:
1. Reform fines and fees to make them proportionate and allow a means to dispose of fines and fees if a Defendant is indigent:
It is not fair to make poor people decide between paying a fine or fee and paying a bill or the rent. We need to have real means by which to reduce indigent people’s fines and fees through income evaluation and sliding scale payments. We need to also be sensitive to realities that limit poor people’s abilities to do community service and we should not saddle people with hundreds of community service hours they cannot realistically do to “give them a chance”. Chances need to be real, not ephemeral.
I also am a very staunch advocate of an abolition of the Drivers’ Responsibility Program (surcharge program). I believe this does nothing but penalize unsophisticated, poor people and is a back door tax on the people in the state who can least afford it. It makes us less safe by disqualifying people from insurance coverage and the regulation and licensing of them as drivers.
2. Decriminalize drugs and provide access to treatment and services to address addiction and mental health:
I think one thing Texas could do this legislative session to better the system for everyone would be to move every category of possession down one level of offense. This means that a Class B possession of marijuana would become a fine only Class C offense, state jail felony less than a gram of cocaine would be a Class A misdemeanor, etc. That is a very common sense decriminalization regime that would put in place lifesaving and cost saving measures right away.
Also, this legislative session, Texas could fund at a meaningful level addiction treatment and mental health treatment. We have people waiting in line for months to get services, get an appointment with a doctor, etc. We need to give people meaningful access to these services so they can better their lives and exit the system healthy and with a path forward.
3. Provide meaningful opportunities for youth:
I honestly believe that most young people do not choose a criminal path because it is ideal and glamorous. Maybe a minority do, but it becomes ideal through social and environmental conditioning, not because there’s just some “bad” kids. We need to expand education and job opportunities for kids in our communities. Rural and urban kids both need this. I do think better and more trade schools will help, but it also needs to be meaningful opportunities to go to college for kids who could be high achieving academically. Kids need to be given the tools they need stay in school.
Setting expectations for kids to stay in school and pursue a productive path along with making those expectations real by providing the opportunities will go a long way to reducing the amount of kids who become involved with the system. Knowing they are expected to follow a productive path and not be given the impression that s/he is a “throw away kid”, while giving them the resources, makes that criminal path less attractive.
4. Help formerly incarcerated to Re-Enter:
Recidivism is high. Maybe one of the biggest predictors of incarceration is prior incarceration. We need to prepare people on the inside for Re-Entry to the free world with training and education programs, mental health services, and counseling services to help them become better workers, parents, and citizens.
We also need to have community dialogue around the barriers we create to Re-Entry. We need to have some common-sense reevaluation of privately erected barriers to housing and jobs. Is it productive to ensure that someone incarcerated for simple possession cannot rent an apartment in many urban areas in Texas? Is it productive to refuse to hire anyone with a felony conviction? I don’t believe that a prior felony should be a red-line barrier to these opportunities – people need to be evaluated based on the real risk THAT individual poses to the community and his or her skills and abilities. We are preventing an entire, rather large class of people from reentering the community and therefore we are having more people dependent on the safety net, not able to model work and productive activity to their children, and not able to contribute to the economy and society.
I think we also need to move to repeal laws that prevent people with certain convictions from getting aid to go to school. A felony conviction for drugs should not ban you from federal student aid for life – not when being a rapist doesn’t.
I am hopeful that the Texas legislature will not pass a bill prohibiting cities like Austin from banning questions about criminal history during the initial job application process. This is common sense to allowing people to reenter.
5. Pass laws that allow people to expunge or seal their records:
Right now, you must have a very good outcome – a dismissal or an acquittal – to get an expunction in Texas. You must have completed a deferred adjudication successfully to get your record sealed of that offense.
This saddles people with records of decades old convictions, even for minor stuff. I do not think that most anybody should be judged on their convictions from twenty or thirty years ago. People should get a second chance if they can prove through their actions that their run in with the system was a one time mistake.
Some states, even some conservative states in the South, have much more liberal expunge/seal laws and allow people with certain kinds of convictions to expunge them after demonstrating reform and compliance with the law for a certain period after the conviction. I do not see why Texas cannot do the same. We are losing a wealth of talent when people with a minor conviction cannot ply their trade or contribute at a job because an employer won’t hire after looking at a background check.
Texas needs to invest in its people more and in the correcting of minor behaviors less. Our people need opportunities, not mass incarceration. We need to end debtors’ prisons and programs that hold people in a cycle of fines, fees, and warrants.
We need to exercise some humility and compassion too. After people pay their debts, we need to extend them a second chance and allow them to re-enter our greater society. Anything else fails us as a community and them as individuals.
Merry Christmas from Stefanie Collins, Attorney at Law. Be kind to each other this season.