Sunday, January 28, 2007

Deconstructing why criminal justice committees are considered "least important"

I do not dispute Paul Burka's assessment in his deconstruction of Texas House Committee assignments that, for legislators, media, and capitol hands, the Corrections, Criminal Jurisprudence, Law Enforcement, Judiciary, Defense Affairs, Border and International Affairs, Urban Affairs and Juvenile Justice Committees in the House are considered among the "least important.".

But I find it interesting and wanted to pause for a moment to deconstruct his deconstruction.

Think about it: These seven committees are those that primarily deal with public safety and security issues which are the bread and butter for both parties' hackneyed tuff-on-crime campaign rhetoric. How many times have you heard a politician say, "Public safety is my number one priority"?

So why are these committees considered dogs by the members themselves, so much so that droves of freshmen in the opposition party to the Speaker fill their ranks and Robert Talton won't even deign to attend Criminal Jurisprudence Committee meetings, he finds them so unimportant?

Partly that's because those seven committees' work funnel into two Senate committees, so in practice House members' power is diffused. (Juvenile Justice, in particular, has no budget officer on Appropriations.) It's also because there aren't as many opportunities for these committee members to make big-money lobby connections that help in campaign fundraising.

I also agree that's an accurate assessment because legislators' real-world willingness to spend money on corrections has never matched their rhetoric. Spending represents priorities in their most raw, honest form, but the courts are overworked, TDCJ guards, probation and parole officers, and their suport staff are all woefully underpaid, and meanwhile the Legislature elected to dole out billions in budget busting election year tax cuts.

So when is public safety really a priorty? Only during election season, certainly not during budget crunching time. Ask a TDCJ guard if I'm wrong.

Still, I think there's another reason. I believe that the "tuffer" rhetoric for many lawmakers is no more than a steaming pile of horse hockey some poltical consultant told the politician to repeat during campaign season to get elected (and I've been in the room when it was said to them when I worked in campaigns, I should add).

Problem is, Texas laws are already ridiculously "tough." We literally lead the known universe in the percentage of our population under control of the criminal justice system, with one in 20 adult Texans in prison, on probation or on parole. For two decades, dozens of "enhancement" bills, as they're euphemistically called, i.e. bills increasing penalties or creating new crimes, passed in the Lege each session.

Every behavior that is reasonable to criminalize or "enhance" has basically already been outlawed in Texas, usually in spades. All that is left are unreasonable things, though those are still frequently suggested.

So that leaves managing the problems created by this long-time casual dismissal by the pols of these important topics (in their actions at the Lege as opposed to their rhetoric in the campaign) - basically mopping up the mess. But it doesn't have to be that way. If I were a Democratic strategist I'd look at those committees as among the session's biggest opportunities for House Democrats to work together to make a difference.

The Corrections Committee oversees prisons, probation and parole, including TDCJ's $5 billion plus budget - this one should be easy because the chair is already working closely with the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's John Whitmire, a Houston D, on that committee's big reform ideas. The Criminal Jurisprudence Committee is responsible for setting most sentences and for all of the myriad due process reforms that would be necessary to address the growing concerns over convicting innocent people. At the Juvenile Justice Committee, TYC itself faces both crises from prior mismanagement and poor legislative plannning and opportunities from current events. On Border and International Affairs, these are precisely the topics a) around which flux a the immigration and drug war debates and b) which will decide Texas' long-term economic future as the international economy transitions.

I could go on, but you get the point. It's the same one Christ was making in his parable of the talents.

Tradition and other legislators may deem these committees "least important." But it is possible to BE important, to do important things for Texas, from those committees, and I see no reason not to.

As Eleanor Roosevelt declared, no one can make you feel inferior without your permission.

My advice to members on these committees would be to ignore Burka's opinion and listen to Eleanor Roosevelt. The Speaker's race is over. All that matters right now is 150 House members, 31 senators, and what they do, or don't do, in the next 121 days, and counting.


Anonymous said...

were these people not elected to serve the people? If so, then they should get on with it and stop griping, or give the job to someone who really wants to serve their communities, including the members of the communities that they lock up.

Anonymous said...

I would see the dis-satisfaction in government by corrections, parole, probation and juvie to be a wide open cause for some rep to make a name and help fix the broken systems.

Unknown said...

Thank you Scott. I too see great potential in the committee on which I serve. I placed this above all other committees on my request card because as you so eloquently stated it provides the greatest opportunity to do the important work that must be done. Our civilization can build skyscrapers that touch the sky but it has moved very little in changing the hearts of men towards their fellow man. Thank you again for laying out our challenge. I look forward to working with you and others like you who see the real value in our effort.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Now, now, no spitting! ;)

They removed the spitoons from the capitol years ago, sadly. I've never been a snuff man, personally, but I've admired the opportunity for dramatic flair that a well-placed pause and spit could add to a political discussion - especially spitting into a metal spitoon 2-3 feet away as opposed to a dingy paper cup. But alas, that's no longer considered kosher in today's PC world, so if legislators must abide by that restriction, IMO, so should we. Best,

Anonymous said...

What can be done about some of the lying women who only have to say a man did something to her when it is totally untrue? The man is always the one who is wrong and never gets the chance to prove she is lying. The DA loves to take this type of case and slander the man when there are no injuries and no proof, just her word against his. What if she has done this in the past three times and made financial gain and now for the fourth time does it again. When are there going to be rules to protect men from some of the mean women who take advantage of them as well as the court system by getting on the stand and crying and the jury believes her lies? She then walks away with everything the man has and once again puts a mark in her victor column. Three times, she gets away with this and yet it continues to happen. There is supposed to be a law to protect men abused by women, so where is it and why is it not used in courts? Texas are you listening???