Day after Texas House demands action, Senate committee moves on a few criminal justice reform measures


Last Updated on May 22, 2021 – 1:10 AM CDT

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune: Read More

On Thursday, House lawmakers expressed frustration that some of their priority legislation, including a package of criminal justice reform bills, had not moved in the Senate.

Credit: Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

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On Thursday, the Texas House delayed consideration of Senate bills to send a message to senators that they needed to push stalled House bills in the final days of the 2021 Legislature.

On Friday evening, the Senate blinked — at least a little — by advancing a few criminal justice reform measures.

Before breaking until Sunday, House lawmakers expressed frustration Thursday that some of their priority legislation had not moved in the Senate, including a package of criminal justice reform bills promoted by House Speaker Dade Phelan. The deadline for the full Senate to consider bills is Wednesday.

“If the [Texas] Senate wants to kill or sit on important bills sent over by the House, they can expect the same in return. Starting today,” Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, tweeted Thursday morning. “As a wise House colleague once said, ‘The Senate can respect us. Or expect us.’”

On Friday evening, state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, held a short, unplanned meeting to advance a handful of the measures in the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, where many of the criminal justice reform bills are languishing.

One of the bills that cleared the committee Friday night was named after Botham Jean, a Black man killed in his own home in 2018 by a Dallas police officer after she said she mistook his apartment for her own. The former officer, Amber Guyger, is currently serving 10 years in prison for his murder.

House Bill 929 as it passed the House would require police officers to keep their body cameras activated during investigations. The Senate committee sent the bill to the full chamber Friday, clearing it for quick approval by labeling it an uncontested measure.

The committee also brought up — but did not vote on — a bill to limit the use of no-knock warrants, with which police can enter into a home without first announcing themselves. House Bill 492 would only allow district judges to sign such warrants, and only if a warrant request includes a statement of approval from the police chief or sheriff. Officers would also be required to be in uniform when executing the warrant. No-knock raids were deeply criticized after a botched and deadly Houston drug raid in 2019.

Huffman said the committee would advance HB 492 on Saturday after language was changed to “clean up” the measure. The committee also advanced two bills on juvenile justice reform, also deeming them uncontested legislation. The bills centered on record sealing, teenagers remaining in juvenile court in delayed proceedings, and intellectual disabilities.

Notably absent, however, were the three provisions of the Texas George Floyd Act that passed the House. The bills would require Texas law enforcement agencies to implement more uniform and substantive disciplinary actions for officer misconduct, bar officers from arresting people for fine-only traffic offenses and require corroboration of undercover officer testimony.

The last measure on officer testimony was set to be taken up at the last-minute Friday meeting, but ultimately wasn’t.

The House has also pushed to move bills on civil asset forfeiture, jury instructions in death penalty cases and Texas’ law of parties — when a person can be sentenced to death without killing anyone. Those bills have yet to be heard in Huffman’s committee.

After the House left on Thursday, Huffman said in a statement that the Senate was working hard to pass good legislation, including House bills. She also noted there was still time before Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session on May 31.

“While Sine Die seems very close, we have almost a week to continue to pass House bills, and I can assure you that we will,” she said.