Monday, June 29, 2009

Texas criminal justice reform legislation passed in 2009

Though much positive legislation died in the 81st Texas Legislature's closing days, I never went through the good criminal justice legislation that did finally pass and become law this year. This isn't a comprehensive list; let me know what I missed in the comments:

Eliminating LWOP for juveniles
Perhaps the bill passed with the most significant national implications was SB 839 by Hinojosa eliminating life without parole as a sentencing option for juveniles, substituting a 40 year minimum for juveniles convicted in capital cases.

Compensating the falsely convicted
The Texas Legislature this year approved and the Governor signed into law an expanded compensation package for innocent people who've been falsely convicted (HB 1736 by Anchia/Ellis), a bill I lobbied for on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas. Under the new statute, falsely convicted defendants may receive $80,000 per year incarcerated plus a like amount stretched out over a lifetime annuity. Meanwhile, SB 1847 by Hegar ensures that wrongfully convicted inmates released from prison aren't denied the same reentry services (see HBs 1711, 2161, below) given to actual offenders.

Corroboration for jailhouse informants
SB 1681 by Hinojosa/Gallego requiring corroboration for jailhouse informant testimony in order to secure a conviction was the only significant policy-related innocence bill that passed aimed at preventing future false convictions.

Shield law for journalists
A new "shield law" will give journalists including, in some instances, bloggers, qualified privilege from providing testimony about confidential sources.

Restoring inmate 'good time'
Though it's no longer the case that prisoners are released when their "good time" plus "time served" equals their sentence, HB 93 by Hodge/Hinojosa, authorized the Department of Criminal Justice to reintate "good time" taken away for disciplinary purposes, authority TDCJ wanted as an added tool for managing prisoner behavior.

Prisoner access to books
A new law made it easier for volunteer organizations to send books to TDCJ inmates by mail. Previously inmates could only receive books directly from the publisher. TDCJ will be adopting rules soon to implement the new policy.

Improving reentry prospects
Another good bill was HB 1711 requiring TDCJ to create reentry and reintegration plans for offenders released from TDCJ and establishing a multi-agency task force to coordinate reentry services. The conference committee went with language in the House version of the bill, described in this House Research Organization report (pdf).

Securing drivers licenses for ex-offenders
HB 2161 was an important reentry bill requiring TDCJ and DPS to coordinate to ensure that offenders leaving Texas prisons can get street-legal ID. According to the HRO, the bill would "require DPS to accept an offender ID card or similar from of identification issued to an inmate by the TDCJ as satisfactory proof of identification to receive a personal identification certificate" after DPS has had an opportunity, before the person leaves prison, to verify their identity. This is a big deal because DPS has historically refused to accept TDCJ ID cards as valid ID, making reentry in the immediate days after a convict's release from prison especially, needlessly difficult.

Temporary reentry housing authorized
Another boon to reentry was the authorization in HB 3226 by Madden/Seliger for TDCJ to pay for temporary housing for parolees who meet all other parole requirements but need a place to stay. TDCJ must create rules that control the payments which are generally authorized for parole-approved inmates if it costs less than what would be incurred incarcerating them.

Huntsville no longer sole point of TDCJ departure
As gas prices start to go up again, TDCJ should save significant money releasing offenders from the facility where they're housed or from "regional release centers" instead of processing everyone out through Huntsville after passage of HB 2289 by Madden/Whitmire.

Reentry and mental health care
HB 4451 by McReynolds/Hinojosa requires TYC to better coordinate continuity of mental health care for offenders receiving those services in youth commission facilities.

Indigency program for 'driver responsibility' mess
An amendment to the DPS Sunset bill requires the Department of Public Safety to establish an indigency program for its driver responsibility fee and establish rules to govern the process. The fee, which is quite high and stretches out over a three-year span, presently has about a 70% nonpayment rate.

Those were the main highlights on my own radar screen. Let me know what other good stuff passed this year that you were happy about.

UPDATE: Via email, Ana YaƱez Correa helpfully forwards me this list of 31 bills (pdf) supported by the Texas Criminal Justice Coaltion that passed into law this session. Congrats, Ana, on your team's hard work.

MORE: New Office of Capital Writs. An astute commenter points out I failed to mention SB 1091 creating a new capital writs office to handle indigent habeas appeals in death penalty cases. According to the House Research Organization report (pdf) on the bill:
SB 1091 would create the Office of Capital Writs to provide legal representation for indigent capital murder defendants who were sentenced to death and were appointed counsel for a writ of habeas corpus. Courts would have to appoint the office to represent indigent capital defendants for habeas writs unless specific conditions in the bill were met.

The bill would repeal the current duty of the Court of Criminal Appeals to adopt rules for the appointment of attorneys for the indigent for habeas corpus writs. ...

The office would be allowed to represent defendants in death penalty cases only in proceedings for state writs of habeas corpus, legal motions related to preparing a habeas petition, and other state post-conviction matters other than a direct appeal. The office could not represent a defendant in a federal habeas review.


Anonymous said...

Hi Scott, I just emailed you the list of bills we put together. Are you still getting our alerts?

Hook Em Horns said...

Some good stuff for TDCJ and folks re-entering society.

Anonymous said...

They actually did more than I thought.

Anonymous said...

Well they had better try that Ray Brookins and that other guy before September 1st unless they have physical evidence rather than just inmate testimony.

Soronel Haetir said...

Nice to see that someone finally realized that innocents released are in just as dysfunctional a state as anyone else coming out of prison. I know there are always lots of people around to help right afterward but I can also see them moving on to other things faster than the non-offender actually needs.

sunray's wench said...

The ID bill is a very good and very simple piece of legislation, but it is still sad that it takes legislation to make some agencies do the common-sense thing.

I'll be interested to see what TDCJ define as "educational" and "reference" books.

The release of inmates from regional centres may help TDCJ's budget, but may not help families pick up their loved onee.

Anonymous said...

It is good to see Texas beginning to move into the 21st Century. Most of these laws move in a positive direction that is likely to decrease recidivism, improve public safety and reduce cost.

Facilitating successful reentry by providing appropriate supports and reduction of barriers to reentry for those released from prison or jail is crucial. The US will release over 700,000 people from prison each year for the foreseeable future. Of those 30,000 will return to cities in Texas. Most large communities in Texas will have several thousand returnees come home each year.

These new laws suggest that we may be experiencing a shift away from counter-productive policies that restricted their ability to obtain education, find employment, obtain an place to live, get health insurance, etc. The list of restrictions could go on and on.

As one parolee commented on day "Many times I been a half hour from committing a new crime because I was hungry, had little hope and did not know where to turn." After several failures in the past, he has successfully re-established a law abiding life because of the supports and assistance he received during reentry.

Prevention -- can be and often is more effective at fighting crime than enforcement. It is good to see Texas moving in a more sensible way.

Anonymous said...

What about the bill to establish a state office of capital writs. I haven't seen any news stories about it. It is not a statewide office that would be responsible for death penalty and other capital cases beginning at the trial level, which would be better, but it is a start.

Scott, can you explain the significance of the new writs office?


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Just added an addendum at the end of this post about the Office of Capital Writs. Thanks for pointing out the omission - I don't watch the capital stuff closely.

Anonymous said...

You also failed to mention that police will begin taking blood from drunk drivers without their consent in serious intoxication cases. Seems like you only want to highlight the leniency in the law. Why not also point out laws that make sure the guilty are caught and convicted?