It may be a small step, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is putting a little of his money where his mouth is on criminal justice reform. Thursday afternoon, the governor announced a specialized clemency application process for Texas Department of Corrections inmates who were victims of sex trafficking or domestic violence prior to their being locked up.
As part of their application for a pardon or a sentence commutation, sex trafficking and domestic violence survivors will have a chance to make a statement about the circumstances that led to their incarceration.
"Texas is committed to empowering the survivors of domestic abuse and human trafficking, and one of the surest signals of that goal is laying out a true path to redemption and restoration," Abbott said Thursday. "The gubernatorial pardon plays an important role in this redemption process, because it offers a second chance to survivors with criminal convictions resulting from their abuse or exploitation. I am grateful for our ongoing partnership with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles as we work together to develop a stronger justice system that promotes redemption, restoration and transformation."
Abbott made headlines in January when he pardoned Robbie Ann Hamilton, a human trafficking survivor with a string of convictions for nonviolent crimes — including theft, theft by check and possession of a controlled substance — across North Texas. The governor said he pardoned Hamilton, in part, to "show that there is a true path to redemption" for those who commit crimes "while under the grips of traffickers."
"She begged God to help her quit drugs and the sex industry. She was baptized in jail and spent rehab getting to know the Bible and Jesus," Abbott's office said of Hamilton. "She participated with groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and New Friends New Life, a human- and sex-trafficking victim relief organization. She reoriented her life toward helping homeless addicts in street ministries and doing other rehabilitation efforts."
Natalie Nanasi, an assistant professor and the director of the Legal Center for Victims at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law, said that "Hamilton had been a model member of society."
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While Abbott's efforts will help women like Hamilton, the governor's record on human trafficking is far from consistent. During the 2019 legislative session, he vetoed two bills championed by anti-human trafficking advocates. HB 1771 would've prohibited law enforcement agencies from arresting minors for prostitution — the governor claimed the bill would limit cops' ability to separate trafficking victims from their abusers — and HB 3078 would've created a panel of experts to advise the Texas Board of Pardon and Parole on cases involving human trafficking. The governor said the latter bill created an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.
“We are talking about children being raped by adults, and then being charged for it,” Houston state Rep. Shawn Thierry, author of HB 1771, told the Houston Chronicle after the governor's veto. "Children are not prostitutes, period.”
Thursday, Lindsey Linder, a senior policy attorney for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said Abbott's announcement mitigated some of the disappointment from the 2019 session.
"After the incredibly disappointing veto of HB 3078 last session, I'm beyond elated to share @GovAbbott has accomplished the goal at the heart of that bill by establishing a clemency panel for survivors," Linder said on Twitter. "This is a vital opportunity for restoration."