Rep. Coleman Files “The Sandra Bland Act” Legislation to Fix The Criminal Justice System in Texas

ABOVE: House Committee on County Affairs State Representative Garnet Coleman (District 147) holds press conference to announce filing of The Sandra Bland Act

This past Thursday, State Rep. Garnet Coleman (HD 147) filed House Bill 2702, also known as The Sandra Bland Act, which would implement significantly modified processes for members of law enforcement and for county jails across the state of Texas.

Joined by various colleagues and community activists, Rep. Coleman, who serves as Chair of the House Committee on County Affairs for the 84th Legislative Session, laid out the details of his much-anticipated bill at a press conference, and spoke to the importance of the bills’ passage.

“The events leading up to Sandra Bland’s unnecessary jailing and tragic death sparked statewide and national outrage,” said Rep. Coleman. “The Sandra Bland Act aims to improve and correct Texas’ criminal justice system to make it better for all people and prevent future tragedies like Sandra Bland’s.”

According to Rep. Coleman, the House Committee on County Affairs found that there are significant racial disparities in how the Texas Department of Public Safety treats Blacks when compared to Whites after they have been pulled over for a traffic violation. The Committee also found that the way DPS records and presents the data needs to be improved. Rep. Coleman states that The Sandra Bland Act will address these problems by strengthening Texas’ racial profiling law, as well as ensuring that the data Texas collects is robust, clear, and accurate.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds (HD 27), along with many other Texas legislators, have joined in with Rep. Coleman to co-author and support the bill.

“We must continue to demonstrate our discontentment with the criminal justice system,” said Rep. Reynolds. “The Sandra Bland Act is a step toward fixing this broken system which has taken the life of Sandra Bland and too many others under its inattentive regulations. Paralleling Sandra Bland’s heroic support of justice, I stand in solidarity with Rep. Coleman and others in supporting HB 2702– the Sandra Bland Act.”

According to the bill, The Sandra Bland Act would help prevent future tragic deaths under police custody. In addition, the bill mandates adjustments in the Texas criminal justice system. A few of the proposed changes include: mental health and substance abuse of inmates; bail and jail reform; peace officer training; and pretexts stops, racial profiling, and issuance of citations.

Going back to the House Committee on County Affairs, Rep. Coleman pointed out that The Sandra Bland Act was needed after the Committee found the following:

1. The Committee found reason to believe that Bland and many other people are still being stopped for an underlying pretext. The Act would address this by explicitly outlawing the practice of pretext stops, as well as outlawing consent searches, and raising the burden of proof needed to both stop and search vehicles in Texas.

2. The Committee found that it would be beneficial to the public that all law enforcement would use de-escalation tactics in all interactions with the public. Because the officer escalating the routine traffic stop was the catalyst for the events that led to the death of Bland, implementing policies that better train officers to de-escalate interactions with the public would keep Texans safer and prevent future tragedies.

3. The Committee found that far too many people are being brought to jail and remaining there unnecessarily like Bland. The Committee found that policies of diverting people who are in crisis and running afoul of the law either due to their mental health or substance abuse would be better served being diverted into treatment, rather than cycled through the jail system and released with the same problems that caused them to get arrested previously. The Committee found suspending medical benefits upon detention instead of terminating them to ensure there are not gaps in treatment would help elevate this revolving door problem.

4. The Committee found that Bland was arrested for a fine-only offense. The Committee found that county jails are spending millions of dollars every year combined to house these inmates who have yet to be proven guilty. The Act would increase diversion by creating policies to encourage it, and supporting funding for places where people can be diverted to. Additionally, the Act would create policies aimed at properly increasing the use of personal recognizance bonds.

5. The Committee also found that Bland died in jail because the jails are not as safe as they could be, and that people who have yet to be proven guilty and even those proven guilty should not be subject to the dangers found in our jails. To address that issue the Act would improve training for jailers, and would require jails to have medical personnel present and access to a mental health professional either in person or through telemental health at all times, and would make sure jails had automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate cell checks. The bill also creates a grant program to ensure that all County jails would be able to afford the necessary changes.

The Sandra Bland Act was introduced by Rep. Coleman, because of the incident involving 28-year-old Sandra Bland on July 10, 2015, whereby she was pulled over and subsequently arrested for a traffic violation in Hempstead, Texas. Only three days later on July 13, 2015, Bland was found hanging in a Waller County jail cell. An autopsy concluded that Bland died through asphyxiation, and classified her death as a suicide.

The Forward Times will continue to monitor the details surrounding The Sandra Bland Act, which Rep. Coleman and other legislators hope will improve the Texas criminal justice system for all people, and keep its readers abreast of the latest happenings.