Sunday, February 25, 2007

Vetoed probation bill gets second chance

It's amazing to me that with Texas prisons bursting at the seams and the probation system more or less broken everywhere in the state, nearly all positive attempts to fix the problem, even for low-level, non-violent offenders, receives the same, tired attacks from just a few vocal quarters. While I was distracted this week by little things like recovering from surgery, Eye on Williamson County was on the beat to monitor opponents of House Correction Chairman Jerry Madden's just-filed probation bill beating the drums against it, as reported in the Taylor Daily Press:
Taylor Police Capt. Don Georgens said the proposed legislation leaves several unanswered questions.

“Laws are in the books to protect the community,” he said. “I believe personally that any drug offense is illegal and should be punished with the maximum sentence. Those that abuse drugs should be punished.”

Georgens said treatment programs should not replace prison or jail sentences.

“I believe in giving everyone a second chance,” he said. “However, these programs should not be used in lieu of prosecution.
I'm not sure what the Taylor police chief is complaining about, since offenders are still being prosecuted, just their probation terms altered. Even Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, no softie on crime himself, admitted that, "What it does in terms of changing sentences for drug cases is fairly narrow."

Indeed the bill has narrowed substantially from the original form that passed out of the House Corrections Committee two years ago. That version was dramatically scaled back at the request of then-Rep. Terry Keel, to look more like this one, actually (as the Austin Statesman's Mike Ward noted). Then, of course, the Governor vetoed HB 2193, directly resulting in Texas' current prison overcrowding crisis.

Apparently this time Chairman Madden has found compromise language that will pass most critics' and the governor's muster. HB 1678 is joint-authored by Speaker Pro Temp Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat, past Chair and current Corrections Committee member Pat Haggerty of El Paso, Jim McReynolds, a Democratic Corrections and Appropriations Committee member, and Austin Democrat Donna Howard - a truly bipartisan bunch. Of course, the bill passed by wide, bipartisan margins in both chambers in 2005, until the Governor vetoed it.

More on this as it develops, but for starters I thought I'd give readers a brief synopsis of what's in HB 1678, and just as important, what's not.
  • Reduce maximum probation lengths from ten to five years ONLY for third degree felony drug and property crimes.
  • Allow judge to credit time served in a treatment facility if the offender completes treatment.
  • Reduces onerous community service requirements for all levels of offenders.
  • Early release: Requires judge to notify state and defense attorneys and consider whether to reduce or terminate probation at one half probation length or two years, whichever is more.
  • A judge can continue probation for the full term for offenders who threaten public safety.
  • HB 1678 does not apply to alcohol-related offenses including DWI.
  • It also does not apply to registered sex offenders.
The best part: it will reduce caseloads for local probation officers so they can focus their attention on more serious offenders, and give offenders incentives to earn their way off probation through good behavior.

If it's your idea of a good time or you work on these subjects professionally, be sure to take a look at the bill yourself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Until the powers to be in Austin get the Judges out of the probation offices business, ie., choosing the Chief probation officers, there will continue to be problems with supervision departments. Judges do what they want, when they want and however they want. They continuously meddle and cause officers to fear doing "WHAT IS RIGHT" for fear of their AT-WILL status with the puppet(chief). Take the power out of the Judges hands and watch how fast things will improve.