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Featured: Sandra Bland (Undated photograph posted on her Facebook)

Featured: Sandra Bland (Undated photograph posted on her Facebook)

The tragic death of Sandra Bland on Monday, July 13, 2o15, while confined in the Waller County Jail, requires decisive and landmark action by the Texas Legislature to guarantee that every jail cell in Texas is being monitored by a video surveillance system. Bland, 28, a graduate of Prairie View A&M who had come back after accepting a new job at her alma mater, was reportedly alone in a Waller County Jail cell, out-of-sight of a nearby county jail video camera, when she allegedly committed suicide by hanging. Darryl Johnson, a legislative consultant with more than 35 years experience in the Texas Legislature, who resides in Prairie View, is proposing legislation, to be known as “The Sandra Bland Justice for All Act”, be filed when the Texas Legislature begins its regular session in January 2017. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Houston and Speaker of the House Joe Straus of San Antonio should immediately appoint a joint Senate-House legislative committee to come up with ways to require all jails in Texas to maintain an effective video monitoring system so that no one who is being held in a cell is hidden from the protective and unbiased view of a video camera, he recommended. “In light of the terrible controversy and negative worldwide image of Texas that is resulting from this sorrow, now is the time to show the world that we in Waller County will help lead the way on what would be a major improvement of our state’s criminal justice system,” said Johnson. “More important, it is right and just that Sandra Bland, whose life calling courageously revolved around battling injustice, should have her honorable name, through ‘The Sandra Bland Justice for All Act’, be forever linked to protecting the innocent.”

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To truly serve and protect the innocent, Texas lawmakers should begin work on “The Sandra Bland Justice for All Act”

By DARRYL JOHNSON
darryljohnson@lobbyist.com

The tragic death of Sandra Bland on Monday, July 13, 2o15, while confined in the Waller County Jail, requires decisive and landmark action by the Texas Legislature to guarantee that every jail cell in Texas is being monitored by a video surveillance system.

Bland, 28, a graduate of Prairie View A&M who had come back after accepting a new job at her alma mater, was reportedly alone in a Waller County Jail cell, out-of-sight of a nearby county jail video camera, when she allegedly committed suicide by hanging.

The local, state, national, and international outrage over the incredible circumstances surrounding the passing of Sandra Bland demands action that will protect any person, regardless of their background, from being hurt or losing their life while in custody.

I am proposing legislation, to be known as “The Sandra Bland Justice for All Act”, be filed when the Texas Legislature begins its regular session in January 2017.

But there is much we can do in the meantime.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Houston and Speaker of the House Joe Straus of San Antonio should immediately appoint a joint Senate-House legislative committee to come up with ways to require all jails in Texas to maintain an effective video monitoring system so that no one who is being held in a cell is hidden from the protective and unbiased view of a video camera.

This special legislative committee should also develop sources of revenue to pay for such a video monitoring system. After all, how many millions of dollars have public jails in Texas lost to lawsuits stemming from injuries and deaths of individuals in police custody?

Earlier this month, Sandra Bland’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against two guards at the Waller County Jail, among other individuals and entities, including the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The mandatory use of comprehensive video surveillance monitoring systems in jails in Texas – where no one is out of sight of a camera – is one of the major goals of “The Sandra Bland Justice for All Act”.

This idea is neither new or radical.

But more than ever, it is needed.

In 2003, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and then-Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Mission, carried House Bill 1660, which proposed requiring that each county jail in Texas “must install and operate a video camera surveillance system that records video images in each jail corridor, solitary confinement cell, suicide watch cell, kitchen, and dining area or other common area.”

According to the bill analysis, prepared by both lawmakers, “a high level of surveillance cameras is necessary within these facilities to ensure that the inmates, depending upon their incarceration program, are maintained in their areas, along with guaranteeing the security of the guards and the inmates.”

But House Bill 1660 faced concerns that costs would be prohibitive for many jails in Texas, and its original and far-reaching intention was unfortunately not achieved.

The proposed Senate-House legislative committee must bring back the original vision of Sen. Hinojosa and Rep. Flores, and make it happen, beginning through public hearings statewide, starting first here in Prairie View.

In light of the terrible controversy and negative worldwide image of Texas that is resulting from this sorrow, now is the time to show the world that we in Waller County will help lead the way on what would be a major improvement of our state’s criminal justice system.

More important, it is right and just that Sandra Bland, whose life calling courageously revolved around battling injustice, should have her honorable name, through “The Sandra Bland Justice for All Act”, be forever linked to protecting the innocent.

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Darryl Johnson, a legislative consultant with more than 35 years experience in the Texas Legislature, resides in Prairie View. David A. Díaz, a legislative and news media consultant based in McAllen, contributed to this article.

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Sen. Ellis: “The numbers don’t lie: Blacks in Texas are imprisoned at almost five times the rate of whites and at seven times the rate of whites for drug possession”

By SEN. RODNEY ELLIS
D-HOUSTON

A traffic stop for a lane change resulted in death. Many unanswered questions remain about how we ultimately lost Sandra Bland, but the unfortunate truth is our broken criminal justice system played a major role in her tragic passing.

While we can’t bring Bland back, we can look at the systemic problems that led to her death and decide to move forward by implementing specific policy reforms to create a more equitable and effective justice system for all people and prevent the needless destruction of more lives.

As anyone who has seen the dashcam video can attest, Bland’s traffic stop was clearly mishandled by the arresting officer. Though most of our officers serve honorably, as with any public servant, we must have transparency and accountability. We need more police training in de-escalation techniques and how to build better relationships with the communities they serve, body cameras must become mandatory, interrogations should be recorded, and independent investigations should occur in officer-involved deaths.

After the traffic stop, Bland was arrested and taken to jail. Taking away someone’s freedom by locking them in cell is a serious act that should only happen when it’s necessary to protect public safety. To ensure that’s the case, we must move away from wasteful and ineffective policies of mass incarceration particularly the war on drugs — and towards more effective and less destructive smart-on-crime strategies for low-level, non-violent offenses.

By advancing policies like pre-arrest and pre-trial diversion, prohibiting arrests for minor offenses like Class C misdemeanors, and encouraging greater use of Texas’ cite-and-release statute, we can make sure we only put folks behind bars who are a threat to public safety.

Once the decision was made to arrest Bland, she could have been booked and released by the magistrate. Instead, she was confined in jail without being convicted of a crime because she couldn’t afford bail. Her situation wasn’t unique. More than 60 percent of people in Texas jails — and 80 percent of the people housed in Waller County Jail over the past year — haven’t been convicted of a crime. Instead, the vast majority are there simply because they don’t have enough money to get out.

Someone’s danger to the community should determine bail, not their wealth. Requiring risk assessments and utilizing proven alternatives to incarceration for low-risk arrestees — like personal bonds, electronic monitoring, or simple check-ins — can make sure we’re only confining people in jail awaiting trial if we know they’re a threat to the community.

At the time of Bland’s death, she had yet to be granted her constitutional right to counsel. If she had, she might have had her rights better protected and the opportunity to advocate for appropriate pre-trial release. By simply appointing counsel at the earliest stages and expanding and funding public defender offices, we can do a better job of safeguarding Texans’ constitutional rights.

Lastly, it is equally important that we ensure our laws are enforced equitably. What part race played in Bland’s mistreatment is impossible to quantify, but the effect of race in our justice system can’t be ignored. The numbers don’t lie: Blacks in Texas are imprisoned at almost five times the rate of whites and at seven times the rate of whites for drug possession.

Those are astonishing disparities that should cause alarm.

As Bland’s case shows us, those aren’t just statistics — they are real lives being destroyed.

It’s time for Texas to conduct a honest examination of the effectiveness of our justice practices and the equality of their enforcement. We can then determine why such racial disparities exist at each stage of our justice system and implement reforms to remedy them.

Let’s do our part to make sure that Bland’s legacy isn’t just a life needlessly lost, but a spark that inspires us to take action. After more than 30 years of mass incarceration and a shameful history of unequal justice for communities of color and the poor, Texas has an obligation to create a justice system that ensures all people are treated equally and fairly under the law.

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Sen. Rodney Ellis represents Senate District 13. He was elected to the Texas Senate in 1990. During his tenure, he has been leader on economic development, education, civil rights, responsible environmental policy, middle class tax cuts, and criminal justice issues, having passed over 600 bills.

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