No one should ever live in fear of their own government. Yet whether because of federal overreach, corrupt officials, strained police relations, overzealous fines and fees, or random raids, regular, law-abiding Texans have come to fear –not respect– the law. This creates a wall between the citizens and those who put their lives on the line to serve and protect them.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
There are several no-nonsense solutions that can ease the tensions between our criminal justice professionals and the people they protect.
End For-Profit justice
Justice is a service provided by the government, not a 'get rich quick' scheme. Yet decades of abuse on this front has led to a deep mistrust and suspicion of police officers. Exorbitant fees, tickets, and fines for minor infractions may be a nuisance to some, but to a large segment of our population –specifically, the segment than needs our police the most– even a single fine can be financially devastating. These tickets and fines punish most those who can afford it the least. It's time to stop incentivizing fees and fines, and replace the ticket system with one contingent upon your income. Finland does this the right way by basing their ticket system on your disposable income level: a single speeding ticket can cost a poor person just eighty dollars, while the same ticket would cost a trust-fund millionaire tens of thousands. This way, the punishment fits the crime – no more, no less. Low-income Texans shouldn't have to decide between paying their ticket or buying food for their kids.
Shorten or Eliminate Sentences for Nonviolent Drug Offenders
Our prison system is being pushed to the breaking point by a huge influx of nonviolent offenders, many of whom have never been sentenced for any crime. This costs taxpayers tens of millions every year, just to keep low-risk offenders in jail. Texas and the U.S. should follow the lead of countries such as Portugal, which decriminalized drug addiction and began treating it as a public heath issue –to stunning results. All nonviolent offenses should be expunged from the records after a period of six years. A mistake you made as a teenager three decades ago shouldn't prevent you from getting a loan or a job today.
The bail bond system hurts those who can afford it the least –generally poor people accused of minor offenses– by incarcerating them without conviction for months at a time, causing them to lose their jobs, homes, and families. Bail is also a massive, unnecessary expense for cash-strapped local governments, who are forced to pay millions more than they receive in bond payments to jail people, simply because they can't afford bail. This is extremely costly; right now, 3/4ths of our jails in Texas are full of people who have not been convicted of any crime, to the cost of $900 million to the taxpayers of our state. Bail has no effect whatsoever on the truly real dangerous criminals, who are often connected to well-financed criminal networks that have no problems paying bail –a recent study in Chicago showed that defendants jailed for gun crimes were six times more likely to post bail than common shoplifters. Replacing the cash bond system with bonds that require no money has been proven to work in many cities across the country.
A "GI Bill" for Police Officers
In some communities, particularly rural ones, becoming a police officer is the best job available for someone just coming out of high school. But it doesn't need to stop there: helping officers attain the degree of their choice via a program similar to the GI Bill will lead to better policing and greater community involvement.
Protect the Pensions
Our police and firemen put their lives on the line every day; in exchange, we provide them with generous pensions after they retire. But decades of mismanagement have put these pensions at risk, as vast sums of money were pumped into fly-by-night real estate speculation schemes run by con artists. This is not just limited to Dallas and Houston, but has been happening with alarming regularity across the country. The administrators in charge of these pensions must be put under more severe oversight, with civil and criminal penalties for those who abuse these funds. Our officers should rest easy knowing that we've got their backs after they leave the force.
End Private Prisons
Private prisons are the 21st-century equivalent of the Soviet gulag (which was the original for-profit prison system). They are rife with abuse, with prisons bribing local judges to incarcerate young men and women to fill the cells with a steady source of dirt-cheap labor. The state and federal government should wipe their hands clean of this dark chapter in American justice, and cease using private prisons immediately.
Review Civil Asset Forfeiture
This practice, originally intended to harass large criminal organizations, has seen a sharp rise in abuse across the country. Often, even citizens who will never be charged with a crime will have their possessions and property seized by police with no warning; and the process to get this property back is so convoluted and arcane that many never see their property again. In fact, one recent study showed that more property was taken from Americans by police last year than by all the robberies and burglaries combined. Texas is among the very worst offenders in the entire nation on this issue.
Stop the Random ICE Raids
100 years of hard data has confirmed it again and again: there is no economic or criminal justice reason to persecute immigrants, legal or otherwise. Immigrants commit crimes at a vastly lower rate than native-born citizens (regardless of their country of origin). Those who come to our country and abuse our social network are few, and should be punished; but regular, law-abiding families should not be destroyed for no reason. The average illegal immigrant has been peaceably living in this country for 13 years (less than 7% have come over from Mexico in the last five years). We should be offering illegal aliens a path to citizenship, vetted by payment of back taxes, a penalty, a criminal background check, and a citizenship test. But these raids accomplish nothing more than to drive the wedge between our communities ever deeper, making officers' jobs even more difficult than they already are, by fostering an environment of fear and mistrust.