While some in the Legislature recognize that it's time to shift gears away from mass incarceration, especially for low-level offenders, so far Criminal Jurisprudence isn't doing its part to reduce Texas prison and jail populations. Instead they've moved this session to boost already-stiff penalties for child molesters, approved life sentences for certain drunk driving deaths, and will likely increase penalties for burglary of a vehicle. Even if Chairmans Madden and Whitmire successfully strengthen the probation system and rein in the out of control parole board, Texas' prison population will continue to burst at the seams if the Lege keeps indulging in its biennial ritual of boosting criminal penalties.
Today the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will hear a handful of good bills along with a number of additional penalty enhancements and nickel and dime punitive restrictions on offenders. Here are some of the good bills of interest up in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today:
- HB 312 by Turner: Creates an evidentiary standard (preponderance of the evidence) by which the state must prove a defendant was "able but unwilling" to pay probation fees. Currently non-payment is frequently taken as prima facie evidence of non-compliance.
- HB 403 by Hodge: Would release parolees from supervision who successfully complete parole board requirements for participation in drug and alcohol treatment programs.
- HB 800 by Dutton: Provides for expunction of records in cases resulting in deferred adjudication where a defendant successfully completes supervision requirements.
- HB 126 by Delisi: Adds tampering with a government record to the list of offenses that may be enhanced as part of "organized criminal activity."
- HB 1766 by Peña: Enhances the penalty for petty theft of copper, aluminum or bronze wiring to a state jail felony regardless of the value of the wire.
- HB 347 by Hamilton: Enhances the penalty for harboring a runaway child from a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony of the harborer is a registered sex offender.
- HB 1093 by Geren: Expands the area around a funeral service where "picketing" is prohibited.
By giving these bills fiscal notes of zero, LBB would have legislators believe their punitive impulse incurs no financial costs. That's why I said in 2005 that LBB is responsible for "red ink" in Texas prison budget - they've consistently understated costs of penalty enhancements for many decades in just this way.
In particular, the bills by Peña and Hamilton expressly increase penalties from a misdemeanor to a state jail felony, shifting incarceration costs from counties to state government. But those costs aren't recognized for purposes of state budget making. I wish I knew why.
In the dumb bills with no purpose category, we find HB 1480 by Castro, which would add to the list of information sex offenders must report the URLs of websites they visit or "intend to visit" every day. I don't know about you but my web surfing habits shift over time - sometimes day to day - and I don't think gathering such data will provide useful information for law enforcement or serve any purpose than to give another opportunity for registrants to commit a "technical" violation through incorrect reporting.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another problematic bill the committee will hear today by Rep. Phil King: HB 628. This bill would allow the lead police investigator in criminal cases to sit at the prosecution table throughout a trial, even when they may be called as a witness. The prohibition on witnesses hearing other witnesses' testimony in the Rules of Evidence exists for good reason, and has never inhibited the prosecution of crime in this state. I see no reason to risk tainting police testimony in the manner the current Rules are designed to prevent. This falls under the category of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Those are the Criminal Jurisprudence highlights this week - see the full committee agenda here, and you can watch the hearing today at 2 p.m. or on adjournment of the full House.