By CHASE KARACOSTAS/Defender

AUSTIN – The Texas Black Legislative Caucus (TBLC) is increasing its focus on criminal justice reform this legislative session with a number of bills that address everything from preventing African-Americans from entering the state’s prison system to helping former inmates once they are released.

During a press conference at the TBLC Summit, six members of the caucus discussed their plans to increase educational outcomes for African-Americans and clean up criminal justice policies that disproportionately affect them.

 “If you want to reform criminal justice, one of the things you’ll do is reform public education,” said State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, chairman of the caucus this session. “You can’t just wait until somebody gets out of jail to try to help them. It’s far more to our benefit to cure a boy than it is to fix a man.”

The caucus’ plans follow those of Congress, which in December passed the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill designed to help reduce recidivism and the rates of incarcerated people of color. 

The caucus’ plans have a greater emphasis on ensuring African Americans never make it into the criminal justice system. Their first step – House Bill 189 – would implement free full-day pre-kindergarten for certain children, including those who are educationally disadvantaged, to ensure they are adequately prepared for grade school.

Dutton said there is a lot of talk about reducing drop-out rates among 10th-12th graders, but the students get behind in school as early as first grade and never catch up. Part of the problem is how teachers are forced to keep up with lesson plans even if students are behind.

 “Well, why would you do that?” Dutton said. “How can you be on chapter three when they’re on chapter none. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Dutton also discussed how caucus members want to find the source of why African- American boys are disproportionately being suspended. Despite making up only 27 percent of the public school population in Texas, they make up 47 percent of those punished with school suspension. 

At the same time, Dutton said he wants data regarding educational outcomes for African-Americans divided by gender for greater insight into which group is struggling the most.

Helping African-American children improve in school will go a long way toward ensuring they never end up in jail or prison, closing off the “school to prison pipeline,” Dutton said.

The caucus will also push hard for the decriminalization of marijuana. Possession of any amount of the drug less than 2 ounces is a Class B misdemeanor, which can result in the loss of a person’s driver’s license, making it harder to maintain a steady job and stay away from crime, Dutton said.

Additionally, House Bill 215 by State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, would require the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into cases of law enforcement officer-involved injuries or deaths, such as shootings. Despite making up just 12 percent of the U.S. population, African-Americans comprised 23 percent of officer-involved shootings last year, according to the Washington Post.

Reynolds also said the caucus would be on “the front lines” to fight against any legislation that may hurt Black Texans. “Power concedes nothing without demand – never has and never will,” Reynolds said. “The Texas Legislative Black Caucus is speaking truth to power. We’re unapologetically Black, and we are advocating for the