Bad Bills

Throw Their Butts in Jail


One Size Incarcerates All

Senate Bill 435Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan)

When criminal justice policy advocates talk about the need for parole reform, this legislation is not what they have in mind. Not only is the Senate Finance Committee chair pushing the construction of three more prisons (hmmm, wonder if one will be going into his district); Steve Ogden, a Bryan Republican, is also doing his part to help fill them up. He proposes in SB 435 that Texas eliminate parole for all registered sex offenders.

There is some precedent: Plenty of prisoners are already ineligible for parole: death-row inmates, for example, and anyone whose sentence is life without parole. But with a looming prison bed shortage, a broken parole system, and a budget that’s busted the constitutional spending cap, Ogden has ditched any pretense of fiscal conservatism. Instead, he proposes to keep the prison system’s 25,000 sex offenders locked up for as long as possible, without regard for the severity of their crime. Whether repeat offenders, violent offenders, or first-timers incarcerated for public lewdness, Ogden wants them all treated the same.

It may just be one in a sea of proposals to tighten up the system for handling sex offenders, but SB 435 is a particularly costly one. The bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing in the Criminal Justice Committee, and Ogden refuses to speculate on a price tag before seeing the as-yet-unreleased estimate from the Legislative Budget Board. Still, critics of the bill are guessing the cost will be considerable.

“It’s going to be massive,” says Benny Hernandez of the ACLU of Texas. He points out that current law requires sex offenders to serve half their sentences before petitioning the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has shown itself notoriously unwilling to move on parole-ready inmate applications. Ogden’s bill would double the time an inmate spends in prison, costing the state an average of $44 a day, according to the parole board’s Sunset Commission report. Multiply that by 25,000, and you begin to get the idea.

Eliminating the carrot of parole for inmates will make it harder on the people who run the prisons. “It will influence an offender’s behavior, knowing they’ll never be eligible,” Hernandez says. Without any reason to earn brownie points for good behavior, they’ll be tougher to manage, he says.

The worst sex offenders are already serving full sentences; the most dangerous offenders in Texas are even sent to civil commitment facilities—high-security rehab centers—after their release. The ones who’ll really be affected are inmates at the other end of the spectrum, those who a parole board might otherwise say are ready to be released.

Butt Out

House Bill 32Rep. Leo Berman (R-Tyler)

Every cigarette butt tossed out a car window in Texas is proof that anti-littering laws aren’t working. What we need is a way to reach people with an anti-litterbug message, a catchy phrase with attitude and a slogan we can put on highway signs, maybe, or T-shirts. But what should the message be?

Not “Don’t mess with Texas.” The new slogan should be “Lock ’em up,” according to Rep. Leo Berman. The Tyler Republican’s House Bill 32 would bump the maximum penalty for throwing a lighted cigarette, cigar, or match from your car from a $500 fine—you call that a deterrent?—to a Texas-tough $4,000 fine and a year in prison.

Berman seems an unlikely choice to take on the yoke of pro-environment, anti-smoking, Volvo-driving latte-sippers, but he’s burned up over the fact that cigarette butts start wildfires alongside rural roads.

Berman points to a state fire marshal’s report that says smoking caused nearly 1,200 outdoor fires in 2005, costing $42,000 in damages. There’s no estimate in the report of how many fires—just 2 percent of total wildfires for the year—were caused by littering drivers and not, say, campers or hikers taking their fresh air with a dash of nicotine.

Critics of the bill say there are too few rural cops and too much road to enforce it. “I really doubt there are going to be a lot of people convicted of this when they’re driving out in the country,” says Tracey Hayes of the ACLU of Texas. Since it would be impractical to enforce the law on the open road, a more likely scenario, Hayes says, is that drivers might face six months in prison for violating an anti-brushfire law in downtown Houston, where there isn’t any brush, just more police. “It’s just a way to pull people over when it’s not a relevant charge,” she says.

In a House State Affairs Committee hearing, Chairman David Swinford, a Dumas Republican, suggested the bill’s stiff penalties might make it tough to convict anybody. Berman agreed to a compromise: only a $2,000 fine, and just six months in prison for throwing a cigarette butt from your car. Commending Berman, Swinford said he was pleased to be sending a tough message to litterbugs.

Sending a message is great, Hayes says, but that’s not a job for the criminal justice system. “We need legislation that works, not that sends a message,” she says, suggesting that ad campaigns are better for a public that spends more time reading billboards than criminal law.

A series of “Keep yer butts in the car” billboards went up in 1999 as an offshoot of the “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign. Hayes says such campaigns work and would be a better investment than locking up litterbugs. From 1995 to 2001, the number of cigarette butts tossed onto Texas roads fell 70 percent, according to a study commissioned by the Texas Department of Transportation.

Berman, though, isn’t content to hang his hopes on a slogan. “It’s not enough,” he says, with all the wildfires smoking still causes. “Why wouldn’t you want to create an additional penalty?”

Pro-Life Payola

Senate Bill 1567Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston)

Perhaps overly enamored with the legislative process, freshman Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick takes the procedural call to “move adoption” too seriously. Or maybe he thinks so little of women that he believes a flash of cash will influence one of the most important decisions they make. Either way, his proposal to give $500 to women who offer babies for adoption instead of aborting them has united a broad spectrum of critics.

Opponents say the legislation trivializes the decision women with unintended pregnancies have to make. “It’s a decision that our clients take very seriously,” and the bill doesn’t respect that, says Sarah Wheat, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region.

Adoption researchers don’t like the idea either.

“Placing a child for adoption is one of the most excruciating decisions a woman can make,” says Adam Pertman, executive director of the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “If there’s money involved, especially if the women are poor and struggling, it introduces a potentially coercive factor, and they can make a life-changing decision for the wrong reasons.”

Because the payment is small, the bill would most likely affect low-income women the most. “It’s providing an economic incentive for the poorest of women to give up their babies,” says Laurie Felker Jones, deputy political director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

Court Koenning, Patrick’s chief of staff, says the amount is based on the cost of an early abortion. “The intent is to make someone think twice about it,” he says. “Do we think that it would be worth it to go through labor for $500? No.”

Koenning says the hope is that, “one, the woman will understand how much the state appreciates life, and two, she will see that the state respects children and think it’s worth it to go through the process to find someone to care for her child.”

The message seems the opposite: The state is not willing to support the child or the mother in any meaningful way. Though under this bill a woman could collect $50 a month for carrying her baby to term, medical costs for giving birth usually run about $8,500, and Medicaid pays for more than half of the births in Texas, Felker says.

The best way to reduce the number of abortions is to prevent unintended pregnancies, Felker says. A better way to help women who don’t feel they can support a child is giving them subsidies so they can raise the children themselves, Pertman says. Adoption and abortion providers agree that women with unintended pregnancies should be well-informed about all their options so they can make the right choices.

To Patrick’s credit, he has also filed a more effective adoption bill, SB 1098, which would help parents buy health insurance for children adopted out of foster care. The more support you can give parents who are taking care of these kids, the better chance the kids will succeed, Pertman says.

Vultures rarely attack the healthy. The wounded and sick are so much easier to kill. We’re down with that. More than 8,000 bills have been filed this legislative session and, we’re dive-bombing as many of the weaklings as we can. E-mail your nominations for Bad Bills to [email protected]