Friday, May 15, 2015

Civil commitment bill targets agency dysfunction; clock ticking on housing crisis

The Texas House yesterday passed Sen. John Whitmire's and Rep. Sylvester Turner's bill overhauling the sex-offender civil commitment program, reported the Houston Chronicle's Mike Ward and Anita Hassan. (See an analysis of the bill from attorney Nancy Bunin.)

In a quote that must be music to the ears of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, Whitmire declared that, "In all my years up here, I don't think I have ever seen a program as dysfunctional and legally challenged as this program - and that's saying a lot." In recent years, such comments have often been aimed at TJJD, or its predecessor agency TYC. Finally, they've elevated from the bottom rung of agency dysfunction! Or maybe the floor just dropped.

Regardless, while addressing issues of agency management and eliminating the jurisdiction of a biased Montgomery County judge who oversees the program, the reforms do not address the most immediate problem with Texas' civil commitment program: Where if anywhere can the state house them in the community without being pushed out by NIMBY backlash? Nobody knows, and the clock is ticking to find a solution. The Chron article concluded:
The bill, however, does not address a critical housing shortage facing the agency.

The roughly 175 men currently active in the program are living in halfway houses, jails and boarding houses under round-the-clock supervision.

The private halfway houses, however, have demanded the men be removed by August. The agency has no room to house the men or those who are expected to come out of prison throughout the year. Because of that, officials had asked for the changes to take effect immediately so they can move ahead with plans to buy or lease a new facility where the offenders outside prison can be confined while they undergo treatment.


85tiger said...

Maybe I'm reading this wrong but it looks like they have capped defense costs at $2500. Who is going to take one of these cases for $2500?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@85tiger, that limit appears to be in the current statute, not something the bill is adding. But agreed, it's remarkably low given the legal complexity of civil commitment cases.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@85tiger, attorney Bill Habern sent me this comment on the subject via email:

"We have seen such limitations imposed in the past. For example, at the time of the Eroy Brown prison warden murder trial, there was a statutory limit of $500.00 for defense investigation fees. In that case the trial court declared that "as applied" to the Brown case, such a limitation violated Brown's constitutional rights. The defense attorneys ended up being afforded thousands of dollars in investigation fees.

"I personally do not recall the limit of $2,500 per case, but I do not deny that limit might be there, but of course such a limitation cannot be Constitutional for such a defense when the case is going to trial. Costs of enforcing the civil commitment is one of the absurdities this state has been facing in these cases. "

Anonymous said...

That particular figure isn't a change - it's an amendment from 2003 and isn't a cap on defense costs. It authorizes a court cost payable to the county where the action is filed to help defray the costs of the trial. Here's a 2003 House analysis from when the bill was pending: