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Texas bill requiring 10-year prison sentences for gun felonies faces opposition

Semi-automatic weapons are laid on a table at a gun show in San Marcos in January.
Jordan Vonderhaar
The Texas Tribune
Semi-automatic weapons are laid on a table at a gun show in San Marcos in January.

A Texas bill that would require a 10-year prison sentence for people who use a gun while committing a felony has drawn concern from two groups that aren’t usually on the same side of legislative debates: criminal justice reform advocates and gun rights groups.

Senate Bill 23, filed Thursday by state Sen. Joan Huffman, would also bar judges from sentencing those convicted of using or brandishing firearms during felonies to community supervision or parole in lieu of a decade in prison.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proposed the idea of mandatory sentencing in gun crimes in campaign ads last fall in response to some increases in violent crime following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He included the bill in his list of legislative priorities for the current legislative session, a designation that gives it an easier path to clear the Senate. The bill goes further than a previous piece of legislation that Huffman, a Houston Republican, filed last month.

“I am a firm believer in deterrence, especially for the most violent crimes,” Huffman said in a statement released with the earlier gun crime bill. “In Texas, we deeply respect the Second Amendment, but we will not tolerate violent criminals terrorizing our communities. Enough is enough.”

Huffman was not available to respond to questions about SB 23 on Thursday.

Criminal justice reform advocates say mandatory minimum prison sentences increase inmate populations while doing little to reduce violent crime.

“Frankly, a lot of times lawmakers proposed mandatory minimums because they want to look like they’re doing something about violent crime and the only thing they really know how to do is increase penalties,” said Molly Gill, the vice president of policy at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national criminal justice reform nonprofit.

And some Second Amendment advocates, a powerful lobbying group at the Texas Capitol, have withheld support of the measure. Wes Virdell, Texas state director for the Gun Owners of America, a “no compromise” gun lobbyist group, opposes SB 23 as written because it has potential for “unintended consequences” for gun owners.

“Imagine, you decide to carry and and you’re in Austin, Texas, and you act in what you believe is self-defense … The [district attorney] doesn’t see it that way and now you’re facing 10 years,” Virdell said.

The proposal arrives two years after the Legislature widely expanded gun access, including with a law that permits adults to openly carry handguns in public without a permit or required training.

Mandatory minimum prison sentences were a hallmark of U.S. criminal justice policy in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, representing a “tough on crime” era. In the decades since, research has shown that such laws by and large do not reduce violent crime and could modestly increase crimes committed by people who have been recently released from jail or prison, said Michael Rempel, who leads the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Rempel said a caveat to the research was that he did not believe researchers had looked at any laws as specific as the one proposed in Texas.

By the 2010s, approximately 29 states had taken steps to roll back mandatory sentences, most affecting nonviolent offenses, according to a Vera Institute of Justice report released in 2014.

Focusing on violent crime remains nonetheless politically advantageous, Gill said. Many recently elected and reelected officials campaigned on promises to address crime that rose in recent years but in most instances remains lower than historic highs. Criminologists have theorized a mix of more guns on streets, police brutality and the stresses of the pandemic contributed to the national increases of violent crime.

Some of the cities that experienced such increases have recently recorded slight dips in the most violent crimes. Houston, the state’s most populous city with 2.3 million residents, logged 435 homicides last year compared to 477 the year prior, according to Houston Police Department data. In 2019, there were 291.

Mandatory minimums, Gill said, shift the balance of power in the criminal justice system to the side of prosecutors, enabling them to determine what charges to pursue — or not pursue.

“With a mandatory minimum, you’re essentially turning the prosecutor into the judge, jury and executioner,” Gill said.

The impact of longer prison sentences stretches beyond the person who is convicted, said Alycia Castillo of the Texas Center for Justice and Equity. Those individuals lose jobs and stay out of the job market, unable to keep up with technology that will be sought by employers when they are released. They can also lose parental rights, which are difficult to regain.

“And then of course there’s the community cost,” Castillo said. “What’s it going to look like for us in the future to have folks in a community pulled away — and so many more folks pulled away from their communities — and then returning as more of a burden on the state than they were prior to entering? When we’re thinking about solutions to violence, we really have to be smart about the interventions that are evidence-based and that we know are more effective.”