For Black lawmakers in Texas, criminal justice reform and maternal health are top priorities
Black lawmakers say criminal justice reform, maternal health care and voting rights are some of their top priorities as the 88th Legislative Session gets underway in 2023.
The Texas Legislative Black Caucus, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is made of 18 state representatives and two state senators. Caucus members altogether have filed 393 bills this session.
Of those, state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, told reporters Tuesday her focus was on racial, cultural and economic disparities in maternal health care. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black mothers are three times as likely to die from birth complications as white and Hispanic mothers.
"We are here to say enough is enough," Thierry said. "We want to take action now to disrupt and end this endemic that is disproportionately affecting our women."
Her most recent piece of legislation is House Bill 1958 — what Thierry calls the "Momnibus" bill, a comprehensive approach to maternal mortality and Medicaid access — filed Monday.
The bill would create a database on maternal mortality and morbidity and extend Medicaid access from six months to a year postpartum.
Thierry filed similar bills in the 2021 legislative session relating to maternal mortality data and Medicaid coverage for doula services, but they failed to pass.
"We all say back home in our districts that our health is our wealth, and we are here to stand for our communities, our women, our families and our people," Thierry said.
Criminal justice reform is another strong focus of Black lawmakers this year, with a number of bills filed this session aimed at increasing police accountability in Texas.
Among those is HB 1808, also known as the Police Insurance Liability Bill, filed by state Rep. Jolanda Jones, D-Houston.
The bill would require peace officers to carry personal liability insurance to cover damages from "any misconduct, including intentional, negligent, or willful acts" while on duty.
This, Jones said, would work to end police violence against communities of color by holding law enforcement officers personally and financially accountable.
“Taxpayers should not foot the bill for police misconduct,” Jones said Wednesday.
The lawmakers laid out their priorities this week in the wake of the release of body camera footage following the beating and subsequent death of Tyre Nichols. The Memphis native was killed by police in January during a traffic stop. Five officers have since been fired and charged with murder.
A bill from State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would address disciplinary measures in such cases of police violence. Her bill, HB 413, would institute a "progressive disciplinary matrix" for allegations of police misconduct.
Under the bill, a local civil service commission would set up a standardized method of gauging police behavior in violent situations. Those include disciplinary actions for failure to deescalate and evaluating appropriate discipline levels for what the bill refers to as "uncommon infractions," and would take into account an officer's previous disciplinary record.
“We do believe in disciplinary measures for police officers, so that those persons who commit infractions of the law are held accountable for their conduct just like the ordinary citizens are,” Thompson said.
Other priorities include improving state funding for historically Black colleges and universities, political redistricting and reforming the state's beleaguered foster care system.
State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, serves as chair of the organization. He said Tuesday that in a state with one of the highest Black populations in the country, the caucus should serve as a blueprint for state policy everywhere.
"Our hope this session is that our colleagues across the aisle would join us in finding and passing some of these common-sense solutions and protections for all of our communities," Reynolds said.
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