Restorative Justice for Veterans in Lubbock County, Texas

While they have earned Americans’ respect and honor, veterans are often victim to devastating problems after their service. Tragically, chronic homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health disorders disproportionally affect those who served in the Armed Forces. In Texas, Lubbock County has determined to fight these problems where they most frequently manifest: the criminal justice system.

Instead of continuing to funnel minor veteran offenses through the court system that both leaves them with a criminal record and frequently devolves into a costly and tragic cycle, Lubbock will now be offering a restorative justice option.

Lubbock already has a greater experience and understanding in alternative justice forms, with a robust restorative justice program. Restorative justice is an alternative to formal court intervention, instead involving mediation between the victim and the offender. These discussions have several other advantages– like fewer fees and fines, which result in greater victim reimbursement. In addition, victims express greater satisfaction with the results of these restorative justice programs. Best of all, they lower the number of repeat offenses.

To learn more about restorative justice, Right on Crime policy analyst Derek Cohen has further information provided here.

The program in Lubbock is offered to veterans who have been involved in misdemeanors or occasionally felonies if the District Attorney consents. If substance abuse or mental health counseling is needed, it will be provided as well. To add to the focus on veterans and provide greater understanding and support all mediators and counselors are veterans as well.

Read more here.


ROC Presents an Agenda for Criminal Justice in Texas

At the start of Texas’ legislative season, Right on Crime’s Marc Levin and Derek Cohen took to the pages of the Texas Tribune to outline a conservative approach to criminal justice.

It may come as a surprise to some, but Texas is widely viewed as one of the nation’s leaders in criminal justice reform. The reinvestment strategies pioneered in the Lone Star State have been held up by national organizations as model reforms, so it’s no surprise that Texans are enjoying the lowest statewide crime rates since 1968.

Never content to rest on its laurels, the Texas Legislature has already shown great interest in furthering these successes in the current session.

After several high-profile abuses both nationally and within the state in recent years, the Legislature has signaled interest is protecting citizens from rampant excesses related to civil asset forfeiture. Six bills have been pre-filed concerning the burden of proof the state must meet to keep property absent a criminal conviction, reporting standards and how forfeiture money may be spent. While this debate has proved quarrelsome, an overwhelming majority of legislators appear committed to preserving the property rights of innocent Texans while ensuring the fruits of criminal activity are still confiscated from those actually convicted.

With the issue having received a good deal of attention during the interim, it’s no surprise that no fewer than seven bills have been filed on the decriminalization of truancy, a Class C misdemeanor in the state. Texas is one of two states (the other is Wyoming) that directly employs the criminal justice system to deal with students skipping school, putting a great burden on local courts — there were 76,000 such filings in fiscal year 2012 alone — to say nothing of the cost to the students’ education.

The prospective legislation ranges from implementing graduated sanctions for truants to full repeal of the Class C misdemeanor. It’s important to note that even if truancy is fully decriminalized, sanctions can still be imposed by juvenile courts. The Legislature has shown it understands that the criminal justice system is no venue for meting out discipline for minor misbehavior (i.e., Senate Bills 393 and 1114 from the 2013 legislative session), and we’re optimistic that lawmakers will apply the same understanding to truancy.

Perhaps the most contentious item of criminal justice policy will be the debate over raising the age of the criminal court jurisdiction. Put more simply, the Legislature will decide if 17-year-olds belong in juvenile courts or should remain in the adult system. The body of scholarship shows that 17-year-olds in the juvenile system generally have better outcomes, though the scale of the effect is under debate by some researchers. Further complicating matters is the unavoidable (and perhaps sizable) fiscal note likely to attend such legislation. While juvenile probation costs more per day than adult probation, the Legislature must balance that with the fact that juvenile probation produces better results, including fewer revocations to incarceration that impose significant long-term costs.

Finally, the Legislature has shown interest in removing barriers that face those seeking to earn an honest day’s pay. Lawmakers have filed several bills (and one successful amendment to House rules that requires bills licensing a new occupation to indicate such in the caption) that would strengthen the ability of entrepreneurial Texans to enter the free market and earn a living with minimal government intrusion. Given current trends, we believe that the Legislature is interested in both reducing the barriers to competition and removing onerous criminal penalties associated with occupational licensing, and will pass legislation to this end.

Texas is well-regarded nationally for the criminal justice reforms it has enacted over the last decade, and the state has the potential to capitalize on that success. The Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition, made up of groups from across the ideological spectrum, has come to a consensus on policies that are sure to give Texans the best outcomes for their tax dollars in terms of public safety and cost control. The legislative agenda adopted by this group contains recommendations that all interested Texans, whether conservative or liberal, can support.


Bipartisan Support for Juvenile Record Protections

With the Texas Legislature now in session, bipartisan cooperation is key to legislative successes.

State Rep. James White, R-Tyler, vice chairman of the Corrections Committee, has proposed an advisory committee, HB431, to explore the protections provided for juvenile records. He specifies that the committee will consist of stakeholders in the issue, such as juvenile prosecutors and defenders, probation officers, representatives from the Department of Family and Protective Services, as well as members of the general public. This group is intended to protect young offenders from harm resulting from unauthorized use or disclosure of confidential records, while ensuring public safety and due process rights.

Simultaneously, state Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, has filed a bill, HB263, that also moves toward sealing juvenile records, after a significant period of good behavior. This would only be available for juveniles who committed delinquent acts, or conduct in need of supervision — not juveniles deemed violent offenders.

These bills acknowledge the strong incentives that taxpayers and communities must provide in order to help those who make mistakes in their youth to start anew. Both bills focus on offenders who committed nonviolent crimes, and stress rehabilitation and opportunities, instead of a repeated cycle of criminal offenses and expenses.

Juveniles are a unique opportunity for the criminal justice system. Once someone has had contact with the system, there is a risk for a cycle of criminality. However, juveniles present the system with a great opportunity to end this cycle before it can get started. This is because juveniles are at a significant and critical time of life. If a juvenile offender takes their life in the right direction, they still have valuable educational and vocational choices still ahead of them. If they take advantage of these opportunities, they may never see the inside of a corrections facility again. Instead, they can become hard-working, contributing members of society.

However, this possibility is strongly affected by the record that follows the individual. If they are unable to get a job, or be accepted at schools that will prepare them for a successful, contributory life, then they are more likely to resort to crime again, and in an escalating fashion. Such a cycle creates new victims and raises the amount of public monies spent on this juvenile.

Both bills agree that low-risk, nonviolent juvenile offenders who have proven their desire to turn their lives around should have the opportunity to do so without forever being branded a criminal. Providing protections around their records makes it more likely that this will be the case.

There are serious considerations to be weighed when dealing with criminal records. Judicial discretion is important, and the ability for a judge to look into the specifics of a case is invaluable. However, dangerous youths who are a high-risk are very different from juveniles who have missed a few days of school or engaged in minor vandalism. There are always public safety questions at play but these bills work to increase public safety and save taxpayer money.

Such bipartisan collaboration shows a public tired of funding a prison system that cycles criminals through without addressing safety or costs. It also offers opportunity and redemption to youth across Texas.


House Rule May Bring Changes to Criminal Justice in Texas

House Rule May Bring Changes to Criminal Justice in Texas

The newly proposed H.R. No. 4 brings two very interesting things to the table in the criminal justice arena. One of these changes is a required notation on bills if they create new criminal offenses. This is a clear improvement that will alert legislators to the significant ramifications their vote will have. The other, the creation of a new Juvenile Justice Committee, has the potential to breathe new life into criminal justice reforms, but alternatively could bring many useful innovations to a screeching halt.

In an age of overcriminalization, where criminal offenses are multiplying like rabbits, a simple notation that lets those involved realize when this occurs could – and should – cut back on the amount of government intervention. Legislators need to be aware that a new bill, which could be about something as minor as an interior design permit, creates a criminal offense that will add to the burden on the criminal justice system, as well as present serious consequences for the convicted individual.

Juvenile justice is a very important issue, one that definitely deserves a committee solely dedicated to it alone. Juveniles present the criminal justice system with an opportunity to get ahead of the cycle of criminality. A juvenile has a higher likelihood of being affected by treatment, educational or vocational training, or simply the fact that they are in trouble. This creates opportunities for the system to put them on a track to a more successful life, outside of corrections.

The new committee will have more time and be able to focus on juveniles as differentiated from adults. If this is used to find smarter and more efficient methods of decreasing recidivism, this could be a boon to Texas’ strained criminal justice system. If this is used instead to hammer juveniles with purposelessly heavy and expensive sentences or to spend excess money on non-evidence-based programming that compromises public safety, then this could complicate matters further.


Civil Asset Forfeiture Primer Shows Potential for Reform in Texas

In the past week the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation had a Civil Asset Forfeiture Primer at the Capitol, where they assembled a panel of policy makers, legislators, and authorities to give their expert opinions on the matter and to take questions from the audience. Andrew Kloster, a legal fellow from the Heritage Foundation that focuses on civil rights issues was present, along with Matt Miller from the Institute of Justice where he fights for property rights. They were joined by Shannon Edmonds from the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and Texas State Representative David Simpson. The Center for Effective Justice’s Derek Cohen moderated.

Mr. Cohen began by giving the audience background into the issue of civil asset forfeiture. He mentioned that the idea of forfeiture goes as far back as the Roman Empire and has continued on through out the ages before becoming a bone of contention between England and its colonies before and during the American Revolution. He summed up the issue currently in the terms that it has been referred to by media from all sides. Some look at civil asset forfeiture as an “indispensable tool” for law enforcement and prosecutors while others see it as “policing for profit” and “a sustained assault on the Fifth Amendment and due process.”

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The speakers eagerly discussed the topic. Andrew Kloster began by delving deeper into the reasoning behind the creation of civil asset forfeiture in the American system and how that has devolved today into an abused mechanism in modern day law enforcement.  Shannon Edmonds also chimed in clarifying that civil asset forfeiture was intended to make sure that the proceeds of crime didn’t end right back in the pockets of criminals.

But all agreed that the current situation has resulted in spectacular abuses. Families threatened with the removal of their children, owners of small businesses losing their assets, and case after case of small funds and property taken bit by bit from innocent and often helpless citizens. The money is usually enough to make it worth taking, but not enough to justify the legal expense involved in getting it back, leaving most people without representation or due process.

Both Kloster and Miller spoke of the incentive structures that are present in the current system. When law enforcement is making decisions about whether or not they seize assets, they are making decisions about whether or not their office receives that much more funding. It was made clear that the worry about the incentive structure is not because police and prosecutors are bad people, but that they are having temptation thrown very subtly in their way and that it would be better for them and the public to restructure the system.

Miller spoke of several possible ways to address the problem. The first was an outright ban on civil asset forfeiture. States such as North Carolina and Minnesota have either removed the practice or limited it enough to make it obsolete. This would be a more difficult option, with opposition from several lobbies. But short of that, there are several options. A requirement that the funds not go directly to law enforcement or prosecutors’ offices is a step in the right direction, removing the incentive that they have to increase the seizures. Another change that is needed urgently is to ensure that there is due process to the citizens being threatened under this practice. The burden of proof needs to be one the state instead of the citizen, giving those who have no representation a fighting chance at recovering their property. A third option is to have better reporting by the benefiting office about where the funds are coming from, what form they are being obtained in, and information about what happens in hearings, for example, whether or not the individual had representation.

Finally, almost all of the speakers referenced equitable sharing, an arrangement where law enforcement realizes that they are constrained by local laws, perhaps the asset in question isn’t on the list of seizable items, and they then alert and involve federal enforcement and prosecutors to the situation. These groups, operating on different guidelines, then seize the assets and provide the alerting authorities with a percentage of the profits. Matt Miller strongly recommended limiting or eliminating this practice.

Shannon Edmonds argued in favor of retaining the practice. While not disputing that there had been cases of misuse that should be cause for concern, he also believed that the funds procured by the practice were necessary for the continued operation of law enforcement. Quoting Latin, he argued that “misuse of something does not render it useless”.

The audience seemed largely unswayed by his statements, addressing most of their questions to him. They embodied a growing desire in the state to put an end to the practice that exposes every citizen to threat of seizure. The upcoming session provides an opportunity for legislators to make a change.