Over the past two weekends, the Texas GOP and Democratic Party held their respective, biennial platform conventions to determine the parties’ official policy positions for the next two years. The outcome of these conventions shows that in a time where bipartisan agreement is rare, reforming our criminal justice system remains an area of common ground for the people of Texas. I want to acknowledge Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast, who promoted much-needed criminal justice reforms at both conventions and provided great coverage of each party’s platform.
Despite Texas’ recent history as a criminal justice reform state, critical bills that would Raise the Age, abolish the harmful Driver Responsibility Program, or provide treatment rather than incarceration have failed to pass. As highlighted by polling data from the Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition, Republican voters are strongly in favor of such criminal justice reforms. Today more than ever, we need to put party politics aside to eliminate the disproportional impact that our criminal justice system has on our most marginalized fellow Texans.
Below, I highlight some approved planks from both platforms and elaborate on why the Texas Legislature must address these issues in the upcoming session.
Raise the Age: Texas is one of four states that sentences 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. National research shows that states that raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 have experienced a significant decrease in juvenile crime: 17-year-olds are better served in the community than in an adult facility. Check out TCJC’s overview on this issue from the past legislative session here.
Stop Punishing Poverty: The GOP has called for an end to the incarceration of individuals who cannot pay tickets, fines, or fees for Class C misdemeanors, like traffic citations. The Democratic Party seeks to provide individuals with a summons for nonviolent offenses, instead of an arrest. Texas Monthly provides a fantastic overview of the issue and urges politicians not to make poverty a crime within our state.
Abolish the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP): Created in 2003, the DRP allows the Department of Public Safety to levy administrative surcharges on the driver’s licenses of individuals convicted of traffic offenses. The program poses a disproportional hardship on low-income drivers, increases the number of uninsured and unlicensed motorists, and generates less than half the revenue anticipated. The GOP seeks to eliminate the program, restore the suspended driver licenses of people impacted by the DRP, and revoke their debt. The Democratic Party calls for repealing the DRP fees that many Texans cannot pay. Check out a TCJC policy brief from the 2017 Legislative Session here.
Modify the Penalty for Drug Crimes: In Texas, possession of two ounces or less of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. In 2016, nearly 68,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses, raising county jail populations and indigent defense costs – all at taxpayer expense. The GOP strives to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the Democratic Party aims to legalize marijuana and reduce the possession of small amounts of other controlled substances to a misdemeanor, even on a repeat offense. A recent poll by UT Austin and the Texas Tribune shows that the majority of Texans want to legalize marijuana. Click here for more information on this issue.