Monday, November 08, 2010

New crimes, penalty increases "enhance" nothing but spending side of state, county budgets

Earlier this year Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation wrote (pdf) that "Texas can’t arrest its way out of a recession, but many policymakers act as if we could." Seldom has that been more evident than on this, the first day of bill filing for the 82nd Texas Legislature, as suggestions for new crimes, increased penalties, and unfunded mandates related to law enforcement are coming out of the woodwork.

State Rep. Debbie Riddle, for example, wants to make burglary of a vehicle a state jail felony on the first offense (HB 20), which would add hundreds of extra inmates per year to Texas state jails. Meanwhile, Rep. Jose Menendez wants to enhance graffiti penalties to require incarceration in already overcrowded county jails as part of the sentence (HB 38). State Rep.Aaron Pena has proposed a new crime for possession of a "tire deflation device" (HB 47). State Rep. Betty Brown wants to make it a crime to talk on your cell phone while driving (HB 105). See the list of all House and Senate bills filed so far:
There will be innumerable more, similar bills - euphemistically called "enhancements" around the capitol, though it's hard to see what's "enhanced" besides the spending side of an already absurdly unbalanced budget. What's more, "enhancements" operate as a one-way ratchet: Hundreds of filed bills will suggest increasing penalties; you'll likely be able to count the number of bills proposing to reduce penalties on the fingers of one hand.

Indeed, to me the worst part about these bills is that the Legislative Budget Board has historically refused to tack on "fiscal notes" to most of them, usually claiming that increased incarceration at the state level costs no money and new crimes or enhancements for misdemeanors actually increase revenue for local governments. In practice, those are phony but useful fictions that let legislators justify big spending on criminal justice without having to allocate sufficient resources for prisons or compensate local police and counties for extra costs.

MORE (11/9): Here's additional coverage of the first day of bill filing:
See prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Thats good news! I am a criminal defense attorney and have to pay tuition for my kids. Everytime they get "tuff on crime" it rains!

Scott Cobb said...

The Legislature should create a new offense called Prosecutorial Misconduct and use it against prosecutors whose misconduct results in innocent people like Anthony Graves spending years in prison or even on death row for crimes they did not commit.

Anonymous said...

You really don't understand what the fiscal note process is or how it works. NSFI means significant and it means significant within a five year time frame. A few extra beds in a system as large as Texas' simply doesn't amount to anything more than "budget dust."

Anonymous said...

Pile enough "dust" up and you have mountain.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:43, I know plenty about the fiscal note process. Two sessions ago I even met with the crimnal justice team at LBB about exactly this topic where we debated it for an hour. Every extra prisoner creates more cost - for food, healthcare, oversight, visitation, paperwork, etc. By saying that's insignificant on dozens of bills, they let the system grow without making legislators pay for it as they go.

To take your analogy, there's a reason you dust your house, right? (Ask your wife if you're unaware of this practice.) Now imagine entering the state correction budget's house and finding that it hadn't been dusted since 1993. Imagine further that voters have given you a mandate to "clean up" the budget.

We had 59 new felonies created last session and even more misdemeanors created or enhanced. If each creates a pile of dust and you combine them all, session after session, it starts to really add up. Also, some of these are "dust," and some like the burglary of a vehicle will come out to significant extra money, running counter to the need to cut budgets at TDCJ.

Anonymous said...

BMV used to be a felony and it never should have been dropped to a misdemeanor. As soon as that happened the numbers exploded. BMV normally involves a significant loss of property and leads to other crimes as well, especially identity theft. Restoring BMV to a felony would only correct a previous bad policy decision. I'd trade felony BMV for Class A Misdm POCS/cocaine < 1 gram any day.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"As soon as that happened the numbers exploded"

Evidence, please. Larceny/theft, which is how BMV is categorized, is down in Texas from its 2003 high, and growing slower than the population rate.

That said "trading" is a good idea. I think legislators who propose penalty increases should be required in the same bill to reduce corresponding penalties for something else to make up for the extra inmates (read: spending) their bill would generate.

Anonymous said...

Talk to a cop--a patrol officer. Hell, talk to your friends--who own cars. Talk to any normal person. Your stats of theft overall don't include ananlysis of any subset, like BMV, which is probably rising.

Regardless of rising or falling rates, BMV needs to be a felony based on the nature of the crime and potential loss/after effects on its own merits so to speak.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:27, so data be damned, you just know it in your gut, is that about right?

I've asked DPS for the BMV-specific data going back historically, so maybe I'll do a followup post soon with actual numbers to discuss instead of both of us relying on hunches.

If I'm not mistaken they changed it to a Class A back in 1993, so it's not like this is some recent event you're complaining about.

Anonymous said...

Why do you have to be such a smarmy a-hole in your comments?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:18, I asked for you for evidence to support your statements, you have none except to say "talk to your friends," but I'm the one that's smarmy?

I even followed up by asking DPS for the data, what did you do but whine?

DLW said...

10:27 are you able to show that BMV spiked and if it did was it because penalties were reduced or because the economy sucks?

FWIW, I have had two car burglaries in the last year. One was at a Church in College Station. The other was behind my office, one block from the Taylor County Courthouse, in broad daylight.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

DLW, I'm pretty sure the penalty was reduced as part of the 1993 penal code revisions.

IMO any spikes in BMV, if they exist, are more attributable to misapplication of policing resources than to the lack of stiff penalties. Often, a person who's breaking into vehicles will break into many of them. So tracking down those individuals doing this in volume is the main thing to reducing the overall numbers. But police are spread thin with ever-more crimes to enforce (e.g., cell phone bans) and too many duties aimed at solving social problems instead of traditional crimes, so few investigative resources are applied to these cases.

Raise police clearance rates for BMV by just a few points and, even with the same penalties, the problem would decline a lot.

Hook Em Horns said...

EXACTLY! It's all about the money. 112 prisons, dry-labbing, Judges who have no fear of appeal and a system weighted heavily in favor of the DA's.

TOUGH ON CRIME = $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$


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