Last night, as the Texas House of Representatives hit the deadline to consider Senate bills, the state lost the opportunity to act on a host of important legislative initiatives, including several significant criminal justice reform bills. A partisan meltdown over a bill requiring photo identification for voters led to parliamentary maneuvering and delay. SB 116 and SB 117 would have demonstrated Texas's increasing commitment to a more fair and accurate criminal justice system. Instead, these bills now represent two missed opportunities for justice in Texas.
SB 116 states that, when practical, police should electronically record custodial interrogations in their entirety from the Miranda warnings forward. The Justice Project's policy review on recording interrogations highlights the use of electronic recording as a vital tool to help protect the innocent as well as convict the guilty. If passed, SB 116 would have put the legislature on record in support of this important policy, and provided leverage for pushing police departments to implement recording policies.
Another victim of last night's partisan debate was SB 117, which would have required every police agency in the state to adopt detailed written procedures for the conduct of photo and live lineups based on scientifically sound best practices. In 2008, The Justice Project released a report that found that only 12% of Texas law enforcement agencies have any written policies or guidelines for the conduct of photo or live lineup procedures. The report also found that eyewitness misidentification played a role in 82% of 38 DNA exonerations in Texas. SB 117 would have helped to improve the quality of evidence in Texas courtrooms.
All indications are that these bills would have passed handily had they come to a vote. Sponsors of this innocence protection legislation are scrambling to find another live bill that could be amended to include these key bills, but legislative rules strictly limit those opportunities. These bills were just two among many initiatives, both Democratic and Republican, that became casualties of this partisan meltdown.
While these missed opportunities are discouraging, the House did pass SB 1681 last week. SB 1681, which was sent to Governor Perry last Friday, would require all testimony given by jailhouse informants to be corroborated by other evidence. As outlined in The Justice Project's publication, In-custody Informant Testimony: A Policy Review, unregulated in-custody informant testimony compromises justice and leads to unreliable results. By requiring higher scrutiny and transparency of informant testimony, states will improve the quality of evidence presented at criminal trials and ensure that judges and juries are able to make informed decisions about the trustworthiness of informant testimony.
The success of SB 1681 is commendable, but its fate is still uncertain. Governor Perry's signature is needed to turn this important step toward a more fair and accurate criminal justice system in Texas into law.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.