During his tenure, Senator Ellis has become nationally renowned as a leader on Texas criminal justice reform. Recognizing that a number of factors contributed to an all-too often unjust system, Senator Ellis has taken on the challenge of addressing each factor to ensure that the guilty are punished, the innocent are free, and that every person, regardless of income, stand equal before the law.
The landmark Texas Fair Defense Act was passed in 2001, overhauling the Texas indigent defense system by focusing on four critical issues: timely appointment of counsel, method of counsel appointment by the courts, reporting of information about indigent representation services, and minimum standards for counsel. The legislation also created a task force within the Judicial Council to recommend further improvements and direct funding to assist counties in the improvements.
To address one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in a free society, Senator Ellis has repeatedly led the charge to increase compensation for the wrongfully convicted. While nothing can give the wrongfully incarcerated the years that he or she lost in prison, Senator Ellis has fought to increase monetary compensation, establish an annuity, and provide education and access to affordable health care to those that are exonerated by the state.
In 2009, Senator Ellis passed legislation to establish The Tim Cole Advisory Panel to identify and study the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions. Texas has the highest number of wrongful convictions in the country. The panel is named in honor of Timothy Cole, a young man who died in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a horrific crime.
In 2005, Senator Ellis raised compensation for those who serve jury duty to promote the participation of low-income and minority Texans on juries, therefore increasing the constitutional legitimacy of jury trials in the state.
Combating Hate Crimes
In 2001, after years of partisan gridlock, Senator Ellis passed the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. The legislation will give prosecutors an effective tool to combat acts of hatred and prejudice in Texas. The Byrd Act stiffens fines and jail sentences for crimes proven to have been motivated by hate. The legislation builds on another Ellis bill passed in 1993, which created the Hate Crimes Reporting Statute requiring local law enforcement to compile statistics on acts of hate and report to the Department of Public Safety.
Fair Defense for All Texans
In recent years, Texas’ criminal justice system has been the focus of intense national and international criticism. In 2001, Senator Ellis passed landmark legislation to overhaul Texas’ indigent criminal defense system. The Texas Fair Defense Act ensures prompt appointment of an attorney for indigent criminal defendants, provides guidelines on method of appointment for counsel, establishes minimum standards for appointed attorneys, and provides both state resources and oversight of counties’ indigent defense systems.
To ensure that the wrongfully imprisoned are able to rebuild their lives, in 2001, Senator Ellis passed legislation to increase the level of compensation for the wrongfully convicted. The legislation allowed the wrongfully imprisoned to receive up to $25,000 for each year spent in prison. The maximum a wrongfully imprisoned Texan could recover would be $500,000, up from the $50,000 total allowed under current law. The law has since been updated to provide $80,000 per year spent in prison with no lifetime cap.
Senator Ellis added to his long history of fighting for the wrongfully convicted, passing comprehensive exoneree compensation reform legislation, which provides health care to the wrongfully convicted, establishes standards for attorney’s fees in compensation claims, and removes bureaucratic hurdles in order for exonerees to receive the compensation they deserve.
In 1997, following the tragic death of an 11 year-old from Houston, Senator Ellis passed legislation to ensure young drivers are held accountable in fatal accidents. Ellis’ legislation closed a loophole in the law that allowed a 16-year-old driver responsible for the hit and run death of 11-year-old Lori Ann Braden to go unprosecuted.
Improved eyewitness policy
Senator Ellis was able to pass a number of top priority criminal justice reform bills in 2011, including pivotal eyewitness identification reform that requires all Texas law enforcement agencies in the state to adopt written eyewitness identification policies based on proven best practices and legislation to strengthen Texas’ post-conviction DNA testing to ensure that if there is DNA evidence available to prove someone’s innocence, it can and will be tested.