Texas Threatening to Do Some Progressive Criminal Justice Reform

The stigma from this place -- Dallas County's jail -- may soon wash off a bit quicker.
The stigma from this place -- Dallas County's jail -- may soon wash off a bit quicker.

Amid what's been a massive bummer of a Texas legislative session, the search for silver linings has been difficult. Over the past week, though, a solid contender has developed: the chance for meaningful criminal justice reform. Specifically, a pair of efforts that would make it easier for ex-offenders to secure employment have picked up steam in recent days.

Late last week, a bill written by Dallas state Representative Eric Johnson that would stop the state from asking about criminal history during preliminary job applications escaped committee limbo and is awaiting scheduling in front of the full House.

"Many employers, as many of you may know, use any disclosure in the affirmative as an immediate disqualifier for a potential employee," Johnson said during the bill's committee hearing. "As a result of that type of behavior on the part of employers, an individual who was formerly incarcerated -- no matter the reason, no matter what the conviction was for -- is never really given an opportunity, and certainly not an opportunity to come in for an interview."

If passed, Johnson's bill would make Texas the 17th state to "ban the box" on job applications for state work, something that Johnson hopes would be a trial run to change the law for all Texas employers. The bill would not stop employers from running criminal background checks or asking about criminal history as applicants progressed in the interview process.

Delaying criminal background questions until after offenders have already had a chance to make a first impression amounts to giving them a second chance, Johnson said.

Another proposal, one that would have perhaps a deeper effect than Johnson's, passed the Senate on Tuesday. The plan, written by Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican, would provide for the easy sealing of criminal records for those who've committed only one misdemeanor crime.

"I look at it as if I did something I wasn't supposed to, the criminal justice system has persecuted me ... and that should be enough," Perry said Tuesday. "It shouldn't be something that haunts me for the rest of my life."

Currently, the only Texans eligible for non-disclosure of single crimes are those who've completed deferred adjudication programs for a limited number of offenses. Even for those who are eligible, the process is tough to navigate without a lawyer. Perry's bill would reduce the headache to paying a $28 filing fee. Government agencies would keep access to the records, but disclosing criminal records to potential employers or landlords would be up to the person with the record.

The non-disclosure bill passed the senate 25-6.

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