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Texas Politics - The Justice System
Public opinion about confidence in police Public opinion about confidence in police
5.    The Criminal Justice System

There are many different philosophical approaches to how society should treat convicted criminals. Some say that society should punish crime harshly in order to deter to potential future crimes. Others argue that this runs the risk of creating lifetime criminals with high rates of recidivism - the tendency to return to criminal habits. Overshadowing debates on the most effective way to reduce crime is a moral trade-off between ensuring the public safety on the one hand, and protecting the rights of the accused and providing humane punishments for the convicted.

Texas political culture strongly favors swift and stern punishment for offenses against the law, especially in the areas of violent and so-called blue-collar crimes. But, the cultural current that favors stern punishment for criminal offenses also carries with it a concern with justice. How well the Texas criminal justice and criminal corrections systems deliver on that obligation to ensure justice is examined here. Before we get there, a quick review of the structure and process of the criminal justice system is required.

As in most such systems, the structure of the criminal justice system in Texas has three distinct components:

  • Law enforcement and criminal prosecution - primarily the municipal police, county sheriffs and the Texas Department of Public Safety (including the Texas Rangers), but also district attorneys offices and technical investigative organizations like crime labs

  • Criminal trial and appeals - the criminal trial and appeals court system, including public defenders, the jury system and other court procedures

  • Corrections - the system of incarceration and parole, including prisons, parole boards, and the capital punishment apparatus

Each of these three components of the criminal justice system is a sprawling system comprising numerous levels, units, and thousands of personnel. The law enforcement system is perhaps the most decentralized. As noted above, it includes sheriffs departments for the state's 254 counties and police departments for its 1,202 incorporated municipalities. In addition, the state operates the Department of Public Safety, which is dedicated primarily for patrolling state roadways and other state facilities.

The court system, as we have already seen, is quite complex and decentralized at the lower levels. Yet these lower courts remain regulated by the Supreme Court of Texas. So, although county and municipal courts can vary considerably in their approaches to criminal justice, they function within a clearly identifiable court hierarchy.

The corrections system is perhaps the most tightly organized component of the state's criminal justice system. Although there are numerous municipal and county jail systems, most criminal offenses involving substantial incarceration are classified as state crimes that are punishable by serving time in state jails and prisons.

Each of these three components of the criminal justice system in Texas operates under its own authority and obligations, and within its own structure of incentives. There can be significant variation from locality to locality, and from county to county, in the way crimes are investigated, prosecuted and ultimately tried. Large differences in police resources and investigative standards across the state - as well as variations in prevailing local attitudes - means that law enforcement and justice itself may depend on where you are. The Tulia drug arrests mentioned at the beginning of this chapter hint at some of this variability. Overall, as the Texas Politics feature examining some public opinion research on attitudes toward police illustrates, Texans register less confidence in the police than the national average.

Despite the formal independence and decentralized structure of the criminal justice system (and the decentralized nature of each of the three components) their collective behavior has made Texas tougher than most states in the prosecution and conviction of criminal offenses.

Texas Politics:
© 2009, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
University of Texas at Austin
3rd Edition - Revision 116
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