Rick Perry has been Texas’s longest serving governor. In 14 years in office he has changed the criminal justice system in a way that was not predicted when he first took office in 2001, according to commentators.
Writing in the Texas Tribune, Terri Langford said Perry’s first budget as governor in 2001 “could have come from any Texas politician who talked tough on crime.”
Perry called for more prisons and tougher sentences. However, the policies in his term have seen a reduction in the prison population in recent years and some measures to make the criminal justice system fairer.
At the same time Texas still ranks fourth in the nation for the number of prisoners who are incarcerated and Perry has done little to fix Texas’s unenviable record of leading the nation in terms of executions carried out.
The Tribune article said Perry’s reforms included the introduction of a life sentence with no parole, a measure that slowed down the pace of executions at the state’s death chamber, DNA testing of evidence after a conviction and the Michael Morton Act, which allows defense attorneys better access to prosecution evidence before trial.
“Governor Perry has not led on these issues, but he didn’t sabotage them either and deserves credit for not being an obstructionist,” stated state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, whose bill to require DNA testing for evidence in death penalty cases was signed by the Governor. “As the most powerful public official in the state, Governor Perry gets credit for what we have achieved but also bears some responsibility for how far we still have to go,” he added.
Although the prison issue has been tackled in recent years, the state still has a huge prison population. Today there are 150,212 offenders in Texas’ 109 prisons, compared with just 48,000 in 1990, before the start of a massive prison building program. However, a softer stance on offending in recent years in Texas has diverted prisoners into alternative programs.
The Tribune article said Perry’s stance has remained firm on executions in his 14 year tenure that came to an end this month. The Governor has overseen 319 executions, more than any other governor in the United States, and more than half of the 518 executions since Texas resumed its use of the death penalty in 1982.
The Tribune article said Perry only halted two executions. On Sept. 11, 2001, he issued a 30-day stay for Jeffrey Tucker, citing the national emergency of 9-11. However, Tucker was executed two months later. In 2002, Perry granted Rodolfo Hernandez a 30-day stay of execution, but he was executed 10 days after it expired.
Indeed early in his tenure, Perry vetoed a bill banning the execution of the mentally disabled. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that executing mentally people was in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The article cites as “arguably the most controversial execution of his tenure,” that of Cameron Todd Willingham,
Perry refused to intervene and Willingham was executed on charges of setting a 1991 house fire that killed his three children. His conviction was based on what many commentators said was faulty evidence and “junk science” from arson investigators.
However, the number of executions has declined in recent years in Texas. In 2005, Perry signed a new law that created the sentencing option of life without parole. It has meant fewer capital murder defendants now receive death sentences.
The recidivism rate in Texas has dropped from a high in 1999 of 33 percent to 22 percent, a development that is linked to a number of diversionary treatment programs.
Although Perry’s record on criminal justice remains a mixed one, his approach has been more pragmatic than his tough stance when he took office back in 2001, led us to believe it would be.