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Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is making the increase in violent crime a major point of his reelection campaign, most recently proposing to imprison people for at least 10 years if they’re convicted of any crime while using a gun.
“Texans are fed up with violent crime and skyrocketing murder rates,” Patrick says in a campaign ad that began airing this week. “To stop it, I will pass legislation next session to add a 10-year mandatory jail sentence to anyone convicted of using a gun while committing a crime.”
But details are scant on what would be a major policy shift to increase incarceration in the state, which already imprisons the most people in the country. Patrick has offered no specifics for what is now a one-line campaign promise in the 30-second ad spot. His campaign did not respond to repeated requests this week for details on what such legislation would look like.
Voting FAQ: 2022 midterms
How do I know if I'm registered to vote?
The deadline to register to vote in the 2022 primary election was Oct. 11. Check if you’re registered to vote here.
When can I vote?
Election day is Nov. 8. Early voting ended Nov. 4.
How do I know if I qualify to vote by mail?
This option is fairly limited in Texas. You’re allowed to vote by mail only if: You will be 65 or older by Election Day, you will not be in your county for the entire span of voting, including early voting, you cite a sickness or disability that prevents you from voting in person without needing personal assistance or without the likelihood of injuring your health, you’re expected to give birth within three weeks before or after Election Day or you are confined in jail but otherwise eligible (i.e., not convicted of a felony).
Are polling locations the same on election day as they are during early voting?
Not always. You’ll want to check for open polling locations with your local elections office before you head out to vote. Additionally, you can confirm with your county elections office whether election day voting is restricted to locations in your designated precinct or if you can cast a ballot at any polling place.
How can I find which polling places are near me?
County election offices are supposed to post on their websites information on polling locations for Election Day and during the early-voting period by Oct. 18. The secretary of state’s website will also have information on polling locations closer to the start of voting. However, polling locations may change, so be sure to check your county’s election website before going to vote.
What form of ID do I need to bring to vote?
You’ll need one of seven types of valid photo ID to vote in Texas: A state driver’s license, a Texas election identification certificate, a Texas personal identification card, a Texas license to carry a handgun, a U.S. military ID card with a personal photo, a U.S. citizenship certificate with a personal photo or a U.S. passport. Voters can still cast votes without those IDs if they sign a form swearing that they have a “reasonable impediment” from obtaining a proper photo ID or use a provisional ballot. Find more details here.
What can I do if I have trouble voting?
You can contact your county elections official or call the Texas Secretary of State's helpline at 1-800-252-VOTE (8683). A coalition of voting rights groups is also helping voters navigate election concerns through the 866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683) voter-protection helpline. The coalition also has hotlines available in other languages and for Texans with disabilities.
It’s unclear how Patrick would define if a gun was “used” during a crime, including whether possession of a gun while committing a low-level, nonviolent crime would fall under the 10-year minimum. In Texas, legislators passed a law last year allowing adults to openly carry handguns and long rifles in public without a permit.
It’s also unknown if such a minimum sentence would have to be served in a Texas prison, or how terms of probation and parole could factor into the punishment length.
Patrick’s campaign promise is a reaction to an increase in Texas homicides, part of a nationwide trend that experts have theorized is at least in part due to the instability of the pandemic, policing protests and more guns on the street. In Houston, police records show reports of murder increased from 267 in 2019 to 434 last year.
The lieutenant’s governor strategy to address crime by keeping more people in jail is popular with many conservatives, especially during election campaigns. But many criminal justice reform advocates, often in bipartisan efforts, have encouraged policymakers to focus less on harsh punishments and instead address the roots of crime, like poverty, mental illness and addiction.
Mandatory minimums have long been controversial nationwide, with opponents saying they don’t deter crime as intended but do lead to ballooning prison populations, often targeting people of color.
“Something that we know is that we have to end gun violence,” said Alycia Castillo, policy and advocacy adviser for the Texas Center for Justice and Equity. “We also know that mandatory minimums don’t do that. ... They actually increase the risk of reoffending when someone is released.”
Castillo criticized Patrick for advocating a method to keep more people in prisons longer without giving judges discretion to weigh individual cases. Advocates against mandatory minimums argue the policies shift power from judges to prosecutors, who gain leverage to convince defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges if they don’t want to risk going to trial and receiving a mandatory sentence.
“People have woken up to the fact that prisons aren’t what’s keeping us safe,” she said. “The criminal legal system in Texas is not working, and it’s in fact making matters worse, especially for our most oppressed communities.”
What you can expect from our elections coverage
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We explain the voting process with election-specific voter guides to help Texans learn what is on the ballot and how to vote. We interview voters, election administrators and election law experts so that we can explain the process, barriers to participation and what happens after the vote is over and the counting begins. Read more here.
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Instead of letting only politicians set the agenda, we talk to voters and scrutinize polling data to understand ordinary Texans’ top concerns. Our readers’ questions and needs help inform our priorities. We want to hear from readers: What do you better want to understand about the election process in Texas? If local, state or congressional elected officials were to successfully address one issue right now, what would you want it to be? What’s at stake for you this election cycle? If we’re missing something, this is your chance to tell us.
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In the federal criminal system, minimum punishment requirements for firearm-related offenses apply to violent and drug-trafficking crimes, with different term lengths for possessing a gun during the crime versus brandishing the weapon or firing it. Simple possession of a handgun while committing such a crime requires a minimum five-year sentence; firing it bumps the floor to 10 years.
But mandatory minimum sentences for specific crimes are rare in Texas, “leaving the range of confinement open in a trial and available to prosecutors and defense attorneys for negotiation in plea bargaining,” according to a resource guide from the Texas District & County Attorneys Association.
Instead, Texas punishments are typically doled out by the level of offense, with deadly weapons of any kind already triggering more serious charges. Assault, for example, is bumped up to aggravated assault when a deadly weapon is involved in the crime, pushing the crime from a likely misdemeanor to at least a second-degree felony. The maximum punishment for the former is a year in jail, while the latter extends from 2 to 20 years in prison.
A similar aggravated enhancement for deadly weapons is included for robberies, where a weapon can bump the crime from a second-degree felony to first-degree, which comes with a sentence of five years to life in prison. Other penalty enhancements can occur based on the situation, for example with hate crimes and crimes committed during a disaster.