BAD MILLS Throw Their Butts in Jail ONE SIZE INCARCERATES ALL Senate Bill 435 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 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 facilitieshighsecurity rehab centersafter 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 32 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 fineyou 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 lattesippers, 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 firesjust 2 percent of total wildfires for the yearwere 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. continued on page 20 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 6, 2007
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