Monday, March 26, 2007

Probation funding, innocence, capital representation, wiretapping, and trespassing enhancements dominate Senate Criminal Justice Committee agenda

The Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee will meet tomorrow to consider a jam-packed agenda on a number of important topics. Here's an overview of the legislation I consider most interesting or important:

Change funding mechanisms for probation departments
SB 166 by Sen. Royce West appears to be a well-thought out piece of legislation that creates a framework for distributing grants to probation departments, much like the Legislature did last year through a series of budget "riders," funding for which is included in the recent Senate Finance Committee recommendations. Key components include a mandate that:
In determining which departments are proper candidates for grants under this section, the division shall give preference to departments that present to the division a plan that will target medium-risk and high-risk defendants and use progressive sanction models
In addition one of several possible qualifying program attributes encouraged under the bill is the "designation of faith-based community coordinators who will develop faith-based resources, including a mentoring program." This approach looks to me to be a great first step in restructuring the funding mechanisms for local probation departments, and deserves support as part of the broader array of probation strengthening reforms being proposed this session.

Please, really, enough with the fees
SB 302 by Harris would worsen prison overcrowding at the margines (remember, the problem, for the most part, stems from a so-called death by a thousand cuts). Harris' bill is the Senate companion to HB 3010 by Rep. Paula Pierson, about which I recently wrote, it:
assess a new fee on defendants who are assigned community service by the courts as a condition of probation. ... Past Legislatures have larded so many fees on defendants that they already contribute signficantly to probationers being revoked for so-called "technical violations."
This new fee would just worsen the problem at a time when Chairman Whitmire has gone to great lengths to propose legislation that would reduce the number of technical probation violations. This bill takes the state in the opposite direction the Legeneeds to be going and this bill and others like it should be shelved until the probation system's bigger problems. are fixed.

Harris bill on swiping DLs includes better restrictions on misuse
SB 307, also by Harris, raises a bit of a conundrum when taken together with legislation that's currently moving through the House of Representatives. Harris' bill would allow vendors to swipe the electronic stripe on consumers' driver's license to gather electronically their personal information when they purchase pseudoephedrine products (which can be used to make methamphetamines, as well as solve the worst sinus problems). To his credit, Sen. Harris' bill contains the following restrictions on how this data can be used:
Information accessed under this section may not be sold or otherwise disseminated to a third party for any purpose,including any marketing, advertising, or promotional activities. The information may be obtained by court order or on request by the department or the Department of Public Safety.
However, House Law Enforcement recently approved HB 320, which would essentially let any commercial business gather the information on a drivers license from every check writer in the state with no restrictions on how they could use the information. As I wrote about that bill:
This perhaps bothers me more than it might otherwise after recently learning about an Austin man, a confidential informant for the feds who ran 3 Austin convenience stores and was found to have made hundreds of small, fraudulent transactions at or after the point of sale while he was working as their snitch. Checking my ID to let you see if the picture and the signature match is one thing. Scanning it into a computer means you've gathered that information electronically, can store it, and can use it for whatever you want.

I'm not sure I'm okay with that - banks doing it are one thing, but a convenience store requiring it starts to make me nervous.
I don't see widespread use of the driver's license swiped stripe by commercial businesses as a good idea, or at least not one worth all the potential unintended consequences, as with the federal informant mentioned in the quote above, from having consumers' personal information gathered in hundreds of different places by God knows who.

Expansions of who can use and store that data need to be comprehensively studied, not decided piecemeal in the biennial legislative frenzy. Maybe this would be a good interim study topic for this or some other committee to address the problem in a more thoughtful and comprehensive fashion?

Better access to post-conviction DNA testing
Duncan's SB 499 is a welcome piece of legislation that would better facilitate defendants' access to post-conviction DNA testing through the courts. With the recent spate of successful actual innocence claims, removing these procedural barriers seems the least the state could do.

Who can represent defendants in capital cases?
Sen. Kel Seliger's HB 528 slightly loosens standards for who can serve as a lead attorney in a capital case, reacting to shortages in some counties of qualified attorneys. I've not heard much about this bill either way and would request any interested or knowledgable readers to look at the bill and let me know what you think of it in the comments.

Wiretapping bill like giving Barney Fife a second bullet

Chairman Whitmire somewhat inexplicably has co-sponsored SB 823, a companion bill to HB 357 carried by Rep. Debbie Riddle which is also up this week. See my discussion of Riddle's bill for more detail. Basically the bill deregulates wiretapping in Texas from having a specialized unit at DPS do all of it to letting any police department that sends a cop through a special training program run wiretaps on their own. When Gov. Perry first proposed the idea last year, Fort Worth Startlegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders said the idea was as foolish and dangerous as giving Barney Fife a second bullet. UPDATE: A staffer from the bill sponsor's office responded to say "we bracket the pen register device to police that serve over 500,000 populations, so I don't think the police at Muleshoe will get the devices." That may be true, but it was Houston PD, not Muleshoe, whose crime labs were so incompetently managed that they falsely accused innocent people - if you ask me, the Barney Fife analogy goes farther than just the police in Muleshoe.

Criminal Trespass Enhancements
The remainder of the agenda, or most of it, consists of new criminal penalty enhancements. Sen. Jeff Wentworth has two up - SB 182 that slightly expands the definition of 'criminal trespass,' and SB 597 which deals with similar topics. Chairman Whitmire's SB 1097 takes penalties in the other direction, reducing the penalty for this crime to a C misdemeanor (from a B) on the first offense. With three bills up on the subject including one from the chair, I'd suspect we'll see some legislation on this issue move out of committee; we'll find out soon enough what it will look like. (Clarification: The original language of this post was vaguely worded and didn't clarify that Whitmire's bill would actually reduce the penalty - it definitely shouldn't be considered an enhancement.)

Those are the high and lowlights of the bills posted in this Senate committee. Particularly if your own state senator is on the committee, let them know how you feel about these bills, preferably before their hearing tomorrow, but if not sometime this week still isn't too late. (And if they respond, be sure to let me know what they had to say!)


John D. McLauchlan said...

I should probably know this, but how does one find appropriations "riders" or whether a particular bill has one?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ultimately they become part of the appropriations bills, HB 1 and SB 1, and will be available online only after they've been approved either in committee or on the floor. Until then, often the only way is to contact the committee clerk or the author of the Rider, in this case Whitmire's office, to find out the status. I'm still anxious to see the riders the Senate Finance Committee discussed putting limitations on new prison spending. best,

Don said...

grits, thanks for yur work

Anonymous said...

Change the funding mechanism????????? What a bunch of AUSTIN B.S. They should call it the "screw the probation officers bill". The LEGE keeps dumping on us the idea of "working" with the slug who could care less about following the conditions of probation. They were willing to pay $40+ dollars per day to incarcerate them in prison, but only give CSCD's $2.50 per day to "REHABILITATE" them and reduce the incarceration numbers. Things will never change!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Change Article 42.12 and 42.13 to address the inequality in the funding of CSCD's. It would make more sense to adequately fund a probation department than continue to build prisons for those don't represent a real threat to the safety of the community. SMOKE that in your pipe AUSTIN LEGE.
TIRED, OVERWORKED AND UNDERPAID Community Supervision Officer!

Anonymous said...

Austin does not get that until you pay , staff, and manage fair the system will stay broken for all of TDCJ- Just to let you know Austin child sexual predators work for cheaper wages when they get perks.
Senator Whitmire lets look at some caseloads, pay scales, staff ratios- stop with this grant crap and fix the whole budget-