Monday, June 08, 2015

Lamenting missed opportunities on criminal justice

The 84th Texas Legislature witnessed a few bright spots on criminal justice: E.g., ending the pick-a-pal grand jury system, giving judges tools to combat junk science via habeas corpus, scaling back use of state youth prisons, decriminalizing truancy, and, perhaps the biggest one that's received no MSM attention, adjusting property theft thresholds for inflation for the first time since 1993. Fourteen or 16 years ago, Grits would have considered that quite a successful session. But times have changed and, compared to the opportunities left on the table, these successes as a whole leave a lingering taste of weak tea. The Houston Chronicle editorial board last week summed up the cause for disappointment:
Like practically every other issue confronted by the Legislature, criminal justice reformers ended up with a mixed bag of moderate accomplishments, watered-down deals and failed bills. They even drew a veto from Gov. Greg Abbott, who struck down a Good Samaritan bill that would have protected people from prosecution if they call 911 to report a drug overdose. Apparently saving lives isn't as important as being tough at any cost. And that's a cost that adds up. On average, Texans pay $51 a day to keep someone in a state prison and $59 to keep someone in jail, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. In contrast, it is only $1.56 to supervise a probationer. So while U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is working at the federal level to pass legislation that would allow low-risk prisoners to spend more time in home confinement instead of in prison, state legislators have kicked that can down the road.

Despite pre-session hype, legislators failed to pass legislation that would lower penalties for nonviolent offenders, notably state Rep. Joe Moody's bill to decriminalize marijuana. No wonder the Department of Criminal Justice general revenue budget grew by nearly half a billion dollars for the next biennium. All that money does little to actually reform prisoners and help them become productive members of society. Legislators even ignored some of the lowest-hanging fruit among criminal justice fixes: Treat 17-year-olds as juveniles rather than adults. Intensive juvenile detention and probation programs can put kids back on the right track, and federal law compels Texas to change this standard. But apparently, legislators are content plucking teenagers out of society just as they approach adulthood and surrounding them with hardened criminals.

Texas doesn't make it easy when people leave prison, either. A bill to "ban the box," which would prevent state agencies from asking about one's criminal history on job applications, passed the state House but not the Senate. Supported by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, and the conservative Koch Brothers, this initiative is supposed to help convicted felons get their foot in the door for job interviews before having to reveal their records. As Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said in a radio interview last year, there's "a lot of young men who are minorities, in their early 20s, have a felony conviction on their résumé, and now they're unemployable."
Grits would add to that critique a failure to pass any meaningful reform on the Driver Responsibility surcharge. (DPS did to commit to Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Chairman Larry Phillips that it will roll out more Amnesty periods in the near future.) And asset forfeiture legislation appeared promising on the front end but stalled out thanks to opposition from leadership.

Perception of success is relative: Some good things happened this session, and we didn't take too many overt steps backward (a few). But compared to what should have been done, what needed to be done, it was a disappointment.


Anonymous said...

If the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board is disappointed, that means the legislature probably did the right thing and Texans are safer for it.

Anonymous said...

There was also some landmark legislation passed. On the juvenile side SB 1630, HB 2398(SB106) were the 2 major bills that will reform Juvenile Probation @ lesser publicized was SB 409 which takes the possibility away for a criminal record on a very minor non-adjudicated offense from being accessed by anyone but law enforcement. Preparing for next session HB 431 was passed creating the potential for a complete Chapter 58 of the Family Code re-write to bring it in harmony with current needs.
As for raise the age I believe the most opposition came from the juvenile departments because adequate funding was not provided nor even talked about. After the LBB had their way with HB1 and cut millions from the juvenile budget no one should expect that the county departments would roll over and take this entire class into their midst. If the funding isn't identified and provided well before actually accepting 17 year olds which lead to having 18 year olds on probation from there then juvenile probation departments won't stop fighting it and as seen this session they are a very powerful voice. Just glad I retired and can watch from a distance.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to the Good Ole'Boys we are able to carry a gun and shoot the bad boys so that will reduce prisons!

You people need to understand how the system works! These legislators only care about putting money in their pockets thru PAC money and lobbyist helping them invest in something to make more money. They aren't in Austin to "help or protect citizens". Sure you may have a few long time legislators that seem to want to help out Criminal Justice, but they can change their mind in a heartbeat!

Anonymous said...

How about prosecutorial reform? There can be no legitimate criminal justice reforms without prosecutorial reforms. Grits has been strangely silent on this front!!!

Anonymous said...

RE Anon at 7:46 on 6/8. I read this entire comment assuming it came from Mark in San Angelo County. I hope i'm right and you really are retiring? that would be a huge win for Texas juveniles!

Anonymous said...

RE Anon at 12:27

You are clueless about Chief Williams. I have worked with him in my position with the State and now as a fellow chief. He is thoughtful, professional, and ethical. I may not always agree with him on policy issues, but when he retires he will be sorely missed!

john said...

The vast majority of We The Poor People will never be able to retire or have a pension, and possibly will rely on non-general welfare, the SSA, etc. The Pro-Commie Houston Chronicle wasn't satisfied with the weak changes and misses; as they wanted more of a slant. The problem with the legislature is lawyers=>judges=>politicians=> NEVER doing what they promise, if re-elected.
As long as the majority refuses to riot, resist, or even protest, this will continue to get worse. Note only black people stand up and fight the powers---partially because they have long been so disenfranchised they feel they have little to lose.
The vast bread & circuses fully distributed means folks will continue to shrug it off, never holding dirty legislators responsible.
Because any of you who work in or at the edge of the system, you hallucinate they won't come for you. I suggest they are just working their way up the food chain.

Sheadyn Rogers said...

I agree some bills not passing were a disappointment. I especially think the bill protecting those from prosecution when calling 911 to report someone who is overdosing on drugs should have passed! Also, I liked supporting employment more so that these young people can get a job in their 20s and not spend their entire life committing crimes and costing taxpayers a lot of money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Grits has been strangely silent" about "prosecutorial reform"

Hmmm ... I wonder if the prosecutors would agree?

After the Michael Morton Act last session, there weren't a lot of such bills in play this time.

Anonymous said...

But compared to what should have been done, what needed to be done, it was a disappointment. You got that right Grits.

Everyone has been strangely silent about reforming the utilization of: friggin Plea Mills, Secrete Live Show-Up Procedures / Photo Contest & Fake-Ass Criminal Defense Lawyers. I mean everyone.

How hard would it have it been to take time to rid (Lobby) Texas of the three ways to plea bullshit, force PD's to record Line-Ups & Photo Arrays & force CDLs to be Qualified to take cases to jury trials (and that means all the damn way to a jury verdict).

But that's what we get for allowing the bought & paid for politicians to remain in Texas. What ever happened to Tar & Feathers.

Grandmom said...

Has Grits commented on the amendment by Joan Huffman to the Michael Morton Act preventing the investigation of misconduct by prosecutors in determining causes of innocent convictions? Wasn't she a prosecutor?

Anonymous said...

12:15 I agree. Too many advocacy groups pulling new legislators in directions that don't make sense. The rookies seem to be the ones who will file any and everything just because they can. TERM LIMITS!!!!!!! That could help get some of the older entrenched ones to move along.

Anonymous said...

How did these posts go from lege info to Mark Williams bashing/loving?? Mark is one of the most upstanding guys I have ever known and remains IMHO the most sincere chief this state has ever seen.