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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.
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.”
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.