ABOVE: Rep. Harold V. Dutton, Jr.
With all the buzz and attention surrounding the election of Donald J. Trump, one should not lose focus on the fact that prior to the nation swearing in the 45th President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017, the Texas Legislature will begin its 85th Legislative Session on January 10, 2017, and there are more than 400 bills that have been filed by state lawmakers that very well may become the law of the land one day in the state of Texas.
Although most of those 400 bills will never make it to the governor’s desk to be signed into law, let alone make it out of committee or receive passage by the House and Senate, State Rep. Harold V. Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston), hopes that two of the bills he has filed will be one of those bills signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott by the end of the 2017 legislative session.
Rep. Harold V. Dutton, Jr., who represents District 142 and was first elected to the chamber in 1984, has filed HB-82 which reduces the penalty for possession of one-ounce or less of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor. If passed, HB-123 would treat possession of a minor quantity of marijuana just as traffic tickets are treated and police officers would simply write the offender a ticket. Under current Texas law, possession of two ounces or less of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor which makes a violator subject to 180 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,000.00. Additionally, offenders lose their driving privileges for one-year.
Marijuana possession ranks among the more common cause of arrest and Texans spend over $250,000,000.00 annually for enforcement of current marijuana laws. Almost 90% of such arrests are for possession which represents slightly more than 10% of the total number of arrests annually for criminal conduct in Texas. Rep. Dutton, who has filed similar bills concerning this issue since 2003, has been advocating for a change in Texas’ marijuana laws and eliminating the criminal penalties for the possession of less than one ounce of weed.
“I don’t advocate using marijuana and that is one reason HB- 82 requires an individual to successfully complete a drug awareness class if in possession of less than an ounce of marijuana,” said Rep. Dutton. “I sincerely appreciate all of the other legislators and Texans who have now joined this fight and it is time for Texas to end this nonsensical punishment of Texans. Too many lives have already been ruined, especially youngsters.”
HB-82 continues the penal code trend of graduated punishment for possession of differing quantities of marijuana. Punishment in Texas for possession of major quantities of marijuana can range up to a first degree felony but unfortunately the punishment range ends at Class B which means an individual can be subject to arrest and conviction for possessing even a marijuana seed.
Rep. Dutton has also filed a bill that would end the Texas’ Death Penalty.
As he has with the marijuana issue, Rep. Dutton has also been filing a bill to end the death penalty in Texas since 2003. The Democratic representative also recently filed HB-64 which would abolish the death penalty in Texas.
After nearly thirty-years of the death penalty being the ultimate state punishment in this country, more than 100 court certified death row errors have surfaced. Some convictions were overturned due to the science of DNA, while others resulted from the confessions of the real killers. Sadly, some death row convictions were thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct, false testimony or procedural errors by appellate judges.
“It costs Texans an average of $2.3 million to prosecute a death penalty case, which is three times the costs imprisoning an individual in a single high security cell for 40 years,” said Rep. Dutton. “If that’s not enough, consider that any analysis of Texas’ justice system would have to conclude that Texas’ past executions have most certainly included the innocent. More telling, future executions will also include those who are factually innocent. Our current criminal justice system cannot prevent that.”
In 2016 alone, six (6) death row inmates were exonerated of all charges, one each in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and here in the state of Texas.
“No matter the reason for overturning these death row convictions, what this signifies is that our justice system is substantially less than morally acceptable at distinguishing between factual and legally guilty,” Rep. Dutton stated further.
Today, 31 states have death penalty statutes, while 19 have no death penalty. Since 1977, Texas has executed 755 individuals, accounting for more than one third of all executions nationwide. There are currently 254 individuals on Texas’ death row.
It will be important for all proponents of these two issues that disparately impact people of color, reach out to all state lawmakers to see these bills come out of committee, receive favorable passage in the House and Senate, and get signed into law by Governor Abbott.
In addition to Rep. Dutton’s bills, there are several other bills that have been filed that deal with everything from imposing term limits on elected officials in Texas; abortion; education; child welfare; healthcare; and much more.
The 85th Legislative Session begins on January 10, 2017, and these biennial sessions are limited to 140 days, which means the session will conclude on May 29, 2017. The governor can also call additional special sessions as necessary, which cannot exceed 30 days. The Texas Legislature meets in a regular session every two years, convening on the second Tuesday in January of every odd-numbered year.
So Forward Times readers, buckle up, get ready and stay tuned, to see what happens in Austin during these exciting 140 days of the 85th Legislative Session.