Monday, April 09, 2007

Innocence, elderly and pregnant inmates' healthcare, focus of hearings

With the Lege still out of town today, I put off some of my committee previews, so let's start with looking at two interesting agendas tomorrow - a short one in Senate Criminal Justice and a subcommittee in House Corrections. The Senate panel will meet to hear three innocence bills by Sen. Rodney Ellis that all deserve bipartisan support, while the House Corrections subcommittee will hear bills related to special prison populations and medical costs of elderly prisoners.

Often, given the Texas Lege session's tight timeline, relegating a bill to subcommitee in the Texas Legislature means that bill has a poor chance of passage. But some of these are really good bills so I hope that's not universally true. Plus, usually when that's the case, those subcommittees don't actually meet to hear them, so I'm hoping the House legislation will move soon enough to have a chance. There are 50 days and counting, and the clock is ticking.

In any event, whatever their ultimate fate, let's start with the Senate side, where a full commitee tomorrow will hear three bills by Sen. Rodney Ellis (see In the Pink Texas' discussion):

Preventing Lineup Misidentification
Regular readers know that eyewitness identification errors are the leading cause of wrongful convictions, not just in Texas but nationwide. Even rape victims who were certain at trial their attacker was the defendant have sometimes later been proven wrong by exonerating DNA evidence. With the rash of DNA exonerations in Texas (Dallas County leads the nation in post-conviction exonerations), it's incumbent on the state to change the laws to do everything possible to prevent innocent people from being punished. Given the prominent role of misidentification in numerous high-profile innocence cases, establishing minimum standards for performing lineups seems like the least the Lege could do.

Research has shown that how "lineups" are presented can influence how witnesses respond. Best practices say lineups and photo arrays should be performed by someone neutral who does not know which individual is the defendant, and shown consecutively instead of in a group to avoid the implication that the suspect is one of the individuals pictured.

SB 799 by Ellis would require the Attorney General in consultation with law enforcement and scientific experts to establish a statewide policy for lineup procedures based on best practices. The bill doesn't go into specifics in every detail, but does say that "where practicable" the person conducting the lineup may not be aware of the identity of the suspect, and given the current state of scientific research on eyewitness testimiony, I think it's likely such a panel would wind up producing recommendations along the lines of those recently suggested in California. Barry Scheck of the NY based Innocence Project thinks this change could have "historic" impact for the better, and I agree.

Identifying and Compensating Wrongful Convictions
Meanwhile, the Senate committee will also hear two bills related to wrongful convictions - SB 262 which increases state compensation for wrongfully convicted innocents from $25,000 to $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment, and SB 263 which would create a "Texas Innocence Commission" to investigate alleged wrongful convictions.

I think both these bills are a good idea, but especially think SB 262 deserves prompt and enthusiastic passage. Imagine spending -in the case of Brandon Moon - 18 years wrongfully incarcerated! Compensation of $25K per year in most cases wouldn't even make up for lost income.

As for the Innocence Commission, it's only necessary so long as recalcitrant District Attorneys refuse to assist in the effort to uncover old innocence cases. Dallas DA Craig Watkins has shown the state that the Innocence Commission would be unnecessary if county prosecutors weren't fighting innocence claims every step of the way. For my money I'd rather see DAs do the right thing rather than wait for legislators to force them to, but as with Isett's HB 1815, I'll take the outcome whichever way it happens. Since most DAs right now are refusing to follow Watkins' lead, HB 263 is obviously necessary.

See prior, related Grits coverage:
On the House side Rep. Pat Haggerty will lead a subcommittee to focus on bills related to two important, expensive "special populations" in the prison system - especially healthcare and services elderly inmates and women with infants.

Treating or releasing offenders with high-cost medical needs
Elderly offenders' healthcare is becoming a big cost driver for TDJC, and several bills propose new means to address it:

HB 431 by Madden would allow state jail felons to be released to medical care facilities if the Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Mental and Medical Impairments "identifies the defendant as being elderly, physically disabled, mentally ill, terminally ill, or mentally retarded or having a condition requiring long-term care."

HB 429 by Madden would require "the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to conduct an inmate healthcare study to determine the amount of savings that would result to the state in healthcare services costs, if the TDCJ were to release the inmates to community parole supervision. The study would include determining the number of inmates 55 years of age or older who receive health care services from TDCJ and have never been convicted of or received a grant of deferred adjudication for an offense described by Section 3g, Article 42.12, Code of Criminal Procedure," according to the bill's fiscal note. Section 3g offenses are basically the most serious, violent offenses, so the study would exclude those offenders from any cost savings projections.

I've mentioned before Rep. Harold Dutton's HB 763 creating in prison geriatric communities, a need that will only grow as legislators continue to pass lengthy sentences for offenders with little chance for parole. When testimony was taken on this bill in February, Rep. Dutton told Haggerty (the subcommittee chair) he could use this as shell legislation to encapsulate reforms to reduce geriatric medical costs (another reason I harbor hope that these bills won't all languish in subcommitteee).

Mothers and infants in prison
In 2005, 262 women gave birth inside Texas prisons, and two bills up tomorrow would seek to create special units to let them stay with their kids to facilitate bonding in the first year. Chairman Madden's HB 199 is the simpler of the two, reading in its entirety:
INFANT CARE AND PARENTING. The department shall implement a residential infant care and parenting program for mothers who are confined by the department. To the extent practicable, the department shall model the program after the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Mothers and Infants Together program operated under contract in Fort Worth.
I don't know anything about the Fort Worth program, but there's a brief description of it on page 26 of this Bureau of Prisons document. By contrast, Rep. Noriega's HB 1770 is more prescriptive, directing TDCJ to establish a 150-bed unit at the Carole Young medical ward and transfer expectant mothers there before birth. (In Mexico, I learned last year, kids can stay with Mom in prison until they're six, though not in circumstances I'd recommend.)

So that's the highlights of the House Corrections and Senate Criminal Justice subcommittees tomorrow. These are important pieces of legislation, but only time will tell whether these subcommittees will serve as launching pads or coffins.


Brint Montgomery said...

Nice summaries here. I've been interested, lately, in wrongful imprisonment, and have recently written an article on the subject. Maybe you'd like it. Check it out on my blog:

Anonymous said...

Scott, I don't see any notation indicating that the Senate CJ hearing today is a subcommittee meeting. Where are you getting that from?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, damn - apparently I pulled that subcommittee reference out of my ass! Now that I look again it says the Senate hearing is a committee meeting, but I'd have sworn it was changed to a sucommittee. As it says in the movie title, things are coming 2 Fast, 2 Furious. Sorry for the error - I'll correct.

Anonymous said...

Wrongful imprisonment is an entire facet unto itself in regard to incarcerated senior citizens.

At any rate, imprisoning the elderly is costing the U.S. millions of dollars each year.

For a recently penned article on the subject, check out

Here's a short excerpt:

In 2002, America’s prison population topped 2 million, according to a report from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical center projected that one third of the U.S. prison population will be geriatric (people over 65) by 2030. Part of the jump is the result of aging baby boomers. The increasing numbers of elderly prisoners coupled with the mounting costs of housing this population incurs is a nationwide problem—for several reasons.