Friday, April 13, 2007

Busy committees clear bills on prison rape, parole, TYC, medical release, gun rights, and local jail diversion

Time for Grits' weekly rundown of this weeks' Texas legislative committe action. It's the busiest time of the legislative season, and in the scheme of things the legislation moving this week in the Texas Legislature on criminal justice matters was pretty positive, I'm happy to report. Easily the biggest news was the presentation of Senate and House budgets, the criminal justice implications of which are discussed here.

But lots of other important legislation is moving, too. Here are some of the week's highlights, starting with a slew of bills passed out of the House Corrections Committee (not comprehensive):
  • HB 1944 which would create an "ombudsman's" office to receive complaints from inmates about sexual assault and assist in compiling reports, making policies, and ensuring investigations don't fall through the cracks.
  • HB 2938 (discussed here) would require parole for certain low-level offenders when they've completed minimum requirements.
  • HB 2100 expanding the use of parole for seriously ill patients with high medical costs.
  • HB 199 (discussed here) establishing a residential infant care program for mothers who give birth in TDCJ, more than 250 per year.
  • HB 429 (discussed here) authorizing a study for options to manage and hopefully reduce increases in elderly inmates' healthcare costs.
  • HB 46 expanding opportunities for inmates to earn "good time" as a means of improving inmate discipline.
Meanwhile, Rep. Hodge's HB 43 allowing TDCJ to restore good time as a disciplinary tool, which had previously passed out of Corrections, passed the House this week and headed to the Senate. Congrats to her on passing an excellent bill through the lower chamber.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee passed a couple of very good bills, my favorite of which is HB 2391 by Madden (discussed here) which gives police officers discretion to cite and summons Class A and B misdemeanor offenders at their discretion instead of arresting them and taking them to jail. This will help with local jail overcrowding, keep officers on the street longer doing productive police work, and streamline misdemeanor court dockets clogged with offenders waiting in jail to have their cases heard. This bill's cause is aided by the fact that the idea is supported by jail administrators in Bexar County and also in Midland, Speaker Craddick's home turf.

Meanwhile Criminal Jurisprudence also approved Rep. Escobar's HB 2437, discussed here, which authorizes counties to establish "a pretrial victim-offender mediation program for cases involving a first-time offender arrested and charged under Title 7 of the Penal Code (Offenses Against Property). A county with a population of more than 100,000 would be required to establish a pretrial victim-offender mediation program." This bill, too, will help reduce local jail overcrowding, and I'm glad to see both of them make it out of committee.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Criminal Jurisprudence Committee if they didn't pass at least one criminal penalty increase this week, this time HB 401 which I've called the Congressman Mark Foley Act, enhancing penalties for already illegal text message sexual solicitations of minors by adults. This is pure grandstanding to my mind. The conduct described is already illegal and harshly punished under current law. How much you want to bet some version of it passes the House, anyway?

The House Law Enforcement Committee this week kicked out Rep. Carl Isett's HB 1815 which I've written about favorably, allowing Texans to legally carry a handgun in their car if it's stowed and they're not a felon or otherwise diqualified from doing so. I have high hopes this piece of legislation will make it all the way to the Governor's desk.

In the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the passage this week of Chuy Hinojosa's SB 103, a major Texas Youth Commission reform bill, made headlines (see prior Grits coverage). Rather than go through the details of the substitute, let me refer you to MSM accounts here, here, and here for more detail. I was also glad to see the committee kicked out Sen. Whitmire's SB 838 which creates intermediate sanctions options for parole violators that should reduce overall parole revocation rates.

As described here, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee this week approved SB 308 by Deuell to allow local governments to operate or approve nonprofit needle exchange programs.

Finally, on the House floor next week (in addition to a bad bill, HB 1422, discussed previously), an important piece of legislation is up on Monday, HB 1178 by Escobar, a slightly different version of which was vetoed by Gov. Perry in 2005 "due to concerns that it would impact traffic court proceedings," according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "HB 1178 resolves those concerns, by applying only to cases before county and district courts in which defendants are facing confinement in jail." (See prior Grits coverage).

HB 1178 is designed to ensure that defendants are made aware of their right to speak with an attorney before prosecutors seek to question them or negotiate a plea, according to a Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's fact sheet in support of the bill. "The bill also changes current law to ensure that defendants can try to hire a lawyer on their own without losing the opportunity to request appointed counsel if it turns out that they cannot afford to hire a lawyer."

As always, see the capitol website for more details on these and other bills at the Texas Lege.


Anonymous said...

Go Terri, Go Terri :) We need a few carrots to go with all these sticks.

I have a question though: if TDCJ gave early parole to inmates who had illnesses that were costing TDCJ a lot of money, one would assume that these were elderly inmates who had been in the system for some time. How exactly is kicking them out the door going to help anyone except TDCJ? The inmate isnt going to walk out and into a fully comp health insurance plan. So basically, TDCJ is just sending them someplace else to die, possibly in conditions little better than thier prison cell was.

Anonymous said...

The condition of being terminally ill doesn't much care, where......

Medicare/Medicaid will care for released prisioners. The State of Texas receives no healthcare $$$ for anyone who is incarcerated.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sunray, our anonymous friend is correct - the question is whether the Texas prison system pays for 100% of their care, or if the feds pick up a big chunk of the tab on the outside. That said, sending them somewhere else to die is accurate, but is it a bad thing? Who wants to die in prison?

Anonymous said...

I understand now, thanks.

But who also wants to die on the streets? or in a hostel? The state of Texas CHOOSES to implement these prison terms, perhaps if they were forced to keep the terminally ill inmates in prison and pay for their medical care, they would start to reconsider the sentencing? After all, when an inmate on death row is sick, they make him well enough again just so they can kill him themselves.

It just all seems very odd to me.

Anonymous said...

Are you taking into account the number of prisoners (many) that become exposed to terminal or debilitating illnesses while incarcerated (AIDS, TB, Hep.C, etc)? They may have been in good health during the court process and were exposed/infected afterwards in the prison/jail settings. Judges and their sentence lengths cannot predict those things.

Anonymous said...

anonymous @ 2.25 ~ if an inmate contracted a disease or condition while inside TDCJ, surely then TDCJ have a 'duty of care' to that inmate anyway?

{I realise how British that sounds}

Jaime Kenedeño said...

With respect to HB 1178:

Maybe you read something different than I did but for starters this law IMO violates Equal Protection under the law. It differentiates between indigent and non indigent defendants. Then it treats them differently according to their financial status.