The Texas legislative session was ugly, but it wasn’t all bad

You’ve heard the bad news about immigration. But there actually are things to celebrate now that an ugly, racist legislative session is behind us. Lewis Conway, second from left, urges lawmakers to close prisons.

Rep. Matt Rinaldi put a lid on an already repugnant legislative session when he told colleagues that he reported protesters to federal immigration agents on Monday. Rinaldi’s mouthing off might hurt SB 4 supporters in court.

They were protesting SB 4, an extreme anti-immigrant proposal the governor signed into law on Facebook Live on a Sunday night last month. SB 4 was one of many things that made this legislative session so offensive to decent people. The others included attacks on women, reproductive freedom, the trans community, Muslims and others.

But we do have things to celebrate now that the session is behind us:

Fair chance hiring isn’t going anywhere

The passage of a fair chance hiring policy in Austin last year was a huge victory for formerly incarcerated organizers. But a bill to take away that victory was filed at the legislature this year, HB 577. In our fight to stop it and preserve a fair chance in Austin, we demonstrated the value of directly impacted folks leading the effort and why our experience makes us experts. We led with the belief that transformation must be an integral component of how we talk about fair chance. They said our strategies were longshots and our tactics funny, but we clung to our beliefs in transformation and a fair chance. Ultimately several legislators agreed with us by killing HB 577 as a bill in the House and as a Committee Substitute in the Senate. Today, the fair chance hiring victory in Austin still stands. But our opponents still have one route to kill fair chance — if Gov. Abbott calls a special session.

Four prisons will be shut down

We are celebrating and applauding the legislature’s decision to shutter four prisons this year, three of which are operated by private prison corporations. The closures will take more than 1,700 prison beds offline. We see this as a continuation of a welcome trend of prison closures over the past several legislative sessions. We will continue to organize with those most impacted by our state’s mass incarceration crisis, fight for policies that keep people out of prison, and push for more closures in 2019!

Private prisons bet on child care licenses for baby jails and lose

Private prisons spent big on lobbyists this year in a scheme to license “baby jails” as child care facilities. Their efforts showed just one thing — money can’t buy you everything. What they presented as a bill to “improve protection and oversight” for children locked in family detention centers, SB 1018 would have only prolonged the abuse taking place behind those prison doors, while benefitting prison companies. We mobilized with a powerful cross-sectional coalition of immigrants rights advocates, attorneys, pediatricians, social workers, and formerly incarcerated families to expose the licensing scheme for what it was — a cash cow for private prisons. Will Francis of the National Association of Social Workers/Texas Chapter got it right when he said, “No amount of regulation will fix this issue, and all of the families in detention should be released into the community immediately.”

Progress on keeping medical benefits for those leaving jail

A decisive victory was won this session around faster reconnection to health care for those with mental health issues and other disabilities upon leaving jail. It has been that people who are incarcerated for more than 30 days in a county jail have seen their medical benefits terminated during that time. But with the passage of HB 337, benefits will be suspended instead of terminated. While the true solution is to decarcerate Texas, this legislative victory takes a clear step forward in improving the lives of those caught in the system. This bill has been filed for many sessions and numerous people contributed to its success this year, with special thanks to leadership from Sen. Menendez.

The Sandra Bland Act became a watered down, bittersweet victory

The Sandra Bland Act was a bittersweet victory. Key mental health and criminal justice peices of the legislation that promote diversion and encourage community collaboration survived — an important step forward which will have a positive impact for many. However, essential elements of the bill that called for accountability from law enforcement officials were stripped away. These included prohibitions on pretextual stops, arrests for fine-only offenses and consent searches, and internal investigations into officer racial profiling with mandated punishments. We join advocates for racial justice who feel the end result does not address Ms. Bland’s unnecessary death, but at the same time, acknowledge it accomplishes some important improvements.  

Formerly incarcerated folks push forward their own agenda for probation and parole

Though unable to pass the progressive legislation we wanted this session, we moved the conversation forward on furthering humane, non-discriminatory practices of probation and parole. HB 1504 would have mandated probation departments allow individuals on supervision alternate methods or times of reporting that did not infringe on their work, education, community service, or other personal commitments, while HB 1505 would have prevented judges from imposing conditions on probationers that barred them from associating with people based on the criminal history. An arrest or conviction history does not make people unworthy of being friends or colleagues. Formerly incarcerated folks wrote and pushed this legislation, and will continue mounting pressure to build power for next session’s win.

Communities fight back against SB 4

The biggest disappointment of the legislative session by far was the passage SB 4, an extreme “show me your papers” anti-immigrant bill.  SB 4 was sold as a bill to outlaw “sanctuary cities.”  In reality, it allows for rogue officers and racial profiling. Any police officer in Texas can now check immigration status (“papers, please”) at the point of a traffic stop. It also forces local officials to comply with ICE detainers — which courts have ruled unconstitutional — and it imposes criminal and civil penalties on duly-elected officials and law enforcement agents who promote policies that don’t fully comply with ICE. While the fight was lost at the legislature, powerful community mobilization shows there are other ways to win.

The resistance to SB 4 is strong, with multiple cities already suing to prevent its implementation.  We will defy SB 4 at every step.