Does this land of liberty allow a second chance?
Setting the record straight on deferred adjudication
By Senator Royce West
This session, I authored Senate Bill 1477, a bill that has generated considerable debate. Soon to become law, it will provide a great deal of relief - as well as a second chance - to possibly thousands of Texans.
Deferred adjudication has been part of Texas law for nearly 30 years, long before anything resembling the technology that we now see in the Internet age. The original intent was to give those charged with lesser crimes the opportunity to "wipe the slate clean" and make a fresh start. It gave judges and juries an alternative to incarceration, while still allowing for supervision before the individual is considered fully rehabilitated and the charges dismissed. As a result, defense has counseled clients for years that in accepting and completing a deferred judgement, their misdeeds would not create a permanent criminal record.
When deferred adjudication was originally introduced, only law enforcement agencies and select public entities had access to criminal records. Official records would list the criminal charge and the court's disposition, that being a dismissal in the case of a deferred adjudication ruling. Now we live in an age when private citizens can pull down and scrutinize another's criminal history at the press of a button. Those lacking the capability can, for a fee, enlist the services of an entire cottage industry that can scrutinize the arrest, charge and deferred adjudication records of any individual they wish to investigate.
Part of the challenge of moving into the electronic age is that we must constantly be mindful of the correct balance between the public's right to know, and the individual's right to privacy. Senate Bill 1477 will restore some common sense to the process.
For the record, I firmly believe that a person who commits a crime should be subject to the full array of sanctions possible under law. But a deferred adjudication is not a criminal conviction. That's the law. In my book, that means that someone who has successfully discharged a deferred sentence should be able to resume his or her life without the mark of a criminal record and without suffering the disadvantages that a conviction can bring to one's family life, one's career, one's future.
My office has fielded numerous calls from persons who have been denied access to rental properties and employment. During committee hearings on Senate Bill 1477, we heard testimony from an individual who had been denied life insurance for his children. This for an act committed more than ten years ago, for which he had successfully completed deferred adjudication and thus was not convicted.
Passage of Senate Bill 1477 involved intense negotiations with prosecutors and members of our law enforcement community in crafting a reasonable bill that would establish a fair balance between the public's right to safety and an individual's right not to be shackled for a crime that never resulted in a conviction. The legislation contains many changes recommended by those groups including provisions that prohibit the sealing of records for anyone charged with intoxication offenses such as driving while intoxicated or intoxication manslaughter, or anyone who has at any time been required to register as a sex offender. In addition, I worked closely with advocates against domestic violence so that the bill does not include those who have been charged with stalking, violating a protective order or other felony violations of laws protecting family members. People charged with crimes against children, the elderly or disabled are also not eligible.
Criminal justice agencies will have access to records sealed under SB1477, as will school districts. Persons who have been granted non-disclosure, but go on to commit a subsequent offense will not be able to hide deferred charges from a jury.
Perhaps the biggest guarantee that this bill is good public policy is the provision that, after the successful completion of a deferred sentence, the applicant must again present himself or herself before a court to request that their records be sealed.
The Legislature acted once, last session, to pass a similar bill reforming deferred adjudication. Senate Bill 1477 has now been approved by Governor Perry, having passed both chambers of the legislature by significant margins during the 78th Session. Clearly, this is a moderate, well-balanced measure that strikes a compromise between the public's right to know and the individual's right to privacy.