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New Smart on Crime Coalition Challenges Legislature to Take Action

New Smart on Crime Coalition Challenges Legislature to Take Action

AUSTIN, Texas — A new coalition of supporters of criminal justice reform announced an ambitious legislative agenda at a Capitol press conference on Wednesday. The Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition‘s (TSCC) executive committee includes the Texas Association for Business (TAB), the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC), the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLU of Texas), and Goodwill Central Texas joined together. For followers of criminal justice issues in Texas, representatives from these organizations are a familiar sight at the Capitol, testifying before legislative committees and advocating for reforms. This is the first time, however, that they have all publicly joined together with a unified agenda. 

In a statement released to the press, the Director for the Center for Effective Justice at TPPF, Marc Levin, discussed the leadership role that Texas has taken in this area and the strengths of this new coalition: “As in many other policy areas, Texas has been a model for the nation on criminal justice reform — not just in what we have accomplished, but how we have reached a broad consensus on sensible reforms. Our policies and non-partisan approach have inspired dozens of other states to follow our lead.”

Vikrant Reddy, the Center for Effective Justice’s senior policy analyst, spoke positively about past criminal justice reforms his organization had supported in Texas. As Reddy wrote in an op-ed for Breitbart Texas earlier this year, “[Texas] has increasingly focused on community supervision alternatives for low-level, non-violent offenders — often drug offenders. During [the past thirteen years], Texas has shut down three prisons due to unneeded capacity, and it has avoided any new prison construction, thereby saving the state over $2 billion. Meanwhile, the crime rate has dropped to its lowest point since 1968.” In response to a reporter’s question, Reddy remarked how these successful reforms were instrumental in making criminal offenders productive members of society, and quoted former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, “we don’t need more taxes, we need more taxpayers.”

After the press conference, Reddy told Breitbart Texas that the Coalition members had easily found common ground, despite differing viewpoints. “We all approached [criminal justice] from different perspectives,” said Reddy. “[but] we started seeing each other in all the same hearing rooms during legislative committee hearings, and we decided, why not formalize much of what we’re doing?” 

Regarding TPPF’s conservative philosophy and how that works with the other organizations that do not necessarily share the same viewpoint, Reddy commented that “Nobody’s really had to compromise…It’s fortunate in that way, because there are so few issues right now where you can say that. We [TPPF] are here today because we care about reducing the size and scope of government. Now, some of the liberal groups, they’re here for different reasons, but we’re all getting to the same place, and for that reason, I think it’s been a really productive coalition.”

Bill Hammond, the CEO of TAB, was the original driving force behind what he described at Wednesday’s press conference as  a collection of “strange bedfellows,” but he also noted that the organizational process was easier than he had expected, finding common ground on a number of key issues. Hammond pronounced the TSCC’s legislative agenda a “very meaningful document” that he hoped would send a clear and powerful message to the Texas Legislature. 

In an interview with Breitbart Texas, Hammond shared how TAB’s mission of representing Texas businesses meshed well with supporting criminal justice reform. “Our perspective revolves a lot around the workforce: far too many people are excluded from the workforce by being sent to prison, at enormous cost to the business community and the taxpayers,” said Hammond. “Beyond that, once they’re out of prison, or once they’ve been convicted of a crime, they have no opportunity to clean their record up, even though they’ve been playing the straight and narrow for so long, and they’re ineligible for positions that are very hard to fill. For TAB, it’s about keeping people in the workforce and [for] those who have committed a crime but have done their time, paid their price, making them eligible for work in the future.” 

Reddy agreed with Hammond’s view of criminal justice reform as an critical economic issue. “It’s so incredibly important, I think, to the economic vitality of this state,” Reddy told Breitbart Texas. “Texas’ economy has just outperformed every other state’s for so many years…and we want to be careful not to quell that by limiting people’s opportunities in the workforce, limiting their ability to get occupational licenses, keeping them behind bars longer than necessary, not getting them the drug treatment that they need. We have extraordinary workers and entrepreneurs in this state, and we want to makes sure that they can actually fulfill all that potential.”

Patrick Clark, a client of Goodwill Central Texas who had been through the criminal justice system, spoke passionately about the need to provide opportunities for former criminal offenders. Clark had spent sixteen years in prison and when he was released, he had trouble finding gainful employment, due to both his criminal record and the substantial advancements in technology while he was behind bars. The Goodwill programs helped provide him with job training and match him with employers willing to give him a chance. Today, Clark was proud to say, he is not only employed, but he owns his own home in Austin. “There are many Patrick Clarks out there [who] deserve a second chance,” said Clark. “If we together can promote second chances…we’ll strengthen our community.”

TCJC Executive Director Dr. Ana Yáñez-Correa shared her organization’s enthusiastic support for the TSCC’s work, and her hopes that the Legislature would take their recommendations seriously. While the reforms in Texas in recent years were positive, “the people are way ahead of the Legislature,” she said, and more work still needed to be done. “This coalition is built on trust,” Yáñez-Correa told Breitbart Texas. “It’s built on appreciation for the shared values that we have, and it’s a testament that Texas is ready for policies that are going to greatly benefit the taxpayer and also all facets of society. We are thrilled about this coalition. We’ve been doing this work for quite some time now, and now is the time for Texas to move forward in the right direction.”

Terri Burke, the executive director of ACLU of Texas, began her remarks at the press conference noting that “the cost of a misguided criminal justice policy” is not just waste of taxpayer funds, but also broader costs for the community at large. Putting people in jail has not improved public safety, she continued, saying that instead it resulted in “families without breadwinners, kids without parents, and communities where incarceration is a rite of passage.” Burke echoed Reddy’s comments praising past criminal justice reforms in Texas, commenting that nationally, people were looking at Texas as an example to follow.

Burke told Breitbart Texas that the ACLU had supported past criminal justice reform efforts in Texas, and that it had been an easy transition to official join forces with the other TSCC organizations. “We actually have been on the same side of this issue [as other members of the TSCC] for a good long time, but we hadn’t come together to work together in a really collaborative way,” said Burke. “We all began to realize that we were looking for the same outcomes, perhaps for different reasons, [and] in some cases, different tactics, but, at the heart of it, we wanted the same outcomes, and we realized there was power in our diversity.” Burke also told Breitbart Texas that their focus now was working to raise awareness and get hearings for the items on their legislative agenda, and hopefully getting them passed into law. “I think there’s enormous momentum, both in the state and nationwide…I think we’re going to see a real march forward this session on these issues. I think we will have huge successes.”

The representatives of the organizations comprising the TSCC all spoke strongly at the press conference in favor of ending the Texas Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), a program that assesses civil fines after the criminal cases for driving offenses have concluded, fines that can be thousands of dollars a year and are in addition to any criminal fines, jail terms, or other criminal penalties. Texans who are assessed DRP surcharges but fail to pay them have their driver’s licenses automatically suspended. There are an estimated 1.3 million Texans who are driving without licenses — and without insurance — because their license was suspended for failure to pay DRP surcharges. The TCJC set up a website, TexasDriverResponsibilityProgram.com, earlier this year in opposition to the program.

Williamson County Judge Edna Staudt was especially critical of the DRP, specifically how it kicked in after the judicial system had already meted out a punishment for an offender. “A driver’s license is imperative to function in society,” said Staudt, but DPR results in Texans losing their licenses for up to two years, making it nearly impossible to get a job, open or access bank accounts, register children for school, and many other essential activities. Staudt continued that everyone who works in the justice system — law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, etc. — agrees that the DRP is “not working.” “There’s no due process in this system,” Staudt said. “To me, it’s double jeopardy,” referring to the practice of attempting to try a defendant twice for the same crime, prohibited under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Reddy also told Breitbart Texas that this was just the beginning of what the TSCC intended to be a significant effort throughout the 2015 Legislative Session. “We want Texans to be aware of what we’re doing today, and we’re going to be talking more about these things as the months go by, leading up to the legislative session, so people should expect to hear from us, see op-eds.” said Reddy. “We’ll be communicating with legislators and finding champions for our work and testifying on these bills in front of legislative committees. There’s going to be a lot of work involved…today was just step one.” 

Yáñez-Correa shared Reddy’s optimism about their efforts. “We are going to get there, [and have a successful legislative session],” she told Breitbart Texas. “You have Republicans and Democrats on the same page, you have the right, the left, the middle, saying the same thing, and we mean it.” Yáñez-Correa constrasted their efforts with lobbying efforts where organizations simply allow the use of their name, citing the dedication of the executive committee organizations to put in the time and effort needed. “We are in it to win, and we’re going to.”

The TSSC’s official legislative agenda lists three overall priorities: 1) decriminalizing schools (including reforms to truancy and status offenses, issues previously covered by Breitbart Texas as part of our #84LegePreview series), 2) “right-sizing” the criminal justice system (expanding diversion, treatment, and probation programs that are alternatives to incarceration), and 3) improving reentry programs (including educational and workforce training programs, offering better safeguards over the use of criminal records, expanding eligibility for nondisclosure and expunctions of records). More information about the TSCC is available at www.SmartOnCrimeTexas.com.

#84thLegePreview: This article is part of a series previewing the upcoming 84th Session of the Texas Legislature in 2015. Breitbart Texas will interview candidates, elected officials, policy analysts, grassroots activists, and other experts and interested parties about the potential legislation and topics of debate to expect during next year’s session. If you have an idea you would like to suggest for the #84thLegePreview series, please email Sarah Rumpf at sarahbbtx@gmail.com, or join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #84thLegePreview.

[Disclosure: the author of this article was previously employed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.]

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.

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