Saturday, May 02, 2015

A non-comprehensive survey of good crimjust bills still moving

It's May of an odd numbered year which means wheat and chaff are separating when it comes to criminal-justice reform legislation from Texas' 84th session. It's now possible to see much more clearly which stand-alone bills still have a chance to pass. (N.b., where nothing has changed from last week's assessment I haven't updated all of those bills.) Anything, of course, can be revived as an amendment if germane to another bill's caption, so Grits won't speculate on what bills appear dead. Instead, let's focus on reform bills still living. Here's a non-comprehensive survey of good bills still moving.

The last day for the full Texas House to consider House bills on second reading is May 14 and the bills languishing in the Calendars Committee waiting for a floor vote are stacking up. Let's start by looking at a few bills that need a timely House floor vote:

Warrants for cell-phone location data (HB 2263): In 2013, this legislation was set on the House Calendar too late to actually get a vote. It was later amended to another bill on a 126-4 vote, only to have the (since-unelected) senate author strip the provision out. This year, with the bill out of committee and already in Calendars, there's plenty of time for HB 2263 with its 96 joint and coauthors to receive a floor vote and I'm modestly sanguine it may get one before the clock runs out. (Special thanks to committee clerk Miguel Liscano and his team for cranking out the committee report in record time!) Heck, given the importance of the topic and widespread interest among members, IMO the bill deserves to be set on the Major State calendar. For more background, visit the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition.

Asset forfeiture reform (HBs 472, 249, and 1975): These bills passed out of committee on Thursday, but they had the votes to get out of committee the day they were heard. Instead, Chairman Abel Herrero, as has been his pattern both sessions he's been chair, delayed most reform bills until the last minute, significantly jeopardizing their chances. Another, less controversial forfeiture bill, HB 530, was heard with the others but passed out of committee earlier and may yet make it to the floor. It authorizes forfeiture money to be used for scholarships for children of peace officers killed in the line of duty, and also includes some reporting requirements. That latter aspect means that portions of the other bills related to reporting could fit as amendments onto HB 530 on the House floor. On the Senate side, though, SB 95 remains stalled in committee, casting a shadow on these bills' prospects even if they make it out of the House. Still, alive in May is better than most bills filed at the Texas Legislature, so you never know.

Pretrial hearings (HB 452): This bill would require pretrial hearings to be held earlier in the process and makes so much practical sense from the standpoint of logistics and judicial economy that it almost hurts. Rep. Alonzo had done his homework and there was no opposition to the legislation, which was one of the first bills heard in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. But the bill was delayed for more than a month before Chairman Herrero let it out of committee. This is a terrific bill and I'm still hopeful the Calendars Gods will smile upon it and send it to the House floor sooner than later. The fact that Mr. Alonzo is himself on the Calendars Committee gives me some small measure of hope that the bill may still make it to the floor in time.

Ad seg reform (HB 1084): The House Corrections Committee this week voted out legislation to require additional reporting about solitary confinement (known by the euphemism "administrative segregation" in Texas prisons) and a process for recommending reforms that would reduce its use. A small measure but better than nothing. This deserves a prompt floor vote.

Bulk records accuracy (HB 2700): This important but little-noticed bill passed unanimously this week out of the House Government Transparency and Operations Committee. It would require clerks and criminal justice agencies to redirect all requests for bulk criminal records, B misdemeanors and up, to the Department of Public Safety. That would save the locals money and provide for greater consistency, eliminating reports about cases which were dismissed or which never reached a denouement. Plus, since DPS has systems in place to respond to monthly bulk records requests, it won't cost them much, if anything, to perform the function. See a fact sheet (pdf) from my colleagues at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition for more background.

Bond for blue warrants (HB 3329): This Sheriff's Association bill, which House Corrections voted out this week, would let county judges authorize bail for parolees picked up on technical violations. The years-long complaint is that parole officers use county jails for "jail therapy," keeping their charges locked up for a while when they have no intention of actually revoking them back to prison. Whether that's true on any broad scale, the meme is ubiquitous. Yet seemingly every year this bill dies right here: Awaiting a vote on the House floor. Maybe this year they'll finally get over the hump.

Syringe exchange, Tea Party style (HB 65): The version of Ruth McLendon's needle exchange bill that came out of the County Affairs Committee looked a lot different than when it went in. Changes necessary to appease Tea Party Republicans on the committee stripped out all public funding and forbade government from operating pilot syringe exchange operations, instead having counties and hospital districts authorize outside charities to perform the function. (As one conservative staffer said to me, the bill reduces government's role and "lets charities do what charities do best.") With those changes, the bill passed out of committee unanimously. I'm anxious to find out what the bill's reception will be like on the House floor, assuming the Calendars Committee will give it a vote. This is quite a different profile for the issue than the Lege has seen in past sessions.

Looking beyond bills in the House Calendars Committee, here are several bills your correspondent is watching which still have an excellent chance of passage and deserve full-throated support:

Updating theft value thresholds (SB 393): Value thresholds for theft in Texas haven't changed since 1993. So, because of inflation, it becomes a felony to steal less and less stuff every year. This bill, which has been passed by the full Senate, updates the theft thresholds to roughly match where they'd be if they tracked inflation. It would save money and significantly reduce incarceration pressures, especially at Texas state jails.

Good Samaritan/overdose prevention (HB 225): This bill would expand access to opiod antagonists and create a defense to prosecution for low-level drug crimes for people who call 911 and cooperate with police. The House bill passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously and was recommended for the local and consent calendar. It appears on a fast track and could head to the governor very soon.

Diligent participation credits for state jail felonies (HB 1546): This House bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday, but its Senate companion already passed so there shouldn't be too much additional controversy. This bill would generate $81 million in savings in the next biennium and nearly a quarter-billion dollars in savings over five years by encouraging participation in programs to reduce recidivism. It should be a priority for the less-government, fiscal conservative types in the eastern chamber.

Innocence Commission (HB 48): It was a love-fest for Rep. McLendon on the House floor when the bill passed, but it received a chillier reception two years ago in the Senate. IMO this is the best version of the bill McLendon's ever presented. And with the Lege having enacted nearly all of the recommendations from the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, it's time for a fresh evaluation. It's not as though all the causes of false convictions have been extinguished. MORE: See good coverage of this bill from the Houston Chronicle.

Indigent representation and forensic writs (SB 1743): This legislation would expand the duties of the Office of Capital Writs to include "forensic" writs under Texas' new junk science writ passed last session. It came out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee this week unanimously and has been placed on the intent calendar.

Reentry guide (SB 578): About 29,000 of the 70,000 or so inmates released from TDCJ each year do not qualify for the agency's Reentry and Integration Division programs. This senate bill, which has already passed out of the House Corrections Committee, "requires TDCJ to identify organizations that provide reentry and reintegration resources guides and to collaborate with those organizations to make those resource guides available to all inmates." It appears pretty likely at this point to pass.

Expanding access to DNA testing (SB 487): Rodney Ellis' bill pushing back against prosecutor recalcitrance over post-conviction DNA testing is over from the Senate and ready for the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to take it up. I don't know how many times we must perform this dance before prosecutors and the Court of Criminal Appeals get it through their heads that the Lege wants convicted felons to have access to potentially exonerating post-conviction DNA testing. Maybe this time will be the charm.

Grand jury reform (SB 135): This senate bill eliminating the pick-a-pal grand jury system is already out of committee in the House. Don't expect it to get a floor vote before the House is done with HBs, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's one of the first SBs heard thereafter.

Decriminalizing truancy (SB 106): That this is the first SB heard in the House Juvenile Justice and Family Matters Committee next week gives the sense this bill may be fast-tracked. 

Regulating body cameras (SB 158): This bill's referral to the House Select Committee on Emerging Law Enforcement Issues doesn't bode well for Sen. West's bill. Not only did that committee fail to approve companion body camera legislation, it hasn't passed much to speak of at all and none of what it has passed has received a floor vote. Though it cannot be proven, at the capitol the committee was widely considered a vehicle for killing legislation from the aftermath of the Ferguson episodes last year, and with some exceptions that perception has held. Maybe West's bill will be the case that disproves, or at least mitigates, those rumors.

As always, this list is not remotely comprehensive. It's just a first-cut look at what's still standing after a brutal week of last-ditch committee votes. Let me know what other bills readers are paying attention to in the comments.

1 comment:

Brad Walters said...

The pre trial hearings bill is good except that it uses shall and must, but then has no teeth if the court does not meet the mandate. It would mean that the defense could then have their motions to suppress evidence heard before trial without having a plea agreement in place if not sustained. The judicial economy move of carrying motions to trial would finally stop. Defense could get the witnesses on record and then have time to garner evidence to impeach them at trial if the motion to suppress fails.