Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said the state Legislature will look at cracking down on district attorneys who won’t enforce the law, including those with cite-and-release policies like Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales.
Phelan, a Republican from Beaumont, made the comment Friday in a wide-ranging interview at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church as part of the Texas Tribune Festival.
“We’re seeing certain counties do things that I think are not appropriate,” said Phelan, who pointed to cite-and-release policies as an example.
Phelan said in a statement after the event, “the Texas House will explore and consider ways to hold prosecutors accountable to their oath to uphold the law while protecting the due process rights of the accused.”
Gonzales, who says he doesn’t believe it’s right to prosecute abortion-related crimes in Bexar County, addressed the possibility of retaliation from the state in a San Antonio Report debate earlier this week.
“We’ve got a removal statute in Texas, and they certainly could consider doing something moving forward if I took the position that I absolutely refused to prosecute abortion cases,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales went on to say that he didn’t think he would be subject to removal.
“I understand my oath, and I will exercise my prosecutorial discretion and make that decision when I have to make it, when that case is filed in my office,” he added.
Criminal justice reform advocates on the right scored a big federal-level victory with the First Step Act signed by then-President Donald Trump in 2018. Since the pandemic, however, they say Republicans have a much tougher needle to thread because rising crime has become such a salient political issue.
“I don’t use a the word ‘reform’ [anymore] because as soon as I say reform, I kind of get a stiff arm,” said Kurt Altman, who leads the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime initiative. “People are taken aback by it because they think reform means letting people out of prison.”
Phelan, who plans to seek another term as speaker, is among those capitalizing on the politics of the issue, while also advocating for his own criminal justice reforms that he hopes would reduce the state’s relatively high incarceration rate. The 88th Texas Legislature’s regular session begins in January.
In a statement, Phelan blasted district attorneys who he said “are not elected to create safe havens for criminals based on their own personal or political viewpoints.”
In response to a question from a member of the audience about the state’s high incarceration rates, however, Phelan said, “I agree that we are over-incarcerated in Texas.”
“I see second chances as an economic development tool,” he added, pointing to skilled labor shortages in Southeast Texas, which could be filled through job training programs for inmates.
Phelan has promised to make criminal justice reform a top priority in the coming legislative session, and said Friday he supports lessening the punishment for possessing marijuana.
“I don’t know marijuana from oregano, it’s not really my thing,” said Phelan, but added he was in favor of revisiting the penalties for possessing it.