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Senator Ellis reacts to Senate rules change

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) issued this statement regarding the changes in the Senate rules:

“This is a sad day for the Texas Senate and one that we will look back on and regret,” said Sen. Ellis. “We’re detonating decades of Senate tradition, tradition which has made the Texas State Senate a great deliberative body.”

“This has been a place where you have to work together to bring a real consensus to move forward on an issue. Sometimes that takes years – believe me, I know – but when the Senate is ready on a controversial issue, that means Texas is ready.”

“Instead, we’ve decided that if you can’t win through debate, you push it through via a rules change. What we’re telling our successors is to run over the other side when you can, and I don’t think that’s what this body is about.”

“As Texas’ longest-serving lieutenant governor, Bill Hobby, wrote, ‘The biggest mistake I made as president of the Texas Senate was trying to circumvent the Senate’s two-thirds tradition in 1979 … Anything that doesn’t have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea.'”

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Ellis: As we honor King, let’s examine criminal justice reform

Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life on a mission to make America true to its constitutional promise of equal opportunity and justice for all. Unfortunately, recent events are a sobering reminder that 50 years after Selma, the gap between the vision of the dream and reality of disparate justice persists.

Though we have made progress, the need to push for reforms to ensure all people, regardless of race or income, receive fair and equal justice under the law is as important and necessary today as it was that bloody Sunday.

These problems aren’t unique to Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has appropriately labeled our nation’s criminal justice policies “the New Jim Crow,” and as the Chronicle’s recent coverage tells us, we have the same issues – perhaps even worse – right here at home. They are as persistent and extensive as they are disturbing, and the numbers don’t lie:

In 2012, African-Americans made up only 18.9 percent of Harris County’s population, but they comprised 65.8 percent of those from the county incarcerated in state prison for drug possession and 50 percent of the people detained in Harris County jails, despite the fact that rates of drug use barely differ between racial groups.

Houston Police Department officers shot 121 civilians between 2008 and 2012, yet not a single officer was indicted or disciplined.

Seventy percent of people in the Harris County Jail have yet to be convicted of any crime, the majority of whom merely cannot afford to post bail.

These aren’t just statistics – they are real lives affected. We must decide whether we care enough about those lives to take action, right now, to move us forward toward a more fair, equitable and effective justice system we can rely on.

We can start by advancing smart-on-crime diversion alternatives for low-level, nonviolent drug possession offenses, which are proven to be more effective at improving public safety, and move away from our ineffective and wasteful over-reliance on incarceration. It’s equally important to reform how these laws are enforced by moving toward community policing and away from “broken windows” policing and practices like “stop-and-frisk” that disproportionately target the poor and communities of color.

Most of our police officers do honorable work, and their service is to be praised and respected. But as with any profession, we must have transparency and accountability to ensure public trust. An independent police review board with subpoena power should be established; independent prosecutors should be required in any case with a law enforcement-related death; body cameras, with proper policies regarding their operation and accessibility, should be mandatory; and all police interrogations should be recorded.

We need to advance reforms to ensure every person, regardless of color, rich or poor, stands equal before the law if they are accused of a crime. Our right to be judged by a jury of our peers must be protected through measures to eliminate the broken key man grand jury system, prevent outside influence and bias, and eliminate barriers to community participation. Everyone in a free society deserves that their constitutional right to counsel be protected by access to quality legal representation, which we can help through the expansion and funding of public defenders and managed assigned counsel systems.

People should not be imprisoned simply because they are poor, so it’s imperative we fix our bail bond system to stop locking in jail those who have yet to be convicted of a crime because they cannot afford bail.

We should establish an entity to consistently oversee and compile data on our criminal justice policies to evaluate their effectiveness at reducing crime and the reliability, efficiency, and fairness in their application.

As we celebrate King’s birthday this week, let’s dedicate ourselves to honoring his legacy with more than rhetoric and commit ourselves to making his dream a reality through meaningful action.

King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that arc doesn’t bend on its own. It’s our responsibility, each and every one of us, working together, to dedicate ourselves to advancing the cause of equality and justice for all. We can start today, and we’ll be a better city, state and nation as a result. What better way to honor a true American hero?

Ellis, a Democrat, represents Houston in the Texas Senate.

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Sen. Ellis responds to indigent defense caseloads study

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) issued this statement following the release of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission’s caseload study.

“Texas has a problem with attorneys handling so many criminal cases that they cannot provide effective representation to their indigent clients,” said Sen. Ellis. “Taking over 1000 appointed cases in a year, for example, makes effective representation nearly impossible. This report offers recommendations that are an integral first step toward making sure all Texans have their constitutional rights protected.”

Through a Senate floor amendment to Rep. Sylvester Turner’s HB 1318 (83R), Sen. Ellis required the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to conduct a study to generate caseload recommendations that enable the state’s criminal defense attorneys “to give each indigent defendant the time and effort necessary to ensure effective representation.”

According to the study’s findings, a Texas attorney should handle an annual full-time equivalent of no more than 236 Class B Misdemeanors, 216 Class A Misdemeanors, 175 State Jail Felonies, 144 Third Degree Felonies, 105 Second Degree Felonies, or 77 First Degree Felonies.

“I applaud the work of the Commission,” said Sen. Ellis. “It’s time for us to get down to the serious work of implementing these guidelines.”

This session, Sen. Ellis continues to tackle the issue of high caseloads by filing SB 260, which . As the bill moves through the legislative process, Sen. Ellis will incorporate the study’s recommendations to ensure that Texas has the proper checks and balances in place to protect against abuse of our valuable criminal justice resources.

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Ready to fight

Dear Friend,

Today is the first day of the 84th Legislative Session. In addition to nine new members of the Senate, Texas also has a new Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and many other statewide elected positions.

Over the next 140 days, I will be fighting in Austin for my constituents in Senate District 13, pushing Texas to address the significant number of challenges it continues to face. Before the committee hearings and floor votes begin, I want to share with you the priorities that I will be pursuing.

Striving for fairness and equality in our criminal justice system

Though Texas has taken important steps in recent years, we have long way to go on the path to providing all Texans the reliable and effective justice they deserve, and ensuring that all Texans, regardless of race or income, receive fair and equal justice under the law.

Recent media coverage has brought deserving and needed attention to the unfortunate disparity between the promise of equal justice and the reality of unequal treatment under the law. I will continue to fight, as my predecessor Barbara Jordan famously stated, to make “America as good as its promise” and push Texas toward a justice system that is more equitable, reliable, and effective.

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Texans deserve an accurate and reliable justice system – one with proper checks and balances and transparency to make sure all relevant facts come to light, evidence based on real science and best practices, and adequate procedural safeguards to ensure dependable verdicts.

Unfortunately, if we measure reliability and accuracy by verified mistakes, Texas leads the nation in the shameful category of proven wrongful convictions. There are essential advances Texas needs to make to ensure we have evidence and results we can trust in our justice system. These include specific changes like SB 181, which would require the recording of interrogations to improve the reliability of confessions, and SB 81, which would create an innocence commission to consistently evaluate wrongful convictions and make recommendations to improve the integrity of justice.

Texans deserve an effective justice system. Our criminal justice policies should effectively improve public safety and efficiently utilize taxpayer dollars.  That seems basic enough. But Texas has historically been criticized for its wasteful, ineffective, and overly “tough” approach to criminal justice that has too often relied on incarceration first and asking questions later, resulting in disparate treatment of the poor and communities of color.

We cannot continue to over-rely on incarceration as the primary means of addressing low-level drug use. I filed SB 82 to be smarter on crime by diverting more non-violent drug possession offenders into alternatives to incarceration that have proven to be successful at reducing crime and drug use. Advancing this smart on crime approach will put Texas on the path to a more effective and efficient approach to justice.

Perhaps most importantly, Texans deserve fair and equitable justice system.  The promise that every person, rich or poor, stands equal before the law is at the root of the American ideals of liberty and justice. Ensuring that promise is a reality requires that all people have their rights equally protected by quality legal representation, have juries of their peers, and are treated equally and fairly by law enforcement when they are suspected and accused of a crime.

Unfortunately, in everyday Texas, quality of justice is too often contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford. I filed SB 260 to apply mandatory caseload limits for attorneys taking appointed cases representing indigent defendants. Too many lawyers are taking excessive numbers of cases – often hundreds upon hundreds a year – which inevitably means a lower quality of defense being provided by those lawyers.

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Equal justice further requires we all be judged by a jury of our peers, and I will join my colleagues in fighting for reforms to ensure our juries reflect our community’s makeup and values. And finally, I will file legislation to study disparate impacts in our justice system, propose solutions to remedy them, and ensure more transparency and accountability in law enforcement practices.

Invest in Texas’ future

I will fight to ensure we work toward a state budget that is not only fair, responsible, and protects Texas’ most vulnerable populations, but also invests in our future and begins to address the needs of our growing and changing state. We’ve got to find real solutions to the real problems facing our state’s physical and human infrastructure. This includes adequately funding our unconstitutional public school finance system and opposing risky public education voucher schemes that will gut our already underfunded neighborhood schools. It means ending smoke-and-mirrors and diversions in our budget that reduce our state’s much-needed transportation funding. It also means valuing hardworking Texas families over ineffective tax giveaways and loopholes.

High quality educational opportunities for all Texas students

Supporting our neighborhood schools

For too long, Texas has operated as a government by lawsuit: the biggest, most difficult issues facing our state are only addressed when mandated by a court. Now that our school finance system has once again been ruled unconstitutional, you may hear some elected officials claim that the legislature cannot act until after the case has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and the justices have had an opportunity to rule.

I firmly disagree. The legislature should treat the underfunding of our children’s schools like what it is: an emergency that must be solved immediately. Growing by 80,000 students each year, Texas’ public school enrollment is more than 5.1 million – the second highest in the nation. It’s time to provide those students adequately-funded neighborhood schools so that all children have access to quality educational opportunities.

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High quality, accessible pre-k

Attending high-quality pre-kindergarten has a lasting impact on a child’s success both in school and life. Early childhood education creates learning foundations and allows students from all backgrounds begin to establish the skills that will last the rest of their lives. Children who attend high-quality programs are less likely to be held back a grade, less likely to need special education, and more likely to graduate from high school. I filed SB 72and 73 to open up pre-k to all Texas four-year-olds and place class size limits to ensure too many students aren’t packed into a classroom.

Make higher education affordable again

In 2003, the Texas legislature passed tuition deregulation, which gave authority to set tuition rates to unelected boards of regents at our state’s public universities. Texas stopped investing in our children’s future and instead pushed the cost onto families. Now thanks to tuition deregulation, the cost of attending a public university in Texas has more than doubled in just ten years.

This is pricing hard-working families out of higher education, forcing students to incur enormous debt loads and push back their graduation and eventual entrance into the fulltime workforce. I filed SB 255 to cap tuition and force the legislature to adequately fund higher education. The people of Texas send senators and representatives to Austin to make tough decisions and invest in what is important to our state’s future. Higher education – affordable higher education – is no doubt one of those items.

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More paths to four year degrees

In an effort to address both the high cost of getting a college degree and the serious workforce needs across our state, I filed SB 271 to allow community colleges to provide certain four-year degrees in areas of the state where needs are the greatest. This proposal would provide another avenue for working adults and students who want a more affordable higher education experience to complete a four-year degree. Community colleges offer lower costs relative to universities, and they often have more flexibility to offer courses in the evening and on weekends. Community college graduates are also more likely to remain and work in their community, ensuring that the same public that invests in their education also reaps the benefits.

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Give families access to affordable and quality health care options

Texas has a historic opportunity to finally do something about its dismal health insurance numbers by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, up to this point, our state’s leadership has simply chosen to say “no.” As a result, about a million poor adults in Texas are left with no real health coverage option.

Closing the coverage gap simply secures federal aid for what your tax dollars pay for already: the costs of uninsured Texans who show up in our doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. Accepting the $100 billion in federal funding to address the gap of affordable health care options is just common sense, which is why I filed SB 89.  Last session, according to the non-partisan Legislative Budget Board, an investment of $50 million would have drawn down $4 billion to insure one million additional Texans through 2016. I will continue to do my part to advocate for closing the coverage gap to ensure that we are creating a Texas where all families have the opportunity to be healthy and successful.

Promoting a fair economy that works for all Texans

Review Texas’ tax loopholes

Tax giveaways and loopholes to special interests have perverted our tax system and made it blatantly unfair for the average Texas family. We need accountability measures, checks, and balances on corporate welfare and tax giveaways. After all, the legislature makes extensive efforts to determine the efficacy of every state dollar spent in our education, health and human services, and criminal justice systems. Yet we still have an astounding lack of knowledge when it comes to tax loopholes – including basic information like how many exist and their cost to the state.

Out of fairness to taxpayers, the Texas Tax Code should undergo a review of all its exemptions, discounts, and special treatments to answer one simple question: are they working? I filed SB 80 so that Texas can step forward, shine a bright light on the Tax Code, and make real reforms to ensure taxpayer funds are protected and wisely invested.

Raising the minimum wage

Texas is a land of opportunity, where we believe that hard work is rewarded with honest pay. If you work hard at a full-time job, you should earn more than poverty level wages.But for too long, Texas families employed full-time at minimum wage have not been able to make ends meet. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 under my SB 67 will provide Texans with income to spend on the basics they need. This, in turn, generates business for our economy and eases the burden on taxpayer-funded services. It’s a win-win.

Raising the minimum wage helps build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthiest among us. After all, Texas has more minimum wage workers than any state in the country. We can help 2.8 million hardworking Texans – including 1.5 million women, 1.5 million parents, and 377,000 people over the age of 55 – by increasing the minimum wage to $10.10.

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Strong regulations for payday lending

Payday loans and auto title loans are low-dollar, high-interest loans that target low-income Texans. These predatory loans are usually a last resort for Texans struggling to provide for their families, and they carry annual percentage rates upwards of 500 percent through excess fees and interest alone. Payday and auto title lenders often downplay the risks of their loans, profit from trapping borrowers in debt, and push Texas families deeper into financial hardship. Strong bills like my SB 91 and 92 regulating payday and auto title lenders are essential to improve the economic conditions of Texas citizens, including working families, students, the elderly, and veterans.

Equal pay for equal work

Women make up nearly half the workforce in the United States, and they are the equal or main breadwinner for four out of ten families. But in 2012, Texas women only earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. This is legally and morally unacceptable. I’ve filed SB 65, which will allow equal pay cases authorized under federal law to be heard in state courts. Currently, Texans must file in federal courts, which are more expensive for both plaintiffs and defendants.

Over the coming months, I plan to explore these issues in depth in future Email Expresses. I look forward to hearing from you this session as we try to steer Texas onto a brighter path.

Sincerely,
RE Signature
Rodney Ellis

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Senator Ellis announces billboards to increase health insurance enrollment

(Houston, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) announced the unveiling of billboards across the community aimed at increasing the number of insured Houstonians.

Thanks to a partnership with Clear Channel Outdoor, Senator Ellis will post a dozen billboards in the greater Houston area to encourage citizens to enroll in affordable health insurance options provided by the health insurance marketplace and the Affordable Care Act. Advertising space is being donated by Clear Channel Outdoor to the Houston Area Urban League for the campaign. Thousands of uninsured Houstonians will view these messages over the coming six weeks prior to the February 15 enrollment deadline, creating 10.2 million market impressions over the course of the display.

“Our state does better when all Texans have access to quality, affordable health care,” said Senator Ellis. “That is why I am co-sponsoring this public service outreach effort to ensure all eligible Houstonians receive the information and assistance they need to select a quality health plan that works for them and their families.”

“I’d like to join Senator Ellis in encouraging the community to enroll and get covered,” said Judson Robinson, President and CEO of The Houston Area Urban League. “Investing in your health care is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family. Become empowered and get covered.”

“The billboard campaign gives a boost to our collaborative’s efforts to educate the many uninsured people of our area about the benefits of enrolling in a low-cost ACA health plan,” said Stephen Williams, director, Houston Department of Health and Human Services. “Its timing is perfect as we need to convince the uninsured to take steps to enroll now to avoid missing the February 15 deadline.”

The billboard images are available for download by clicking here and here.

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Texans stands to benefit greatly from the Affordable Care Act, as one in five – more than five million people – lack health insurance coverage. In Texas, over 730,000 people selected a plan during the first open enrollment period.

Texans currently have another opportunity to enroll in coverage as the Health Insurance Marketplace will remain open until February 15, 2015. If you are eligible and don’t get covered, you might have to pay a fine of $325 or 2 percent of your income (whichever is greater).

Financial help is available for individuals and families between 100-400 percent of the federal poverty level ($11,670 to $46,680 for individuals or $23,850 to $95,400 for a family of four). Eighty-four percent of people in our state who previously received coverage through the exchange received help paying for their insurance. In addition, health insurance on the exchange is affordable, as the average monthly cost for those who enrolled in coverage in Texas is $72.

Plans purchased on the exchange will also have new consumer protections and cover all ten essential benefits such as emergency services, prescriptions drugs, and preventive care. Many of these preventive services are covered with no additional costs to consumers.

Information about where to get free local in-person assistance, new health insurance plans, and how to apply for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can be found at links on www.enrollgulfcoast.com or by calling 832-393-5423.

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Sen. Ellis on Cuba announcement

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

“I congratulate President Obama on this historic step toward normalizing relations with Cuba. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Cuba on three separate occasions, and I am confident that this important change will benefit both Cubans and Texans alike.”

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Report: Texas Payday Lenders and Prosecutors Team Up to Criminally Pursue Borrowers

by  Published on 

In March 2012, Margaret Jones, a 71-year-old Austin great-grandmother, found herself in a financial crisis. Her husband had recently passed away, she’d lost a temporary job and she was struggling to live on a Social Security check of $1,160 each month. Jones, who asked that her real first name not be used, had moved in with her daughter but was looking for her own place. She had just enough to cover utilities, groceries, gas for her car and rent, but not enough left over for a deposit for an apartment. Cash Plus, a California-based payday loan franchise, had recently opened a location near her home in South Austin, so one day Jones went in and took out a $225 loan. In a month, she would owe Cash Plus $271.91—an effective APR of 245 percent. Jones hoped to be settled in her new place by then and have her finances in order enough to pay the loan off. But a month later, her financial situation had worsened.

The deposit on her new place was tied up. The electricity bill was much higher than expected. And she’d also taken on an auto-title loan; not keeping up with the payments would mean losing her car. She explained all this to a Cash Plus manager, who persuaded her to renew, or “roll over,” her payday loan by carrying the balance forward and paying $50 in fees.

But then the next month Jones faced the same hopeless prospect. This time she didn’t even have the cash to pay the renewal fees.

“I was in an impossible situation,” she said, “but at the same time I wanted to keep my obligations with these people.” She pleaded for a payment plan but the store manager demanded the full amount.

“What I thought was going to happen was they would have some kind of sympathy for a senior who was living on a fixed income of Social Security and that they would allow me to make some kind of monthly payment.”

Instead, the manager began haranguing Jones over the phone for the full amount of $271. Jones kept asking for a payment plan. One day, he told her, “I hate to do this to you,” but didn’t explain what he was planning to do. After that she didn’t hear from him for a few weeks, until the day he called to give her a “case number” and a telephone number to call. As she would find out later, the man had filed a criminal theft by check complaint against her with a Travis County justice of the peace.

“I was just terrified to the point that I couldn’t eat, my blood pressure went up,” she said. “I was just nervous, scared.”

Jones hunkered down, waiting for something to happen. But nothing came in the mail, no threatening letters or legal notices. In February, almost two years later, she called the Department of Public Safety to see about getting her driver’s license renewed—but DPS refused. That’s how she found out that a warrant had been issued for arrest. As she later discovered with the help of a pro bono attorney, the justice of the peace court had sent her paperwork to a previous address and she’d missed a court hearing. In her absence, the judge had ordered her to pay $981 in court fees and restitution, and issued a warrant for her arrest.

Pursuing, or even threatening, criminal charges against payday and title borrowers is strictly prohibited by Texas law, with very few exceptions. The Texas Constitution unequivocally states, “No person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.”

But new research released this morning by Texas Appleseed shows that criminal charges against payday borrowers for missing payments is common in Texas. Texas Appleseed documents more than 1,500 criminal complaints of bad check and theft by check allegations filed by payday loan companies in Texas between 2012 and the spring of this year. Many of them resulted in fines, arrest warrants and even jail time.

The research builds on reporting by the Observer published in July 2013, which found 1,700 instances in which payday lenders in Texas have filed criminal complaints against customers. The Observer story prompted an ongoing investigation by the state Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, which regulates the industry in Texas, into one payday loan business, Cash Biz. It also led regulators to issue an advisory bulletin to lenders warning them to stop pursuing criminal charges against their customers.

Texas Appleseed found 13 different payday loan companies pursuing criminal charges in eight different counties, including Travis, Dallas, Harris and Collin. Texas Appleseed filed a complaint today with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the state Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. The complaint letter, which includes 700 pages of supporting documentation calls for state and federal authorities to launch an investigation and take enforcement action against lenders abusing the law and their customers.

“In addition to their outrageous rates and lending practices, payday loan businesses are illegally using the criminal justice system to coerce repayment form borrowers,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed. “This directly contravenes state and federal law, which eliminated debtor’s prisons long ago.”

In one justice of the peace court in Harris County, the group found that arrest warrants were issued in more than 42 percent of the cases and at least six people served jail time. In Collin County, there were 740 documented criminal cases against payday borrowers—636 from a single lender, PLS Loan Store—and $132,000 collected from borrowers.

Consumer advocates say district attorneys and courts are—intentionally or not—acting as debt collection agencies for predatory lenders. A letter from a DA threatening steep fines, arrest and jail time can be a highly persuasive tool. In Margaret Jones’ case, a Travis County constable paid her two visits. The first time she wasn’t home; the second she hurried him inside before her neighbors could see. The constable urged her to contact the court.

She said she fell apart. “I was scared. I cried. I kept saying, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ I was just devastated. Hurt and devastated.”

Eventually, through Texas Appleseed, Jones found a pro bono attorney who agreed to take her case. The lawyer was able to persuade the Travis County Attorney’s Office to dismiss the charges.

Jones said she thinks Cash Plus knew that she would be unable to pay from the get-go.

“If they couldn’t get their money one way,” she said, “they’ll get it another, even if it hurts the poor. That’s what I am. I’m a poor person. And it saddens me” how many people “have become prey to such predatory lenders.”

Because record-keeping is spotty and hot check cases are handled by a patchwork of hundreds of DAs, county attorneys and justices of the peace, it’s likely that the problem is more pervasive, said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed.

“We believe that the cases we documented are just the tip of the iceberg.”

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Giving thanks

Dear Friend,

Despite an abundance of blessings in my life, Thanksgiving is often a bittersweet time for me. My dear friend, boss, and mentor, Congressman Mickey Leland, would have turned 70 years old today. As I discussed on the recent 25th anniversary of his untimely passing, Mickey died as he lived: trying to end world hunger and serving as a voice for the voiceless.

As a member of the Texas House of Representatives and then Congress, he fought tirelessly for those less privileged on issues such as affordable housing, universal access to health care, and civil rights. In the true spirit of Thanksgiving, Mickey wanted to give all people the opportunity to share at the grand table of prosperity and the American Dream.

His inspiration and resolve still motivate my service today. With Texas’ 84th Legislative Session beginning in less than 50 days, I have already filed a number of bills that fight for the same values that Mickey instilled in me:

  • Senate Bill 65, the Texas Equal Pay Act, would ensure women are paid the same as men when they do the same work.
  • Senate Bill 67 would increase Texas’ minimum wage to $10.10 so that if you work hard at a full-time job, you can earn more than poverty level wages.
  • Senate Bill 81 would create a Texas Innocence Commission to investigate post-conviction exonerations, find out what went wrong, and make recommendations to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring in the future.
  • Senate Bill 89 would close our state’s coverage gap under the Affordable Care Act, providing affordable health coverage options to one million low income adults in Texas.
  • Senate Bill 91 would implement a 36 percent rate cap on all payday loans so that Texans aren’t gouged by predatory lenders with 500 percent APR loans.

As I count my blessings this Thanksgiving, the honor of serving as the State Senator from District 13 is not far from the top. I want to thank my constituents, family, colleagues, and staff for making my time in public service meaningful in so many ways.

I pledge to continue fighting for the families of District 13 to make Texas a great place to live, work, and raise a family. Texans deserve a state that gives its residents a fair shot to pull themselves out of poverty, offers all children access to quality educational opportunities, and provides every family access to affordable and quality health care.

That’s the Texas Mickey fought for. Let’s continue the fight.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Ellis: Veterans courts relieve strife brought home by troops

By Sen. Rodney Ellis and Judge Marc Carter

As this Veterans Day approaches, it is appropriate to honor those who have served our country. Veterans Day is not only flags and parades, though. It is a reminder that, every day, we all have a chance to do something to assist those who have sacrificed so much in our name. That is why we are letting our community know that, even in the criminal justice system, there can be a place where compassion and justice meet. That place is called the Veterans’ Court, and this Veterans Day marks the fifth anniversary of the first such court in Texas, which was started right here in Harris County in November 2009.

Like most great ideas, this one had many people who helped give it a start. From folks in the Legislature who drafted and pushed for the bill in 2009 that authorized the creation of treatment courts for returning vets, to the large number of federal, state, county, judicial and nonprofit officials who helped bring the statute to life in the Harris County district courts, to the local private bar associations, prosecutors and court staff who worked tirelessly to make the implementation work on a day-to-day basis – all are owed a debt of gratitude.

This very special court is a labor of love for all involved. For us, it combines two public-policy issues that are near and dear to our hearts: helping veterans and making our criminal justice system more fair and balanced.

The principle behind these courts is simple: If a veteran suffers from a condition related to his or her service, such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and that condition leads them to an encounter with the criminal justice system, then our treatment court will ensure they are matched up to the services at the Department of Veterans Affairs to which they are entitled. The court will hold them accountable to use those services and receive the treatment and counseling needed to cope with the residual effects of war. If they complete their treatment honorably, they are given a chance to reclaim their good name and clean record.

To date, 52 veterans of all services, from the Vietnam era to Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, have completed the felony program successfully. Now the Harris County misdemeanor courts are beginning their own program, and today there are 19 such programs across Texas. Each court has chosen to focus on its own unique population. Some have made drug abuse among veterans their priority, as returning vets may self-medicate to cope with PTSD, physical pain from injuries and depression. Other courts focus strictly on the needs of felony offenders and the serious consequences they face in our criminal justice system.

All of these courts are united in their mission to help those who served us. Men and women who might never have gotten treatment to grapple with the profound changes in their lives as a result of military service now have that opportunity thanks to the enacting legislation and the good people from the VA and local governments who put it into practice.

Texas has a long tradition of honoring those who served. Wherever you can, we urge you to ask your local officials to consider such a program so that we can give meaning to the pledge to honor veterans as they return home. We did not march where they marched, yet we can help them carry their burdens back home.

 Ellis, a Democrat representing Houston in the state Senate, is author of the original veterans court legislation in the Legislature. Carter is presiding judge of the Harris County Veterans Court.

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Senator Ellis, Mayor Parker, and others to kick off “Tour de Polls” on Election Day

(Houston, TX) // Tomorrow at 10 am, Senator Ellis will join Mayor Annise Parker, Representative Carol Alvarado, Representative Jessica Farrar, and Houston City Council Member Jack Christie at Market Square Park to kick off a “Tour de Polls” bike ride. The bike ride will take the elected officials to polling locations across the city, allowing them to meet with and encourage Houstonians to vote and have their voices heard.

Press is also welcome to join Senator Ellis when he arrives at his first polling location, First Baptist Church Heights Fellowship Hall (201 E. 9th Street), around 11 am.

Who:           Senator Rodney Ellis

Mayor Annise Parker

Representative Carol Alvarado

Representative Jessica Farrar

City Council Member Jack Christie

What:             Press conference and launch for the “Tour de Polls” bike ride

When:             Tuesday, November 4, 10-10:30 am

Where:           Market Square Park, 301 Milam St, Houston, TX 77002

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Posted in: Press Releases