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POLITICAL INTELLIGENCE Preaching to the Tone Deaf 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 Capitolor at least wrung out a few admissions that the justice system in Texas is a wreck. The numbersand the people representedwere 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!’ 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 Most of the lobbyists said they were well receivedwith a few notable exceptions. Sen. John 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 restructuring 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 indica tion of a growing political movement. Many of the attendees vowed to con tinue to give legislators an earful this session, next session, and the session after that, until the system is fixed. Herbert Steptoe, a former pris oner 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 continued on page 26 12 ME TEXAS OBSERVER 3/14/03