Senate Committee on Criminal Justice Examines State Agencies
AUSTIN - The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice met Wednesday, May 24th, 2000, at the State Capitol.The committee is holding public hearings during the interim to take testimony on charges issued by Lt.Governor Rick Perry.
Today's meeting focused on charge 11. This charge asks the committee to monitor the implementation of the following bills enacted during the 76th. Legislature: Senate Bill (SB) 8 relating to the compilation of criminal information pertaining to criminal street gangs and criminal combinations; SB 352 relating to requirements for membership on or employment by the Board of Pardons and Paroles; SB 365 relating to the continuation and the functions of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the administration of the Private Sector Prison Industries Oversight Authority, the administration of the Texas Council on Offenders with Mental Impairments, and the civil commitment of sexually violent predators; SB 370 relating to the continuation and functions of the Department of Public Safety; SB 371 relating to the continuation and functions of the Correctional Managed Health Care Advisory Committee; and HB 2617 relating to the continuation of the Texas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies as the Texas Commission on Private Security, to the functions performed by that agency, and to certain powers of political subdivisions relating to alarm systems.
Invited testimony began with representatives of law enforcement agencies. SB 8 extends the statewide, centralized compilation of criminal data to include information about the activities of gang members and juveniles. Police officers in all corners of the state may now use and share this information, which can also be shared with law enforcement agencies in other states. This data is going to be accessible by trained individuals through a special computer program. Senator Shapiro inquired if the program, useful in metropolitan areas with trained officers, would suffer from accessibility problems in remote towns for lack of trained personnel.
Police officers and departments throughout the state can enter gang members' information to the database, including criminal history, DWI infractions, any detentions even when released immediately afterwards, or any allegations against them. This will assist criminal gang investigations, but also poses a strong concern -individual data can be entered even if the suspect never committed a crime, nor was ever detained or even charged.
A representative from the Department of Public Safety provided the next invited testimony. He gave a brief review about the reorganization of his department, mandated by SB 370. He reported that the 28 significant changes ordered by the bill have been implemented or are in the process of implementation. Additional employees have being hired to work on licenses and inspections.
Representatives of the Texas Commission on Private Security also briefed the committee about the changes in his agency. The agency supervises the work of private guards, like those working in department stores, hospitals and hotels, among others. They reported the implementation of changes recommended by the 1999 Sunset Commission (a group set to review the accountability of state agencies). The changes are included in HB 2617. The only problem reported was the conversion of the database from the old to a new computer system, which has created an information backlog.
The next issue in the hearing was the implementation of SB 352 by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The board is composed of18 members in full time paid positions. Committee members heard emotionally charged testimony of families alleging their love ones are being unjustly returned to prison. Holding back tears, the witnesses accused the board of revoking paroles for minor technicalities, like missing appointments, crossing county or state lines without permission, or driving without insurance. The board was also criticized for denying the release of non-violent prisoners in the last stages of AIDS, who ask to die at home.
Senator Whitmire, who says he receives many letters with accusations against the board, seriously challenged the members to reform the system. He said the $30.000 a year needed to keep a prisoner in a Texas prison should be spent on violent criminals, drug dealers and sex offenders. Whitmire advised the board representatives to send the non-violent parolees that do not comply with a technicality to another kind of facility for six months instead of sending them back to prison for up to 10 years. He also said the review schedules of the board are too sporadic. A non-violent criminal whose parole is rejected in a review will have to wait in prison from two to three years until the next one. The senator was also concerned about the board deciding the future of non-violent criminals through bureaucratic forms, without ever meeting the individual.
Representatives of the board said that the rules have been hardened to avoid the release of sexual offenders, something approved by public opinion. They agreed that prisoners that do not pose a threat to society should not remain in prison spending taxpayers' money for so long. Too much work for 18 members; 22,000 parole hearings in 1999, an average number, low salaries and morale of parole officers, combined with a high turnover and constant changes of the procedures, were mentioned as partial causes. Twenty-five percent of parolees' hearings end in revocations, sending them back to prison. Of those, 20% go back for minor violations like failing to report or crossing county or state lines.
The hearing concluded with representatives from the Private Sector Prison Industries, the Texas Council on Offenders with Mental Impairments and the Correctional Managed Health Care Advisory Committee briefing the members about changes in their agencies, reporting no problems.
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 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.