Vol 29, Issue 20 Print Issue

House Departures Take a Bite Out of Criminal Justice

State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano.
State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano.

For years they’ve been the Butch and Sundance of Texas criminal justice policy. Republican Rep. Jerry Madden and Democratic Sen. John Whitmire have helped lead a sea change in the adult and juvenile prison systems that has reduced incarceration, helped drive down the crime rate, saved the state money and become a national model.

But the team is breaking up. Madden, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, is retiring after 10 terms.

“He has been a real partner in accomplishing some of our most useful measures,” said Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. 

Veteran state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, who helped lead reforms in eyewitness identification procedures and push back the tide of penalty enhancement bills filed each session, won’t be coming back, either. He’s running for a seat in the big House — the one in Washington, D.C.

Their departures leave a major experience void in the Texas House at a time when lawmakers are going to be dealing with some critical criminal justice issues.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is up for sunset next year and struggling to figure out the best and most cost-effective way to provide health care for its more than 150,000 inmates.

The newly remade Texas Juvenile Justice Department is in yet another crisis that lawmakers and advocates worry puts the 1,200 youths in its custody in danger. Recent reports have revealed startling increases in violence among youths in state facilities and against the staff responsible for guarding them.

Plus, there is a growing chorus among criminal justice advocates for a deeper look at the way Texas deals with prosecutors who are found to have committed misconduct in the wake of Michael Morton’s exoneration after nearly 25 years of wrongful incarceration.

Normally, lawmakers who are reconvening in January, would look to the years of experience Madden and Gallego had with the criminal justice system to find guidance and direction on those issues.  

“Jerry Madden and Pete will be hard to [replace], not just from knowledge-based perspective, but from a knowledge and acting upon that knowledge perspective,” said Ana Yañez Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Yañez Correa and Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, both said their organizations are already beginning education efforts to orient candidates on the state’s complicated criminal justice system.

The advocates mentioned a few names of legislators with criminal justice experience as potential replacements, including veteran Houston Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, a former prosecutor, and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, a former juvenile probation officer.

Whitmire and the advocates hope whomever the House Speaker chooses to fill those big shoes should heed the experience of their predecessors and stay on the trajectory of reform that has changed Texas from a tough-on-crime state to a what they believe is now a smart-on-crime trendsetter. And they’ll face a steep learning curve.

“I hope the House members recognize when they get there, we’ve really got pretty good criminal justice system right now,” Whitmire said.