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The recent end of the 2019 legislative session resulted in a mixed bag for many criminal justice advocates. However, our collaborative work with partners within the Texas Smart on Crime Coalition proved very effective at fighting for reforms that will make a real impact in the lives of Texans touched by the criminal justice system.
This year we prioritized an often overlooked area of criminal justice reform: women’s justice. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the number of women incarcerated in Texas prisons increased 874 percent in the last forty years — over twice the growth rate as men. With such a dramatic increase, it was critical that we focused on areas where we could both reduce incarceration rates and improve the lives of women in Texas prisons.
One of the most important bills that passed was House Bill 650, wide-reaching legislation that will ensure there are trauma screenings for women in prison, requires prisons provide feminine hygiene products, and ensures new mothers are given at least 72 hours to be with any new baby born in custody.
Other legislation focusing on the dignity of women while incarcerated will become law this year, including House Bill 1651 which creates standards for care for pregnant women in county jails, House Bill 2169 which requires access to feminine hygiene products in county jails, and House Bill 3227 which requires parity in education and vocational opportunities for women in prison. These common-sense policies are significant victories for advocates of Smart Justice reforms in Texas.
Another notable bill of the session was House Bill 2048, which repeals the state’s controversial Driver Responsibility Program. The ACLU of Texas has been working with partners and community advocates for years to repeal this disastrous law. The impact of the law’s repeal is huge: Approximately 1.4 million Texans with suspended driver’s licenses will have nearly $2.5 billion in debt wiped clean and will no longer have to be worried about incarceration.
We also passed significant legislation that will make reentry easier for people released from prison. House Bill 1342 will make it easier for those with criminal records to obtain an occupational license, and House Bill 918 will ensure that individuals released from prison have the tools they need to succeed during their reentry to their communities.
Bad bills were killed this session, too, including House Bill 2020, which would have been a backwards step in Texas’ pretrial system. Thanks to the more than 500 ACLU of Texas supporters who stood against the legislation, we were able to prevent the bill from passing and becoming law.
Despite all these efforts, there is clearly more work to do. Marijuana possession reform finally passed through one chamber with House Bill 63 — in part thanks to the record breaking outpouring of support from ACLU of Texas supporters delivering 14,651 messages to legislators in support of the bill. Unfortunately, HB 63 stalled out in the Texas Senate with the Lieutenant Governor publicly opposing the legislation.
The successes we did have this session were largely due to the tremendous support from Texans that wrote, called, and testified on behalf of these criminal justice reforms. Together, we will build on these victories, learn what worked best and what didn’t, and redouble our efforts as we work through the coming months in preparation for the next legislative session in 2021.