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Will Texas Do Better?

Criminal justice: Cheaper but smarter?

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Dec. 7, 2012

Will Texas Do Better?
Illustration by Jason Stout

Who will be tapped to head the House Criminal Juris­prudence Committee? The well-respected former chair of that committee, Alpine Democrat Pete Gallego, is off to Congress. With a host of new House freshmen, there is real concern that institutional knowledge and the ability to effectively navigate this very political universe will be lost, leaving the committee vulnerable to undue influence. One rumor has it that Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, who served on the committee in four previous sessions, might be appointed chair. Despite her committee history, Riddle is also one of the Dome's most notorious loose cannons, and if knowledge of how the law actually works matters to Speaker Joe Straus (presuming he is re-elected by the members), Riddle's a nonstarter. Even with a new speaker, Riddle would be a long shot – but that some observers are wringing their hands over the possibility suggests the vacuum left by Gallego.

Beyond that initial administrative issue, there are several key policy matters that will certainly be on the table this year, including further efforts to "de-incarcerate" the state by moving low-risk individuals out of expensive – and, what with the critical shortage of prison guards, increasingly dangerous – prisons, and into supervised but cheaper programs like parole and probation. Consider this session another opportunity to get smarter on crime and punishment.

At least four bills have been prefiled 
that would renew the push to ban texting while driving.
At least four bills have been prefiled that would renew the push to ban texting while driving.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

That said, there are plenty of bills out there vying to criminalize behaviors (including a renewed push to outlaw texting while driving – passed but vetoed by the governor last session – embodied in HBs 27, 63, 69, and 108, for example), or to ratchet up penalties for behavior already considered criminal (consider Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer's bid to require any sex offenders who retain online privileges to declare their status on social media sites).

And there are also the perennial favorites – including Houston Dem Rep. Harold Dutton's seemingly quixotic quest to outlaw the death penalty (HB 164). Someday Dutton (or one of his successors) will succeed in ending capital punishment in Texas – but the time is unlikely to be now.

Dutton does have a more likely proposal: HB 189 would ban uncorroborated testimony of a jailhouse snitch in capital cases. It would require snitch testimony to be corroborated by an electronic recording of the defendant's jailhouse confession or admission. It would also prohibit testimony of a snitch or alleged accomplice if that testimony is offered in exchange for some grant of leniency by the state. Prosecutors will undoubtedly balk at a potential obstacle to convictions, but evidence of corruption involving snitches is rampant. Loyola Law School Professor Alexandra Natapoff's Snitching Blog (www.snitching.org) offers a plethora of horrifying examples of what happens when snitching is incentivized. For homegrown examples, consider the cases of Anthony Graves, finally exonerated in 2010 for a multiple murder he didn't commit, or Cameron Todd Willing­ham, also informed upon by a snitch and ultimately executed before the arson science used to convict him was shown to be fatally flawed.

Capitol watchers anticipate legislation addressing discipline for prosecutors who engage in misconduct, such as the deliberate withholding of exculpatory material. Lawmakers could harden the criminal statute regarding official oppression (which most directly targets criminally oppressive behavior by cops) to cover prosecutor misconduct, or could invest the State Commission on Judicial Conduct with the power to investigate and discipline alleged incidences of misconduct. With the exoneration of Michael Morton still fresh, and with Ken Anderson, the former Williamson County D.A.-turned-district judge facing a February court-of-inquiry to determine whether he withheld evidence in the Morton case that could have prevented the conviction, the issue will certainly be on lawmakers' minds.

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