Monday, March 04, 2019

Pot debate at #txlege launches early, Soldiers as cops?, Tailoring corrections practices to women prisoners, and other stories

At the Texas Legislature this week, criminal-justice bills are finally being heard, although not yet in all committees, and all on the House side. Most of the major legislation remains to be seen; some of it has yet to be filed. Excepting marijuana discussions described below, all the biggest #cjreform debates of the session are all yet to come. But here are a few mostly-small bills up in committee this week that deserve Grits readers' attention:

Marijuana reform debate launches early
This afternoon, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee launches the first volley in what's sure to be a lively debate over marijuana policy, considering Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody's HB 63 reducing possession of less than an ounce of pot to a civil penalty punishable with a ticket/fine up to $250. Notably, Moody's proposal more or less matches what the state Republican Party platform endorsed last year (the GOP said the fine should be $100). Meanwhile Gov. Greg Abbott has endorsed reducing criminal penalties for possessing up to two ounces of pot from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. That's close but not exactly similar to state Rep. Alma Allen's HB 371, and rumors are flying that we may yet see another bill closer to the Governor's approach. (See Grits' earlier discussion of the competing proposals and the implications.) Chairwoman Nicole Collier's elevation of the Speaker Pro Tempore's bill to her committee's first substantive agenda means this debate launches early. For Grits part, I prefer Moody's bill but support either approach compared to the status quo.

Mandatory felony for porch piracy?
In the same Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing as the marijuana debate, Houston Democrat Gene Wu has proposed a bad bill making the theft of any package delivered to someone's front porch an automatic state jail felony. To be clear, if the value of the item stolen is more than $2,500, it's already a state jail felony. But Wu wants to create new mandatory minimums for all stolen packages. As I was writing this, my wife passed by and I asked her the last thing we purchased from Amazon. Her reply: Some dry-erase markers and a book my granddaughter needed for a middle-school class. Definitely not worthy of a state-jail felony.

Switching up punishments on price-tag switching
State Rep. Matt Shaheen, a Republican from Plano, has a small-but-interesting penalty-reduction bill up in the House Business and Industry Committee on Tuesday that's the philosophical opposite of Wu's porch-piracy bill: HB 427 would apply the property-theft thresholds increased by the Legislature in 2015 to the offense of price-tag switching, which right now is a Class A misdemeanor regardless of the value of the item. The new law would have price-tag switchers charged based on the value of the stolen item, whereas Wu wants the Legislature to ignore the new property-theft thresholds when it comes to stolen Amazon packages.

Soldiers as Cops
HB 971 (Clardy), up in the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday, would let former military personnel substitute military service for police-officer training. With only narrow exceptions (e.g., markmanship) Grits wouldn't consider it even remotely proper to allow such substitutions. "Soldier" and "police officer" are quite different jobs.

Corrections Committee to focus on women and kids
House Corrections Committee Chairman Chairman James White has a pair of bills up in his committee on Thursday. HB 659 would require TDCJ to count and report the number of prison inmates with children "of any age." But that stops short of actually identifying minor-age children who might benefit from provision of services, or facilitating kids' access to their incarcerated parents. In that sense, the bill's a disappointment. The legislation resulted from one of the committee's interim charges, but doesn't go as far as discussed during the interim. (See Grits' write-up here.)

Tailoring corrections practices to women prisoners
Another chairman's bill up in Corrections this week, HB 650, would require TDCJ to provide feminine hygiene products (defined  as products whose "principal purpose" relates "feminine hygiene in connection with the menstrual cycle") to indigent women inmates in TDCJ free of charge. The bill requires guards in women's prisons to receive training related to pregnant inmates and for the women to receive education about their pregnancy, parenting skills, medical and mental health issues, etc.. The bill mandates that women (only) with children under 18 must be allowed up to two contact visits per week with them. Wardens can restrict this access based on security concerns. (Question: If we're not going to track which kids belong to which parents under HB 659, how can they decide who is entitled to two visits per week under HB 650?) The bill requires female guards to perform body cavity searches of women inmates, with limited exceptions, and institutes special nutrition requirements for pregnant women. The bill also ensures women who give birth in TDCJ can spend 72 hours with their newborns before they're taken away.

More people may seek restoration of civil rights bc of bill to expand clemency access
Juvenile Justice and Family Matters Committee Charman Harold Dutton has HB 573 up in House Corrections this week to let people who've completed their state prison sentence and waited three years to apply have their civil rights fully restored. Interesting bill, even if Grits isn't completely sure I understand all the implications. This is a rarely used clemency process that requires the governor's sign off, and it's been many decades since Texas had a governor willing to indulge anything more than an occasional, symbolic use of clemency powers, plus a few folks found actually innocent by DNA evidence and/or the courts.

Seeking to stop sex offenders seeking pen pals
Finally, Rep. Matt Shaheen has HB 428 up in House Corrections this week forbidding sex offenders incarcerated in TDCJ from soliciting pen pals on free-world web sites, even if someone else does the posting, pays the fees, etc.. But it's a strange ol' world, this practice is more common than the uninitiated might expect, and Grits is unwilling to condemn every such communication as lacking value. As long as there's transparency, I'm not sure I see a problem that stamping "Correspondence from a Registered Texas Sex Offender" on the outside of every outgoing envelope wouldn't solve. Last session, the same committee approved a similar bill but it never received a vote on the House floor.


Anonymous said...

I really, for the life of me, cannot understand why we insist on treating people with sex offenses as a homogenous group and somehow different from other offenders. If we're not going to be stamping "correspondence from a convicted Texas murderer" or "convicted Texas drunk driver" on the outside of the envelope why in hell would we stamp it for those with sex convictions. The information for why people are convicted is already available online for anyone to see. You see no problem that stamping "correspondence from a convicted Texas sex offender" on outgoing mail wouldn't solve? How the hell is a mail room supposed to know which envelopes are going to family and which to friends and which to pen pals? So sure, lets go flashing the Scarlet Letter into the mail boxes of wives and girlfriends everywhere and out them to their community. Surely no harm will come from that anymore than posting Halloween signs. Brilliant. Please tell me I simply missed the sarcasm. Please tell me I've misread. What real world harm is this law meant to fix? How is this any different than the dozens of other worthless "prevention" laws that only serve to enforce the mistaken belief that those with a sex convictions are worse than other offenders and deserving of carve outs from protections that apply to everyone else. If laws like this aren't applied to fraudsters and theives and conmen who have and do cause real world harm to unsuspecting victims even while encarcerated then it is of utmost hypocrisy to suggest there's no issue doing this to those with sex offenses. I can't believe that Grits, normally so thoughtful on this typically inflammatory subject could be so... callous. Please tell me it's my reading comprehension that's wrong.

Anonymous said...

And as a PS: did you ever stop and think about the potential harm to offenders trapped behind those walls once word got around that the room kept a list of those with sex offenses and what the rumor mill would do once people start claiming they saw someone's envelopes getting stamped (regardless of whether the claims were true or not). Jesus this is a dumb idea.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@3:50, a bill has been proposed (not by me) to ban inmates from soliciting pen pals online entirely. I suggested that as long as they know who they're communicating with, it's hard to see a problem. Don't like my suggestion? Maybe you'd prefer Shaheen's bill, it was made in the context of moderating that proposal. Also, one imagines any family or friends they're corresponding with already know they're a sex offender. Is that stamp really a bigger scarlet letter than the TDCJ unit on the return address line?

Re your comment that, "I really, for the life of me, cannot understand why we insist on treating people with sex offenses as a homogenous group and somehow different from other offenders," I'm pretty sure it's the whole "committed rape" thing that sets folks off. You imply sex offenders haven't "cause[d] real world harm to unsuspecting victims" comparable to conmen, thieves or fraudsters. But to me, you're downplaying the seriousness of sexual assault. Being a victim of theft and rape are two very different experiences.

Is the registry useful for public safety? Not at all. Does it paint with too broad a brush on Romeo-Juliet and other marginal cases? Absolutely. I do not support it at all and wish it would go away. But the reason people treat sex offenders as different fundamentally is that many folks don't like rapists or child molesters and don't care about their rights. And in a democratic society, all those people get to have their bills filed and their concerns addressed, too.

This bill passed out of committee last time and will almost certainly do so again this time. Forgive me for suggesting a way to let these prisoners continue soliciting pen pals. If you're able to kill the bill simply championing the First Amendment rights of sex offenders, more power to you. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Some sex offenders are rapists and child molestors. Many aren't. You're aware of this so to reinforce the myths with "it's the whole committed rape thing" and "folks don't like rapists or child molestors" seemed a bit disingenuous.

And yes,absolutely,being a victim of theft and rape are two different things. That's what PUNISHMENT is for.

I'm not suggesting those with sex offenses havent caused real world harm. (Though certainly there are some who havent.) They're already in prison. The real world harm of what they ALREADY did is a given.

Stamping mail or forbidding pen pals is outside of that punishment and should be irrelevant to what put them in prison UNLESS it's addressing or meant to solve some real world harm.

I find it hard to believe you're not aware of the difference which makes the fact you'd conflate the two issues also seem rather disingenuous.

We're talking about mail and what real world harm someone with a sex offense portends to cause through the mail that someone known to commit fraud and theft through the mail would not.

You would be wrong to assume that all neighbors and family know why a person is convicted, and if having the Department of Corrections stamp on a letter is equal in terms of Scarlet letter and informing the recipient that the sender is in prison then why bother with the extra stamp at all?

I take no issue with trying to find a way for these offenders to continue having pen pals, I do have an issue with a reasoned and well respected voice who is aware of the ridiculousness of these dog-pile restrictions and notifications seeing *no problem at all* *no caveat* *no concern* with the real world implications of slapping that label on every outbound letter a person sends.

Unknown said...

What occurred to me right away is that the threat to public safety comes more from serial scammers and extortionists exploiting pen pals.

The only case I can think of where being a sex offender as opposed to a robber or arsonist or repeat drunk driver would matter would be the minority of offenders who are child molesters potentially grooming new victims. Since is for the 18+ population only, we can make a realistic judgement of the actual risk level.

It's interesting to note, though it doesn't contribute much to this particular discussion, that several states forbid any pen pal ads from any inmates. There's a list in the pen pal ads subforum at

George said...


I generally support your views on most things but on the issue of supporting the labeling of envelopes for those convicted of a sex offense --- well, you're flat out wrong on this. I encourage you to think about that for a second, not only are these individuals "labeled" for life once they are released from prison, now you're advocating "labeling" them while they're still inside. And yes, this does leak out of the mail room and out into general population.

You touched on the main issue of who society feels about those convicted of sex offenses. "But the reason people treat sex offenders as different fundamentally is that many folks don't like rapists or child molesters and don't care about their rights." That says it all doesn't it? Like it or not, we still have a Constitution in our country that is supposed to guarantee discrimination such as this does not take place -- at least in the legal sense. Mob mentality SHOULD NOT rule when it comes to this issue, or for any issue for that matter.

I applaud your view/stance on the registry as a whole. However, the continued insistence that people should view the vast majority of those convicted of a sex offense as dangerous and a predator is far beyond what the hard and fast empirical evidence has shown in study after study. The fact is, over 95% of new sexual offenses are committed by someone other than one who has been previously convicted of a sex offense. This data goes back for many decades so it's not something that just showed up on the radar.

I thank God for the advocacy groups such as Texas Voices, NARSOL, Florida Action Committee to name a few that have a REAL backbone and are willing to tell the truth about these matters. Just because you dislike a particular individual, does this give you license to advocate for a lifetime of punishment long after you've fulfilled your sentence? If so, for what purpose other than to shame and humiliate? Seems like our nation always needs some group of people to single out for this sort of thing. Don't you think it's time to move beyond this adolescent type of behavior and grow up?

Anonymous said...

Saheen needs to go back to his district and find a real problem to solve. Anybody corresponding with a sex offender already has their name and TDCJ number so why can't they bother to look up who they're writing? I appreciate Grits postulating an alternative, but I think where stamped envelopes fail is the guards are either going to have to sell RSO envelopes to inmates who will barter for unmarked ones if they so choose, or guards will have to be tasked with stamping collected RSO mail (either in an RSO mailbox which is circumvented by having your celly mail it for you) or screening all mail for the names of RSO's and stamping them outgoing. And then you have the problem of RSO's correspondence to person's other than penpals being stamped. So every application to an outside service is prefaced with "Whatever this envelope contains, it's from a pervert," any letter to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Any letter to their representative. Any letter to their mothers sitting in a nursing home with her mail hand delivered by a nurse...

But I guess things are so Pacific in Collin that their representative can afford to publicaly masturbate instead of writing real legislation?

As for HB971, there's a book that is insanely hard to find called Pamwe Chete about the Rhodesian busy war... Anyhow the author makes an interesting point that the difference between a soldier and a policeman is time. A soldier never has enough time because his life us always in danger, never enough time to move, to shoot, or reload. That's why punctuality is so important to them. A policeman however has all the time, a criminal not caught today is pursued by a system. If one policeman doesn't catch him then another will, and the system works day and night.

I can see why police want the credibility of having veterans in their ranks, but the roles are fundamentally different even when the skills overlap.

OLNACL said...

HB971. Your objections make no sense tome. All the bill says is that veterans can get credit hours towards the different levels of proficiency certificates for a Texas peace officer for having been in the military instead of going to college. As it currently stands, military service is of no value when it comes to achieving these different levels of certificates of proficiency (Basic, Intermediate, Advanced and Master)

All the bill is attempting to do is put college grads and veterans on equal footing on the timeline to receive the various peace officer certificates. It says nothing about military time exempting a veteran from having to take the TCOLE mandated classes or attending the basic academy.

These certificates (aside from “basic” which is awarded after attending a BCAP and passing the TCOLE test) are awarding automatically based on a combination of training hours, time in service and any college education..and I emphasize “any”. The officer’s degree could be a masters in art appreciation and as soon as they have seven years of service they are automatically awarded the master peace officer certificate. A veteran with no college would have to accrue 1200 hours of TCOLE training credits and be in service for twenty years to get the same certificate.

To better understand the ladder to these certificates visit the TCOLE website:

All the different proficiency certificates ( basic, intermediate, advanced and master) are good for in most agencies is a slight increase in pay.

And yes, I am veteran (4 years USMC) and have been a cop for over 26 years (and counting) so my perspective will be different from yours.

Donny said...

Of COURSE police and military are different occupations. For one, us combat vets understand a couple of simple concepts like "escalations/de-escalation of force" and "trigger discipline"; two fields that Texas LEOs seem unfamiliar with, if the Twin Peaks-Waco shootings and trials have shown us anything.

Anonymous said...

OLNACL, as a veteran myself, I do not favor equating military service for certifications, as Grits said...they are different positions. A college degree is not intended to be a job training venture in most cases, certainly not a 4 year or higher degree, it's intention is to make a more well rounded individuals, military service is better at instilling adherence to a chain of command or following orders than thinking for oneself. And despite TCOLE, some agencies, including HPD, do not allow you to get a certificate based on the lowest amounts of time in service, at least not pay for them. My experience with military personnel is that they are more likely to shoot when faced with a dire circumstance while a college-boy type will back off, each perhaps working in specific circumstances better than the other. Officers with combat experience are much more likely to immediately engage someone based on the perception of a weapon too, not necessarily an actual weapon.

BarkGrowlBite said...

I have long maintained that once a convicted criminal has completed his sentence, his right to vote and to obtain occupational licenses now denied to him should be restored.

Anonymous said...

As for the Prison PenPal is the people (typically women) on the outside who go to these inmate Pen Pal sites and look for inmates to correspond with. They CHOOSE to correspond with someone who is incarcerated. THEY CHOOSE. In order to write a letter to an inmate, the person must have their real name and TDCJ#. They can easily look them up and find out what their charge is. This is a dumb bill and I doubt it will go anywhere again this session.