Texas Criminal Laws: A Historical Overview

Early History

Spanish Rule

The history of criminal laws in Texas can be traced all the way back to Spanish rule. During this time, the Spanish legal system, known as the Leyes de las Siete Partidas, governed the area. Their legal system was based on Roman law, and it included a variety of criminal offenses, such as theft, assault, and murder, as well as penalties for those crimes.

Mexican Rule

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Afterwards, Texas became part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. The Mexican Constitution of 1824 provided for the protection of individual rights, but it also contained provisions for criminal punishment, including imprisonment, fines, and even the infamous death penalty.

Republic of Texas

When Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836 it needed a legal system. The legal system of the Republic of Texas was heavily influenced by the United States, particularly the Anglo-American common law system.

The Texas Congress enacted a series of criminal laws which are mainly based on the 10 Commandments spelled out by Moses in the Book of Exodus of the Holy Bible. Not unlike Roman law, these legal codes included offenses such as murder, theft, and assault, and established clearly defined penalties for the offenders.


The Texas Constitution

In 1845, Texas became the 28th state of the United States. The Texas Constitution of 1845 is the foundation for the legal system. The Constitution included provisions for the protection of individual rights, such as the right to a fair trial and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. It’s based on the Constitution of the United States.

The Penal Code

In 1856, the Texas Legislature adopted the Texas Penal Code, which provided a comprehensive set of criminal laws for the state. The Texas Penal Code was heavily influenced by the criminal laws of other U.S. states and the common law system. It included a wide range of offenses, from theft and assault to more serious crimes like murder and treason, and established penalties for people convicted of the crimes in a court of law.

20th Century

Prohibition Era

The early 20th century saw the enactment of Prohibition laws. During this era, the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages illegal. Texas, like the rest of the United States, had a surge in organized crime and violence as a result of Prohibition. To respond, the state enacted stricter laws and penalties to combat bootlegging, gambling, and other illegal activities associated with the times.

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s led to significant changes in Texas crime laws. As the movement gained momentum, it challenged racial segregation and discrimination, leading to the enactment of federal legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Texas amended its laws to ensure equal protection under the law for all citizens, regardless of race, color, or national origin. This period also saw the beginnings of the modern-day debate surrounding the death penalty in Texas, with questions about its fairness and application being raised.

War on Drugs

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the escalation of the War on Drugs in the United States, with Texas being no exception. Crack cocaine hit the scene back in the 80s. In response to the growing drug problem, Texas enacted tougher criminal penalties for drug trafficking and possession. The much needed adjustment to the penal code led to an increase in incarceration rates as was the case around the nation.

21st Century

Drug Policy Reform

In the 21st century, Texas has seen a gradual shift towards reform its policy on controlled substances. The state has implemented various programs aimed at reducing drug-related offenses and promoting rehabilitation instead of punishment. Some of these programs include drug courts, which provide alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, and the expansion of substance abuse treatment options. Additionally, Texas has made strides in medical marijuana policy, allowing the use of low-THC cannabis for certain medical conditions.

Criminal Justice Reform

Since the year 2000, Texas has made significant efforts to reform its criminal justice system. These reforms focus on reducing recidivism rates, improving prison conditions, and addressing the issue of over-incarceration. Texas has implemented innovative programs such as the Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments (TCOOMMI), which provides mental health and substance abuse services to offenders in need. The Texas juvenile justice system was also reformed, shifting the focus from punishment to rehabilitation and community-based programs.

Gun Control Laws

In recent years, Texas has experienced a number of high-profile mass shootings, which have sparked debates over the state’s gun control laws. While Texas remains a state with relatively lenient gun laws, there have been some changes in response to these incidents.

For example, the state of Texas has enacted “red flag” laws, which allow law enforcement and family members to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from individuals deemed to be dangerous.


The evolution of Texas crime laws reflects the state’s rich history and its unique position as a meeting point of different legal traditions. From its early days under Spanish and Mexican rule to its current status as a leader in criminal justice reform, Texas has continually adapted and changed its laws in response to societal needs and challenges. As we move forward, it is crucial to continue learning from our past and striving towards a more just and equitable legal system.


When did Texas adopt its first set of criminal laws?

Texas adopted its legal code after declaring independence from Mexico way back in 1836. When it became the Republic of Texas the Texas Penal Code was created because the new republic needed a legal system to address crime.

How did the Civil Rights Movement impact the criminal justice system in Texas?

The Civil Rights Movement led to changes in the Texas Penal Code. These changes guaranteed equal protection under the law for all citizens, regardless of race, color, or national origin.

What has been the impact of the War on Drugs on Texas criminal laws?

The War on Drugs led to the enactment of tougher drug laws and penalties in Texas, particularly for drug trafficking and possession, resulting in increased incarceration rates.

What are some examples of 21st-century criminal justice reform measures in Texas?

Some examples of 21st-century criminal justice reform measures in Texas include the implementation of drug courts, the expansion of substance abuse treatment options, and the establishment of the Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments (TCOOMMI).

How has Texas responded to the issue of gun control in recent years?

In recent years, Texas has enacted “red flag” laws and implemented measures to improve background check systems.