Thursday, March 22, 2007

Senate criminal justice action: New prisons, new enhancements, closing records - a bad week

Before beginning previews of next week's criminal justice committee hearings, let's quickly review the most important actions taken by Texas legislative committees this week, starting with the Senate (I'll do House committees in a separate post):

Senate Finance
The big news of the week (though it's inexplicably yet to receive MSM coverage) was the Finance Committee's approval of funding for $34 million per year in debt payments for three new prisons. Not a peep was uttered during Tuesday's committee hearing about the estimated $72 million per year it will cost to staff and operate them! The Senate plan would ask voters to authorize six units total in a November election. See prior Grits coverage.

Senate Criminal Justice
Meanwhile, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed quite a few bills, including some real stinkers, in this writer's opinion.

The worst of the lot are two bills closing public records - SB 244 by Williams temporarily closing search warrant affidavits (adumbrated here), and SB 740 by Whitmire closting DPS officer misconduct records (see my write-up of the identical companion, HB 1422).

Sen. Florence Shapiro won approval for two more sex offender enhancements (SB 75 and SB 78 previewed here). What interests me most here are the fiscal notes. On SB 75, which requires a life sentence on the second offense for certain sex crimes against children, the Legislative Budget Board claims it will have no significant impact, even though by definition keeping more people in prison longer costs more money. After all, Texas prisons are 2,000 inmates over capacity right now. This is an example how underestimating fiscal notes contributes to red ink in the state budget.

Equally interesting is the fiscal note for SB 78, which is the companion to Jerry Madden's House bill grafted onto HB 8 (Jessica's Law) that's currently headed to the Senate floor. The fiscal note for HB 8 said it would cause no significant fiscal impact, while in SB 78's fiscal note LBB admits that new costs of the same legislation could not be known given current data! How much will Jessica's Law and other new sex offender enhancements cost? I still think it will be more than LBB is telling the Legislature.

Finally I'd be remiss not to mention two bills that I wouldn't call "bad," just not things I hold strong opinions about. First, on the technocorrections front, the committee approved SB 1061 which allows judges to order ignition interlocks for drivers whose licenses are suspended for refusing to take a breath test. (Again the fiscal note says the cost would be insignificant, but if it's true 40-45% of drivers refuse breath tests, the cost of the devices and their monitoring would be significant. In addition, Rep. Glenn Hegar's SB 534 allowing employees with concealed carry permits to leave their gun in their locked car in an employer's parking lot. Honestly I could go either way on both of those, but would be interested in readers' thoughts.

Now would be the time if you wanted to contact your state senator and let them know your druthers on these topics.

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