Friday, November 17, 2006

Texas criminal justice legislation to watch

Several bloggers including In the Pink Texas, DallasBlog, and Capitol Annex have been doing a good job of working through the hundreds of bills pre-filed so far at the 80th Texas Legislature, and I've mentioned a couple of good bills so far I liked. But I thought I'd run through a few more of the potentially important pieces of criminal-justice legislation that I haven't seen discussed. I'm going to leave analysis of (most) penalty enhancements and also sex offender statutes for later posts, but here are some highlights so far:

Prison overcrowding solutions proposed: Rep. Richard Raymond and House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden foresee different solutions to Texas' prison overcrowding crisis if policy changes can't be constructed to reduce the flood of nonviolent offenders into the system. Raymond has proposed HB 168 which would set standards for when and how the state should rent county jail beds in case the need arises for more overflow bunks. TDCJ right now contracts for around 1,900 beds in five Texas county jails, the Sunset Advisory Committee was told this week, to handle the current overincarceration crisis. By contrast, Chairman Madden's HB 198 would increase TDCJ's capacity to contract with private prison operators to handle anticipated growth in inmate numbers. Personally I'd like to see Texas make policy changes that would make renting or building more prison beds unnecessary. I still harbor hope the Lege may still go that route.

Good bills worthy of support:

Returning guns to owners during a disaster: Frank Corte's HB 258 would require law enforcement officers during a natural disaster to seize weapons when they detain someone, but orders them to return the firearms if either the person is not arrested or the weapon is needed as part of a criminal investigation. This is obviously a response to police confiscating handguns in New Orleans after Katrina. Good bill. Sen. John Carona is carrying the companion bill SB 112 in the Senate.

Improving care for infants born in prison. House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden filed HB 199 would require the Department of Criminal Justice to "implement a residential infant care and parenting program for mothers who are confined by the department. To the extent practicable, the department shall model the program after the Federal Bureau of Prisons ’ Mothers and Infants Together program operated under contract in Fort Worth"

Better phone access for prisoners. Apropos of recent discussions on Grits about ways to stem cell phone smuggling into prisons, Rep. Terri Hodge has filed HB 43 which would require TDJC to solicity a private contractor to implement a secure, monitored pay phone system that prisoners could access more easily.

ID Texas. The feds have passed the "Real ID Act," but it's not a "real" ID if more than million state residents can't get one. In case of disasters or when police need to find crime victims or witnesses, the lack of information about non-citizen residents creates real public safety threats. HB 256 by Alonzo would expand the range of documents allowable to get a Texas drivers license or ID card to include documents from foreign countries that meet minimum standards of reliability set by the Department of Public Safety.

And of course, some bad bills:

Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone. HB 104 by Debbie Riddle and HB 141 by Jim Jackson would deny in-state tuition to non-citizen immigrant kids who grew up in Texas and graduated in Texas high schools. This just seems mean-spirited to me. Those kids didn't choose to come here - their parents brought them. But they graduated from Texas high schools, will likely live here as adults, and it's a foolish waste of human capital to deny them an education.

If at first you don't succeed. Dan Branch (HB 79), Vicki Truitt (HB 128) and Robert Anchia (HB 267) have all filed bills that would boost penalties for the crime of burglary of a vehicle from a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony (Anchia's bill would do so only on the second offense). This crime isn't stealing a car, but stealing something out of it, from the car stereo to CDs lying in the seat. It was a big battle last year, and the sentence enhancers who lost obviously are coming back for another try. This would shift costs from counties to state government because misdemeanants serve their sentences in county jails, while enhancing the penalties would send offenders to "state jails" which are state-financed prison units for low-level felons.

Tent city, here I come. Rep. Phil King (HB 221) wants to let counties establish permanent tent cities as jails. I've discussed this before: There's a reasons jails have walls.

Limiting judges' and juries' discretion. Sen. Shapiro (SB 77) would limit judges' discretion to give probation to so-called 3g offenders, which includes most of the more violent offense categories like murder, rape, etc.. Very few 3g offenders get probation anyway, and the ones who do usually are first-time offenders with special circumstances that are best left to the judge and jury to evaluate. This would boost the number of folks in prison while diminishing judges' and juries' authority with no need - Texas juries aren't letting truly dangerous people get away with no prison time.

The bad bills list will get longer when I get around to analyzing the sex offender legislation filed so far, not to mention the usual round of penalty enhancements filed biennially. I also hope the list of good bills will expand. But this will let folks know about a few more criminal justice proposals so far, and I'll try and keep track of all the highlights as we go.

Let me know what I missed.


Anonymous said...

Go Terri ! :)

As for the bill restricting education for immigrant children .... many immigrants return home once they have a) enough money and b) an education. They want to help their communities in their original country. And if they can help improve their original country, fewer people will want to leave in the future. Surely spending money on improving the original country that way is more cost effective in the long run and easier to administer, than just building a wall and then having to pay to enforce the restrictions on movement?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's even more true, Sunray, if they stay in Texas, as many do. Bottom line: Would we rather have educated or uneducated people in Texas? In some cases these kids have lived here most of their lives. They all graduated from Texas high schools (where they must have attended at least three full years before graduating).

What's more, they still must earn their way in with good grades and pay the same tuition as all the other kids in their Texas high school graduating class. It's not like it's free - just the same as it was for the kid who sat next to them in English class.

Anonymous said...

Another bill to watch is the Bill to reform the Act providing Compensation for Wrongful Imprisonment. When Ellis files it.

We certainly do NOT need any more prison capacity. Private, Tent, or otherwise. Take a look at some of these statistics.

http://www.nccd- pubs/2006nov_ factsheet_ incarceratio\

Anonymous said...

any crime bill from FloPo (florence shapiro)is a bad crime bill.

Anonymous said...

I'll be interested in the analysis of FloPo's sex offender bills. From what I have heard and read, she intends to negate entire sections of the U.S. Constitution. Other states have tried - and failed - in that regard. California just adopted by referendum a terrible bill that essentially ignored the Constitution - and it was promptly thrown out by a federal judge, and almost as quickly state officials were saying it was unenforceable. Let's see what kind of a job Senator Shapiro has done in drafting the Texas version.