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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

April 16, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

The Dallas Morning News. April 14, 2019.

We’d be the first to say that the criminal justice system in this county, this state and country is in need of serious reform. Too often, people of color and poor defendants are unfairly penalized and trapped in dire situations from which they have difficulty ever recovering.

So we understand Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot’s aggressiveness in wanting to enact sweeping policy changes for his prosecutors on how they handle bail, probation and low-level crimes.

The county has long needed a better way to assess the risk that a defendant will flee, for example, and a fairer way to assign bail that factors in the ability to pay. The current bail system has been ruled unconstitutional so we applaud Creuzot’s efforts to curb the excessive amounts.

And we understand why he plans on spending the majority of his office’s resources on the most serious crimes in our community.

But as we work toward improvements, we are apprehensive about Creuzot’s plan to decriminalize low-level crimes. It has the potential to send the wrong message about our tolerance for any crime in this county. We worry about the new policy creating a system that tells petty criminals their bad acts are OK and that demands police officers look the other way.

And we can’t lose sight of the thousands of real victims of these crimes for which their experiences erode their feelings of safety — real or perceived — in their neighborhoods.

This newspaper has often praised Creuzot’s efforts as a judge to create one of the first drug courts in the state that offered defendants diversion alternatives to prison time. His new plan seems to focus on rehabilitation. In that regard, he joins reform-minded criminal justice leaders across the country in trying to bring more balance to an imperfect system.

Still, we worry that some aspects of his policy that he calls “decriminalizing poverty” may go too far in the other direction, particularly at a time when residents across this region are worried about increased crime in their neighborhoods, from package theft to car break-ins.

Creuzot says he’ll decline to prosecute theft of personal items worth less than $750 unless the theft was for financial gain. He says he’s in the process of dismissing all misdemeanor marijuana cases filed before he took office with a few exceptions including those where a deadly weapon was used. And he’ll stop prosecuting most first-time marijuana offenses and some misdemeanors that he believes often stem from poverty.

We remind Creuzot that most poor people in this city are law-abiding citizens. And sometimes, petty criminals escalate their activities to more serious offenses when enforcement is slack on more minor crimes.

We’ll be watching to see how the new policy plays out. We hope Creuzot’s willing to make necessary adjustments along the way.

Justice requires an equitable system where people can atone for their mistakes and live productive lives. But the goal also has be the protection of the sense of communal safety that is the first principle of a civil society.

___

Texarkana Gazette. April 16, 2019.

One Texas lawmaker stepped up the fight against legal abortion.

A step too far, as it turned out.

State Rep. Roy Tinderholt, R-Arlington, reintroduced HB 869 last week. The bill would extend the definition of “living child” to include fertilized eggs.

The bill would make all abortion illegal in the state. But that’s not all.

Texas law allows the death penalty for the murder of a child under 10 years of age. If the bill ever became law, it could subject a woman who has an abortion to the death penalty.

Needless to say, when the news broke there was a firestorm. Pro-choice advocates took to social media to loudly proclaim that those who say they support life were now willing to kill women.

A bit dramatic, to be sure. The law would likely never survive a court challenge in the first place. And we seriously doubt any woman who had an abortion would have been strapped to the gurney and executed.

But the outrage was enough. State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Collin County, chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence and himself proudly pro-life, effectively killed the bill by refusing to allow it out of committee.

Thankfully good sense won the day.

This isn’t the first time Tinderholt has tried this. It may not be the last. But it’s a bad move any way you look at it.

The pro-life movement has made some advances lately. That encourages us. But extremist bills like this can do a lot of damage. Now is the time to keep moving forward at a steady pace, not set the cause back.

___

Houston Chronicle. April 16, 2019.

Some folks in the Republican Party have given up. They are out of ideas, void of policy and lacking the enthusiasm needed to attract new voters. If demography is destiny, they seem to be content eking out marginal victories for a few more years by clinging to a dwindling base. How else do you explain their push to win elections through exclusion? Why else do they pin their hopes of power on disenfranchisement?

Their latest attempt, one of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities for this year’s Legislature, is Senate Bill 9. While it contains a welcome measure to guarantee that all electronic voting machines can produce a paper record, it also includes provisions that put up obstacles targeting vulnerable populations.

SB9, poised to pass the Senate, makes it more difficult for people who need assistance at the polls, such as seniors and the disabled. It gives partisan poll watchers the right to be in the voting booth when a volunteer is helping someone, a clear encroachment on the secret ballot. It also imposes new hoops to jump through for election volunteers, including those who drive voters to the polls.

The most troubling provisions, though, are those that threaten jail time for certain election-related infractions — even in instances involving an honest mistake when registering.

The bill increases the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony on certain election-related offenses, and removes the requirement for a court to consider intent. It also allows law enforcement to violate election law during an investigation or a prosecution, clearing the way for undercover sting operations that could have a chilling effect on legitimate voter registration efforts and potentially entrap the unwitting.

Though we may want to believe that no one would be prosecuted for unintentionally violating election laws, recent cases show that overzealous Texas officials should not be trusted.

Rosa Ortega, a legal immigrant with a sixth-grade education, was sentenced to eight years in prison for voting illegally in Tarrant County. This was a disproportionately harsh penalty for someone who mistakenly believed she could vote and who, as the facts of the case revealed, could have been informed of her ineligibility by the officials who accepted her registration. In another case, also in Tarrant County, Crystal Mason, a black woman, was sentenced to five years in prison for filling out a provisional ballot without knowing she was ineligible due to a felony conviction.

Officials have also shown a cavalier attitude when leveling unsubstantiated accusations. A clear example was the list of 95,000 registered voters that was handed over to the attorney general under claims these were immigrants ineligible to vote. The list quickly fell apart under scrutiny, and the investigation was put on hold, but only after it had been trumpeted by Republicans — including President Trump — as evidence of the GOP’s massive voter-fraud bogeyman.

Bills such as SB9 are voter suppression efforts, pure and simple. A way to intimidate the growing number of potential voters, including minorities and young people, that overall tend to support Democrats. That these attempts come under the guise of protecting the electoral process is particularly galling, since in-person, deliberate voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. When the restrictive 2011 Texas Voter ID law was taken to court, the judge noted that in the decade before the law was passed, there had been two convictions out of 20 million votes cast in the state.

Texas already ranks among the states with the lowest voter turnout, so participation by qualified voters should be made easier, not harder. Practical solutions include doing away with early registration deadlines and allowing online registration and address updates and automatic voter registration when obtaining a state ID. Those are the types of measures, widely endorsed by nonpartisan voter-rights organizations, that should take up lawmakers’ time.

Citizens have a fundamental right to vote, and the government must have a compelling reason if it wants to interfere with that right. SB 9 falls far short. Voter suppression efforts such as this one deserve our scorn, not the Legislature’s support.