From the Office of State Senator Royce West - District 23

For Immediate Release
March 20, 2001

Criminal Justice issues occupy spotlight of the 77th Session

Even before the first day of the current session of the Texas Legislature, now in its third month, matters involving crime and punishment were front and center.

In December, we had the prison escape of the group of inmates that later were dubbed the "Connally Seven." It became even more grim when late on December 24, - Christmas Eve nonetheless - the tragic news came from the Dallas area that Irving policeman Aubrey Hawkins had lost his life at the hands of this infamous pack.

So in the first days of the Session, with all of Texas' lawmakers in close proximity, daily reports of the deadly drama topped headlines and opened newscasts worldwide in these days of instant global access.

But there are other issues that never left the consciousness of Texans as lawmakers converged on the Capitol city. And now, as the Connally Seven await their dates with justice, pertinent matters that affect the 20 million residents of the Lone Star State assume a higher profile.

In May of 2000, the United States Supreme Court sent a case back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The case involved a murder trial that took place in Northern Texas. In arguments, the prosecutor used an expert witness who testified that race was a factor that could be used to predict the future behavior of the defendant.

It must be said that such statements are an insult to the basic tenets of criminal justice in this society which says that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and that all citizens have the right to a fair trial - one that's free of racial prejudice.

It is for this reason that I filed Senate Bill 133. This bill would prohibit the use of race, or ethnicity of the defendant, as a predictor of future criminal behavior. The bill was passed unanimously by the full Senate.

Many Texans were left with a bitter taste in their mouths at the end of the 76th Legislative Session two years ago. Why, you ask? It was because after three trials, three guilty verdicts and two death sentences - and the national publicity surrounding the brutal murder of James Byrd Jr.- the State of Texas was unable to pass a Hate Crimes Bill.

With Senate Bill 87, we have renewed hope this session. Two years ago, the bill failed to get out of committee in the Senate. Last month, we were successful in passing it out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

In the House of Representatives, the companion bill was also approved in committee. The Senate Bill failed last term when opponents did not think the protection should be extended to cover sexual orientation. Yet, 21other states have provided for sexual orientation within their hate crimes laws.

This session, Senate Bill 87 also expands the protection to allow individuals who are aggrieved as a result of race, to file civil suits. This represents progress, but needless to say, passage of a Hate Crimes law in Texas represents an uphill battle.

Domestic violence remains a problem in Texas and I will continue to work to pass laws that address those individuals who attempt to turn the sanctity of the home into a battleground.

In 1995, I authored Senate Bill 130 which made it illegal to sell or transfer a firearm to a person subject to a protective order. Protective orders are many times used to provide a measure of safety to victims of domestic violence.

This session, Senate Bill 199 takes the protection provided by SB130 a step further.

Senate Bill 199 would make it illegal for a person who is subject to a protective order to be in possession of a firearm. It only makes sense that a person who is the subject of a protective order should not be in possession of a firearm.

Statistics show that in 1997 in Texas, of the 102 women murdered by their intimate partner, 72 of those victims were killed by use of a gun. To add to that, nearly half of all homicide victims either knew, or were related to their killers.

This bill was filed as part of a package that looks to address the issue of domestic violence.

This session, there is another issue of national consequence that I have chosen to personally navigate through the Legislative waters. It is that of racial profiling, the unsanctioned law enforcement practice of initiating actions against persons based not on that individual's behavior, but rather because of race, ethnicity or national origin.

To meet this challenge, over the opening weeks of the Legislature, I have brought together members of the law enforcement and Civil Rights communities. We have met and tirelessly blended our energies and agendas to forge a document that will protect the interests of both citizens and law enforcement.

Senate Bill 1074 was filed Monday, March 5, 2001 and hopefully, by the end of this session there will be agreement from the floor of the Senate, the floor of the House and in the Governor's Mansion that Texas does have a racial profiling problem that does need to be addressed.

We were aided, by coincidence or not, when President Bush included racial profiling in his State of the Union Address and charged Congress with finding a solution.

Sure there remains wrinkles to be smoothed out. But all agree that there is a problem and that it will require additional law enforcement awareness and training in the differences between legitimate law enforcement practices and what constitutes racial profiling.

Other Criminal Justice issues are gaining momentum this session.

A bill that I co-authored, Senate Bill 7 will look to vastly upgrade what the State of Texas does in the area of indigent defense.

Texas currently has a system where court-appointed lawyers are assigned to represent poor defendants. There are no statewide accountability standards and many times, defendants do not have the benefit of an experienced trial lawyer in handling their cases.

While there are more bills that I have personally filed on behalf of the citizens of Texas, these issues top the list in Criminal Justice for the 77th Legislative Session.

Royce West
Texas Senate
District 23