Week In Review
Criminal Justice Committee Studies Connally Unit Escape
AUSTIN - The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice opened hearings Tuesday, January 16, into the December escape of seven inmates from the John B. Connally Jr. Unit in Karnes County.
"As policy makers we do have the authority and the obligation to ensure that policies that we envision through statute give TDCJ the tools that they need," said Victoria Sen. Ken Armbrister, the chair of the committee. "So we'll be looking at it from that standpoint - have we supplied them with the tools?"
Armbrister called Tuesday's committee action a preliminary review of the report on the escape issued January 11, 2001 by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), but stressed that the Senate's study of the Texas penal system is part of an ongoing effort that began well before the escape.
"You've got 160,000 people (in Texas prisons) spending every waking minute calculating how to get out," Sen. Armbrister said. "What we have to ensure to the citizenry of the state is that -- every waking minute -- we're responsible, that we're trying to spend that time making sure they stay in."
Hearings Continue on Appropriations Bill
The Senate Finance Committee continued hearings Tuesday on the General Appropriations Bill, which will set budgets for state agencies and outline Texas' spending priorities for the 2002-2003 biennium. The committee also questioned TDCJ representatives in light of the recent situation surrounding the seven escapees from the Connally Unit. Houston Senator John Whitmire, who also serves as vice chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, questioned TDCJ's priorities in the budget process and why there is such a large shortage of prison guards. TDCJ has reported a shortage of 2,500 prison guards. Budget hearings continued Wednesday and will resume Monday, January 22.
Senate Honors Science Hall of Famers
The Texas Senate unanimously adopted Senate Resolution 7 on Tuesday, January 16, offered by Sen. David Cain of Dallas, to honor the 16 charter members of the Texas Science Hall of Fame, who were inducted last year at the Texas Science Summit 2000. The Texas Science Hall of fame acknowledges Texans who have made significant scientific accomplishments of national and world recognition. This first class of inductees included astronauts, Nobel Prize winners, educators and physicians.
Lt. Governor, Secretary of State Join Senators Urging 'Border Czar'
Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff and Secretary of State Henry Cuellar on Wednesday, January 17, joined more than a dozen senators in urging President-elect George W. Bush to appoint a federal "border czar."
"This is a concept that has great potential," Ratliff said, "not only for Texas but for other states that share the Mexican border."
Led by Senators David Sibley of Waco, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso and Brownsville's Eddie Lucio, Jr., the senators said increased trade and associated traffic between the U.S. and Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 make it necessary to look at border issues in a new way.
"The North American Free Trade Agreement has been a boon to both the Mexican and U.S. economies in the past seven years," said Sibley, the chair of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. "But as trade between our two countries has blossomed, so have traffic congestion, border crossing delays, air and noise pollution and stress on infrastructure. These problems have become impediments to free trade."
The proposed "border czar" would be under the U.S. Department of Commerce and serve as the U.S.'s point person on Mexican border affairs.
"The border is a complex place," said Shapleigh, a member of the Senate Border Affairs Subcommittee. "At border ports, dozens of federal and state agencies enforce hundreds of laws. In a new era, we need a new way to do business."
Truck crossings between Texas and Mexico have increased from less than 1.5 million in 1993 to more than 4.3 million by 1999. According to the Texas Center for Border Economic and Enterprise Development, trade between the U.S. and Mexico has grown from $87.4 billion in 1994 to an estimated $214 billion last year.
"Our border region is vital to the economies of Texas and the United States," said Lucio, chair of the Senate Border Affairs Subcommittee. "This would be a timely decision by the leadership in Washington to officially recognize our neighbor to the south as a key trading partner of this nation."
Senators Announce DNA Testing Bill
Senators Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Rodney Ellis of Houston and J.E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson announced Wednesday the filing of Senate Bill (SB) 3, that would make post-conviction DNA testing available to Texas prisoners in specific instances.
SB 3 would make testing available to persons convicted in cases in which:
- Typing DNA would make a difference;
- Biological evidence exists and is in a condition that can be tested; and
- The identity of the perpetrator was an issue at trial.
To qualify for testing, a court must find a "reasonable probability" that the defendant would not have been tried or convicted if testing had been done at the time of the trial.
"In the name of fairness and justice, this is an effort to ensure that innocent people do not pay the price for crimes they did not commit," Duncan said.
Among the senators joining in the announcement, Victoria Sen. Ken Armbrister, the chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said the committee would hear SB 3 as soon as possible.
The Texas Senate stands adjourned until 1 p.m. Monday, January 22, 2001.