After defeats in 2019, a group of Texas lawmakers is teaming up to push criminal justice reform

The new Criminal Justice Reform Caucus in the Texas House will set its sights on changes in 2021.

“I’m sad to say that for all our other successes, the 86th Legislature was a failure for criminal justice reform,” says State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso.

Lawmakers entered 2019 with high hopes that they could change Texas' bail procedures, death penalty laws and drug policies. But the legislative session ended this summer without major reforms in any of those issues.

Trying to prevent a similar outcome in 2021, a bipartisan group of House representatives has banded together to form an uncommon, issue-based caucus in the Texas Capitol: one targeting criminal justice reform.

“I’m sad to say that for all our other successes, the 86th Legislature was a failure for criminal justice reform,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, in a statement given to The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “Misinformation and a lack of issue-specific guidance on the floor stopped a lot of commonsense, crucially needed bills.”

Moody and state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican who chairs the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, will initially lead the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, which has 10 other House members — five Democrats and five Republicans — signed up. The goal is to help educate colleagues on criminal justice issues and work together to advance reform proposals, Moody said.

In some ways, the 2019 legislative session was marked by bipartisan progress on issues that have vexed the Legislature for years, most notably school finance. But time and again, key proposals to change the criminal justice system fell flat.

A bipartisan push to reform bail practices, which have been ruled unconstitutional in several counties, slowly moved through the House with backing from Gov. Greg Abbott before dying quickly in the Senate.

House lawmakers messily scrambled back and forth on a measure to limit arrests for nonjailable offenses, like traffic violations or theft under $100, before it finally fell apart.

Proposals to restrict or require reporting on law enforcement’s ability to seize property without a criminal conviction failed, were partially resuscitated and then later killed again in the House.

And a House bill to lessen criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana arrived at the Senate’s doorstep with a death notice already pinned to it.

For Moody, who announced Thursday he'd seek reelection to the Texas House after weighing a run for the open El Paso district attorney seat, the biggest failures this year pertained to death penalty bills. The most notable was one that would have created a pretrial process for determining if a capital murder defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. Texas’ top criminal court has been slammed twice by the U.S. Supreme Court in the last two years for how it determines intellectual disability in death penalty cases, and state judges have begged for the Legislature to step in for years.

“[These are] reforms that have been essentially dictated by the U.S. Supreme Court, and we failed to act again for 20 years running now on intellectual disability, and that should just be unacceptable,” he told the Tribune. “What was a session that could have seen monumental reform in criminal justice saw very little.”

Leach has also been a rare Republican voice advocating for death penalty reforms. He said in the statement that Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on criminal justice priorities.

“I am confident that, working together, we can make the Texas system a shining beacon of smart, effective criminal justice that leads the nation,” he said.

Although notable House bills often died after impasses with the lawmakers in the Senate, Moody said he hopes the caucus will help combat misinformation that disrupts reform efforts.

“All those positive structural things will create fewer roadblocks to success and will create a better line of communication to the Senate,” he said.

Other members of the newly minted caucus weren’t as keen on marking the session as a failure. State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, chair of the House Corrections Committee, marked as achievements legislation to improve care for women in prison, tackle the backlog of rape kits and end the widely reviled Driver Responsibility Program.

But he said the caucus will allow for lawmakers to take a broad approach and look at the criminal justice system as a whole, noting that several of the members are chairs of relevant committees dealing with public health, the judiciary and the state’s prison system.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat who leads the chamber’s Public Health Committee, said that lawmakers have recognized that Texas has over-criminalized our society.

“I’m happy that we’re going to be able to come together and have some consensus on some issues that have plagued us for a long time,” she said.

Other committee chairs who have joined as founding members of the caucus include Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, of the County Affairs Committee; Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee; and Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, of the State Affairs Committee.

Other founding members are state Reps. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park; Jessica González, D-Dallas; Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi; Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth; and Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio. Moody said he expects others to join after the 2020 election and in the legislative session that follows.

“This is an initial founding membership to show there are strong voices on both sides of the aisle,” he said.