Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sentencing policy, cell-privacy: Good criminal justice bills waiting for House floor vote

A pair bills voted out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee recently would begin to adjust drug laws in deference to pragmatic reality:

The committee approved Rep. Senfronia Thompson's HB 2914 which would clarify that prosecutors couldn't charge felony possession in "trace" cases where less than .02 grams of a controlled substance was found (often scraped off a pipe or other paraphernalia). Regular readers will recall this is a longstanding demand of Houston judges, including several staunch, tough-on-crime Republicans, who complain that their felony dockets are filling up with trace drug cases that in other jurisdictions are being charged as Class C misdemeanors for paraphernalia. Then-Harris DA Pat Lykos briefly ended the practice but he replacement, Mike Anderson, made renewing it a central campaign promise. The Lege could and should override that decision, though, by passing Thompson's bill.

The committee also approved a watered down version of Rep. Harold Dutton's HB 184 reducing the penalty category for up to an ounce of pot to a Class C misdemeanor. The committee substitute, which is not yet online, would only apply to defendants under 21 years old, I'm told - an idea that was suggested in committee. I'd have preferred just notching down the penalty altogether, but this is better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Relatedly, if the Lege is not going to take a serious stab at reducing nonviolent criminal penalties this session more broadly than these minor adjustments, at a minimum the House leadership should give Rep. Thompson's HB 990 a floor vote. That bill would launch a review of the penal code to evaluate state sentencing practices, among other criteria, by what amounts to a cost-benefit analysis.

Finally, Rep. Bryan Hughes' cell-phone location tracking bill, HB 1608, was voted out of committee in a version that addresses most of the major concerns expressed by law enforcement. It now awaits a decision by the Calendars Committee (which includes 11 "co-authors" of the bill) whether the full House (which includes 107 joint and co-authors) gets to vote on the issue.

All these bills deserve prompt votes on the House floor.

No comments: