Right now, with all that’s going on nationally, it’s critical to pay attention to criminal-justice reform in Texas, where the Legislature is already meeting and we can have an immediate impact. Since Just Liberty’s launch last November, supporters like you have sent tens of thousands of messages to Texas legislators urging them to support good bills. We’re proud of how many of you have taken action.
We’ve already found that our model — layering volunteer visits to House and Senate offices at the Capitol with email from constituents around the state — is working. Lawmakers are signing on to support these bills. A quick recap:
Stop arresting people for non-jailable offenses
We launched Just Liberty with an appeal for Texans to support Senate Bill 271 and its companion bill House Bill 567, ending arrests for traffic violations and other fine-only offenses, and boy, did y’all respond: The Texas Legislature received more than 12,000 emails from Just Liberty supporters on the topic — a huge volume for a state-level bill. Your disapproval over arrests for failure to signal a lane change or not wearing a seatbelt made a difference.
We know that because volunteers from Just Liberty and our allies immediately made office visits to dozens of legislators. Your reaction — shock (this can’t really happen!) then anger (this happens so often and so easily?!) then resolve (this must end!) — was mirrored by staff in legislative offices, and several House members immediately filed related bills. The arrest numbers are staggering and the fact that this can happen to anyone – from soccer mom Gail Atwater who was arrested for a seatbelt infraction in front of her two traumatized young children, to elementary school teacher Breaion King, who was arrested for speeding on her way to work – solidified support. Several lawmakers have already joined as coauthors on the bills and others filed their own versions. If you have yet to send your own message to end these pointless and dangerous arrests, take a moment now!
Repeal the so-called ‘Driver Responsibility’ surcharge
This little-known but destructive program has ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands of Texans — 1.3 million of whom have lost their drivers’ licenses for nonpayment and cannot get them back. These fees are assessed for three years running on a handful of traffic offenses in addition to the original traffic fine — a set of civil fines on top of the criminal penalty.
Created in 2003 to pay for then-Gov. Rick Perry’s failed Trans Texas Corridor project, the legislature assigned half the money to trauma hospitals as a sop to gain Democratic support. Years later, though, fewer than half of Texans assessed the surcharges pay them and the amount going to trauma centers is a fraction of what was promised. Meanwhile, the huge number of unlicensed drivers creates problems not just in the justice system but throughout the economy.
Republican Texas senators have said the program contributes to “debtors prison” practices and even referred to it as “blood money.” While courts have never ruled the program invalid because of double jeopardy, we believe it absolutely punishes drivers twice for the same crime – once by the criminal system and again for three years running with this civil surcharge.
Thousands of Just Liberty supporters emailed their Texas state senators urging abolition of the surcharge and amnesty for those who’ve lost their licenses for nonpayment in the past. And following our model, Just Liberty volunteers and our allies have been following up to those offices to urge their support. We’ve learned from those visits that most legislators now support abolition. The big, remaining obstacle to reform is how to ensure continued funding for trauma centers if surcharges go away.
End asset forfeiture abuses
Intended to strip major drug rings of illicit profits, civil asset forfeiture has unfortunately caused good cops all over the state to do bad things — take money and property from drivers who have not been convicted of any crime. Nearly all cases are for relatively small amounts, not aimed at drug kingpins or traffickers.
Texas’ current statute gives law enforcement the power to take another’s property without having to prove they committed any crime. Then the agency can spend the cash or sell the cars to bolster their budget. Suddenly, law enforcement has an incentive to increase its civil asset forfeiture operations, expanding from major drug interdiction targets to ordinary drivers. Indeed, there are sparkling new police departments in small towns along Texas highways, mulcted from drivers where the lure of all of that backdoor money has been too strong. In 2015, according to the Washington Post, for the first time the government seized more under asset forfeiture programs than burglars stole from American families.
This pivot away from drug kingpins to any small forfeiture that can contribute to bigger government budgets lead Just Liberty to back Senate Bill 380 by Burton. SB 380 requires a criminal conviction to forfeit an individual’s property, thereby ensuring due process and alleviating Texas motorists from the onus of proving the innocence of their seized money and property. Because of emails from you and other Just Liberty supporters, legislators were primed for our office visits. We got a good response there, and are now hearing that this session — after many past attempts — civil asset forfeiture reform has a real chance of passage.
Reduce penalties for marijuana possession
Polls show the overwhelming majority of Texans support reducing penalties for marijuana. About half the state’s citizens support full-blown legalization, which nine other states have approved via ballot initiatives. Texas does not have an “initiative and referendum” process, so we must seek reforms through the Legislature.
Gov. Greg Abbott has said he would veto any legalization measures in Texas, meaning reduced penalties, for now, is the best we can get. Thousands of Just Liberty supporters contacted their Texas House members in January urging them to reduce penalties for low-level marijuana possession from a Class B misdemeanor to either a Class C (fine-only) offense or a civil penalty. More than 60,000 Texans were arreested on pot possession charges in 2015, so this measure would significantly reduce arrests and even contribute to reduced jail crowding.
Laws must change to reflect public sentiment. There’s no cost-benefit analysis which justifies the resources spent arresting and prosecuting pot smokers. And the experience of states which have legalized completely belies the “Reefer Madness” hysteria of generations past. Reducing penalties while keeping marijuana illegal is a baby step, one which benefits overwhelmed cops, prosecutors and jailers as much as defendants. With your help, in 2017 we can rationalize these laws and adjust punishments for pot to more reasonable, appropriate levels.
There are other things you can do to help. Like and follow Just Liberty on Facebook and share our action alerts on social media. Forward Just Liberty emails (including this one) to your friends and ask them to take action, too. Read the blog gritsforbreakfast.org and share it with your friends. Edcuate yourself, your friends, your family, and your network about criminal-justice reform. We’re going to need your help to win, and we’re going to need you to bring your A game!
Going forward, Just Liberty plans to continue to focus resources on our “driver’s rights” agenda. We will also push for a number of additional reforms this session about which you’ll be receiving more information in the coming weeks. Those include:
- Raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 years old.
- Pushing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to end prison rape.
- Reducing penalties and expanding treatment for low-level drug possession.
With your help, we can accomplish all this and more. Thank you so much for supporting Just Liberty and our campaign to scale back the scope and cost of the criminal-justice system in Texas. We’re just getting started, folks.