Journal Vol. 10: Weight for it

Apr 8, 2021

Strange that the Senate still files bills on paper. Eleven legal-size copies of every bill. E-filing would be more convenient, of course; and then there’s all that wood pulp… But I must admit there’s something satisfying in signing real paper, with a real pen, and carrying a heavy stack to be filed – a sort of physical sense of the weight of our work.

The heaviest lift (sorry) was SB 117, the “Live Well Texas Program”, a non-partisan bill to expand health insurance coverage in Texas by drawing down federal Medicaid dollars at a 9:1 ratio (video excerpt of the announcement here). It’s expected to result in insurance coverage and healthcare for a million Texans, while preserving state control and generating positive net revenue for the state budget. On the lighter side (by weight), I also filed bills addressing criminal justice, taxation, business and the environment, good government and effective democracy, impediments to social progress, and a wide range of health initiatives.

If you’d like to know more about the legislation I’ve filed so far, please see my early-filing press announcement here. We’ll be exploring these and other matters of importance to the coming legislative session at my Virtual Town Hall on Tuesday, January 19 at 7:00 p.m.  Click here to receive a link to attend.

Thankfully the election is at last over (yes it really is over). We can concentrate on why we have elections, which is to make good policy. This SNJ Journal volume’s Policy Spotlight looks at one of the policy areas that holds great promise for bipartisan effort: criminal justice reform. Please read the full discussion below.

As always, thank you for reading, and for being engaged in state politics. 

Around the District:

Texas Woman’s University, Texas A&M Commerce, and the Dallas County Community College system all shared inspiring news about expanding the services they offer to the many Texans who seek to better their knowledge, skills, and prospects. With the increasing demand for higher education, the visits were especially timely.

The State of Reform Leadership Series invited me to serve as the opening day keynote speaker, for a conference in which leaders in health care discussed and debated some of the most important health policy issues we face today. Click the image below to watch the video.

The Hope Supply Company is a DFW-area non-profit that serves as a clearinghouse for donated supplies, assisting the entities who are providing care to individuals who need it most. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve seen a 300% increase in the need for diapers. In response, my staff and I held a diaper drive for the many families in need. We’re still accepting donations, so if you’d like to participate, you can order something from our Wish List or email us at [email protected] to schedule a supply drop-off.

Every ten years, the Texas Legislature redraws our state’s electoral maps based on our recent U.S. Census data in a process we call “redistricting” (known less fondly as “gerrymandering”). The 2021 redistricting process is already underway in the Texas Legislature. As part of that process, the Senate Committee on Redistricting has invited the public to submit comments and attach documents for the senators to review and consider before they begin drawing the new maps. If you’d like to submit thoughts, observations, or other information related to the redistricting process, please do so here.

Policy Spotlight: Watching the Detectives

Investing in investigations may be the next step towards a better criminal justice system.

In the mid-1960s crime in the United States rose at a shocking rate. Murders doubled while violent crime overall tripled. Property crime of all types – larceny, burglary, auto theft — became commonplace. It would take 30 years to subside.

Responding to the demands of (understandably) fearful citizens, lawmakers made what were, in hindsight, a pair of catastrophic errors.

First, they ratcheted up criminal penalties across-the-board. Second, police departments and courts emphasized prosecution of small-time drug users and dealers, imposing harsh criminal penalties for non-violent activity. To accommodate all the shift, America built one of the largest systems of incarceration in modern history. Over two million Americans remain incarcerated in 2020. 

Crime began to drop dramatically in the 1990s and now sits at half of its peak. Does mass incarceration – notwithstanding all the injustice and social destruction and budget-breaking costs it imposed – get the credit? It’s important to ask the question, but the answer is No. Modern studies indicate that only a small fraction – perhaps 10% (see, e.g., this study by the Brennan Center) – of the decline in crime is attributable to mass incarceration. The rest owes to myriad other factors that have nothing to do with harsh penalties and inequitable application of the law. They include higher employment rates and rising personal income, declining alcohol consumption, and an aging population. Consider also the increasing academic interest in and support for the “lead-crime hypothesis” (as in leaded gasoline), which is that the damage to intelligence, self-control, and sociability resulting from childhood lead exposure has a causal link to 30-50% of the 30-year crime wave. (The environment is important, folks. Interesting and chilling article here.)

For its meager benefits, mass incarceration has imposed immense social and fiscal costs.

  • Direct costs add up to $182 billion annually, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
  • Permanent criminal records have reduced the total male employment rate by 1.5-1.7%, causing $57-$65bn in annual lost economic output, according to CEPR.
  • Kids with an incarcerated parent are twice as likely to become homeless and far more likely to have social, academic, and behavioral problems.
  • Prisons reinforce rather than rehabilitate criminal tendencies. Texas’ state jail system, originally intended as rehabilitative alternative to prison, actually has higher recidivism rates for those released. (TCJC study)
  • The damage of misguided crime policy has fallen disproportionately upon communities of color, exacerbating the enduring problems of racial inequity.
  • Surveys in high-crime areas show low trust in police (Urban Institute). This trust has been destroyed by drug enforcement and other punitive laws and practices. Without trust, residents and police can’t – and demonstrably haven’t been able to – work together to reduce crime.

I’m working on legislation to roll back some of our most counterproductive, unjust, and often cruel criminal laws and penalties, including laws regarding state jail parole, cannabis concentrates, automatic license suspension, and marijuana possession.

But though undoing bad policy is important, crime prevention remains the primary goal of the criminal justice system. We need more good policy on preventing crime. The U.S. Department of Justice concludes that the certainty of being caught and punished has vastly more deterrent power than the severity of punishment. So, we can best deter crimes by solving crimes.

In 2019 Texas solved or “cleared” only 58.7% of murders, 23.3% of reported rapes, 18.4% of robberies, 39.6% of assaults; and 8.5% of burglaries, 14.1% of thefts, 10.9% of motor vehicle thefts. Neither the police nor the public are, or should be, satisfied with this. To solve more crimes law enforcement needs (1) resources, and (2) time. Pursuing non-threatening activity subtracts from both.

By correcting the policy mistakes of the past – those policies that distract police and command their resources, that drag down communities and families, that even raise levels of crime – we can make available additional resources and time for law enforcement to more effectively protect people and property. It’s beyond the scope of this Policy Spotlight to prescribe measures for local law enforcement. But it’s fitting to observe that thoughtful, objective crafting of state policy can facilitate more just and effective law enforcement, along with the great social benefits it would bestow to all of us.