Sunday, March 11, 2007

House Corrections hears bills with more (or less) common sense

Before looking at tomorrow's bills up in the Texas House Corrections committee, I should pause to say that Chairman Jerry Madden is having a great session so far. I may not agree with him on everything (in fact, I don't), but he's taken his leadership position seriously, educated himself on corrections topics admirably since he first became chair in 2005, and has emerged as a knowledgeable leader in the House and force for change. Not only that, he's a genuinely nice guy (and I don't just say that because he's a Grits reader). At the TYC joint hearing last week, Madden was the coolest, smartest head on the dais, I thought. Of all the committee's members, he seemed to come to the meeting armed with facts and a focus on solutions instead of just emotionalism and rhetorical excess. There's still a ways to go (79 days and counting) but so far he's doing a good job as we head into the heart of Texas' legislative session over the next two months.

Anyway, back to tomorrow's Corrections meeting. There are a couple of bills up I don't like, and several good ones I hope make it through. Let's run through the highlights:

Watching dots on a screen won't make us safer
HB 430 by Madden: To start with one I don't like, this bill requires GPS monitoring for certain sex offenders, a faddish approach that IMO doesn't improve safety much. I'm tired of having to make these arguments myself, so let me quote the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, a statewide victim's rights group:
Global Position Satellite (GPS) tracking of sexual offenders may make us feel good, but will not make us safer. A careful examination of salient facts indicates that universal GPS monitoring of all registered sex offenders would be ill advised. First, most sex offenders victimize in places where we expect them to be (i.e. their own homes and the homes of people they know well.) The sad fact is, providing extra measures to keep sex offenders from restricted areas (schools, parks) does not protect the overwhelming majority of child victims of sexual abuse who are molested in their own homes or the home of the abuser. Second, GPS uses relatively new technology with known flaws and limitations. For example, like cell phones signals, GPS signals are frequently lost in forested and mountainous areas; they don't work in urban canyons, underground rail lines, buildings and sometimes even automobiles. Third, GPS is expensive ($6 to $10 per day per offender). California estimated that the net fiscal impact for GPS tracking of sex offenders in that state is likely to be "several tens of millions of dollars annually for the first few years, probably reaching at least $100 million in about ten years, and increasing significantly thereafter." Finally, GPS monitoring is not designed to be a stand-alone sex offender management tool. When used in conjunction with other management tools (e.g. specialized sex offender supervision caseloads, home contacts, employment verifications, alcohol and drug testing, treatment, case reviews, risk assessment instruments, collateral contacts, polygraph testing), GPS does hold promise. However, there is little scientific research regarding its effectiveness for management of even predatory sexual offenders. Under no circumstances should GPS of registered sex offenders be considered a ‘silver bullet.’
'Nuff said.

Common sense on HIV, part one: Test prison inmates for AIDS
HB 1276 by Davis: Here's a bill that deserves passage, this one mandating AIDS tests for all prisoners during their diagnostic process upon entry into a TDCJ facility. The Attorney General said they could - this would be the Legislature telling them they have to. This way sick people get identified and treated

Common sense on HIV, part two: Condoms in prison
HB 1068 by Coleman: Though some conservatives have made fun of it, I think this bill which would allow condom distribution and disposal in prison, is probably good public policy if done for health reasons and it's not treated as an excuse to tolerate prison rape. OTOH, there's plenty of anecdotal and some statistical evidence that TDCJ tolerates prison rape now, HIV rates in Texas prisons are high, and already cost TDCJ a whopping 40% of its entire pharmacy budget! Like many things in this world, it's a good idea that could turn sour in the implementation, but that's no reason not to try - the costs of not doing so are quite high. If you asked me, "common sense part three" would be to install tattoo parlors in prison, like they approved in Canada, but that bill didn't get filed. However, we do get an,

Ombudsman for in-prison sexual assault cases
HB 1944 by Coleman: This bill would create an ombudsman position at TDCJ whose job is to compile information and take complaints about sexual assault cases. It'd be a grim job if you weren't empowered to do anything, though. The ombudsman will "initiate and oversee" investigations, but it doesn't appear to be equipped with investigative staff. I'll be interested to hear the public debate on this one. It's a problem that needs to be fixed, but I'm not sure how this would help much, except perhaps to shed more light on the issue. I certainly know Coleman is bringing it with the best intentions, and he's a smart guy, so maybe there's some reason to the rhyme.

Paying for elderly offenders' health costs
HB 2611 by Madden: This bill would expand the range of offenders who are eligible for medical parole to include so-called 3g (or typically more violent) offenders who require full-time nursing home care, as well as sex offenders who are in a "persistent vegetative state." The key to understanding the economics of this bill is that the state pays for all of prisoners' care if they need a nursing home or other expensive end-of-life medical services, while on the outside Medicare and/or Medicaid would cover it. It's a good bill, but sex offenders are the fastest growing class of elderly offenders, and eventually Texas will need to let some of the sickest of them out, too. Letting out only sex offenders who are in a "persistent vegetative state" is hardly some elderly version of Prison Break (starring Paul Newman, perhaps?) Just good common sense. IMO, they could go farther without risking public safety.

Bohac requests dull bedtime reading
HB 1453 by Bohac would have every state rep and state senator emailed each month a list of every offender who gets off community supervision or out of prison and is released into their district. So he can do what with it, I wonder? I bet if you did an open records requests about complaints against TYC and TDCJ to Bohac's office, you'd find quite a few he'd never acted on, just as Paul Burka correctly says nearly every member gets all the time. And if they're not going to do anything with THAT information, what are legislators going to do with these reports? I don't know about you, but I don't see much good coming from this, for whatever purposes he hopes to use it.

UPDATE: Well, I guess it wasn't enuff said about HB 430. Ruth Epstein from the ACLU emailed with this:
We oppose HB 430, Monitoring of Certain High-Risk Sex Offenders,who are not under community supervision or civilly committed, after their sentences have been discharged.

1. Their risk level, number three- the highest- was known at sentencing. HB 430 would be an unwarranted addition to their punishment, a sentence after their sentence.

2. These offenders were not diagnosed with the mental or behavioral abnormality which are required for civil commitment, yet HB 430 attempts a variation of Texas-style civil commitment without its benefits and with a severe deficit.

3. Unlike civil commitment, treatment is not required.

4. The monitoring is for the sole purpose of verifying that the offender
resides where he is registered, unlike wider monitoring allowed under civil commitment.

Reliable studies have shown that residence is irrelevant to sex offenses, since a very high percentage of sex offenses occur within the family circle of relatives and friends.
There you have it - ACLU and the victim's rights folks basically on the same page. Quick, take a photo, capture the memory, it might not last long! We'll see what the committee does maƱana.


Anonymous said...

You know my thoughts on distributing condoms in prison. I will be interested to see if it gets through, and how much misinformation and outright homophobic vitriol is expressed even behind hands, which ever way it goes.

Give the inmates (and their spouses!) an acceptable outlet for their sexual frustrations where possible (and where safe to do so ~ there are plenty of options for this that would not put COs at risk) and you will have better behaved inmates. It works in other states, notably California, so why not in Texas too?

Keep telling inmates that during visits they must not touch their wives above the wrist because it is deemed to be unacceptable behaviour, and sooner or later someone is going to loose their temper over it.

Tackle HIV Aids, education and poverty OUTSIDE prisons with kids before they get to TDCJ, and you wont have to spend so much putting sticking plasters on it all later.

Still waiting for the inmate phone bill....

Anonymous said...

I give Chairman Madden credit. I see HB 203 was removed from the agenda. Good. Hopefully it was because the chairman recognized that the bill introduced by Rep. Menendez was blatantly unconstitutional. The Texas Legislature has no legal authority to order courts or parole boards to reopen cases previously adjudicated, in some instances where the sentence had already been completed, in order to impose additional punishment. That would be a clear violation of the constitutional provisions against double jeopardy and ex post facto. Congratulations are due to at least one state representative who apparently has read the constitution.

Anonymous said...

when will the lege come up with a bill to allow tdcj to install pay phones for inmates, rather than giving out "phone priveleges" based on the whims of a CO? The rates should be reasonable so as not to be a burden on the inmate's family. It would serve to keep the inmate connected to his/her family, and improve morale, thereby possibly reducing misbehavior. I imagine the technology exists that the inmate can even pay for the calls by using money from his/her trust fund account by swiping the id card.

Anonymous said...

n.x.con ~ Terri Hodge has again proposed such a bill. I dont have the # but it's in the list. The technology certainly does exist for inmates to be charged for calls via theor trust funds, with a limit on how many minutes they can use per month, because Federal inmates have that system. Installing a phone system in TDCJ would pay for itself within 2 years. I can see no logical argument against it, when even the victim support groups are now largely in favour of it.

Anonymous said...

I cam across this site by accident, but I am here to tell you that in 2008, nothing in the Texas criminal Justice Sysatem has change, if anything it's gotten worse. My son is in jail in Harris County, and each time he calls home it cost me $4.10 per call, and on top of it all I recently found out that Harris County Jail no longer allows them to purchase t-shirts and underwear or socks...then have been removed from the commisory list and now these items have to be passed down or sold to other detainees 2whe others are released.