Texas is about to crack down on "rogue" district attorneys who refuse to prosecute entire classes of crime, like abortion or drug-related offenses.
Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday he will sign House Bill 17, which expands the definition of "official misconduct" for which a prosecutor can be removed from office. Under the proposed law, Texas residents may call for the removal of a district attorney who refuses to prosecute a class or type of criminal offense by filing a petition.
"This is one of many transformative bills passed this session," Abbott said Monday. "I'll sign it. But there's more work to do."
The petitioner must be a resident of the offending district attorney's county for at least six months and not currently be charged with a criminal offense in that county. If enacted, the bill would also apply to county attorneys with criminal jurisdiction.
"Our message is crystal clear - the rule of law will be respected and enforced in Texas," said bill sponsor state Rep. David Cook, a Republican. "It's time to remove politics from prosecution."
The Republican-led effort comes in response to progressive district attorneys and state attorneys general who have vowed not to enforce abortion bans since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Some district attorneys, such as New York's Alvin Bragg or Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon, have declined to prosecute low-level crimes or misdemeanor offenses, including marijuana possession and prostitution.
In Texas, some progressive prosecutors refused to comply with a directive issued by Abbott last year ordering transgender medical care for minors to be investigated as child abuse. Legislation that would ban puberty blockers and hormone therapies for transgender minors is currently advancing through the legislature, and Abbott has promised to sign it.
Other district attorneys have pledged to end mass incarceration by declining to prosecute crimes, including Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, who announced in 2019 he would not prosecute thefts of personal items under $750 that are stolen out of necessity, the Texas Tribune reported.
House Bill 17 contains an exemption for prosecutors who use pretrial diversion programs, which offer an alternative to prosecution for criminal offenders who agree to abide by the law moving forward and go through counseling or community service.
Democrats and civil rights groups oppose the law, saying it is unconstitutional and overly vague, according to the Houston Chronicle.
"This violation of the state’s separation of powers is one piece to an unsettling pattern of top-down power-grabbing," said state Democratic Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, a former prosecutor, according to the outlet. "Tools like prosecutorial discretion are critical — especially in a state like Texas, where our local district attorneys are directly elected by the people."