New Civil Rights Fight Targets Criminal Justice Reform
HOUSTON-The fight for bail reform continues. “It is the Civil Rights Battle in our era,” Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis said in his keynote address to hundreds at the Acres Homes Chamber for Business and Economic Development Inc. held in the Beulah Ann Shepherd Building. “There are more in jail (African Americans) than at any other time on our history. We need to look at the stats and focus on that area because something is wrong.”
Senator Rodney Ellis was born and raised in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood. He is a product of the Texas public school system from grade school through law school. Although a financial advisor by trade, his passion is public service.
Elected to the Texas Senate in 1990, For 25 years, Sen. Ellis earned praise as a leader on economic development, education, civil rights, budget, responsible environmental policy, tax cuts for the middle class, criminal justice, and workforce development policy.
In 2016, He was elected Harris County Commissioner for Precinct One, which serves 1.1 million people.
Senator Ellis believes the role of government is to ensure that all citizens have the opportunity and ability to build a better future for themselves.
Sitting for Justice: Woolworth’s Lunch Counter
On February 1, 1960, four African American college students sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats.
Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South.
Houston was also involved briefly in lunch counter protest actions.
Education and Criminal Justice Prime Issues
On education, it means ensuring that children have equal access to a quality education, regardless of where they reside. In the workforce, it means ensuring that workers have a safe workplace, access to affordable health care and a living wage.
On criminal justice, it means ensuring that everyone is treated equally by the law and guilt and innocence are not dependent on one’s income, gender, race or ethnicity.
His passion for justice led to a closer examination of criminal justice issues and Texas and helped bring about strong DNA statues that set the stage for changes across the justice system in the United States.
Now his focus is on changing the unbalanced bails and bonding system in Texas that penalizes the poor and delays justice for thousands who sit in jail and wait for their day in court.
“Justice cannot depend on how much money you have in the bank,” he said. “It is wrong that poor people all across Houston — Texans who are supposed to be presumed innocent — far too often get second-class justice just because they simply cannot afford to pay bail.”
He made a stunning and marked comparison about unbalanced criminal justice system and on the treatment of the now deceased Sandra Bland and other like her who was taken to jail on a minor traffic violation and later died in custody because of inability to post $1000 bail versus Billionaire Robert Durst who allegedly committed murder and was released on bail by the court.
A 2016 Report
According to the report by Ronald J. Lampard of the American Legislative Exchange Council, in 2005, Texas officials noticed the alarming rate at which their state’s corrections budget was growing.
By 2007, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice wanted the state legislature to provide $523 million in additional funding for three new prisons, which would have allowed the prison population to grow to more than 168,000 by 2012.
The department had reasons to expect a positive response for a funding request. After all, Texas was well-known for its “tough on crime” stance.
Members of the Texas Legislature, such as Republican Representative Jerry Madden and conservative Democratic Senator John Whitmire, decided on a bold strategy.
They teamed up to convince the members of the legislature and then-Governor Rick Perry to spend $241 million on treatment, mental health and rehabilitation, rather than on new prison facilities.
Three years later, Texas’ prison population declined by 15,000 inmates and probation recidivism fell by nearly 25 percent.
In addition, by the time Governor Perry had left office in January of 2015, the crime rate declined to its lowest rate since 1968.
Ultimately, under Perry’s leadership as governor, Texas shut down three prisons and saved taxpayers $2 billion. The movement to reform under performing and wasteful criminal justice programs had begun.
Criminal justice reform in many states across the country has shown that conservatives have followed Texas’ lead and strongly supported the issue.
“As a commissioner who represents a majority-minority precinct, it is my duty to protect residents’ constitutional rights as well as the interests of taxpayers who are paying for a broken bail system that favors the privileged and punishes the poor.,” Ellis said. “A healthy debate is good for democracy. I respect my colleagues and I look forward to working with them on Commissioners Court to establish reforms that create a fairer and truly just criminal justice system.”
Following Texas Lead
Additionally, there is bipartisan consensus that the system is in need of reform.
The high costs of incarceration and high rates of recidivism demonstrate this point of agreement.
As of fiscal year 2010, the average annual cost of incarcerating a state prisoner was $31,286, with the costs ranging from $14,603 in Kentucky to $60,076 in New York. Ultimately, taxpayers deserve the most efficient use of their funds.
Enacting certain criminal justice reforms would save taxpayer funds while simultaneously ensuring public safety.
Latest Developments on Reforms
Ellis recently shares some key developments regarding the federal lawsuit seeking reforms to Harris County’s money bail system.
“The lawsuit is in the hands of U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who will decide if the county’s bail system should be immediately suspended until the lawsuit goes to trial,” he said. “I truly believe this lawsuit could be one of the defining civil rights cases of our time. A positive outcome in the lawsuit could bring an end to our two-tiered criminal justice system, which favors the wealthy and punishes the poor for being poor.”
Ellis added that he is proud to join with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in filing an Amicus Brief in the O’Donnell v. Harris County lawsuit that is challenging our current bail system, he added.
The Amicus Brief argues that Harris County’s bail structure “constitutes a blatant and unlawful penalty for poverty” that is not only unconstitutional, but has a disproportionately harmful effect on Black, poor and disadvantaged residents.
“The time is always right to do what is right,” Ellis said quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “That’s why I filed the amicus brief– it’s the right thing to do in the face of injustice. The time is now. Harris County can choose to be on the right side of history and stop funding the defense of a system that’s legally unconstitutional and morally indefensible.”