Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wiretapping, probation, TYC highlight busy Lege week

Man, the Texas Legislature is now moving through legislation fast and furious as members begin to realize there are only 40 days left in the regular 80th session. I'm not tracking every criminal justice bill, by a longshot, but even so it'll take two posts to highlight all this week's important legislative action, so let's get started:

Deregulating Wiretap Authority

This is a always sleeper issue - it's one that no particular group works on so it can easily slip through the cracks. But major changes are being proposed this year that could alter who oversees wiretapping in Texas for the first time since the 1930s. The Department of Public Safety historically manages every wiretap in the state, and only for a handful of clearly prescribed crimes. This year, though, everything is up for grabs.

After 9/11, the Texas Homeland Security Task Force considered whether Texas should expand wiretapping authority, but chose not to recommend it to the 78th Texas Legislature, declaring that Texas should not take steps that might infringe on civil liberties. I don't know what's changed, but now four years later, two bills are moving that amount to the same wishlist of items requested by law enforcement after the 9/11 attacks: Letting big departments operate wiretaps (right now only DPS can do so), allowing "roving wiretaps," and expanding the types of crimes where covert phone surveillance can be used.

SB 823 by Whitmire/Riddle is the bill that would allow cities over 500,000 (those are Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio) to operate their own pen register devices, which "capture real time outgoing telephone numbers dialed from a target telephone. Under current law, only specialized Department of Public Safety (DPS) investigators are authorized to own or operate these devices, and only under a court order." (See Grits' prior discussions here and here.) This bill has already passed out of the Senate and was given the thumbs up by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee this week.

Whitmire's staff says these largest departments are professional enough to handle the pen registers without incident, but that sure wasn't true, for example, at Houston PD's crime labs, or when the Dallas PD and their informants set up innocent people using pool chalk. I trust DPS a lot more than I do the local yokels, even in the bigger cities. This is a solution looking for a problem - there's just no good reason to deregulate this authority. Even so, the bill obviously has legs and could appear on the House floor very soon - time to contact your state representative on the matter if you oppose the bill.

Meanwhile, the Senate's version of the bad homeland security bill I mentioned over the weekend has passed and will soon receive a hearing in the House Defense Affairs Committee. (See MSM coverage of SB 11.) For reasons already mentioned, this one worries me even more than Whitmire and Riddle's bill, inviting a number of unintended consequences. See my previous discussion for details.

UPDATE: Not so much a "sleeper" issue after all - SB 11 gets coverage in Business Week.

Strengthening Probation
The House Corrections Committee passed HB 926 and HB 927, discussed previously here, and also HB 3200, see here, which adjusts funding schemes for probation departments to make them rely less on per-offender stipends and more on funding progressive sanctions and programs that help offenders succeed. Next stop for these bills is the Calendars Committee, then the House floor. Chairman Madden's big probation bill, HB 1678, discussed here, is already scheduled for a floor debate on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Senate approved SB 166 by West, discussed here, which complement's Maden's funding bill to authorize TDJC to issue grants to probation departments instead of only paying them per offender. I already mentioned SB 1909, another probation strengthening bill that cleared the Senate this week.

On the House floor, Madden's HB 1610, discussed here, received approval this week - that bill would plug a loophole that allows judges to get around legislative intent that low-level drug offenders get probation and treatment instead of jail time. This will particularly help with overcrowding problems at the Harris County jail.

Monitoring Jail Standards
Speaking of jails, a bill from Rep. Turner I failed to mention that the House Corrections Committee this week approved HB 2699, which would allow the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to charge counties a fee to pay for a "jail monitor" when their jail is out of compliance. This takes on added significance because recently a significant number of Texas jails have been consistently failing their annual inspections. In addition, the Corrections Committee approved Rep. Coleman's HB 2526, discussed here, that would create a research base at one of the state's academic health science centers to study topics related to corrections and public health in jails and prisons.

TYC May Get Inspector General, Ombudsman
A bill that will create an Inspector General at the Texas Youth Commission, HB 914 by Madden, discussed here, passed the full House this week, while freshman Boris Miles' HB 3701 creating an ombudsman's office for complainants won approval from the House Corrections Committee. Corrections also heard HB 2807 this week which would disallow counties fron sentencing youth to TYC for misdemeanors (see MSM coverage). The big TYC news, though is that Sen. Hinojosa's reform bill SB 103 (discussed here) passed the full Senate today and is headed over to the House. That bill looked ambitious before the big scandal broke - now most at the capitol view it as a partial solution. Things can change really quickly under the pink dome.


Don said...

There are some merits to these bills

Anonymous said...

All the wonderful bills for changing TYC and all the money they want to spend will be money down a black pit when substitue HB 2884 passes and all those facilities housing more than 100 kids go to TDCJ, new security cameras and ALL.