Hurricane Harvey is one factor that has seriously touched nearly every part of state policy in Texas. When it comes to criminal justice, there certainly is no exception. Once the storm initially made landfall, approximately five prisons were evacuated, which resulted in 6,000 prisoners being shipped off to areas that were drier. However, things got more complicated when hundreds of prisoners ended up at a prison that is notoriously known for being too hot, and a location that was already at the center of an ongoing lawsuit.
That prison, Pack Unit, is located southeast of College Station. Back in July, a ruling from a federal judge stated that the facility’s lack of air conditioning, which resulted in the prison’s interior reaching temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. In Texas, around two dozen inmates have died due to heat stroke within the span of two decades, and close to 75% of those prisons lack air conditioning.
The judge further ordered that inmates with sensitive medical conditions be moved from Pack Unit to another location that had working air conditioning, which resulted in another major shuffle.
Furthermore, Texas also found itself in a fight with the federal government to obtain lethal doses of execution drugs all the way from India. Back in March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially banned the drugs from entering the country. This led to Texas requesting that the courts get involved, as they felt the ruling from the FDA was unlawful. Last month, the FDA stated that they were discussing “possible resolutions” with the state.
The practices of the state’s death penalty also had their share of legal challenges as well, as back in March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Texas, stating that their method of determining if an inmate on death row was intellectually disabled was unconstitutional. This led to one inmate’s case being sent back through the lower courts, as well as multiple other similar cases opening up to new litigation.
Meanwhile, at the Texas Legislature, there were a few statewide ballot reform efforts that ended up failing. One would have sped up the overall process of releasing defendants who were jailed and deemed less likely to either skip scheduled court dates or commit new crimes. Other failures included increasing the age at which a young offender is considered to be an adult and coming down on civil asset forfeiture.
New laws that passed the Legislature, however, include the following:
- Requiring high school students to undergo training on how to interact with police
- Requiring departments to report police shootings to the state by imposing penalties for failing to do so
- Sandra Bland Act, which focuses on mental health treatment in county jails throughout Texas
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