Victims Find Voice
Though it passed with barely a nod in the daily newspapers, Criminal Justice Reform Lobby Day was Texas history in action. A crowd five hundred strong overran the Capitol, making the rounds of legislators’ offices and pushing measures like reduced sentences for nonviolent offenses and a ban on executing the mentally retarded. Along the way, they may have won a convert or two at the Capitol–or at least wrung out a few admissions that the justice system in Texas is a wreck.
The numbers–and the people represented–were unprecedented. A roster of the crowd read like a Who’s Who of victims of the Texas criminal justice system: Michelle Williams, mother of four, locked up for three years on a bogus drug charge in Tulia. Jamal Beazley, whose brother Napoleon was executed last year for a crime committed when he was 17. Jaime Chavez, jailed nearly three years for possession of a bag full of methamphetamines planted on him by a Dallas Police Department informant.
“These are the people who aren’t at the Capitol every day, who aren’t throwing dinners for the legislators, who aren’t making big campaign contributions,” said Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU, which organized the lobby day as part of the 23-group Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “Most legislators are very much removed from poor people of color, the people to whom these stories happen. They probably haven’t heard it directly from the mouth of the wrongly convicted before.”
Rep. Tony Goolsby (R-Dallas), reportedly waffled at first when asked to support Rep. Terry Keel’s HB 801, which would deny funding to the scandal-plagued regional narcotics task forces. But Goolsby apparently was converted when victims of false drug charges went to see him. The representative walked out of his office to shake hands and hear their stories, many of which were relayed through a translator. “He came out to meet us and apologized for what happened,” said one visitor. “He showed such tenderness and concern, a real human side we never imagined.”
Two days later, Goolsby signed on as the bill’s co-sponsor, along with Rep. Yvonne Davis (D-Dallas).
Most of the lobbyists said they were well received–with a few notable exceptions. Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) was out of the office for most of the day. A delegation from the Houston Ministers Against Crime, who turn out a powerful African-American voting block in Whitmire’s home town, were disappointed when they stopped by to ask Whitmire to consider sentence re-structuring for minor drug-possession charges. Whitmire was out, staff told them sweetly, but they were more than welcome to sign the guest book.
“Most of [the legislators] were very open to us,” said Ana Yanez Correa, public policy director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, who took part in the effort. “But some were rushed and flustered. Maybe they were intimidated.”
But the lobby day’s organizers weren’t too concerned about an occasional cold shoulder. They say the 500 participants are an indication of a growing political movement. Many of the attendees vowed to continue to give legislators an earful–this session, next session, and the session after that, until the system is fixed. Herbert Steptoe, a former prisoner and organizer of the Houston rehabilitative group the Winner’s Circle Club, was arranging a lobby effort of his own before the day was over. “They listened to me and I felt it,” Steptoe said. “They won’t get a chance to forget.”
The Race Is On
Budget hearings at the Lege these days hold the spectator appeal of auto racing–most of it’s awfully boring but everyone watches just to see the pileups. At a Feb. 24 Senate Finance Committee hearing on the Texas Department of Health budget, Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) got Republican blood boiling by trying to goad George McCleskey, health department board chair, into advocating for higher taxes. Shapleigh asked if the agency needed more revenue. McCleskey acknowledged that it did. Shapleigh then asked if McCleskey thought the Senate should raise taxes to provide the department more funding. McCleskey shifted uncomfortably in his seat and tried his best to dodge the question. Eventually McCleskey said, “As a private citizen, I never want to pay more taxes.” But, he conceded, his agency desperately needs the money. Shapleigh leaned back in his chair, looking self-satisfied.
Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) then took up the cause and was midway through a follow-up tax question when Republican Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) decided he couldn’t take it anymore. “I object,” he said, cutting off Whitmire. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to ask the directors of the Department of Health about tax policy.”
Pragmatic committee chair Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo) tried to defuse Ogden. “Well, your objection is duly noted,” Bivins said. “But I like to run an open committee….”
“We’ve never done this before,” Ogden protested, flaunting Senate niceties to interrupt his own Republican committee chair and further rant that putting McCleskey on the spot was out of line. Fed up, Whitmire glared back at Ogden and said icily, “Well, you represent your district and I’ll represent mine.”
Lubbock Republican Robert Duncan came to Ogden’s defense, declaring the committee shouldn’t use McCleskey for political grandstanding. Whitmire was unapologetic. “I’ve seen nothing in my 30 years in the legislature that compares to the gravity of what we’re trying to do,” he said, referring to the mounting budget gap. “If we can’t ask these people for recommendations [on spending cuts], we might as well cut 12 percent across the board and go home.” After emotions cooled, Whitmire asked McCleskey several delicately worded questions while Ogden sat shaking his head and muttering, “It’s not fair.”
It was an unusually vicious exchange for the famously courteous Senate, where most of the real debate happens behind closed doors. Nerves seem especially raw this session, and the strain of the budget deficit is starting to show. Expect more of the same in the future. Shapleigh, known for his share of bomb throwing, surely isn’t done putting agency heads on the spot, and Republicans won’t easily back down.