Friday, May 13, 2005

A defeat for the 'lock-em-up league'

Texas' probation system is one step closer to a major overhaul.

Legislation strengthening the probation system passed last night on second reading
in the Texas House after an acriminious debate. See the Statesman's coverage, and the Startlegram's here. Representatives Dan Gattis and Terry Keel, both former assistant district attorneys, tried to kill the bill after Keel successfully convinced the bill sponsor to accept a couple of weakening amendments. You don't see that much; typically bill sponsors accept amendments in exchange for support of the bill.

Keel and Gattis played off one another, lamenting the terrible crimes people commit for which they might receive only five years probation. Both men held the bills would cause the prison population to increase because prosecutors would be less likely to recommend probation under the shorter terms. (It'll be interesting to compare
that learned prediction to reality down the line if this bill passes; all the experts say otherwise.)

Rep. Pat Haggerty, though, countered the pair with a scoffing defense, declaring that if Mr. Gattis was only getting probation for people who committed kidnapping, it's no wonder he's a 'former' prosecutor. That remark broke up a lot of the tension. Then Haggerty explained to the chamber the reality of Texas' probation system: right now, nobody is watching Texas probationers. Texas employs 3,000 people to monitor 450,000 probationers, so as Haggerty put it, they "show up once a month and pee in a cup," and that's about all the supervision that's going on.

Chairman Ray Allen pointed out that when probationers don't show up for meetings, currently there's not even enough manpower to go out and look for them. As a result, at the moment 16,000 Texas probationers are absconders, and no one knows where they are. Strengthening the probation system was the number one recommendation of interim studies in both the House and the Senate over the last three sessions, Allen said. The issue has been studied enough, he argued, and now it's time to act.

Rep. Glen Hegar deserves credit, too, for his defense of the bill against what were truly eleventh hour attacks. He pointed out that out of 22 million Texans, none of them, including the prosecutors now criticizing the bill, showed up to testify against it in committee. He also spoke knowledgably about the special sanctions court in Fort Bend County, which he represents. Many of the reforms in HB 2193 were modeled after that court and others like it.

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden wound up with 90 votes for a stronger probation system, receiving fairly broad bipartisan support. Here are the 'yes' votes for strengthening probation:

Allen, Ray(R); Alonzo(D); Anchia(D); Bailey(D); Brown, Fred(R); Burnam(D); Callegari(R); Campbell(R); Casteel(R); Castro(D); Chavez(D); Coleman(D); Cook, Byron(R); Corte(R); Crownover(R); Davis, John(R); Davis, Yvonne(D); Dawson(R); Denny(R); Deshotel(D); Driver(R); Dukes(D); Dutton(D); Eiland(D); Farrar(D); Flores(D); Geren(R); Giddings(D); Gonzales(D); Gonzalez Toureilles(D); Goodman(R); Goolsby(R); Griggs(R); Grusendorf(R); Guillen(D); Haggerty(R); Hamric(R); Hardcastle(R); Hartnett(R); Hegar(R); Herrero(D); Hill(R); Hochberg(D); Hughes(R); Hunter(R); Isett(R); Jackson, Jim(R); Jones, Delwin(R); Jones, Jesse(D); Laney(D); Leibowitz(D); Luna(D); Madden(R); Martinez(D); Martinez Fischer(D); McCall(R); McClendon(D); McReynolds(D); Menendez(D); Moreno, Paul(D); Morrison(R); Mowery(R); Naishtat(D); Noriega(D); Oliveira(D); Olivo(D); Orr(R); Pickett(D); Puente(D); Quintanilla(D); Raymond(D); Reyna(R); Ritter(D); Rodriguez(D); Seaman(R); Smith, Todd(R); Smithee(R); Solis(D); Solomons(R); Strama(D); Swinford(R); Thompson(D); Truitt(R); Turner(D); Uresti(D); Veasey(D); Villarreal(D); Vo(D); West, Buddy(R); Wong(R)

In the end, 48 representatives, including nine Democrats, voted to keep the status quo, meaning more prisons and, by extension, higher taxes. They were:

Anderson(R); Baxter(R); Berman(R); Blake(R); Bohac(R); Bonnen(R); Branch(R); Brown, Betty(R); Chisum(R); Cook, Robby(D); Crabb(R); Delisi(R); Dunnam(D); Eissler(R); Elkins(R); Escobar(D); Farabee(D); Flynn(R); Frost(D); Gallego(D); Gattis(R); Hamilton(R); Harper-Brown(R); Hilderbran(R); Homer(D); Hopson(D); Howard(R); Hupp(R); Keel(R); Keffer, Bill(R); Keffer, Jim(R); Krusee(R); Kuempel(R); Laubenberg(R); Merritt(R); Nixon(R); Otto(R); Paxton(R); Phillips(R); Riddle(R); Rose(D); Smith, Wayne(R); Straus(R); Talton(R); Taylor(R); Van Arsdale(R); Woolley(R); Zedler(R)

Call them the "lock-em up league." For the first time in recent memory, though, they found themselves in the minority last night. At least this once, arguments for more and more prison spending did not hold sway. Many kudos and great thanks to Reps Madden, Haggerty, Allen, Hegar, and all those who voted for stronger probation. If your representative voted right, be sure and drop them a thank you note. If your member voted against stronger probation, tell them you disapprove. (Go here to find out who represents you and how to contact them.)


Robbie said...

Count me in the "Lock-em-up-League", too.

The problem isn't overcrowded prisons. The problem isn't the cost of incarcerating these prisoners.

The problem is too many people breaking the law.

Am I in favor of a stronger probation system? You betcha.

But I'm even more in favor of locking up (and in many cases, throwing away the key) people who break the laws of our state. I'd like to see longer and harsher punishments, and less opportunity to be put on probation 'instead' of time served.

But that's just me wanting people to be held accountable for the crimes they commit (by being locked up, not by being placed on probation).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's also you wanting your taxes raised in order to pay $15,000 per year to incarcerate nonviolent offenders, most of whom otherwise would be paying taxes instead of fed, clothed and sheltered by taxpayers. That's not a very wise public policy.

One in 20 Texans is in prison, on probation or parole, about twice the national average. I think that's because our policies criminalize more conduct more severely, not because Texans are twice as likely to be criminals. In fact, as Texas' incarceration rate increased, the crime rate fell much less than in other states where the increase was less. For many nonviolent offenders, incarceration harms public safety more than protects it. The just-passed probation bill recognizes that.