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January 23, 2013

More notable talk of more notable sentencing reforms (and a sentencing commission) in Texas

For many years and for many reasons, Texas has been among the most interesting and dynamic modern sentencing reform states.  And this new article from the Austin American-Statesman, headlined "Prison reform outlook improves with business group’s involvement," details why the past, present and future of sentencing in the Lone Star State merits close attention from all sentencing fans. Here are snippets from this new article:

Now, with an influential business lobby group and a leading conservative organization leading the charge, some legislative leaders are wondering whether this year’s 140 days of lawmaking could rival the 2007 session.  That year, lawmakers approved a historic $240 million initiative to provide addiction treatment and rehabilitation programs for convicts rather than building new prisons, a gamble that has since paid off — and become a national model.

This year, just two weeks into the legislative session, there are active discussions about expanding a variety of community-based corrections programs with state funds, changing state laws to rehabilitate low-level drug offenders in programs rather than in expensive state prisons, and even to ease laws that limit ex-convicts’ employment.

“The Legislature this year has an opportunity to take the next step,” said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Levin helped bring in the support of the Texas Association of Business to push the smarter-on-crime agenda.   “The current system is a drag on our vitality as a state. The more people we can get into less costly treatment and rehabilitation programs that are successful, the better off we’ll be,” he said.

Bill Hammond, a former legislator who is president of the Texas Association of Business, agrees: “The current system costs too much. We’re looking at this from a business standpoint, that some changes are good public policy.”  Even state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who is an architect of many of the previous reforms, says he is hopeful that meaningful reforms could be in the offing, thanks to an unexpected new ally....

Proposals sparking the most discussion so far include:

• Allowing more low-level offenders caught with small amounts of certain drugs to be sentenced to local rehabilitation and treatment programs instead of prison, and letting shoplifters and other petty criminals serve their sentences under community-based supervision. ...

• Making prostitution a misdemeanor offense, rather than a low-level felony. The change could eventually remove several hundred women from state lockups and place them in local rehab programs that have been highly successful elsewhere. The difference in cost: $15,500 a year for a state cell vs. $4,300 for a bunk in a community program.

• Creating a new commission of judges, prosecutors and other officials to review sentencing practices across the state.  The panel was recommended by a recent government-efficiency report by the Legislature Budget Board.  If adopted, it would be the first time the state’s criminal laws have been reviewed for streamlining since 1993....

• Allowing dozens of terminally ill and bedridden offenders to be more easily paroled, a move that could save the state millions of dollars in prison medical costs.  At $700 million a year, the medical tab is one of the fastest-growing items in the state budget. The 10 sickest convicts in 2011 cost taxpayers nearly $2 million....

Crime victims and police groups that have campaigned to increase criminal penalties say they will be watching for any changes that might be too soft on crime.  But some acknowledge that discussion of successful, less costly alternatives to prison is timely. “As long as public safety remains the most important priority, I’m sure there’s room for improvement,” said Kat Peterson, a Dallas resident who been a frequent fixture at legislative hearings over the past decade — both as a onetime victim of violent crime and an advocate for her cousin who is serving a long sentence in a state prison.  “Even a good system can be reformed to make it better.”

I often look to Grits for Breakfast when I want to know more about the latest comingsand goings on Texas criminal justice issues, and Grits had had these recent notable posts on this front:

January 23, 2013 at 07:20 PM | Permalink

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