Friday, February 23, 2007

Voting and the Elderly in House Corrections

Two subjects most people don't associate with the prison system - voting and the elderly - will be hot topics on Monday in the Texas House Corrections Committee. A pair of good bills I'm excited about by Rep. Harold Dutton are on Monday's agenda, in addition to Chairman Madden's HB 530 expanding use of drug courts that I blogged about yesterday. Here are the highlights:

Voter Reinfranchisement:
HB 770 provides notice to offenders that they are eligible to vote when they are "off paper," meaning they no longer supervised by the Texas Department of Corrections or a local probation department. Right now former inmates are eligible to vote when they're off paper, but because rules are different in each state, many ex-offenders don't realize they're eligible to re-register. The relevant part of the bill states:

(a) The Texas Department of Criminal Justice shall provide written notice to a person who is released from the custody or supervision of the department that the person may be eligible to vote if the person is no longer subject to the disability referred to in Section 11.002(4).

(b)The department shall provide to the person an official voter registration application form prescribed by the secretary of state together with the notice required by Subsection (a).
Exercising the right vote helps ex-offenders reintegrate into society by giving them a sense of civic pride, belonging, and even patriotism that comes from participating in the decisions made by government that affect them. It's perhaps no coincidence that the decline in voter participation in Texas in the last three decades has coincided with a massive prison buildup that far outstripped Texas' growth in population.

I like the idea of sending them a formal notice and a voter registration card. It's like society's way of telling someone: "Welcome back. We know you screwed up, but we forgive you, and as long as you act like an adult, we'll treat you like one." In fact, it wouldn't bother me if that was the exact message in the note from TDCJ. ;)

Caring for Elderly Inmates
Another Dutton bill, HB 763, would require TDCJ to establish additional "in-prison geriatric communities" for inmates 60 and over, starting with an 800-person unit and reassessing every two years to determine any additional need for geriatric beds. With new penalty enhancements every legislative session, 99 year sentences being handed out by juries for non-violent crimes, and grandstanding pols pushing counteractively punitive legislation like "Jessica's Law," the need for more facilities for senior can be expected to grow immensely in the coming years.

In Sunset Commission hearings last fall, legislators learned that TDCJ pays five times as much in inmate health costs for prisoners over 50 years old compared to those under 50. It doesn't make sense to have those inmates scattered across 100 units. Why not have them all in one place where intensive medical needs could be handled more efficiently and hopefully less expensively? And finally,

No Room at the Inn
Also up on Monday in Corrections is Chairman Madden's HB 198, which I've written about before. It would expand TDCJ's authorization to contract for beds by 1,000 beds in anticipation of Madden and Whitmire's larger community supervision package.

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