Interim Update: June 2024

June 26, 2024

Things have been relatively quiet in Austin so far this summer. Welcome to the summer doldrums. ’Tis the season for out-of-office vacation email replies from “” addresses, so that has given us some free time to ponder big issues.

Polls don’t lie, do they?

If you have been feeling professionally unpopular of late and need some validation of those bad vibes … well, you’ve come to the right place. As it turns out, the public does hold a negative perception of our legal system, and to the extent prosecutors are lumped in as part of the “criminal justice system,” you may be suffering the effects of some of that unpopularity. Read on for details.

The numbers
According to a poll of 1,200 registered voters in Texas taken this month by the good people at the UT/Texas Politics Project (UT/TPP), only 6 percent of respondents held a “very favorable” view of the criminal justice (CJ) system while 24 percent had a “very unfavorable” opinion of it. Add responses from the “somewhats” to those “verys” and the total net favorability rating of the CJ system clocks in at -22 points (27 percent pro vs. 49 percent con). Compared to the 14 other institutions measured in this popularity poll, the CJ system tied for a lowly 11th-place finish with “major foreign corporations” (hello, TikTok?) and only slightly ahead of the national news media (-23) and the federal government (-26).

Oof. Not great, Bob! (As the kids say.)

We went down the polling rabbit hole to try to suss out the cause of these bad numbers (i.e., why are the ratings so low and when did things get this bad?). Unfortunately, we drilled mostly dry holes because UT/TPP has not asked this specific question about the CJ system consistently over time.

What we did glean from past UT/TPP polling is that the 2024 numbers are similar to 2022 returns for the combined favorability of the courts and CJ system (also -22 net favorability). That makes the fact that the latest poll was done on the heels of the recent verdict in former President Trump’s trial in New York less relevant as a driver of these numbers (for those who might have wanted to grasp at that excuse). The only similar TPP poll question we could find was from 2015, when the combined courts and CJ system clocked in with a favorability rating of -3, much higher than the current numbers. So, that helps narrow down the “when” question, with the likely culprit being the societal changes experienced circa 2020—of which there were too many to narrow down to a single culprit. But while we can’t authoritatively tell you why the criminal justice system’s favorability rating has tanked over the past nine years, we can tell you with whom it has tanked—namely, everyone (yikes!), but in different ways and to different degrees.

Comparing the 2015/2022/2024 poll results from above broken down by ideological self-identification, liberal voters’ net favorability ratings for the courts and CJ system for those three polls were -11/-39/-20, independents’ ratings were +1/-18/-16, and conservatives’ ratings were -5/-15/-26. So, all three cohorts saw a dramatic decline in favorability between 2015 and 2022 that persisted into 2024, but the trend lines differ for all three groups.

For liberal respondents, the favorability rating started badly (-11) in 2015, went down dramatically (-39) by 2022, but is trending more favorably (-20) in 2024 (although still strongly negative). For independents, the trend started neutrally (+1), dropped sharply (-18) by 2022, and has stabilized (-16) in 2024 in solidly negative ground. But for conservatives, the favorability rating for the courts and CJ system started mildly negative (-5) in 2015, got slightly worse (-15) by 2022, and has continued its downward slide (-26) in 2024. In other words, while the CJ system’s net favorability rating is strongly negative across all three ideological groups, it has rebounded among liberals and stabilized among independents but continues to drop precipitously among conservatives.

And in a state run by people who are largely elected by conservative voters, that matters.

Yes, yes, you may be reading this and saying to yourself, “But wait! Surely there are some silver linings here! Throw me a bone!” And indeed, there are some limitations to this back-of-a-napkin analysis.

For starters, “courts and CJ system” is not synonymous with “prosecutors”—you are a part of that system but not the whole. For example, law enforcement officers are also a part of the CJ system but they remain very popular in separate polling (+36 net favorability rating). (We’ll let you decide if that helps our hurts your case for distinguishing prosecutors from the system as a whole.) That popularity has not insulated them from hiring difficulties, though. Ditto for public defenders, who are also struggling to fill their open positions. Unfortunately, there is no separate favorability polling in this data set on prosecutors alone that can help narrow down the scope or source of this situation.

In addition, local governments have consistently been rated higher than their state or federal counterparts; for 2024, the comparable net favorability ratings were +22 (local), +10 (state), and -26 (federal). Unfortunately (again), we don’t have a similar breakdown for local, state, and federal CJ systems, so while it’s likely the feds are a drag on everyone below them in the CJ system, the extent of that effect is impossible to determine. However, polling by Gallup shows a long-term trend of lower confidence in the criminal justice system across the nation, so this is not just a “Texas problem,” but rather, part of a long-term loss of popular confidence in many of our country’s institutions.

Yet another limitation to this analysis is the reality that what makes a liberal, independent, or conservative voter have a favorable opinion of a CJ system may be very different—if not directly opposite—for some groups. As a result, trying to draw specific policy directives from a general poll about feelings and opinions is next to impossible.

So, what to make of all this?

For those who thought prosecutors and/or the CJ system might receive less scrutiny or attention after the major legislation that passed in the last session, these trends lines are not good. Policymakers tend to file bills to address perceived problems, and if your favorability rating is significantly underwater (-22!), that may identify you as a problem that needs fixing based on “the feelz” alone. This conclusion is also consistent with some of the tea-leaf-reading we did in our April 2024 interim update based on federal and state policy trends. In 2023, we had to track more than 1,200 different bills that could impact prosecutors, the courts, or the criminal justice system, so we can probably expect a similarly high volume of legislation to follow in 2025.

But to circle back to how we began this discussion: If you are not feeling the love from the public about your chosen profession, we hope this trip down Polling Lane helps confirm the legitimacy of those feelings. (Or, as we are wont to say during legislative sessions: Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean you are wrong!) Conversely, if everything is hunky-dory at home, congratulations! But being aware of the general vibe around criminal justice is still good to know when following events outside of your idyllic little bailiwick. Ultimately, while the current negative public impressions of the criminal justice system may not be due to anything you or your office have done, you still suffer the consequences. How the profession of prosecution (and the criminal justice system at large) digs itself out of this hole is a discussion for another day, but one that should probably start soon.

For more reading
For those interested in diving deeper into the numbers behind this segment, here are links for the source material:
Summary of latest overall polling results (June 2024 institutional ratings are near the end)
Criminal justice system favorability (June 2024)
Historically Low Faith in U.S. Institutions Continues (July 2023)
Courts/criminal justice system favorability (June 2022)
Courts/criminal justice system favorability (February 2015)

Upcoming hearings

Here are some relevant interim charge topics cued up for consideration in July:

Monday, July 8, 2024

House Homeland Security & Public Safety, 1:00 p.m., Room E2.030

  • Implementation of SB 602 (authority of federal border patrol)
  • Law enforcement use of less-lethal devices

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

House Youth Health & Safety, 10:00 a.m., E2.026

  • Behavioral health services for at-risk youth

House Criminal Jurisprudence, 11:00 a.m., E2.030

  • Implementation of HB 17 (removal of prosecutors) and other bills from last session

Wednesday, July 31, 2024

House Youth Health & Safety, 10:00 a.m., E2.026

  • Behavioral health services for at-risk youth

For more information about a specific hearing listed above, click on the link to the committee. For additional questions, contact Shannon.

Quotes of the Month

“Some of these [bail] scenarios … you don’t think about legislating for them because common sense would tell you that if someone is on parole for an aggravated offense and they commit a new offense, that maybe a PR bond is not appropriate. But we have found that we are having to legislate for every fact scenario to make the system work, which is unfortunate.”
           —State Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), during the Senate Criminal Justice Committee’s interim hearing this month on regulating charitable bail organizations. (Video available here; comment starts at the 1:08:29 mark.)

“Even the liberals in NY understand it’s time to unmask the protestors, Antifa, BLM, anti-Semites, and anti-America troublemakers in our streets and on our college campuses. Those bent on committing crimes won’t be so bold if their identities are known. I will push legislation to put a stop to the chaos and destruction by those who hide behind their hoods and masks. #txlege”
           —Tweet/X post this week from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who may propose legislation next year to create a crime and/or penalty enhancement for offenders who obscure their faces to avoid being identified, as recently suggested by NY Gov. Kathy Hochul.

“If his name was not Donald Trump and if he wasn’t running for president … I’m telling you, that case would’ve never been brought …. You want to talk about a threat to democracy? When you have this country believing you’re playing politics with the justice system and you’re trying to put people in jail and convict them for political reasons, then you have a real problem.”
           —Former governor Andrew Cuomo (NY-D), criticizing Manhattan (NY) DA Alvin Bragg’s decision to prosecute former President Trump on a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher.

“We might as well be in Germany during the ’30s and ‘’40s. [The FBI] is corrupt. It is the Gestapo. They don’t follow any laws anymore. No one can stop them. […] They are organized crime. […] They’re a political organization designed to persecute people like you and me, and so, it would be better not to have anything than to have that.”
           —Texas AG Ken Paxton, sharing his views on the FBI in a two-minute rant on Steve Bannon’s War Room. (Twitter/X, May 31, 2024)