Friday, May 11, 2007

Looking back, looking ahead: This week's criminal justice action at the Texas Lege

Just a quick recap of some of the major criminal justice developments at the Texas Legislature this week as we head into the homestretch of the 80th session. (As always, you can look up various bills' status at the Texas capitol website.) With the exception of the first item, I'm going to focus in this post mainly on positive legislation moving this week:

Governor Perry Should Veto Wiretapping Deregulation
The 80th Texas Legislature seems intent on expanding wiretap authority by police in several different bills after refusing to do so after 9/11. For the life of me I see no reason why.

This week the first of these bad bills finally passed both chambers. The Senate concurred in House amendments to SB 823 deregulating wiretapping authority and sent it to the Governor. Never mind that no large city has used a wiretap in two consecutive years recently, the Legislature decided to allow the six largest police departments and the Harris County Sheriff to operate pen register and wiretapping equipment.

This is the same Houston PD that can't run it's crime lab, the same Harris County Sheriff whose jail doesn't pass inspection, the same Dallas PD whose officers set up innocent people with fake drugs. Why does anyone think this authority won't be abused?

Judges authorize just a handful of wiretaps in Texas each year, and it's wasteful to create redundant local capacity when DPS handles the job just fine. The Governor should veto SB 823, preventing criminal justice scandals for a change instead of merely reacting to them.

Probation & Treatment vs. Incarceration
The House Corrections Committee this week approved SB 1909, see here, which would divert many drug addicts to treatment instead of incarceration, as well as SB 166 by West, see here, that prioritizes probation grants for departments that establish a system of progressive sanctions.

Chairman Madden's bill to revamp probation departments' funding mechanism to support these progressive sanctions regiments - HB 3200, see the HRO report - also cleared second reading in the House last night. This bill frontloads per-probationer funding from the state to local probation departments to encourage them to allow offenders to earn their way off supervision with good behavior. (See prior Grits coverage.)

Finally, I wish the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee would hurry up and kick out SB 1780 by Whitmire, which would take a small portion of asset forfeiture income and apply it toward drug courts. As I wrote here, "This is a two-fer: Drug courts need funding and perverse incentives surrounding asset forfeiture need reform. I'd like to see them up the percentage." The bill has lain dormant since it was received by the committee in late April.

Voting Rights Notifications
The House and Senate have passed and sent on to the Governor HB 770 (discussed here), which requires TDCJ to provide written notice to ex-felons when they become eligible to vote and send them a voter registration card.

Repository for Racial Profiling Data
The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee this week approved Sen. West's SB 1448, discussed here, establishing a central repository for racial profiling data and standardizing data definitions and collections. If approved by the full House and the Governor, this bill will make data collected at traffic stops much more useful not just for advocates but for police supervisors and public safety officials who can better measure the efffectiveness of tactics like random consent searches and highway interdiction.

TDCJ Medical Releases
Two pieces of legislation passed the House this week that will make it easier for severely ill inmates to be released as part of a program called "Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision" - HB 431 by Madden allows state jail felons to receive a medical release (the parole board is already changing its rules to accomodate this measure), and HB 2100 by Haggerty makes all prisoners eligible for medical release except those convicted of capital offenses, life without parole, and sex offenders. Both bills passed the House and are headed to the Senate.

Jail Overcrowding
Besides HB 2391 by Madden (discussed here) which is still awaiting a committee hearing in the Senate, a couple more good bills passed this week that should assist with Texas' jail overcrowding crisis and make jails safer for inmates and the people who work there.

The Sheriffs should be pleased that HB 541 by Martinez-Fischer made it onto the final day's calendar and was approved last night - that bill would allow judges to grant bail for "blue warrants," or parolees who are jailed awaiting a parole hearing, often on technical violations.

As an aside, I support HB 541 and agree blue warrants contribute marginally to jail overcrowding, but Sheriffs' frequently overstate their contribution to the problem because it's the one aspect that's entirely under state, not local control. The major portion of jail overcrowding in Texas right now occurs because of changes in judicial policies statewide over the last decade to authorizie fewer personal bonds. That subject, I'm afraid, will remain unaddressed by the 80th Legislature.

Another good bill that would increase guard safety, HB 2244 by Rep. Sylvester Turner, was opposed by cost-conscious counties but deserves adoption. Turner's bill would require at least one county jail correctional officer be stationed on each floor where 10 or more prisoners were housed and for every 48 prisoners housed on that floor, which is the current guideline of the Commission on Jail Standards. Even that ratio may be too high to ensure guard safety, but variances are routinely granted (and a floor amendment unfortunately allows that practice to continue.)

Local jail employees in particular should ask their state senators to support HB 2244, which would require counties to provide sufficient supervisors and support staff to meet Commission on Jail Standards rules and also require county commissioners courts to provide sufficient budgets to meet staffing requirements. A floor amendment (by Phillips) says counties below a population of 150,000 are exempt. If this bill clears third reading today (the vote last night was close, 76-61), it will head to the Senate where the companion bill hasn't yet received a hearing in the Criminal Justice Committee.

Finally, Turners' HB 2699 (described here) which would create a financing mechanism for local jails requiring "monitors" passed the House last night on a not quite as tight 79-61 vote, but clearly a bloc of 61 reps (they were mostly the same folks) are unhappy with state regulation of jails and oppose efforts to give it more teeth. Luckily they appear to be in the minority, but it's a pattern to watch carefully. According to Karen Brooks at the Dallas News, debate on both Turner bills centered around problems at the Dallas jail and some Dallas-area Democrats opposed the bill.

CO/Staff Pay
HB 2498 authorizing additional hazard pay for TDCJ guards was approved by the House last night. The Back Gate has more on HB 325 creating a new career ladder for non-CO TDCJ staff (and brought news of a guard who decided to supplement her low pay).

More TYC Legislative Fallout
The House yesterday approved a substantial piece of legislation I'd not focused on previously, HB 2884 by Dutton - it expands authority of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission to investigate abuse and neglect beyond in probation facilities, and makes a variety of other changes I must admit to have not fully analyzed. Those interested should see the HRO report.

Another bill that passed this week, HB 777 by Dutton, allows courts to set maximum sentence lengths instead of just minimum stays, and empowers the Attorney General to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect.

* * *

Those are the highlights that I noticed (besides what I've already covered) - let me know what I missed and I'll get to summarizing more of the action and what to bills to watch in the homestretch over the weekend.

MORE: See a roundup of House criminal justice action at the Texas Observer blog.

No comments: