CRIMINAL JUSTICE ISSUES HIGHLIGHT WEEK'S BUSINESS
(AUSTIN) — As legislators debate how to spend this year's budget surplus, one thing they must determine is how much money to put toward the state's criminal justice system. The Legislative Budget Board predicts a shortage of 18,000 prison beds by 2012, and the Lt. Governor's Office estimates that as much as 30 percent of the state's 46,000 registered sex offenders have submitted false addresses. This week, both of those issues were addressed by lawmakers.
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst elaborated this week on his child safety initiative, unveiled two weeks ago in his inaugural address. His plan would stiffen penalties for aggravated sexual crimes against children and would permit prosecutors to seek the death penalty for second time offenders. It would also seek to increase monitoring of sex offenders and to update the sex offender registry to ensure all information is accurate.
Dewhurst announced Monday that as part of his plan, all school districts in the state will receive a donation from "Texas First!", a partnership between the Texas Association of School Administrators and SafeSide, of a stranger-safety curriculum aimed at kindergarten through second grade. This curriculum contains DVD's, lesson plans and work books designed to teach young children the dangers associated with strangers, acquaintances and the Internet.
Dewhurst was joined by leading child-safety advocate John Walsh, who is perhaps best know for hosting the America's Most Wanted TV show. Walsh said that Texas has the opportunity to lead the nation in childhood safety. "The Texas First! program is going to be, I think, the model in the nation. I think Americans realize that we need something proactive," said Walsh. "We need something to talk about, as parents, with our children. Knowledge is power, and that our children need to know that there are things they can do to prevent these horrible crimes."
Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice and the House Committee on Corrections, chaired by Senator John Whitmire and Representative Jerry Madden respectively, heard testimony on the state of Texas prison capacity and parole and probation systems. Whitmire has advocated a change in the system, one that seeks to rehabilitate non-violent offenders rather than keep them in state jails for years. He said that he has no intent to ease the state's stance on violent offenders, but that the decreasing prison capacity must be addressed in a more intelligent way. "All of us are committed to keeping dangerous offenders off the street, but to do that, we've got to deal with the non-violent, low-level offenders," said Whitmire.
Dr. Tony Fabelo, with the Council of State Government's Justice system, addressed the joint meeting with regard to the increasing prison population., up 305 percent since 1985. Fabelo attributed the increase to aggressive prosecution policies, low parole rates for non-violent offenders, and the large number of probationers and parolees returned to prison on technical offenses.
Fabelo recommended to the committees that Texas increase capacity in substance-abuse treatment centers, create intermediate sanction centers that seek to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate technical probation violators, and increase parole rates for non-violent offenders. By doing this, he said, the state can address its capacity issues without building additional prisons.
Also this week, Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston filed a bill that would ban smoking in all public indoor venues in the state. He said at a press conference Wednesday that second-hand smoke is one of the top health care issues facing Texas today, and that patrons and employees of public venues should be able to breathe clean air. Ellis said the bill applies to restaurants and bars, and does not contain any exemptions or grandfather clauses. "State wide ban, no grandmothering, no grandfathering. A strong bill, straightforward and simple: stop it," he said.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 5, at 1:30 p.m.