Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Notes from House Appropriations Criminal Justice Subcommittee hearings, part one

Here's theLiveStream for the House Appropriation Criminal Justice Subcommittee going on right now. You can also see video from this morning's meeting, and also from their hearing yesterday, for those who are interested. They took invited, preliminary testimony only, discussing LBB recommendations regarding criminal justice related agencies. More later but here are a few highlights so far.

From the hearing this morning (2-7-07):

The Forensic Science Commission doesn't want to be tied to the Department of Public Safety because DPS operates the crime labs the Forensic Science Commission is supposed to be regulating. Right now DPS is in charge both of regulating their own crime labs and operating them. An FSC representative suggested the Attorney General might be a good place to house the commission. He said the commission has been unable to act on complaints by Barry Scheck's Innocence Project and others and aren't being investigated because of a lack of funding.

Col. Tommy Davis of the Department of Public Safety said there are less than 20 crime labs in the state in addition to DPS' 13 labs. DPS is in charge of certification, but they do not investigate complaints against the labs, he said. Davis knew of no entity in Texas that would be responsibility for investigating complaints against labs except the agency that operated the lab, as happened in Houston.

A rep from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards said that currently 11 jails are not in compliance, including Dallas and Houston. Chairman Turner asked what the longest time had been that a jail was out of compliance, requiring variances, etc. The answer: Some small counties with historical jails have never been in compliance and require variances to continue to operate. Harris County has received variances to add beds within the same spaces. Every jail is inspected once per year, TCJS said, and those that are not in compliance receive followup visists.

Currently according to TCJS, there are 84,308 beds available in Texas county jails with 69,286 inmates, including 1,900 state prisoners in contract beds. Turner was interested in how many beds were available for contracting use for TDCJ overcrowding, but TCJS said reaalistically there was very little extra space, especially beds classified for more dangerous offenders like TDJC might send to them. About 20% of jail offenders are identified as mentally ill, and in particular segregating these offenders from the general population makes it impossible to utilize every last bed.

TCJS is seeking funding to hire a "diversion specialist" to help counties seek solutions to local jail overcrowding, and a fourth inspector to cover Texas 254 counties. The diversion specialist would essentially work with counties like a consultant suggesting methods to reduce overcrowding and divert offenders to more appropriate punishments.

And from yesterday afternoon's hearing of the same subcommittee (2-6):

A rep from the Attorney General said the Crime Victims Fund currently has a balance of $57 million, with $13 million in an auxillary fund. They anticipate this biennium spending $104.8 million for payments, $11 million to the AG for overhead, and $2 million to retirement funds, which should leave about $20 million left at the end of the biennium. An LBB representative, however, said the fund will be bankrupt by 2011.

Turner asked, are there organizations being funded that might be considered "questionable" from the crime victims' fund? While offering no specifics, the AG said there may have been validity to those concerns in the past, but not today. That's an interesting exchange - I wonder what they're talking about?

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson pointed out that funding for the courts in Texas made up only .4% of the state budget. He was there in particular to advocate for a higher budget for the Texas Supreme Court, which has a $4 million annual budget, he said, 93% of which goes for labor costs. However, he said, "Funding limitations are restricting the court's ability to expeditiously dispense justice." Moreover, "When courts are underfunded they are less efficient and less effective," he said, calling for money for additional court staff. (Jefferson also called for judges to be appointed instead of elected, but committee members scoffed at the idea; Jim McReynolds told him, "We have to run for office, too."

The Court of Criminal Appeals has apparently had problems managing its various grants and is asking for money to create a grants administrator. I'd like to know more about that, and there's an audit of those grants that they referenced which I'd also sure like to see. Judge Barbara Hervey testified representing the Court. Last year the CCA disposed of 11,000 cases, she said, and 92% of the agency's court goes toward salary. The CCA has a bigger caseload than the Supreme Court, a staffer said in response to questioning by Rep. McReynolds, which is why it has a larger budget and staff. Sixty five percent of court dockets in Texas, said Judge Hervey, are criminal cases.

CCA has several committees including an educational committee and a grants committees, said Hervey, and she heads the grants committee. They get $20 million in grants to educate judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors. There are presently eight grantees who give judicial education. There is a separate $300K budget for educating on issues of actual innocence.

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