Perry Report Card: Criminal Justice
Tue June 10, 2014 10:32 am

Yesterday, when we unveiled the cover of our July issue featuring Rick Perry, we also told you about "The Perry Report Card," an upcoming magazine feature where, as the title suggests, we graded the tenure of the governor on eight areas of public policy. We invited you to weigh in with your own grades for Perry on the subject of transparency and ethics. Under consideration today is his work on criminal justice. 

Perry is (in)famously tough on crime. He fully endorses the use of the ultimate punishment (when warranted), and to that end has signed off on more executions than any other governor in modern history. And his record on that is unlikely to be exceeded, because the number of death sentences issued in Texas has dropped sharply since 2005--when he signed a law giving juries the option of sentencing murderers to life without parole. And that's just one of the ways in which his record is more nuanced than one might think. At the end of this past legislative session, he signed the Michael Morton Act (which is designed to prevent wrongful criminal convictions) into law, and earlier this year, he also came out in favor of letting states choose if marijuana should be decriminalized in their communities. 

Leave your grades and thoughtful essays in the comments, and for a little extra reading, visit this Q&A senior editor Nate Blakeslee conducted with Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and one of the founders of Right on Crime: 

Nate Blakeslee: Governor Perry made headlines recently when he appeared to back marijuana decriminalization at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, [Switzerland]. In fact, it wasn’t a surprise to people who have been paying attention to the governor’s record on criminal justice reform. Talk about the difference between our state’s reputation on law and order and the recent changes we have seen on the ground.

Marc Levin: Well, that’s a great question, and you’re obviously right about Perry. I think people forgot that he signed the bill in 2007 that [the Center for Effective Justice] worked on with the Sheriffs' Association, to allow cite and summons notices for certain misdemeanors, including the smallest amounts of marijuana possession. So it didn’t actually change the penalty—it still remains a Class B misdemeanor—but the police could give you a cite and summons notice [ similar to a traffic ticket ] instead of bringing you to jail. And of course, it was based on the research: we found very few people were actually sentenced to jail for small amounts of marijuana, but there were significant numbers in jail pre-trial who would at least spend the night. And if they couldn’t afford to bond out, they would spend weeks or months—maybe lose their jobs—before their case was resolved, which ultimately would be probation and/or a fine. So this bill just made common sense.

Governor Perry also signed a bill in 2003 that said for less than a gram of hard drugs, for your first offense you would get probation rather than prison. So the governor has been supportive of many things like that and has certainly supported budgets that have expanded drug courts and closed prisons—so I certainly wasn’t surprised. I think that’s what Perry was referring to when he said, “We need to be smart about who we’re incarcerating and incarcerate those who we’re afraid of, not those who we’re mad at.”

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