Sandra Bland’s death should focus our efforts on reform

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A traffic stop for a lane change resulted in death. Many unanswered questions remain about how we ultimately lost Sandra Bland, but the unfortunate truth is our broken criminal justice system played a major role in her tragic passing.

While we can’t bring Bland back, we can look at the systemic problems that led to her death and decide to move forward by implementing specific policy reforms to create a more equitable and effective justice system for all people and prevent the needless destruction of more lives.

As anyone who has seen the dashcam video can attest, Bland’s traffic stop was clearly mishandled by the arresting officer. Though most of our officers serve honorably, as with any public servant, we must have transparency and accountability. We need more police training in de-escalation techniques and how to build better relationships with the communities they serve, body cameras must become mandatory, interrogations should be recorded, and independent investigations should occur in officer-involved deaths.

After the traffic stop, Bland was arrested and taken to jail. Taking away someone’s freedom by locking them in cell is a serious act that should only happen when it’s necessary to protect public safety. To ensure that’s the case, we must move away from wasteful and ineffective policies of mass incarceration — particularly the war on drugs — and towards more effective and less destructive smart-on-crime strategies for low-level, non-violent offenses.

By advancing policies like pre-arrest and pre-trial diversion, prohibiting arrests for minor offenses like Class C misdemeanors, and encouraging greater use of Texas’ cite-and-release statute, we can make sure we only put folks behind bars who are a threat to public safety.

Once the decision was made to arrest Bland, she could have been booked and released by the magistrate. Instead, she was confined in jail without being convicted of a crime because she couldn’t afford bail. Her situation wasn’t unique. More than 60 percent of people in Texas jails — and 80 percent of the people housed in Waller County Jail over the past year — haven’t been convicted of a crime. Instead, the vast majority are there simply because they don’t have enough money to get out.

Someone’s danger to the community should determine bail, not their wealth. Requiring risk assessments and utilizing proven alternatives to incarceration for low-risk arrestees — like personal bonds, electronic monitoring, or simple check-ins — can make sure we’re only confining people in jail awaiting trial if we know they’re a threat to the community.

At the time of Bland’s death, she had yet to be granted her constitutional right to counsel. If she had, she might have had her rights better protected and the opportunity to advocate for appropriate pre-trial release. By simply appointing counsel at the earliest stages and expanding and funding public defender offices, we can do a better job of safeguarding Texans’ constitutional rights.

Lastly, it is equally important that we ensure our laws are enforced equitably. What part race played in Bland’s mistreatment is impossible to quantify, but the effect of race in our justice system can’t be ignored. The numbers don’t lie: Blacks in Texas are imprisoned at almost five times the rate of whites and at seven times the rate of whites for drug possession.

Those are astonishing disparities that should cause alarm. As Bland’s case shows us, those aren’t just statistics — they are real lives being destroyed. It’s time for Texas to conduct a honest examination of the effectiveness of our justice practices and the equality of their enforcement. We can then determine why such racial disparities exist at each stage of our justice system and implement reforms to remedy them.

Let’s do our part to make sure that Bland’s legacy isn’t just a life needlessly lost, but a spark that inspires us to take action. After more than 30 years of mass incarceration and a shameful history of unequal justice for communities of color and the poor, Texas has an obligation to create a justice system that ensures all people are treated equally and fairly under the law.

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