Despite Gov. Rick Perry's veto of one key criminal justice reform bill, advocates said the 83rd legislative session was largely a success when it came to laws that will help ex-offenders return to the workforce. The success of the efforts, they said, was in no small part due to the support of the Texas Association of Business, which added criminal justice to its legislative agenda for the first time in 2013.
“It just made a lot of sense to say the business community needed to have some involvement," said Kandice Sanaie, TAB’s former governmental affairs manager, who organized its legislative agenda.
Much of TAB’s focus this session was on reducing the prison population and reintegrating released inmates into the workforce, saving tax dollars and helping businesses to find qualified employees, Sanaie said. The Legislature passed four of the six bills the organization supported.
“Going forward, we’d like to see a shift in the way we do things, in the way tax dollars are being spent,” Sanaie said, adding that TAB would likely continue to pursue criminal justice issues in coming legislative sessions.
Criminal justice reform advocates said having the largest business association in Texas as a partner was useful in encouraging lawmakers to consider reforms.
The two bills that failed were House Bill 1790, which Perry vetoed, and Senate Bill 991, which would have made more ill inmates eligible for release on medically intensive supervision. SB 991 was approved in the Senate but never made it onto the House floor for a vote.
HB 1790, by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, would have allowed judges to reduce a state-jail felony conviction to a Class A misdemeanor after offenders completed two-thirds of their probation. In his veto statement, Perry said the purpose of the bill could “already be achieved under current law” through other mechanisms.
Sanaie said the measure would have “made people more employable,” and she added that the proposal would likely be filed again in the 2015 legislative session.
“We’re hopeful we can come up with some language that will be satisfactory to the governor,” said Marc Levin, executive director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice. “I think there will be support for revisiting this next session and figuring out what’s needed to get everyone on board.”
The bill was opposed by some prosecutors, who were concerned that it would reduce punishment for felony crimes “without input from the prosecutors,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
Levin described the current system as “assembly-line justice,” where prisoners are simply passed on from prosecutors to judges to the criminal justice system.
“The real issue is that some prosecutors just don’t want to be bothered with the case anymore,” he said.
Among the TAB-supported bills that have been signed into law is House Bill 1188, by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, which aims to protect employers from negligent hiring lawsuits if they hire former offenders.
SB 369, by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, seeks to improve the job prospects of former offenders by limiting public access to sex offenders' employer information in the statewide registry. Under the law, only law enforcement officers will have access to the information. Perry signed the bill despite opposition from media groups like the Texas Association of Broadcasters, which argued for public access to information about offenders.
Sanaie said the bill would reduce employers’ hesitation in hiring former offenders by removing the potential for harassment and that the bill would not affect existing restrictions on the kinds of jobs offenders can hold, such as those involving children.
Other bills sought to reduce the stigma of a criminal record. SB 977, by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, will make it easier for offenders to obtain an order of nondisclosure if they complete community supervision. Levin called the bill a “huge benefit” in streamlining the process of obtaining a nondisclosure order, which prevents most private and some government employers from accessing an employee’s criminal record.
TAB also supported HB 798, which would ease occupational licensing restrictions for offenders with a Class C misdemeanor, like disorderly conduct and writing a bad check.
Another success came in what didn't pass, Levin said. There were “relatively few” new offenses created or measures that would make sentences harsher, Levin said. Those types of laws, he said, drive up the prison population.