Thursday, March 22, 2007

Drug courts, medical parole moving, but bills reducing police accountability mar criminal justice work in House this week

Having looked at criminal justice legislation passed in Senate committees, let's examine this week's action in the Texas House:

House Corrections
A couple of good bills by Chairman Jerry Madden made it out of committee this week, while his big probation bill (discussed here) was left pending for a week as is the chairman's custom. Madden's HB 2611 expanding medical parole made it out of committee. The fiscal note only assigned $1 million in savings to the bill over the first biennium, but depending on who is released it could easily be more than that. There are a small number of very expensive prisoners in TDCJ, a handful of whom cost the agency more than one million dollars each annually.

The Chairman's main drug court bill (HB 530, discussed here and here) passed with flying colors. The legislation would require all counties above 200,000 to have a drug court, state and federal funding permitting. Still, passing a bill and funding it are two different subjects. According to the fiscal note, "The bill would make no appropriation but could provide the legal basis for an appropriation of funds to implement the provisions of the bill."

Finally, Rep. Bohac got his bed time reading - a monthly emailed list of offenders getting out of prison or off community supervision would be sent to every legislator under HB 1453. Unless he intends to greet each of them with a fruit basket and a voter registration card, I still don't understand why he wants the information.

House Criminal Jurisprudence
This committee continues to churn out new penalty enhancements every week, despite the state's lingering prison overcrowding crisis. Just to run down this week's list, Chairman's Peña's enhancement for stealing copper wire (HB 1766) was approved, as was Rep. Delisi's HB 126 expanding the definition of organized criminal activity, and Charlie Geren's HB 1093 expanding the area around a funeral where protests are prohibited.

Thankfully the committee also kicked out a good bill from Scott Hochberg, HB 681 which requires the state to pay for postconviction DNA tests ordered by a judge. I was also glad to see them approve HB 1178 by Escobar, which would forbid District Attorneys from seeking waivers from defendants of their right to counsel. Both are good bills that deserve approval.

House Law Enforcement
To start out on a postive note, the House Law Enforcement Committee this week approved HCR 96, which I described here, calling for a moratorium on legislation creating new types of police agencies and a two-year study to reconcile the hodge podge of nickel and dime police forces with overlapping jurisdictions around the state.

But that modest achievement, I'm afraid, was the high point, and things went south quickly from there. The Committee also approved a couple of truly bad bills aimed at reducing police officer accountability. The first, HB 488 (discussed here), strips the state police officer licencing agency of meaningful regulatory authority. HB 1422 (discussed here) which closes records related to officer misconduct for DPS troopers. (The companion bill to HB 1422 also passed in Senate Criminal Justice this week.) These bills both head in the opposite direction the state needs to go given the enormous problems we've witnessed with police misconduct and the drug war.

Next, for reasons described here I think it was a particularly bad idea, the more I think of it, for the committee to approve this week HB 320 by Buddy West, which would allow any commercial business to scan the stripe on the back of your driver's license to electronically gather the information whenever you cash a check. There are simply no significant restrictions on how that data can be used, and by whom.

Finally, the Law Enforcement Committee couldn't help but get into the enhancement act, though they limited the damage to local county jails instead of sending more people to overcrowded prisons. They approved HB 855, described here, which expands the crime of failure to identify from people arrested to people merely "detained." That's a huge difference - I'm arrested when they cuff me and read me my rights. Whether someone is "detained" when an officer stops and begins to speak to them, though, can be a matter of significant dispute. Conceivably this could add a significant number of people to county jail populations.

So those are this week's high and lowlights. The new House budget was presented, but I haven't had a chance to review it yet to see what's in it on the criminal justice front. More soon previewing next weeks criminal justice committee hearings.


Anonymous said...

Regarding HB 1453 - I'm not sure why a representative might want that info. However, I would imagine when they see in real time the number of offenders who are returning to their communities, they might start thinking about some smart, effective reentry policies for Texas. Some states provide this information to local reentry task forces and local law enforcement to encourage a community's involvement in a returning offender's successful reentry.

Anonymous said...

When the US Constitution was written, they used the legalese term 'arrest' to mean stop. When the police stop you, you have been arrested. Not detained, arrested.

Somewhere near 99% of all arrests are off the books. The police do not want anybody auditing their arrests, nor do they want to leave behind any official record of illegal activity.

The courts have allowed this nonsense of a distinction between detain and arrest -- which works out to stop and stop -- no real difference, but the hoodwinking is meant to shield the cops from prosecution for false arrest, arrests without warrant, and so on.

There will be no fix until the police are required to report in writing every single arrest, and be able to show just cause -- else be prosecuted for false arrest.

Anonymous said...

Because the police, DA's and community leaders know x-offenders have at least a 28% recidivism rate, I suspect they'll view the people on these lists as an easy way to increase their crime statistics, arrest rates, conviction rates etc. Everyone is helpless against the juggernaut of our Criminal Justice System and folks just released from its control are the most vulnerable of all.

OF course the police, DA and Community leaders will asf for more funds so they can start even more citizens on a life of crime! HB1453 just insures full employment for the Criminal Justice System and more taxes for you and me.

You may think this conclusion is cynical. There may be lots of good intentions out there but the reality remains the same.