Sunday, April 07, 2013

Separate bills, committees, contemplate different-themed revamps of Texas penal laws

Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off for a biennium. Apparently this is the week when Texas House committees will study whether to study the penal code and other criminal statutes to consider making recommendations for future changes by the 84th Legislature.

On Thursday, the House Select Committee on Criminal Procedure Reform will hold what to my knowledge is its first meeting where Chair Debbie Riddle and her fellow committee members will hear pending legislation. Most of its work was expected to be performed in the interim, but on Thursday they'll hear HB 2804 by Toth relating "to the creation of a commission to review certain penal laws of this state" that are outside the Penal Code, controlled substances regulations, or the statutes related to the operation of a motor vehicle. The main purpose of this commission would be to "make recommendations to the legislature regarding the repeal of laws that are identified as being unnecessary, unclear, duplicative, overly broad, or otherwise insufficient to serve the intended purpose of the law." So the goal here is to delete extraneous statutes - e.g., maybe we can live with only three instead of seven, 11, or 16 oyster crimes. That's certainly needed.

Meanwhile, at its regular meeting on Tuesday, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will hear HB 990 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson relating to "the establishment of a sentencing policy, accountability and review council to develop means to assess the effect of sentencing practices and policies on state correctional resources and improve the efficiency of the state criminal justice system."  "The purpose of the council is to develop means to promote a more balanced and cost-effective state criminal justice system," says the filed version of the bill. The commission under Chairwoman Thompson's legislation would "determine means by which to balance state and county criminal justice responsibilities with resources and devise an approach that would allow the state to balance sentencing policies with correctional resources." That's a much more ambitious project than just looking for oyster crimes to delete: A lot of politically potent stakeholders and mountains of money become involved, if they dig into the subject seriously. (Personally, I've often thought counties should reimburse the state for incarceration costs of people they send to state prisons and that would resolve a lot of the present, perverse incentives that favor overcriminalization and overincarceration.)

One notices the charge of Chairwoman Riddle's committee was to rewrite the Code of Criminal Procedure but Rep. Toth's bill relates primarily to criminal charges and punishments - an important subject but not particularly a criminal procedure issue. So does Thompson's bill, though it also speaks to broader state-local economic relationships underlying the current criminal justice terrain.

Note: This post was edited to make clear that Rep. Toth's bill only addresses non-traditional criminal laws codified outside of the Penal Code, Texas' controlled substances statutes, and codes governing motor vehicle offenses. Thanks to Marc Levin for the clarification.

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