Several criminal justice reform bills debated during 86th Legislature

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

AUSTIN, Texas - Just this week, there have been hearings on bills regarding when a person who commits a violent crime should be given a chance at parole, while other bills deal with the age a person should be considered an adult in the crininal justice system. While criminal justice reform has been a main theme this legislative session, it has come with a sharp debate over victims’ rights and the rights of those convicted of crimes to demonstrate their ability to be rehabilitated.

House Bill 1271

One of the more sharply debated topics involves whether inmates convicted of violent crimes should be allowed to put time earned working in prison programs or participating in educational or treatment programs toward parole eligibility. Currently, the law requires those convicted of violent crimes to serve at least half of their sentence before being eligible for parole. 

“The nature of the offense never changes, but the people do,” said Kirsten Ricketts, founder of Restorer of City Streets.

Ricketts is married to Jeremy Ricketts, who is serving 50 years for murder. She said she met her husband through outreach ministry.

“He's done everything he can do, completed all of his classes, his rehabilitative measures and nobody even looks at him,” said Kirsten Ricketts.

Ricketts said during her husband’s 20 years in prison, he has become is an accomplished leather tooler at his prison unit, taken classes and participated in Christian outreach. None of that gets him closer to parole eligibility because of the current law.  A bill by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-District 141) would change that, allowing inmates convicted of violent crimes to put hours earned through work and education toward the time they're required to stay in prison before being parole eligible. Nonviolent felons are allowed to accrue these earned hours toward parole eligibility. 

“It's not a mass release. It's not a free ticket home. What about the people who've changed? I think that's basically what we're saying,” said Ricketts. 

Ricketts believes not allowing those with lengthy prison sentences to work toward proving their rehabilitation can create a sense of hopelessness.

“We're talking about people who will be paroled, and they're going to be our neighbors. Don't we want them in the best condition when they get out of there, or are we setting them up to fail?” said Ricketts.

However, victims’ rights advocates argue changing the law robs some families of the justice they believed they would receive. Crime Stoppers' Andy Kahan said she heard concerns from members of Parents of Murdered Children.

“Some of the members were basically saying, 'We're going right back to where we were in the late 80's, early 90's, when the floodgates were open and we were out there protesting early release,'” said Kahan.

This bill has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing in the House.

Click to read House Bill 1271

House Bill 256

Another bill drawing sharp debate involves parole eligibility for those convicted at 17 years of age for capital crimes and first-degree felonies. The bill was filed by El Paso state Rep. Joe Moody (D-District 78). The bill could shorten the time a person is required to remain in prison before becoming eligible for parole. The bill would allow so-called youthful offenders to become eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence or 20 calendar years, whichever is less. 

This bill drew sharp criticism from family members of those murdered or injured during the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in May. This bill has the potential to impact accused Santa Fe shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who is 17. If convicted and sentenced to life in prison, the current law would require Pagourtzis to spend at least 40 years in prison before being parole-eligible.

Supporters of the bill included parents of children serving lengthy prison sentences. Many parents argued that while their children made terrible mistakes in their teenage years, they now, as middle-aged adults, are not the same people and should be given a chance to demonstrate their growth, maturity and rehabilitation without spending much of their life in prison.

A hearing on this bill was held before the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee. At the end of the hearing, Moody asked for the bill to be left pending in committee while he revised its language to exclude crimes like the one Pagourtzis is accused of committing. Moody also said parole eligibility does not automatically mean someone will be released.

Click to read House Bill 256

House bills 344 and 1364

These bills were filed by state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-District 142) and state Rep. Gene Wu (D-District 137), respectively. These bills deal with the age of criminal culpability and at what age someone should be charged as an adult versus a juvenile. Wu’s bill seeks to raise the age of criminal culpability from 10 years old to 12 for nonviolent crimes.

“They know they're in trouble, but they can't really understand the full extent of it. They can't always assist with their own defense,” Wu testified before the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee on Wednesday.

Dutton’s bill would see 17-year-olds charged as juveniles for nonviolent crimes. Currently, Texas law allows 17-years-old to be charged as adults. 

“I think it's time for us to do it,” Dutton told the same committee, which he chairs.

Click to read House Bill 344

Click to read House Bill 1364

House Bill 788

This bill was filed by state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-District 134). The bill requires the Board of Pardons and Parole to study how it determines whether an offender’s parole should be revoked. The bill came from concerns that thousands of parolees over a several-year period were convicted of new crimes, yet their parole was not revoked. Davis filed this bill last session, but failed to make it a hearing before the Senate. This issue was also the subject of a Channel 2 investigation in May of 2017

During a hearing before the House Corrections Committee on Thursday, officials with the Parole Board said they have made changes since Davis last filed her bill. Parole officials testified they realized that while they had a detailed system for analyzing whether an offender should be granted parole, the same type of system was not in place when determining whether someone’s parole should be revoked. Parole officials testified they sought a grant from the National Parole Resource Center and put a working group together to tackle this issue and create an objective measurement of risk when determining whether to revoke someone’s parole.

Click to read House Bill 788

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