Under Senate Bill 23, all felonies involving a gun would incur a mandatory 10-year prison sentence. It’s meant to curb crime, despite the lack of correlation between harsher sentences and crime rate
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
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
“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
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
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
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.”