Wednesday, May 27, 2015

And then the dust cleared: First look at criminal justice reforms still standing

We find little more clarity on pending Texas criminal justice legislation this morning after the last few days of deadlines. Here are a few, initial highlights:

Innocence commission headed to governor
Ruth McClendon's innocence commission legislation passed the senate, will concur easily in the House, and will soon be headed to the governor. The commission's work will play out over the next 18 months.

Race is on to define scope of Texas' junk science writ
Grits has lots more to say about the passage of HB 3724 by Herrero/Whitmire but suffice it to say for now this legislation codifying the 5-4 result in Ex Parte Robbins was a big win for innocence advocates and justice loving people everywhere. The bill's importance grows as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals prepares to reconsider their ruling in Robbins at oral arguments on June 3, two days after the legislative session ends. The vote count on the court changed after three members of the majority retired from the court in January, replaced by three former prosecutors. So the legislature and the court are in essence engaged in a race between two branches of government to see who can define the scope of Texas' new junk science writ going forward. One thing's for sure: The Robbins majority based its conclusion in part on legislative history from the bill's original 2013 passage, attempting to interpret the legislators' intent. With the Legislature codifying the Robbins majority view, there can no longer be much debate, it seems to me, about what that body's intent might be regarding habeas and junk science, whether or not Gov. Abbott gives this very-good-bill his blessing, as he absolutely should.

Juvie reforms: Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree ...
In the House, SB 1630 reducing the footprint of state juvenile lockups and shifting inmates to counties was loaded up like a Christmas tree with a variety of ornamental amendments, most prominently a pledge to raise the age of criminal culpability from 17 to 18 on Sept. 1, 2017, but only if the 85th Legislature funds needed transition costs to be identified in an interim study, probably at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. They also tacked on legislation to expand the role of the TJJD ombudsman and other, smaller but significant amendments. More on this later, no doubt.

Truancy decrim
Truancy decriminalization passed the senate, again, as a substituted House bill. Pray for a House concurrence.

Funding body cameras
The House approved $10 million grant program for body cameras, reminiscent of the $18 million bond issue approved by voters in 2003 to pay for dashcams in police cars, a measure also carried by Sen. Royce West. In Dallas, Police Chief David Brown announced this week that officers who improperly turn off their body cams face severe discipline.

Pushback begins on in-person visitation bill
This was predictable: Jails that switched to video only visitation only don't want to go back to offering in-person visits because it would cost them money. Pray for Gov. Abbott to sign the bill, if this law doesn't take effect now there will be a mad rush of jails shutting down in-person visits hoping to be grandfathered in any 2017 legislation. Complaints expressed in the linked article, btw, seem to ignore the fact that the legislation exempts facilities which have already installed video only facilities.

House leadership nixes surcharge reforms
Nearly all the Driver Responsibility surcharge reform legislation proposed this session is dead, and wasn't helped when the speaker ruled an amendment by Larry Phillips and Sylvester Turner related to the DRP indigence program wasn't germane on a bill related to indigent defense. The bigger remaining reform bill sat just a few captions beyond campus-carry legislation that had Democrats fruitlessly chubbing late into the night (it passed anyway, and as amended was a rather modest and reasonable bill). So surcharge reform seemingly has a House leadership problem: The speaker squelched Phillips' amendment and the Calendars Committee placed the reform bill behind the bill-killing campus carry legislation. These losses were particularly devastating because, for the first session in memory, Senate and the House membership are mostly aware of the problem and widely support reform. Finding votes on the floor for scaling back the program isn't the problem. The barriers to getting something done seems to lie high up the food chain in the lower chamber.


Anonymous said...

"...footprint of state juvenile lockups and shifting inmates to counties...." You do understand that most counties have zero-none-nada facilities?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yes, I do, but the big ones do and for the others they've reportedly identified sufficient regional facilities.

Anonymous said...

I am a Chief JPO and can tell you those beds are not there. Most large counties do not contract with other counties. More than 50% of youth committed to TJJD have already been placed in these facilities and either did not complete the program or did and then reoffended. These programs last 6 to 9 months which is not long enough to have a treatment effect on youth with high crimnogenic needs. These are not community based programs for youth who do not live in the counties that have facilities. This is not a good plan. Smaller facilities make sense. Keeping youth in their community makes sense. But the state should take the lead rather than look to the counties to pick up the slack.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with looking to the counties to pick up slack? That can sometimes serve as incentive to be more effective in dealing with local social ills.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

It seems as if every last bill I was almost proud of this Congress for considering were all either hung up in committee, delayed, or flat out killed, and in combination with the new budget Grits' brought to light, I am straight up pissed off. I can't wait to vote against all possible individuals responsible this next election! I guess meaningful reform wasn't on this legislative session's agenda?