Saturday, April 23, 2005

Probation and sentencing roundup

A few more recent items on Texas' probation and sentencing reform front that caught my eye:
  • No New Felonies? The Baytown Sun editorialized against making car burglary a felony, while the Beaumont Enterprise thinks a pause is appropriate in boosting prison sentences. Here's an action alert to oppose new prison sentence increases.
  • Or only 'little' felonies? Rep. Peña thinks his HB 1324, dubbed HB 151-Lite, may have a chance where a more draconian approach was stopped in the Senate by Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire.
  • Listen to the children: Ann has resources on legislation to improve telephone access in prisons that would raise money for probation services and give inmates more opportunities to stay in touch with their families.
  • Whither the smoke-filled backroom? The Statesman's Mike Ward documents the welcome trend toward openness in deliberations over changes to the criminal justice system.
  • Texas a model? Texas' HB 2668, authored in 2003 by state Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, was highlighted by the April 17 Chicago Tribune:
Between 1991 and 1996, Texas tripled the size of its prison system to make room for all the criminals it wanted to lock away. But two years ago, a state budget crisis forced the legislature to reconsider.

At that point, state Rep. Ray Allen, a conservative Republican and chairman of the House Corrections Committee, says he discovered that Texas prisons had some 4,000 inmates charged with minor drug felonies. Considering the state was spending $2 a day to supervise people on probation, compared with $40 a day to keep them in prison, he introduced a bill mandating probation and treatment for first-time offenders caught with small amounts of illicit substances.

"I thought we'd catch hell for it," he said in a phone interview the other day.

But one former prosecutor in the House, also a Republican, said, "I've sent 1,000 people to prison for these types of offenses, and I don't feel too good about it." To Allen's surprise, the bill passed both houses without dissent and was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

"What broke the logjam," says Allen, "was when Republicans who had been tough on crime looked at the fiscal impact and saw that policies that felt good were fiscally unsustainable." By diverting some drug offenders from prison, he says, Texas has saved $51 million, and the savings will grow.

He doesn't see the shift as going soft on crime by any means--just the opposite. Considering the 4,000 prison beds that were then occupied by minor drug offenders, Allen explains, "we as a legislature decided we wanted rapists, robbers and murderers to occupy those beds."
As always, be sure and check out Solutions for Texas for more on these topics.

UPDATE: Ann's posted the new language for the SB 1266 committee substitute, the Texas Senate's version of probation reform, all 101 pages. It's up in committee on Tuesday, and criminal justice reformers are proposing several amendments that I'll discuss soon. Congrats are in order to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and to Ann, who ably covers probation and sentencing bills on behalf of ACLU of Texas -- this represents a ton of hard work by a lot of folks.


thehim said...

Sorry if I get too political here, but every time I try to convince those on the left to take up decriminalization as a serious platform position because of its economic effects, I get a rolling of the eyes and a lecture about how the fundamentalists will go nuts. Then they'll start wondering why moderate Republicans never cross over and vote for Democrats. This is an issue that can really exploit the rift in the Republican party and the left is too scared or too dumb to see it.

Catonya said...

I read through SB 1266. Looks good except for this I'm sure there are all kinds of good reasons behind it but still seems discrimanatory. All but says those already on probation aren't worthy of the movement for reform. Sadder is that pre-bill probationers who have been working to better themselves are in effect punished or not recognized for their efforts because of this exclusion.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Catonya, I'm not a lawyer, and perhaps someone who is can tell us for sure, but I think the deal is you have to operate under the rules in place when you were sentenced. Like you, I'd prefer if the new rules were universally applicable.

thehim: you're singing my song. Any small government conservative should be horrified at our criminal justice policies. That represents an opportunity, if we take it, for left-right collaboration.