Friday, February 11, 2005

Tell me baby do you want it?

Texas Governor Rick Perry wants it. The House Appropriations Committee Chairman thinks it's a good idea. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee recommended it after months of study. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice wants it stronger (pdf). Two former House Corrections Committee chairmen think it's essential.

What is it? Probation reform. It's the
catchphrase of the week at the Texas Legislature. It's supposed to keep Texas from having to build more prisons.
So what does it mean?

Rep. Haggerty's
HB 575 is key to lowering probation caseloads. Even so, the state needs to hire hundreds more probation officers. They've got to fund more drug treatment. The question is how to pay for it?

Testifying Wednesday on behalf of ACLU of Texas' legislative committee, Ann del Llano offered the Appropriations subcommittee on criminal justice an array of options for reforming Texas' probation system, and identified several lucrative sources of revenue.
Take a close look at the handout she gave them. (Disclosure alert: I work with Ann on ACLU's legislative committee.) It turns out, Texas could probably finance most of its extant drug treatment and probation service needs from one source: discretionary accounts held by local District Attorneys from hot check and asset forfeiture funds. Check out the size of the slush funds we're talking about:
District Attorney discretionary hot check and asset forfeiture funds should be appropriated to these solutions that work. The Harris County District Attorney testified that he has at least $26 million sitting in his discretionary funds. These funds should be accounted for in all 254 counties and then appropriated to needed programming.
If the state's going to seize assets from drug transactions, they needn't just become some slush fund to be dispensed at the whimsy of the local DA. It makes tons of sense to use that money for drug treatment, instead. It will be argued that asset forfeiture money is needed to provide matching funds to finance drug task forces, but if the Legislature follows the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee's recommendation and abolishes the drug task force system, that federal grant money could be used for other things like treatment and drug courts.


Pete Guither said...

The key to me is that there needs to be a clear and absolute separation between those who are seizing assets and those who are utilizing the seized assets.

We must aim to avoid all situations where a unit depends on forfeiture income to meet their annual budget, and when it isn't there, putting pressure on law enforcment to seize more.

That's when the worst abuses of asset forfeiture occur. (The murder of Donald P. Scott is a prime example.)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, Pete. I think that's why it makes sense to take that money out from under the control of the DAs. That they get to keep the money and use it as a slush fund gives them incentives for improper behavior, like in Denton Co., TX, where the DA was trading leniency in plea bargains in exchanbe for agreements by defendants not to contest forfeiture proceedings. Better to have the state pool those resources to pay for much needed probation reforms.