Texas is about to take action against “rogue” district attorneys who refuse to prosecute entire categories of crimes, such as abortion or drug-related offenses.
On Monday, Governor Greg Abbott announced that he would sign House Bill 17, which expands the definition of “official misconduct” for which a prosecutor may be removed from office. Petitioning for the removal of a district attorney who refuses to prosecute a class or type of criminal offense is permitted under the proposed law.
“This is one of many transformative bills passed during this session,” Abbott stated on Monday. “I’ll sign it. However, more work remains.”
The petitioner must have resided in the county of the offending district attorney for at least six months and cannot be presently charged with a crime in that county. The proposed legislation would also apply to county attorneys with criminal jurisdiction if passed.
“Our message is crystal clear – the rule of law will be respected and enforced in Texas,” said Republican state representative David Cook, who sponsored the bill. It is time to eliminate politics from criminal prosecution.
The Republican-led initiative is a response to progressive district attorneys and state attorneys general who have pledged not to enforce abortion bans since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade a year ago. Some district attorneys, such as New York’s Alvin Bragg and Los Angeles’s George Gascon, have declined to prosecute misdemeanor offenses and low-level felonies, such as marijuana possession and prostitution.
Some progressive prosecutors in Texas refused to comply with a directive issued by Abbott last year requiring investigations into transgender medical care for minors as child abuse. Abbott has pledged to sign legislation prohibiting puberty blockers and hormone therapies for transgender minors, which is presently making its way through the legislature.
Other district attorneys have pledged to halt mass incarceration by declining to prosecute crimes, including Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, who announced in 2019 that he would not prosecute thefts of personal items under $750 committed out of necessity.
House Bill 17 contains an exemption for prosecutors who utilize pretrial diversion programs, which provide an alternative to prosecution for criminal offenders who commit to comply with the law in the future and complete a counseling or community service.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Democrats and civil rights groups oppose the law, arguing that it is unconstitutional and excessively vague.
“This violation of the state’s separation of powers is part of an unsettling pattern of top-down power grabs,” Democratic state senator Sarah Eckhardt, a former prosecutor, told the news source. In a jurisdiction like Texas, where the people directly elect local district attorneys, prosecutorial discretion is an essential tool.