Better ways to help protect Texans from wrongful convictions for crimes they did not commit, defend women and children from family violence, and improve the system that monitors felons on probation and parole are among the key justice issues being shaped for 2017 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.
The House District 40 lawmaker, who is a lawyer, is focusing on those and related issues as a member of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, which held one of its major public hearings for this year in Austin on Monday, March 21, 2016.
At the end of the year, that House committee will recommend to the Texas Legislature a series of proposed laws for action during the five-month regular session, which begins in early January 2017.
“During our recent public hearing in mid-March, we heard and discussed several hours of testimony on a few of those issues, including the appointment of counsel to indigent defendants, and how we can help reduce the tragedy of the wrongful convictions of innocent people,” Canales said. “The best ideas that come from our committee’s work in the coming months have an excellent chance of becoming the law of the land in Texas.”
Canales also said he will continue to make it his priority to protect Texans from violent criminals, including those who use “cowardly brute force and despicable intimidation” against women and children.
“Our committee will be examining the feasibility of utilizing GPS monitoring in protective orders as a tool to help reduce family violence,” he explained. “Also, we are going to study programs and identify best practices focused on the intervention and prevention of family violence and consider statutory changes needed to further deter the offense of family violence and domestic abuse.”
Family violence, also called domestic violence, is generally defined as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Further, it is said that domestic violence can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender, and can take many forms, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional, economic, and psychological abuse.
As part of his commitment to a more fair system of justice, Canales said he will be filing legislation in 2017 to require police to record, either in video or audio, when they question a suspect in their custody.
Currently, any confessions that result from police interrogations only have to be recorded in writing.
“Full recordings of interrogations provide more accurate representation of what actually occurred during an interrogation and clarify what was said or not said, rather than the current practice of police typing a statement and giving it to the defendant to sign,” Canales said. “As various innocence groups have found, about 25 percent of DNA exonerations involved false confessions.”
As of December 2014, 19 other states and the District of Columbia required the video or audio recording of confessions, according to The Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice, according to its website (http://www.innocenceproject.org/about-innocence-project).
Other proposed laws which will be shaped by Canales and the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence involve the following measures:
• Study the constitutional requirements and local practices for the appointment of counsel to indigent defendants and the operation of innocence projects at the state’s six public law schools. Compare different indigent defense plans and the innocence projects across the state and identify best practices for system management, including appointment methods and timing, cost effectiveness, timeliness of case disposition, compensation of counsel, quality of representation, and protection of procedural rights;
• Review pretrial service and bonding practices throughout the state. Examine factors considered in bail and pre-trial confinement decisions, including the use of risk assessments; assess the effectiveness and efficiency of different systems in terms of cost to local governments and taxpayers, community safety, pretrial absconding rates and rights of the accused. (Joint charge with the House Committee on County Affairs);
• Examine the use of asset forfeiture in this state, including data reporting on forfeiture actions and procedures from seizure through forfeiture in both contested and uncontested cases. Make recommendations for improving these systems that balance law enforcement needs, private property rights, and government transparency;
• Study the constitutional requirements and local practices for the appointment of counsel to indigent defendants and the operation of innocence projects at the state’s six public law schools. Compare different indigent defense plans and the innocence projects across the state and identify best practices for system management, including appointment methods and timing, cost effectiveness, timeliness of case disposition, compensation of counsel, quality of representation, and protection of procedural rights. Consider the effectiveness of each of the programs currently funded and the funding strategy as a whole;
• Examine fees and revocations for those on probation and parole; examine effectiveness of fees imposed as a condition of probation and parole; study technical revocations in adult probation to identify drivers of revocations, disparities across the state, and strategies for reducing technical revocations while ensuring program effectiveness and public safety. (Joint charge with the House Committee on Corrections); and
• Conduct legislative oversight and monitoring of the agencies and programs under the committee’s jurisdiction and the implementation of relevant legislation passed by the 84th Legislature. In conducting this oversight, the committee should:
a. consider any reforms to state agencies to make them more responsive to Texas taxpayers and citizens;
b. identify issues regarding the agency or its governance that may be appropriate to investigate, improve, remedy, or eliminate;
c. determine whether an agency is operating in a transparent and efficient manner; and
d. identify opportunities to streamline programs and services while maintaining the mission of the agency and its programs.
Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County. HD 4o includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr, San Carlos and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.