Texas' 87th Legislative Session
Replace Civil Asset Forfeiture with Criminal Asset Forfeiture to Protect Innocent Property Owners
Texas law enforcement agencies seize millions of dollars in currency and other property every year, alleging the property was used for or obtained through illegal activity. While forfeiture cases are criminal in nature, the actual forfeiture suit is filed against the property itself in a civil court, meaning there is no right to an attorney. Many forfeiture cases result in default judgments, depriving owners of their property, often with no related criminal case ever being filed against the property owner. Moreover, law enforcement has significant incentive to engage in civil asset forfeiture because, under Texas law, they are entitled to keep most of the money and/or proceeds from the property seized. Texas Appleseed seeks to limit the abuses that Texas’ current civil asset forfeiture laws allow and enable. Some sensible solutions include: requiring a criminal conviction prior to forfeiture (not seizure), eliminating civil asset forfeiture in favor of criminal asset forfeiture only, incorporating better reporting requirements to ensure forfeiture as a tool is consistently being used to prevent or stop criminal activity, and putting forfeiture funds and proceeds in a common statewide pool so that there are fewer incentives for abuse.
Increase Access & Eligibility for a Clean Slate for People with Past Criminal Justice Involvement
Texas implements some of the most labyrinthian and restrictive rules in the nation governing access and eligibility to having a past arrest or criminal conviction sealed or expunged, causing millions of Texans to face ongoing, unjust discrimination in housing, employment, education, and more. Improving access to arrest and criminal record sealing and expungement will allow those who are currently eligible to finally regain the full rights to which they’re entitled. Increasing eligibility will unlock doors to economic opportunity and stability for people and their families that have been forced into second class status by prior criminal justice involvement.
Enable Additional Relief from Criminal Justice Fines, Fees and Driver’s License Suspensions
The inability to pay a fine or fee shouldn’t cause someone to lose their driver’s license, which in most of Texas is vital for maintaining employment, as well as access to childcare, healthcare and other essentials. Unfortunately, the Failure to Pay/Failure to Appear or “Omnibase” Program in Texas currently prevents hundreds of thousands of Texans from renewing their driver’s license until they’ve completely paid off any outstanding fines and fees, despite most having an inability to pay. Reforming the program to enable people to renew their license once they enter into a payment plan or community service plan will allow many a chance to legally drive again and escape a cycle of debt and jail that traps so many in poverty. Additional reforms would increase judicial discretion to waive fines and fees for people deemed unable to pay.
Reduce Reliance on School Policing
The coronavirus pandemic has shifted many aspects of daily life, including the practice of school policing. The reality is that millions of young Texans have not spent significant amounts of time in brick and mortar schools since March, yet school police departments and their officers have been fully funded. Various school districts have justified this by stating that school police officers presently patrol meal distribution sites. In this extraordinary moment, the Texas Legislature should evaluate the provisions of the Texas Penal Code and the Texas Education Code that govern school policing in Texas, clarify to local school districts that school policing budgets should not increase or remain the same during a global health crisis, and strengthen existing language about the responsibilities of mental health professionals on school campuses, which presently often fall within the umbrella of school policing duties. The Legislature should also include an enforcement mechanism for SB 1707, which passed during the 86th Legislative Session; if school police officers administer discipline or harm young people on their campuses, there should be a clear avenue for families to seek civil relief within the Texas Education Code.
Dedicate Funding to Equitable Relief and Invest in Mental Health Support Services
Initial reports from Texas state government officials indicate that, due to increased sales tax revenue, the budget shortfalls from the coronavirus pandemic will not be as drastic as were first anticipated. However, there may still be an inclination to cut allocations to critical social services, such as education. The Texas Legislature should prioritize K-12 education spending that will support supplementary academic services for young Texans post-COVID-19, provide mental health support services for young people through allocations for full-time school psychologists and counselors, and address the uneven broadband access across Texas that has contributed to the current digital divide.
Limit Exclusionary Discipline
The Texas Legislature should modify the Texas Education Code to expand the preK-2nd grade suspension ban to a preK-12th grade suspension ban, and the Legislature should remove the exceptions carved out for cases of extreme physical danger, as this is addressed in the penal code. This ban should be widened to include expulsions and referrals to disciplinary alternative education programs and juvenile justice alternative education programs. This ban should extend several academic years into the future, as students strive to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Establish a Basic Cost of Living Exemption from Debt Collection
Texas has a long history of protecting wages from debt collection in the state constitution. This protection is essential, but current laws are antiquated. They protect current wages, but once wages are deposited in an account, protections often no longer apply. When debt collectors freeze accounts to collect an old debt, many Texans face a financial crisis: cascading defaults on housing, bills, and other debts, and no funds to pay for food or basic necessities. Establishing a basic cost of living exemption for funds in an account, so that families can cover basic necessities while making affordable payments towards debts, is an essential modernization of our laws.
Reform Payday and Auto Title Lending
Texas has some of the highest cost loans in the country and is the sole remaining state to allow these loan businesses to operate as Credit Services Organizations in order to evade state usury laws. Uncapped payday and auto title loans, with rates that can average over 500% APR, need to be reformed. They have been documented to cause financial hardship to struggling families and drain billions from families, churches, and nonprofits. Reforming payday and auto title lending and reining in abuses would bolster local economies and enhance the financial wellbeing of families and communities.
Preserve interest rate caps and other existing protections for consumer credit
With many Texans struggling to recover from the economic and health fallout of the pandemic, it is essential that Texas maintain existing rate caps and other state and local protections against abusive lending practices and excessive charges.
Identity theft protections for victims of financial abuse and coerced debt
Domestic violence and financial abuse have been on the rise during the pandemic and additional protections are needed to ensure these victims have access to the tools they need to recover financially. Last session, Texas took important strides to ensure that the criminal definition of identity theft includes coerced debt. Additional small changes will provide consistency across protections in the law for victims and enable victims of identity theft to regain financial stability.
Ensure Fair Auto Insurance Pricing During Pandemic
Auto insurance is required to own a car and drive legally in Texas. It is essential that it be priced fairly, based on actual risk. Credit scoring is often used in the pricing of insurance, but with the broad-based economic impact of the pandemic, more protections are needed to ensure that people are not charged more for insurance simply due to the pandemic.
Raise the Lower Age
When young children act out, their families and school community should be involved in age-appropriate responses that avoid arrest and formal court processes. Texas Appleseed supports raising the lower age of juvenile court jurisdiction so that young kids don't end up in court or in jail for behavior that can be addressed in a more developmentally appropriate way.
Eliminate Criminal Convictions and Fines for Juvenile Class C Misdemeanors
While the number of Class C charges filed against juveniles has dropped dramatically since 2013 reforms eliminated ticketing of schoolchildren for minor misbehavior, for the more than 60,000 youth who are charged, the consequences are still severe. A Class C conviction results in high fines and a criminal record that can haunt youth well into adulthood, posing a barrier to college, housing and jobs. Texas Appleseed will support legislation that eliminates the criminal consequences associated with a juvenile Class C charge, so that the process more closely mirrors what young people experience when they are charged with higher level offenses in the juvenile system.
Eliminate Juvenile Fees
Juvenile fees are counterproductive to the rehabilitative goal of the juvenile justice system. Many young people and their families cannot afford to pay fees and failure to pay them can lead to long-term consequences for youth and families such as increased recidivism, difficulty engaging in education and employment opportunities, civil judgements resulting in wage garnishments, and increased financial burdens. Further, counties often spend more trying to collect these fees than they actually collect, making it inefficient and costly. Texas Appleseed will work to get rid of juvenile fees this session.
Close State Juvenile Secure Facilities
In Texas, there are five state run secure lockups for young people. These facilities’ unsafe conditions are well-documented. Chronic staffing shortages and a lack of trained staff have led to chaos and unsafe conditions. Research is clear that large facilities lead to higher rates of recidivism and that young people are better served in smaller facilities closer to home. Texas Appleseed plans to advocate for the closure of these facilities with a plan to ensure those young people who need to be in secure confinement are placed closer to home in smaller, more appropriate facilities.
Divert Foster Youth from Juvenile Justice System for Minor Offenses
Young people in foster care have all been exposed to some trauma. Acting out is a known response to trauma; however, it can be misinterpreted as delinquent behavior and instead of getting help, young people can be funneled into the juvenile justice system. Children in foster care who are living in congregate care settings like residential treatment centers are 2.5 times as likely to end up in the juvenile justice system than children placed in foster care families. Texas Appleseed plans to work on a deferred prosecution program aimed at young people living in group settings who are charged with misdemeanors to keep them out of the juvenile justice system.
End Confinement of Runaways
Status offenses are actions that are only prohibited by law for individuals younger than a certain age, like running away or breaking curfew laws. Often, these young people are fleeing abuse or are simply homeless and have nowhere to go. Under current state law, status offenders cannot be incarcerated as punishment for committing a status offense, but may be confined or detained as punishment for violating a court order made in the underlying status offense case — commonly known as the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception. Texas Appleseed supports legislation that would ensure that youth who run away are never confined by eliminating the VCO exception from current law.
Provide Funding for Homeless Youth and Foster Care Youth to take Driver’s Education Classes
Lacking a safe, secure, and stable place to live impacts youths’ health and schooling, and can result in long-lasting negative outcomes. This session, Texas Appleseed will support legislation to make it easier for homeless youth to get driver’s education at no to little cost so they are able to get driver’s licenses — a key to employment opportunities and therefore, greater stability.