Monday, April 18, 2011

Really? An 'Arson Registry'? Must we?

Tomorrow's Senate Criminal Justice Committee agenda is chock-full of interesting bills, so I'll break up an analysis up into shorter posts instead of trying to plow trough them all at once. Let's start with a bafflingly unnecessary piece of legislation from state Sen. Mario Gallegos, SB 1191, which creates an elaborate arsonist registration program modeled after the Oh-isn't-that-so-successful-why-don't-we-copy-it sex-offender registry. Rep. Dan Huberty is carrying identical legislation in the House. What possible value does an arson registry have? I'm sure insurance indutry lobbyists or somebody will be able to articulate that at the hearing, but it's already possible to search people's criminal convictions and find out if they committed arson or any other type of crime.

The only big addition to that already public information is that the registry would include juvenile offenses, as well as online aliases and a variety of other data that seems to have no use for the general public, but which politicians can point to and say, "I'm doing something about this. See, now you can arm yourself with information," whatever that means. It's not hard to predict an arson registry will become a smaller-scale albatross for law-enforcement just like the sex-offender registry, mandating a misallocation of scarce resources. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted "Lt. Ruben Diaz, who heads the sex crimes unit at the Harris County sheriff's department, [who] said it was very rare to find the perpetrator of a new sex crime among those already in the registry." There's little doubt the same will be true for arsonists.

Setting aside the cartoonish futility of such registries, it's especially ironic the good senator is pushing this idea at a time when the Forensic Science Commission just suggested that the state fire marshal develop protocols to review old arson cases where negligent methods or flawed, since-updated science might have led to false convictions. The registry idea doesn't seem cognizant of that debate at all, gathering data on arson convictions not to assess potential innocence claims but to ostracize those convicted without having done so.

There are some legislative code words for "unfunded mandate" in the bill that might make counties sit up and take notice, creating a "Centralized registration authority," which is defined as "a mandatory countywide registration location." And presumably the Department of Public Safety will incur some costs from managing the statewide database, though LBB could always claim it's "insignificant."

Juveniles are defendants in about half of arson crimes. They typically don't all continue to set fires as adults, so I don't understand their long-term inclusion. Why not set a limit  - say, five years on the list then de-registered unless they commit another arson crime? How long should they really be subject to that requirement into adulthood? While I don't know much about the sociology of juvenile fire setters, who have been studied to death, from what I do know, there are different categories of juvenile fire fascination, quite a few accidental fires, and for most early intervention and fire education is more effective than piling on post facto punishment for youth. But of course, funding fire education would cost money in the state budget, whereas this bill passes costs along to counties, who must try to collect from registrants. The question of which juvenile arsonists merit registration, assuming there's any benefit to it at all, receives little nuanced attention in this bill. Registration is based solely on the crime someone was convicted of without applying any additional risk-assessment tool.

On the other side of the coin, the registry doesn't even pick up all alleged arsonists. I mentioned the other day that, in addition to those with criminal convictions for arson, there's an additional class of people who may have been harmed by junk arson forensics: People whose insurance claims were denied because insurance investigators determined the loss resulted from arson. For my part, I think any such review should include not just criminal cases but also insurance disputes where the company prevailed in denying claims based on arson where no criminal conviction was ever secured. There are a lot more arson investigators working for insurance companies than for law enforcement, an I'm guessing some subset of people with  denied claims, of what proportion I wouldn't hazard a guess, may be owed some money if old cases are ever vetted. (Whether as a function of siloing and tunnel-vision or as a testament to the power of the insurance lobby, that's a piece of the arson puzzle that nobody in official circles - either at the Forensic Science Commission or this bill - has addressed yet.)

A judge can choose not to require registration, but prosecutors are given leeway to appeal on the basis of "procedural errors" or "abuse of discretion" by the judge. From what I can tell, though I'm not completely sure after reading and re-reading the lengthy bill, registration requirements seem to terminate, mercifully, at the end of the defendant's community supervision or parole term. But for however long that is, it's the offender who must "pay ... all costs incurred by the [local probation] department in providing the notice." Even so, if there is a positive fiscal note on the bill when it comes out for the Departments of Public Safety and/or Criminal Justice, in the current budget environment that might be enough to kill this bad idea for the "wrong" reason, which is as good a reason as any as far as I'm concerned.


A Texas PO said...

Sounds like another "hey, look at me, I'm working up here in Austin" bill.

Anonymous said...

There is also a bill this session proposing an animal cruelty registry. The registry requirements for this one are exactly like the sex offender registry. When will ther be dwi registry, drug dealer registry or murder registry.

Anonymous said...

Someone should author a bill creating a registry of all the innocents who were convicted of arson. We only rarely hear about anyone other than Todd Willingham, and we only do so because he was put to death. Common sense would dictate that something where so much is left to the interpretation of the arson investigators that the percentage of wrongful arrests must be extremely high. In cases where there isn't any concrete, irrefutable evidence of accidental fire, or you have a rock-solid alibi, your odds of being charged must be something like 100-100. And the conviction rate must be near the same unless a defendant has the means to hire his own outside arson expert.

Anonymous said...

How about an obesity registry? That makes about as much sense.

New Registry: Lawmakers lacking common sense said...

There are close to 64,000 people on the SO registry and according to DPS about 100 added a week. the Texas Council on Sex Offender Treatment has said less than 12% of those currently on the registry pose a threat to public safety yet, we continue spending millions of dollars for a train wreck sold to the taxpayers as "public safety."

Now we want to repeat that train wreck two more times with Whitmire's animal abuse registry and Gallegos'arson registry?

I agree with "A Texas PO" "look at me"

The Homeless Cowboy said...

Sounds like another "hey, look at me, I'm working up here in Austin" bill.

animal cruelty registry, dwi registry,drug dealer registry,murder registry, dont forget a registry for people who are on any type of registry. For all the important things they have to work on in Austin, how any senator or congressman could come up with ideas like this is completely mind boggling. How about a registry of Prosecutors and Judges who incarcerate innocent people for decades of their lives and sometimes even execute them. Well that would be to much like right. I like the obesity registry too thats great, Perhaps we could come up with some way to register people for stuff they might do in the future

Anonymous said...

As a Current registry invitee, I can only say YES! Bring that new registry online. And as for all of the other ideas here, why not? When is an arson NOT a threat to the public. DWI, ABSOLUTELY a threat! Animal Cruelty? You bet, the gateway to other murderous offenses. I think that ANY felony conviction should put someone on a registry, and I mean ANY. Raw Oyster fishing without a license? You get the next trip to the internet, felony evasion, I want your picture. I want to know where they all work, their offense, what they look like. if I see one of them in a store buying matches, I want to be able to call the cops.

I want GW's Picture up for Driving Drunk TODAY!

Anonymous said...

"The Homeless Cowboy said...

Perhaps we could come up with some way to register people for stuff they might do in the future"

Don't we already have that with some of the solicitation type offenses on the current SO registry?

KrisB said...

I support this legislation but here is why,

Either it places people we should be "afraid and concerned" about on the registry, or demonstrates hypocrisy about registries, residency restrictions, monitoring,etc

Why require someone who mooned someone 20 years ago or public urination, or folks like travis iosue, and not arsonitst, murderers, burglars, and robbers, it demonstrates media hypocrisy, the media and the public with politicians have all been focused on "Sex crimes",

personally I would be me concerned with a burglar in the neighborhood, a drunk driver, scammers, etc

So in both ways it works great, eventually register almost every crime, gps tracking, internet usage bans, residency restrictions, travel bans, and a whole mess results, exactly what is intended, why delay the inevitable.