Dallas Morning News names Senator Whitmire 2015 Texan of the Year

The Texas Justice League

Editorial: John Whitmire, Rodney Ellis and Ruth Jones McClendon led the charge for far-reaching criminal justice reforms

These are heady days for conservatives in the Texas Legislature. Tea party victories and a steady trend favoring conservative causes seem to have tilted the state Capitol further to the right than ever before. Why, then, are so many Republican legislators rushing to support what is typically regarded as a liberal cause — criminal justice reform?

There are lots of reasons, but probably the top one is a commonly shared sense of fairness. No one likes to see innocent people railroaded into prison. And through the years far too many Texans have been content to let such injustices go unchallenged, even when an innocent man was sitting on death row.

Three state legislators — Houston Sens. Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire, and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon of San Antonio — decided the state needed a wake-up call, because a miscarriage of justice is no justice at all. This year, building on momentum from previous sessions, they rallied some of the staunchest conservatives in the House and Senate to their cause of fixing the justice system to reduce injustices and curtail the prison-industrial complex.

Perhaps most remarkable: These three are Democrats.

Through sheer force of will and the persuasive power of their cause, they rallied the Republican majority to their mission. It required remarkable grit for them to persevere amid increasingly harsh partisan divisions, particularly with a tea party stalwart in the lieutenant governor’s seat and an equally devout conservative in the governor’s office.

They worked together — and with allies on both sides of the partisan fence — to accomplish landmark legislation against overwhelming political odds, fomenting change that continues to resonate across the United States.

For their uncommon impact, McClendon, Ellis and Whitmire are our Dallas Morning News 2015 Texans of the Year.

• Among at least a half-dozen measures to which their names are attached are reforms that:

• Established a commission to review exoneration cases and dissect how innocent people get sent to prison.

• Changed grand jury procedures so prosecutors wouldn’t have such an unfair advantage over poor defendants.

• Established a convicted prisoner’s right to DNA testing in cases where evidence is likely to contain biological material.

Eased criminal proceedings for misdemeanor offenses committed by children, effectively altering the cradle-to-prison pipeline that helps to keep the Texas prison system constantly full.

To get an idea of the hurdles these three have faced in the Legislature, we contacted various lawmakers and behind-the-scenes political players. They uniformly described a strong reluctance among rank-and-file Republicans to embrace criminal justice reform. Swaying these skeptics didn’t come easily. McClendon, Ellis and Whitmire strategized, triangulated and found ways to win hearts and minds without asking anyone to compromise on core beliefs.

Full interactive article can be found at http://interactives.dallasnews.com/2015/texan-of-the-year/


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