Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Ring the bell for property threshold adjustments

Sometimes, an unrung bell resonates the loudest.

Such was the case last night when the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard state Sen. Konni Burton's SB 393, which would adjust for inflation the main theft categories delineating punishment ranges in Texas, updating the code for the first time since 1993. Your correspondent was there to (briefly) testify in favor of the bill on behalf of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, but the legislation didn't need much help.

Remarkably, particularly given the contentious hearing early over changes to truancy statutes, there was no opposition to this bill - none, zilch, zero. No cops, no prosecutors, no probation officials, nobody. Just crickets chirping. Even the police unions stayed off. Despite the state's "tough on crime" reputation, not one citizen out of 25 million plus thought to come to the capitol to oppose this bill. Who'da thought?

Shannon Edmonds from the state prosecutors association testified "on" the bill, as is his wont, warning the committee against indexing the thresholds so they automatically update every year, which Sen. Charles Perry had passingly suggested. He said it would create too much confusion, particularly in older cases if the thresholds change through the course of the statute of limitations.

I'm more sanguine than Shannon about Texas prosecutors' ability to adjust to indexed property thresholds. Think of how many things hinge on Federal Poverty Levels, which are updated every year. Indexing property thresholds would be similar - the number would change annually and everybody would use the new one but also have a list of what they were from the previous years.

Regardless, that's not the bill on the table, which envisions only a one-time increase to account for inflation since 1993. The threshold from a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony would rise from $1,500 to $2,500.

Sen. Joan Huffman entertained concern that the $2,500 threshold may be too high (though it's almost precisely where the inflation adjustment lands), but she voted for the bill in the end. Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation attempted to reassure her by pointing out the enhancements for repeat misdemeanor offenders were still in place; this bill only changes the amounts.

This bill makes so much sense: The last time the Lege consciously considered what the thresholds should be was 1993 in response to recommendations from a statewide Punishment Standards Commission. Then-rookie Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire shepherded through the rewrite of the Penal Code, which as Edmonds pointed out would later be called a national model.

But over time, the sort of inflationary creep this bill attempts to mitigate expands the scope of government and reduces the liberty of citizens sans any additional legislative mandate. Without adjusting for inflation, as I told the committee, every year Texans can become felons for stealing less and less stuff. That's not fair from an equal protection perspective and it's increasingly expensive: Half of state jail felons are incarcerated for property offenses, said Sen. Burton when laying out the bill. The fiscal note for the bill predicted a positive impact on the budget but declined to estimate an amount.

Though Burton's a freshman and wasn't on the committee last year, this legislation stems from a recommendation by the committee in their interim report. In 2013, Rep. James White carried similar legislation in the House, with Rep. Ruth Jones-McLendon filing a related bill in 2011. This would be a big get for a rookie if it makes it through.

Burton's SB 393 has the greatest potential for reducing state level incarceration pressures of any bill heard so far this session - perhaps enough, even, for Texas to close more state jail facilities. And the silence of the opposition may be the legislation's most ringing endorsement.


Anonymous said...

Ahem.... Back in 2013 I'm pretty sure that Shannon Edmonds testified that the Morton Act would't cost anything to implement because prosecutors already turn over every bit of evidence anyway.

So he is basically a testiliar.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like another way to shift costs back to the counties. Great, another reason to raise our property taxes.

Anonymous said...

The only shift will be for those defendants convicted of committing property crimes with a value over $1,500 but less than $2,500. Those people will now fact time in county jail instead of state jail.

The minimum term of confinement in state jail is 6 months... which costs the state about $10,000. There is no minimum in county jail and it costs about $50 per day.

Any county that thinks it is a good use of resources to lock up a $1500 vandal in jail for 6 months is still free to do it... they just have to use their own local jail instead of state jail.

Anonymous said...

They should up the fees & raise the fine threshold too while there at it. Inflation & all.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

They could do that, 6:40 (and fees have risen), but it wouldn't make nonpayment rates any lower. Higher fines on an indigent defendant generate no new revenue. But failing to adjust the thresholds creates tremendous additional incarceration costs.

Anonymous said...

The 2 into 1 needs a real change. Too often someone is convicted of theft for a small amount and unfortunately again down the road. Each time under $100 dollars. The third time they get accused of stealing a piece of bubble gum and are looking at 6 mons to 2 years in a SJF.