The Integrity of the Texas Criminal Justice System
The Integrity of the Texas Criminal Justice System
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Understand the integrity challenges facing Texas’ criminal justice system
Texas' criminal justice system has faced a number of serious integrity allegations. This section explores some of those allegations.
Rights of Crime Victims
Texas has long been known as a law and order state. The United States Constitution has a Bill of Rights that guarantees certain rights for those accused of crimes. While the Texas Constitution has a Bill of Rights with an extensive list of rights for the accused, it is one of the only states that follows that list with a specific list of rights for crime victims.
Sec. 30. RIGHTS OF CRIME VICTIMS.
(a) A crime victim has the following rights:
(1) the right to be treated with fairness and with respect for the victim's dignity and privacy throughout the criminal justice process; and
(2) the right to be reasonably protected from the accused throughout the criminal justice process.
(b) On the request of a crime victim, the crime victim has the following rights:
(1) the right to notification of court proceedings;
(2) the right to be present at all public court proceedings related to the oﬀense, unless the victim is to testify and the court determines that the victim's testimony would be materially aﬀected if the victim hears other testimony at the trial;
(3) the right to confer with a representative of the prosecutor's oﬃce;
(4) the right to restitution; and
(5) the right to information about the conviction, sentence, imprisonment, and release of the accused.
(c) The legislature may enact laws to define the term "victim" and to enforce these and other rights of crime victims.
(d) The state, through its prosecuting attorney, has the right to enforce the rights of crime victims.
(e) The legislature may enact laws to provide that a judge, attorney for the state, peace oﬃcer, or law enforcement agency is not liable for a failure or inability to provide a right enumerated in this section. The failure or inability of any person to provide a right or service enumerated in this section may not be used by a defendant in a criminal case as a ground for appeal or post- conviction writ of habeas corpus. A victim or guardian or legal representative of a victim has standing to enforce the rights enumerated in this section but does not have standing to participate as a party in a criminal proceeding or to contest the disposition of any charge.
How Fair is the Texas Criminal Justice System?
Texas has a reputation for long sentences, tough prisons (most, until recently, without air conditioning) and tough-on-crime judges.
Every two years, the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court is required by law to deliver a “state of the judiciary” address to a joint session of the Texas Legislature. In February, 2017, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, a conservative Republican jurist from Dallas, warned the legislature of the astonishing number of people incarcerated in Texas jails who had not been convicted of the crime with which they were charged, but simply couldn’t aﬀord to pay the necessary bail to remain free until their trial:
Twenty years ago, not quite one-third of the state’s jail population was awaiting trial. Now the number is three-fourths. Liberty is precious to Americans, and any deprivation must be scrutinized. To protect public safety and ensure that those accused of a crime will appear at trial, persons charged with breaking the law may be detained before their guilt or innocence can be adjudicated, but that detention must not extend beyond its justifications. Many who are arrested cannot aﬀord a bail bond and remain in jail awaiting a hearing. Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs and families, and are more likely to re-oﬀend. And if all this weren’t bad enough, taxpayers must shoulder the cost—a staggering $1 billion per year.
Take a recent case in point, from The Dallas Morning News. A middle-aged woman arrested for shoplifting $105 worth of clothing for her grandchildren sat in jail almost two months because bail was set at $150,000—far more than all her worldly goods. Was she a threat to society? No. A flight risk? No. Cost to taxpayers? $3,300. Benefit: we punished grandma. Was it worth it? No. And to add to the nonsense, Texas law limits judges’ power to detain high-risk defendants. High-risk defendants, a threat to society, are freed; low-risk defendants sit in jail, a burden on taxpayers. This makes no sense.
Two months later, Federal District Judge Lee Rosenthal ruled Harris County’s bail system unconstitutional. A proposed settlement approved by Harris County Commissioners in 2019 would essentially end Harris County’s practice of requiring the posting of bail for all but the most violent oﬀenders, or those who pose a substantial flight risk.
Still, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg filed a court brief objecting to the settlement. As Harris County’s chief prosecutor, Ogg feels the proposed settlement was unfair to crime victims and the public. As she explained in an interview with Houston Public Media in September 2019:
"Well, in March of ’17, shortly after being elected, I stepped forward not as a party [to the bail lawsuit] but as the representative of an institution, the DA’s oﬃce and prosecutors, to support bail reform. And as a local criminal justice leader, I took a lot of political arrows for that support. I still support bail reform, but this proposed settlement is not bail reform that adequately protects the public. There’s two reasons we have bail: 1) to get the person back into court after they’ve been released, 2) to make sure the public is safe. So, I had to look at this proposal through the eyes of somebody other than the criminal defendant, and it’s an extremely slanted proposed settlement that really prioritizes their convenience over anybody else’s interest – whether it’s the victims or the community itself or the prosecutors and law enforcement who have to bring these cases against them.
I see that the system that’s been crafted as a result of this lawsuit…that misdemeanor oﬀenders are not awaiting their trial in jail because they can’t aﬀord to get out. I see everybody being released on PR [personal recognizance] bond. In fact, I see too many people being released on PR bonds…For low- level, non-violence misdemeanors, I agree, this is appropriate, and I support that…but we see judges right now letting dangerous misdemeanor oﬀenders out – domestic violence abusers, pimps, people who stalk folks, DWI oﬀenders – and we see those individuals go out and commit additional crimes, only to be taken back in front of the courts and given another PR bond. This endangers the public. So as the chief prosecutor in Harris County, I think it’s incumbent on me to make sure that any proposed settlement, especially one that’s going to be enforceable for seven years, include provisions that protect the public."
In the 1980s, most people in jail were there as a punishment because they were convicted of a crime. That is no longer true. Today, three out of four inmates in Texas county jails have been arrested but not yet convicted of a crime, many because they do not have the cash to get out. That costs Texas taxpayers about a billion dollars a year and has led to lawsuits in Harris and Dallas counties.
How should Texas balance the need to protect the rights of the accused with the public’s right to law and order, and victims’ rights to see the criminals that victimized them brought to justice?
Reforming the Texas Criminal Justice System
Texas has had a significant number of people who have been wrongly convicted. Numerous recent cases in which convictions were overturned have raised questions about the criminal justice system in Texas.
Concerns about wrongful convictions are often related to the methods that police and prosecutors use to convict suspects. In Dallas County, many of the wrongfully convicted were prosecuted during the administration of District Attorney Henry Wade, whose oﬃce was known for high conviction rates. Additionally, multiple issues with the handling and processing of evidence transported to local and state crime labs have been documented, including lab analysts not trained in the latest DNA technology, incompetent supervisors, lack of lab inspections from outside agencies, lack of quality control systems. DNA evidence is often touted as definitive proof of guilt or innocence; however, forensic science procedures cannot be definitive with defective facilities, personnel, and procedures.
Texas has long led the nation in the number of people it exonerates, or clears of convictions, based on evidence of innocence. Since 2010, more than 200 people have been exonerated in Texas, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. That’s more than twice as many as any other state during the same period.
Recent reforms that have been enacted may help reduce the number of wrongful convictions in Texas and improve the fairness of the criminal justice system. Dallas county established the first Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in America in 2007, and as of 2018, there are 44 units nationwide. In 2015, CIU in Harris County was responsible for 42 of the 58 conviction integrity unit exonerations in the United States that year.
In Texas, there has been an increased emphasis (albeit gradually) on community supervision and rehabilitation programs, such as drug treatment programs and electronic monitoring of oﬀenders, with less emphasis on incarceration as a first response solution to crime. Costs for probation are estimated at 10% of the cost of prison. Similarly, while incarceration is around $50 a day, parole supervision costs $4 a day.
Lawmakers entered 2019 with hopes that they could change Texas' bail procedures, death penalty laws, and drug policies. But the 86th legislative session ended in July 2019 without major reforms in any of those issues. Thus, bipartisan lawmakers created a new Criminal Justice Reform Caucus in the Texas House.
Check Your Knowledge
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Link to Learning
The National Association for Public Defense represents public defenders, lobbying for better funding for public defense and improvements in the justice system in general.
References and Further Reading
The Texas Constitution. Article 1: Bill of Rights. Section 30: Rights of Crime Victims. Accessed October 11, 2019.
Texas State Law Library. State of the Judiciary Messages. Accessed October 11, 2019.
Houston Public Media (2017, February 1). State’s Top Judge Calls For Legislature To Enact Bail Reform. Accessed October 11, 2019.
The State of the Judiciary in Texas (2017, February 1). Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht. Presented to the 85th Legislature. Austin, Texas. Accessed October 11, 2019.
Barajas, M. (2019, July 31). 'A Watershed Moment' for Bail Reform in Harris County. Texas Observer. Accessed October 11, 2019.
Houston Public Radio (2019, September 3). Harris County DA Kim Ogg On Bail Reform Accessed October 11, 2019.
Barajas, M. (2017, October 6). The Case to End Assembly Line Justice for Poor People in Harris County. Texas Observer. Accessed October 11, 2019.
Connelly, C (2019). 5 Criminal Justice Issues Texas Lawmakers Are Expected To Consider. KERA KUT 90.5.
McGonigle, S. (2007, January 22). Righting Wrongs. Dallas Morning News. Retrieved October 18, 2019.
The National Registry of Exonerations (2018). Exonerations in 2018 (Infographic). Accessed October 18, 2019.
Fromson, N. (2016, March 12). Conviction Integrity Units Expand Beyond Lone Star State Roots. The Texas Tribune. Accessed October 18, 2019.
American Bar Association. Texas and Mississippi: Reducing Prison Population, Saving Money, and Reducing Recidivism. ABA Criminal Justice Section Parole & Probation.
McCullough, J. (2019, July 18). After defeats in 2019, a group of Texas lawmakers is teaming up to push criminal justice reform. The Texas Tribune. Accessed October 12, 2019.
Licensing and Attribution
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The Integrity of the Texas Criminal Justice System. Authored by: Andrew Teas. License: CC BY: Attribution