SENATE CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMITTEE EXAMINES BORDER CRIME AND TEXAS YOUTH COMMISSION ISSUES IN MCALLEN
As the population along the Texas-Mexico border has increased in recent years, so has the problem of violent crime. For that reason, the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice traveled to McAllen today to hear about how the state is combating this rise in crime from the people who face it on a daily basis.
Captain Juan Rodriguez of the Texas Highway Patrol, led off the testimony by reminding the committee that criminal activity of all kinds along the border has become more organized over the past few years. "There is an alliance between Mexican drug traffickers and US-based gangs," he said. He also testified that the state believes there may be a monetary connection between the Mexican drug gangs and certain Middle Eastern terrorist organizations.
Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen questioned a Department of Public Safety witness about how the different agencies communicate with each other in emergency situations. "Let's say we have a DPS Officer along the border who gets shot...are you all using the same communication channels?" Hinojosa said that some time back, there had been an emergency incident where the various agencies could not talk to each other. He was told that yes, there was now a common frequency where Texas law enforcement officials could communicate.
Committee Chairman John Whitmire of Houston said that despite all law enforcement efforts, the vast majority of all contraband imported gets through to the street, that the supply of drugs has not gone down, and that there are plenty of undocumented workers available for employment. Senator Whitmire was also concerned that law-abiding citizens not be harassed due to their ethnic background.
Lieutenant Arnoldo Ramos, from the Department of Public Safety's Law Enforcement Division, said that border law enforcement efforts had succeeded in forcing drug traffickers to move their product quickly, or it would be found by local police.
Congressman Ruben Hinojosa of the Valley also came before the committee, saying that there is a growing criminal element along the border that deals with drug trafficking and human smuggling. He blamed what he called "our broken immigration system" for these problems, saying that current congressional public hearings that are being held are meaningless..."There have been dozens of hearings across the country, but no real action." He called for both houses of Congress to quickly come together and negotiate a bill for immigration reform. Senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo asked what parts of the bills before Congress would be effective. The congressman replied that one of the bills before Congress had so many "poison pills" that it could never pass into law. He called for Congress to increase the number of Border Patrol agents, rather than using the Army Reserve as temporary patrolmen. He also called for the federal government to request from the Mexican Government that the Mexican Federal Police return to the border to help enforce order.
Chief Victor Rodriguez of the McAllen Police Department said that in his city violent crime was down more than ten percent over the past year. The Chief credited a supportive city commission and careful monitoring of crime statistics on a daily basis. He said that enables them to apply their resources where they are most needed. One issue he has is that they have to send seized narcotics to Dallas to be destroyed. There are no appropriate facility for narcotics destruction in south Texas. He also said that one manpower issue they face is that local police are charged with transporting the mentally ill to state facilities and that this duty takes police off the streets. Senator Whitmire said that almost a third of the inmates in the prison system were originally mental health cases, and that had the state properly taken care of them when they were first diagnosed, they would not have wound up in the criminal justice system.
But above all, the McAllen Police Chief asked the committee to do all it could to ensure that local law enforcement is not "saddled with the responsibility of enforcing federal immigration laws."
Sheriff Alfredo Gonzales of Zapata County testified that undocumented immigrants are no longer those who are just looking for employment. He said that today there is a much higher percentage of violent gang members and others who arrive for illegal purposes. He said they are sure of this because the types of crime that these people have committed are becoming more violent, more criminal, and are from places other than Mexico.
However, the main reason the Committee came to McAllen was to examine issues at the Evins Texas Youth Commission Facility in Edinburg. After a major disturbance by inmates in 2004, the facility later saw its staff accused of abusing those same inmates.
Pete Alfaro, Chairman of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), led off the testimony. Alfaro told the committee that the commission deals with youth that have failed in other programs. He said that instances of abuse of youth or staff at the Edinburg facility are unacceptable and that they are working hard to ensure that they are not repeated. "We all want the safest facilities for our youth and staff. As you know, the Texas Youth Commission gets some of the most dangerous youth in Texas...we have made some specific and immediate changes." Commission Executor Dwight Harris said "...if we don't have safety at the center of our programs, nothing is working."
However, the committee chairman was unhappy with the TYC hiring process. "I'm shocked that your corrections officers only get two weeks of training...I thought you had an academy, that you had a class...this is what we need to know if we're going to carry your message to the rest of the Legislature...", said Chairman Whitmire.
The TYC officials traced their overcrowding issues partially to a legislative directive to discontinue the use of outside "contract" beds, and said that there were indeed offenders currently in TYC that might be better served by being outside the system, on probation, in their home communities. They also said the recent construction of dormitory-style barracks, built because they saved money, also led to inmates being more violent.
Chairman Whitmire reiterated that he completely supports the mission of the TYC, but that there are obviously issues to be addressed. He said that TYC needs to lobby for increased funding for programs, not a cut as the governor has requested for all state agencies, and that he needs more such testimony as he heard today to justify funding and reforms.
The Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice is chaired by Senator John Whitmire of Houston. Vice Chair is Senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo and members include Senators John Carona of Dallas, Rodney Ellis of Houston, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen, Jon Lindsay of Houston and Steve Ogden of Bryan. The committee recessed subject to call of the chair.