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The Texas Legislature Failed on Criminal Justice Reform. It’s Time to Take the Fight Local.

Just last week, Texas wrapped up its 87th legislative session. The 2021 legislative session began in January — the same month that I transitioned at TCRP into an inaugural role as the organization’s Outreach Coordinator for the Criminal Injustice Program. Back in January, we were hopeful that there would be some room for progress on the criminal justice front, particularly in limiting criminal financial penalties that punish people simply for being poor. But we also expected that after generations of endorsing locally tailored solutions to local matters like public safety, prominent leaders of the Texas Republican Party would seek to punish cities, and other localities, for reducing their police presence. Unfortunately, we were wrong about the former, and correct about the latter.

As reported throughout the legislative session by the Texas Tribune there has been an attempt to detain more people by restricting the access to personal bonds, adding risk assessments as a determining factor on bond eligibility, and penalizing organizations that bail regular people – members of our own communities – out of jail. This is what House Bill (HB) 20 would have done in addition to mandatory consideration of immigration status during bail setting. Thankfully, HB 20 died during the regular session, but it could still be resurrected during a Special Legislative Session called by the Governor later this summer.

This session, Texas lawmakers not only sought to restrict personal bail access through bills like HB 20, but also targeted cities who choose, or would choose, to divest money from their own police departments. These bills, like HB 1900 and SB 23, aimed to punish cities for ANY REDUCTION in police budgets, or any reallocation of funds from law enforcement to other community programs and budget areas by labeling them as “defunding local governments”. This designation automatically freezes the city’s budget and prohibits local leaders from increasing budget amounts for city programs and services. The effect is instantaneous regardless of the reason, such as if the city’s population increases or undergoes a natural disaster like a hurricane, winter freeze, or pandemic. These bills penalize cities by prohibiting them from increasing property taxes, increasing utilities rates and fees, and adopting a tax rate for the year that is greater than either the no-new-revenue tax rate or voter approved tax rate. Essentially, it leaves cities scrambling to properly fund community services if they attempt to divest from policing to reinvest in the common good.

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HB 1900 and SB 23 were just two of four bills that weaponize taxes and city revenue in ways that are obscure to the general public, which were signed by Governor Abbott almost immediately after the conclusion of the regular legislative session on May 31st . This is particularly alarming because in Houston, the city I live in, there is growing public sentiment that the city should divest from the police and reinvest in other city community programs and services. In my inaugural role, I have been able to work with grassroots organizers to promote the budding demand of divestment from policing. Together we submitted a letter recommending reallocation of general budget funds from the police department into the city’s housing, health department, and non-police mental health response teams.

Alongside the Houston Abolitionist Collective we participated in the budgeting session by delivering our letter and informing council members on the need for divestment. During the public comment session we gathered a large audience to pressure council members into addressing our homelessness and mental health crisis. Finally, through all the struggle, Mayor Sylvester Turner recognized that “defunding the police” means funding housing, health, and infrastructure. We still have a long way to go to improve our community, but this was a promising start

In these efforts I am guided by TCRP’s Criminal Injustice program goals and values. It is these principles that I carry in my work and hope to bring into our communities. State lawmakers have failed us on meaningful criminal justice reform this session, but the fight for real criminal justice at the local level has already begun. Together we struggle; United we win.

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