The version of the Sandra Bland Act that unanimously passed the Texas Senate Thursday afternoon isn’t the uncompromising criminal justice overhaul it was once was. If it were, it likely wouldn’t have cleared the ultraconservative body at all, let alone without objection. But that didn’t have the bill’s authors down Thursday.
“I would’ve preferred a more robust bill, but I’m happy — I’m elated — that there is a bill,” said Representative Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who penned the initial version. “This is not an environment that most people believe would’ve allowed for the passage of a bill carrying the name of the victim of a state trooper.”
Coleman wrote the measure after Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, committed suicide in July 2015 by hanging herself in a Waller County Jail, a medical examiner ruled. She died after sitting in jail for three days on a $500 bond. She was initially pulled over by a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) trooper for failing to use her turn signal. After the traffic stop escalated, she was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a public servant, a felony.
As filed, the Sandra Bland Act was meant to be a “roadmap” for criminal justice reform, Coleman told the Observer. He wrote it “to show what policies need to be changed” to prevent future tragedies in Texas jails.
In its current form, the bill is primarily about raising standards of care for inmates with mental health issues. Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, referred to it as “the strongest mental health bill of the session.”
Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who carried the Senate version, said in a statement that the legislation would “go a long way to ensure we are adequately addressing the safety and mental health needs of the people we confine in our county jails.”
“If you don’t remember one other word that I speak, I want you to remember this: When you deny somebody their liberty, you have a responsibility to provide for their safety and welfare,” Whitmire said while laying out the legislation before the Senate Thursday. He added that 16 people have died by suicide in Texas jails this year.
Originally, the measure called for changes to nearly every aspect of the detention process, from the initial arrest to reporting requirements for jails. The Sandra Bland Act drew heavy criticism from law enforcement. Coleman and Whitmire axed key provisions early in the legislative process to give the bill a fighting chance by the time it got to the Senate floor.
The bill that cleared the chamber Thursday no longer bans controversial pretext or “investigative” stops, which Coleman has likened the vehicular equivalent of “stop and frisk.” It also would require law enforcement to collect and review data regarding these stops to check for racial or ethnic disparities. These were the most disappointing sacrifices, Coleman said.
Lawmakers also removed provisions preventing people from being incarcerated for Class C misdemeanors and ensuring that offenders without prior violent convictions be released on personal bonds, which require no up-front cash. These provisions, Coleman pointed out, have found homes in other bills that that are “still alive and moving,” such as Whitmire’s SB 1338, a bond-reform bill that cleared the Senate earlier this month.
The bill requires county jail operators to undergo more mental health training, as well as better monitoring the health of inmates. To that effect, it mandates that jails install cameras and electronic sensors in cells when funding is available. Those measures could’ve changed the circumstances of Bland’s death. (Coleman said he is working with the budget conference committee to secure funds for cameras and sensors — totaling $1 million.)
Coleman is looking to carry the measure across the finish line in the House and doesn’t expect much will be changed, he told the Observer Thursday. It’s not likely to clear his chamber with unanimous support — “that doesn’t happen over here,” he said. Coleman said he’s working to gather support from members and House leadership, whom he said seems receptive.
“The issue has transcended politics, brought together people who used to be diametrically opposed,” Coleman said. “With this one, we really have to do something now.
Below is a version of the police dashcam footage from Bland’s arrest edited by the Wall Street Journal. For the full, unedited video, click here.)