Monday, April 02, 2007

Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to focus on jail overcrowding and enhancements

Finally I'm getting around to going through the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee agenda for tomorrow, and I find that three bills I really like aimed at reducing local jail overcrowding are all on the agenda:

Smart approaches to reduce local jail overcrowding
HB 3059 by Peña and HB 2391 by Madden are similar bills, each authorizing officers to "cite and summons" certain Class B and a handful of non-violent A misdemeanors (for Peña's bill, only Class Bs for Madden's). This was an approach favored by Bexar County Jail Administrator Dennis McKnight, who wrote last fall:
Over the past two years I have suggested the police quit arresting non-violent misdemeanants, file the cases at large and summons the defendant to court.
Both bills leave discretion in the hands of the officer to arrest if they think they need to, but it saves the officer time off the street, and reduces the need for jail space to house low-level offenders - a two-fer in my book.

In addition, Rep. Rick Noriega is carrying HB 3294, which is a companion bill to SB 1097 by Whitmire discussed here. The bill would reduce penalties for certain criminal trespass cases to a Class C misdemeanor for largely the same reasons the "cite and summons" bills are being proposed by two committee chairman. If some version of Peña and Madden's bills and Noriega/Whitmire's bill, it would be significant legislative progress on local jail overcrowding compared to what I'd expected just a few weeks ago. A hearing isn't passage, but these are good bills that deserve support.

Please, can we stop with the enhancments, now?
Much of the rest of tomorrow's House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will be taken up hearing penalty enhancements, even though (as I've previously mentioned) Texas can't afford to pay for all the prisoners scheduled to be incarcerated now!

I'm going to run through the lowlights, but not spend too much time on these bills since they're all bad ideas for basically the same reason. They enhance penalties on things that are already crimes and already thoroughly punished with little care for any unintended consequences or impact on the budget. The House budget did not include funding for new prisons, but they'll be needed if this committee can't break its habit of passing new criminal penalty increases. The main enhancments proposed this week are:
  • HB 401 by Brown - Call this one the Congressman Mark Foley Act, enhancing already-illegal sexual solicitation of minors using text messages.
  • HB 1123 by Brown - This insensible bill would suspend the driver licenses of anyone convicted of destroying mailboxes or "address identifiers." The act is already illegal, and I don't know what driver's licenses would have to do with preventing the crime in the future except to indulge some punitive impulse.
  • HB 3584 by Peña - Creates a new crime called "organized retail theft," enhancing the penalty for regular theft by one sentence category under the prescribed conditions.
  • HB 916 by Menendez - Expands the category of offenders eligible for prosecution for dogfighting to include people who don't commit the offense for "pecuniary interest." This would already be illegal, of course, under existing animal cruelty laws.
  • HB 2950 by Mallory Caraway - Enhances penalties when a vehicle is rammed into a building to gain entrance, because it's a bigger deal if I use my car to bust through a plate glass door, apparently, than a sledgehammer.
  • HB 649 by McCall - removes the defense that the "victim" consented for the crime of fraudulently obtaining someone's identifying information if the person who's info was taken is under 18.
  • HB 872 by Otto - Enhances the penalty for tampering with evidence to a 2nd degree felony if the evidence tampered with was a corpse. Two things come to mind: First, those committing this crime will likely have several other offenses tacked on, and second, 2-10 for a 3rd degree felony (the current law) seems plenty strict enough - what public safety benefit is gained from the extra possible 10 years? I don't see it.
Credible arguments can be made as to why the activities for which these bills increase penalties are bad, but that's not the point. None of them counter the pragmatic, big-picture reality that the House didn't approve a budget for new prison beds, so the Lege can't just continue to churn out penalty enhancments like they have in the past.

I'm not sure why that reality hasn't sunk in yet in this committee, but they're hearing and passing an awful lot of enhancments given the state prison system's current situation.


Anonymous said...

Do you ever feel like Legislatures just write and submit bills so that they can having "bragging right." You know, so they can go back to thier districts and say, "While I was in congress, I submitted a bill to blah, blah, blah..." Honestly, some of these proposed bills leaves me wondering "What are they thinking?"

John D. McLauchlan said...

Unfortunately, I feel like that much of the time. How else do you explain some of the stupid [expletive deleted] they turn into law?

Anonymous said...

Please - enough with the DL suspensions. Why not just issue everyone an ID card, and only allow the privileged few to drive? That beats giving everyone a DL, teaching them to rely on being able to drive, then taking it away for sneezing on the sidewalk and requiring a portion of the national debt to get it back!