Rick Perry’s Deeply Flawed Brand of Texas Justice

The GOP favorite may want to appear tough on crime, but from immigration to capital punishment, his record in Texas has quite a few bad marks.

By Shani O. Hilton Aug 17, 2011

To the surprise of no one, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced he’d be running for the Republican presidential nomination last weekend. As we’ve covered before, Perry has been getting his ideological ducks in a row for some time now, even becoming more draconian on immigration issues.

Back in 2001, Perry signed the Texas DREAM act — the country’s first law of that kind — and while he still supports it, he’s now putting money toward more border security and pushing laws that would force towns to monitor undocumented immigrants.

Ana Yañez-Correa, the executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, has helped work on legislation that eventually made it to Perry’s desk. In 2001, she says, there were two pro-immigrant bills on the table. One that gave undocumented immigrants the ability to have drivers’ licenses, and the other was the DREAM Act, which gives undocumented children of immigrants the right to pay in-state tuition.

"He refused to sign both of them," Yañez-Correa says, because it was politically risky. "But he said ‘I’m definitely picking the kids.’ "

Because of that, she sees the possibility of Perry pushing a national DREAM Act, were he to be elected president. "Based on his track record, he’ll support policies that aren’t going to be too controversial," she says.

Still, despite his supporting some progressive immigration legislation, Yañez-Correa is concerned about Perry’s desire to privatize prisons and "the criminalization of undocumented immigrants."

The "sanctuary cities" bill Perry recently tried (and failed) to revive would force cities to police undocumented immigrants — even though many hardly have the resources to fight dangerous criminal activity.

And criminal justice reform is an area in which Perry is drawing critics. Michael Landauer, the editor who oversees criminal justice editorials at the Dallas Morning News says, "Rick Perry has shown no interest in criminal justice reform."

In 2007, the Dallas Morning News editorial board overturned more than 100 years of the paper’s support for the death penalty, and now monitors death penalty cases in the state with a critical eye.

Landauer describes the case of Timothy Cole, a black military veteran who was convicted of rape in 1985, and died in prison in 1999, even though another man confessed to the crime in 1995. Cole was later exonerated by DNA evidence, yet Perry initially refused to issue a posthumous pardon.

"Under immense pressure, he eventually did sign a pardon and held a self-congratulatory press conference for doing the right thing … eventually," Landauer says.

And the case of Cameron Todd Willingham — a man who was executed even though much evidence points to his innocence — is even more disturbing, says Landauer. Just as a state commission was about to release a "damning report" questioning the evidence against Willingham, Perry (who refused to give Willingham a stay of execution) replaced the head of the commission with an ally, who then dragged out the investigation for two years. "As a result, the search for truth in the Cameron Todd Willingham case has been derailed."

While Willingham was white, Landauer says, "This should be particularly troubling for ethnic minorities because Perry’s refusal to deal directly with flaws in our justice system disproportionately affects black men. Dallas County has set a record for the number of men it has freed because of DNA evidence, and almost all of them were black men who were poorly represented at trial."

One area where Yañez-Correa praises Perry is his management of the state’s drug task force. While Texas has recieved a federal Byrne grant — which many states have used to fund the drug war — Perry stopped giving it to drug cops. The task forces primarily target poor communities and communties of color, Yañez-Correa says, and the money incentivizes arrests. That’s evidenced by the town of Tulia, Texas where 46 people, mostly black, were arrested on cocaine-related charges. Most of them have now been freed on charges of wrongful conviction.

The flip side, however, of Perry no longer putting money into drug task forces is that it has to go somewhere. "Unfortunately, he used the money to fund security and border enforcement," says Yañez-Correa. Considering Perry is running for the highest office in the land, she adds, "I would be very concerned based on his calls to action to criminalize undocumented immigrants."

Perry’s apparent lack of concern in criminal justice reform, and his increasingly draconian policies against undocumented Texans are signs that he’s setting himself up to be a non-controversial candidate who still appears tough on crime. "I would say that Rick Perry does a little more than toe the party line," says Landauer. "But mostly he tries to keep a great distance from anything that might show the flaws in the justice system."