Senate Committee on Criminal Justice held Public Hearing at State Capitol
AUSTIN - The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice met Tuesday, April 18th, at the State Capitol. Members of the committee include Senator Ken Armbrister of Victoria serving as chair, Robert Duncan of Lubbock serving as vice-chair, Mike Jackson of La Porte, Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, Florence Shapiro of Plano, Royce West of Dallas, and John Whitmire of Houston.
The committee took public testimony on charges issued by Lt. Governor Rick Perry for study during the interim. This hearing focused on charges 1, 3, 9, and 10.
Tony Fabelo, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Criminal Justice Policy Council started with testimony on charge 10. This charge orders the committee to monitor correctional capacity needs of adult and juvenile facilities. Mr. Fabelo gave an ample overview of the interim juvenile and adult correctional population projections and planning actions. He said that the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) has enough capacity until the year 2003. Expansion or new constructions will then be needed. The crime rate among youth has dropped over the last two years, and experts think this trend will probably continue before it stabilizes. But although the number of new inmates has decreased, those inside are serving longer sentences, adding to the overall population.
More than half of these young inmates belong to the category of "general offenders", those who have been imprisoned for drugs, burglary, or other property crimes. A small percentage are violent offenders, and the rest are awaiting sentences. TYC capacity will increase from 5,367 in 1999 to 6,120 in 2003. After that, additional contracted capacity will cost around $1.7 million in 2003, and $4.8 million in 2004. Answering a call for future funds to build new facilities or expand existing ones, Senator West said there has to be another way, one that goes to the root of the problems instead of locking up so many of our young.
Showing the same trend, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will need 3,911 additional beds to meet the demand for the year 2000. This will be achieved through expansion and reconfiguration of existing facilities. Although crime figures keep going down, changes in sentencing policy have increased demand for space. People that were sentenced to serve county jail time are now being sentenced to serve their time in state jails. Fabelo reported that new admissions to state jails in February 2000 were the highest ever. There has also been an increase in parole revocations, 19% higher now than in 1999. Delays in the opening of new prison units also contributes to the problem.
Senator Whitmire showed great concern about the work done by the Parole Board. He said they are not paroling all the prisoners they should. The senator mentioned the case of 5,000 Mexican citizens imprisoned in state jails, 3,600 of which are parole eligible. Most of these foreigners are in for DWI. Whitmire is of the opinion that, after some treatment or program, they should be released and sent to Mexico, with some measures taken so they do not come back. His advice was to ensure public safety, but to take some risks in order to avoid the overflowing of jails and prisons. He said we should keep prison beds for hard core criminals and child molesters. Intermediate sanctions facilities and electronic monitoring could ease crowding in state jails. The senator mentioned that the economic development the building of prisons brings to some Texas counties may be a factor in keeping so many people in jail. Whitmire asked the Parole Board to subject prisoners to parole reviews more often than once every two or three years. The board representative present at the meeting defended the board's position, answering that they only try to ensure public safety. He also informed the committee that recidivism among ex-prisoners is up to 50%.
Following was a discussion of charge 9, which orders the committee to evaluate the collection efforts for criminal fines, fees, and costs imposed by courts to determine how collection efforts may be enhanced, including incentives to increase collections. The committee shall determine what fees may be imposed on offenders and which entities are entitled to a portion of the collected fees. Representatives of state agencies, judges and county treasurers, as well as committee members, see a need to simplify the system. One of the issues discussed was the fines and fees that remain unpaid. All partial payments go to cover state fees first, to fund, for example, new technology and security in the courts. Unpaid fines from felonies and misdemeanors create uncollected revenue that cause trouble in local courts. Senator Armbrister agreed that the system has to be revised. Those who cannot pay are issued payment plans to pay later. Refusal to pay could lead to community service for the offender, or even jail time. Another topic discussed was the high price of fees required to file complaints in county courts.
The discussion continued with charge 1. This charge orders the committee to determine if "cold crimes" investigations, especially of violent crimes, conducted by specially trained personnel, should be augmented with additional resources and personnel within the Department of Public Safety. Testimony presented to the committee was mainly about new technologies and the emphasis on teamwork applied to the investigations.
Charge 3 was the last one to be discussed. It orders the committee to review current statutes pertaining to the expunction of criminal records, to determine if criminal records should be maintained with separate access by persons or entities that are not considered law enforcement, from those persons or entities that are considered law enforcement. The committee shall also ensure that personal privacy rights are adequately protected with respect to information maintained by the Department of Public Safety, other state agencies that maintain criminal records for public access, and local law enforcement. The committee shall also consider other issues and procedures related to expunction, treatment of criminal records by law enforcement entities, and if these records should be shared with other entities. The committee shall also ensure that personal privacy rights are adequately protected.
The committee stands recessed subject to the call of the chair. The members will submit a report to be used in the drafting of legislation for the 77th Legislature, which convenes in January of 2001.