Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A few new laws I like

Hundreds of new Texas laws take effect this week, and both MSM and the blogosphere have remarked on some of them. I want to highlight a few new Texas statutes taking effect September 1 on the criminal justice front that haven't received much press. Nothing comprehensive, but items that deserve broader attention. (Maybe later this week I'll look at a some new bad ones.)

Stronger Probation Perry DIDN'T Veto
: The death of HB 2193 strengthening Texas' probation system wasn't the last chapter in efforts to bolster the state's broken community supervision system. (At this point, nobody even knows how many probationers have absconded.) As Grits reported this weekend, three "Riders" to the state budget will reduce probation caseloads in 48 counties, require those counties to adopt "progressive sanctions"-based supervision models, pay for 500 new treatment beds, and reduce probation revocations by more than 2,000 per year statewide, averting hundreds of millions in new incarceration spending. Each new dollar spent saves ten in the out years. Without HB 2193, though, Texas prisons are still overflowing.

Carry a Legal Weapon in Your Personal Vehicle
: HB 823 (Keel/Hinojosa) defines "traveling" in the law so that legal gun owners who are not engaged in criminal activity can carry a firearm in their car while driving if it's not in plain view. As recounted here and here, I played a small role in that legislation on behalf of ACLU of Texas' legislative committee supporting the bill. The National Rifle Association brought forward the legislation, and the police unions fought it bitterly. Apparently they want to be the only ones who can have guns. But the "strange coalition" between NRA and ACLU overcame the opposition. I hope Scott's happy. UPDATE: Kevin helpfully notes in the comments that Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal intends to continue to prosecute these cases. That's pretty much just spitting in the eye of the NRA and soon-to-be-Court-of-Criminal-Appeals Justice Terry Keel. I wonder how other prosecutors will handle it? Injustice Anywhere has more.

Prisoner ID Gets You A Drivers License
: Astonishingly, for years one of the big barriers to prisoners' successful re-entry into society has been acquiring a drivers license. The Texas Department of Public Safety wouldn't accept photo ID cards from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the prison system, as valid. So ex-prisoners had to run around looking for their birth certificate or other forms of identification, which at a minimum causes delays. In other cases, they just wouldn't get a drivers license, or would use falsified documents to get a fake one. So the lapse not only harmed reintegration efforts, it created new security risks -- a double dipper. New legislation forces Texas DPS to accept TDCJ identification cards as valid ID to get a drivers license. It's about time.

Drug task forces get more oversight:
Regular readers know Grits and the Texas House of Representatives would like to see Byrne-grant funded drug task forces abolished, but the Senate and the Governor didn't agree, so they got greater oversight instead. With passage of HB 1239 (Hodge/Hinojosa), Texas DPS got real command and control authority over multi-county drug task forces, though many are still bridling at the arrangement. Texas DPS and the Governor will decide in September which drug task forces can remain in business. Many are tarnished with scandal. The total number of drug task forces in Texas declined from 46 to 25 in the last four years. A majority of Texas counties no longer benefit from federal Byrne grant money to support a drug task force, though they are eligible to receive funds for other programs like drug treatment and probation services.

Probation allowed for state jail felons
: This was a very good bill as filed, but language in the final version removed limits on the amount of county jail time judges can order as a "condition" of felony probation. (I can't prove it, but I was told Harris County prosecutors were behind the added language.) So low-level drug users (less than 1 gram) might be sentenced to "probation" and still serve time in the county jail, now more time than ever. That contributes significantly to the overincarceration crisis in Texas county jails with little benefit to public safety. (The Lege tried to close that loophole this year in HB 2193 by disallowing jail time as a probation condition, but that bill was vetoed by the Governor.) The practice of using jail as a probation condition for state jail felons recently drew down media heat on Harris County judges for causing unnecessary jail overcrowding. Apparently, though, some folks would rather see MORE probationers in the county jail. Luckily, since most county jails are full in Texas, I doubt judges will go crazy giving probationers jail time. The net result should be more low-level drug users receiving probated sentences instead of going to prison, and that's a good thing.

Lege Avoids $1 billion in New Prisons
: Perhaps the best thing the Legislature did this year on the criminal justice front was something they didn't do -- pass a raft of new prison sentence increases or create a bunch of new crimes. Sure, there were a few penny ante ones, and I haven't seen anybody compile a final tally, but most of the really budget-busting penalty increases proposed this session did not pass.


Kevin Whited said...

Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal disagrees with your characterization of the gun-carry law.

Clay Robison reports on that in today's Chronicle, and Rosenthal also has a letter.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I have known Chuck Rosenthal personally and I believe he is a mean spirited, evil individual that needs to go have a SERIOUS talk with GOD. First hand would be nice! What a WASTE of good horse flesh.