Interim Update: October 2017 Recap

            You can forget trying to “trick or treat” us this Halloween; we just survived the scariest legislative sessions in recent memory so nothing can spook us anymore.

 

Notice of annual business meeting

            TDCAA will hold its annual business meeting on Wednesday, December 6, at 5:15 p.m. at the Omni Southpark Hotel in Austin, at which time various positions on the board of directors will be filled. For details, click here.

 

TDCAF Hurricane Harvey relief window closes TOMORROW

            The Texas District and County Attorneys Foundation has been accepting donations for the benefit of prosecutor office personnel who suffered losses due to recent storms related to Hurricane Harvey, but the deadline for submitting donations is the end of business tomorrow (October 31). This is your final chance to help your peers who have been impacted by these storms, so visit this webpage to make a gift at the deadline. Any little bit helps, and feel free to share this opportunity with others!

            The Foundation has also been accepting applications for relief from those prosecutor office personnel who suffered a loss due to Hurricane Harvey. Applications for relief funds are also due by tomorrow (October 31). Please let your staff members who may have been impacted by the storm know about this relief opportunity! The application and related instructions are available on this webpage.

            If you have any questions about this relief program, please call Rob Kepple at 512/474-2436 or email him.

 

House speaker to retire

            In a move that shocked many Capitol observers, Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) publicly announced his retirement at a press conference last week. Having tied the record as the longest-serving Speaker of the House in state history, Rep. Straus is declining to run for his House seat next year and will almost certainly not be on the ballot in any capacity—although he and his multi-million dollar campaign account will likely stay involved in others’ upcoming political campaigns.

            What this means for the issues that are important to you is unknown. The next speaker of the house won’t be selected until January 2019—and pundits won’t even be able to speculate about it with any degree of certainty until after the November 2018 election results are in—but prosecutors have enjoyed a good relationship with the leadership of both chambers of the Capitol for as long as we can remember, and we’re confident that will continue in the near future. However, maintaining goodwill is not the same as maintaining the status quo on specific issues. A new speaker means new players, new leadership priorities, and new committee chairmanships, among other changes. These “known unknowns” can frustrate those planning for the 2019 session, but we have been down this road before and we know that—at least for right now—there is nothing to do but sit tight and wait for things to shake out. We may have a little more to say about this topic at the Elected Prosecutor Conference in December, but other than that, don’t expect much actionable news on this front until this time next year.

 

House interim charges released

            Before announcing his retirement last week, the speaker released his full slate of interim committee charges. In addition to the various Hurricane Harvey-related charges and instructions to monitor state agencies subject to their oversight that were given to almost every committee, other highlights/lowlights include the following topics (with some especially interesting topics in bold):

 

House Appropriations Committee

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of state agencies’ use of border security funds
  • Review state funding formulas for adult and juvenile probation departments
  • Study ways to increase state crime lab efficiency, including the possibility of establishing a fee for certain services [Ed. note: We warned you this was not over!]
  • Monitor HHSC’s use of funds to expand Texas’ inpatient psychiatric infrastructure
  • Monitor DPS’s efforts to eliminate rape kit backlogs

House Corrections Committee

  • Examine ways to improve the state’s revocation, re-arrest, and re-incarceration rates for 17- to 25-year olds
  • Recommend strategies for addressing the needs of women in the criminal justice system
  • Examine the sentencing guidelines, effectiveness, and recidivism rates in the state jail system; recommend changes (Joint charge with Criminal Jurisprudence Committee) [Ed. note: “Sentencing guidelines”? You know this suggestion came from someone with little or no practical familiarity with Texas law if they used a federal term like that.]
  • Review parole assessments used to determine an inmate’s risk of recidivism and the use of GPS technology to monitor offenders

House County Affairs Committee

  • Study and consider models for ensuring defendants/inmates with mental illness receive appropriate services upon release

House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee

  • Assess medical and legal standards related to the imposition of the death penalty on defendants with serious mental illness or intellectual or developmental disabilities; review statutorily prescribed jury instructions for capital sentencing
  • Study current practices for enforcing criminal laws against marijuana possession; examine the use of alternative punishments
  • Examine instances of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of defense counsel; review systemic and structural issues affecting the resolution of criminal cases
  • Examine the legal framework surrounding sexual assault prosecutions, including statutory definitions, age-based offenses, and evidence collecting and processing
  • Monitor OCA’s work on pre-trial risk assessment tools for the judiciary and the use of risk assessment tools at various stages of the criminal justice process; monitor Harris County litigation on pre-trial bond practices; monitor the implementation of legislation regarding fines, fees, and costs in criminal courts

House General Investigating & Ethics Committee

  • Review conflict-of-interest laws governing public officers and employees; review personal financial statement requirements
  • Review criminal penalties relating to lobbying and recommend improvements to maintain the integrity of legislative and administrative processes
  • Examine the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act and identify opportunities to improve it

House Government Transparency & Operation Committee

  • Make recommendations on maintaining the current standards of open meeting accountability without limiting government-provided aid during natural disasters
  • Evaluate PIA provisions relating to government contracting and procurement in light of recent Texas Supreme Court rulings

House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee

  • Review and evaluate the impact of DPS border operations related to organized crime, including organized crime and human trafficking convictions, collaboration with local prosecutors, and other relevant statistics and research
  • Study and make recommendations related to the causes and mitigation of aggressive driving

House Human Services Committee

  • Analyze the prevalence of CPS-involved children and guardians who have mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders; identify methods to strengthen CPS processes and services (Joint charge with Public Health Committee)

House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee

  • Evaluate civil and criminal fees and opportunities to simplify those fee structures; identify fees that may be challenged under Salinas v. State (CCA, March 8, 2017) and recommend any necessary changes
  • Study the use of specialty courts and recommend improvements to ensure they are utilized successfully and appropriately
  • Monitor the implementation of the statewide electronic court records database (“re:SearchTX”)

House Juvenile Justice & Family Issues Committee

  • Study and make recommendations regarding the adult criminal responsibility of 17-year-olds; make recommendations regarding penalties and sanctions for juveniles

House Select Committee on Opioids and Substance Abuse (new committee; membership list available here)

  • Study and recommend solutions to prevent overdoses and related health impacts
  • Recommend strategies to increase effective services to pregnant women, homeless individuals, veterans, and people with co-occurring mental illness
  • Make recommendations to improve the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program
  • Identify how opioids have impacted the normal scope of work for law enforcement, first responders, and hospital emergency department personnel
  • Examine and recommend solutions to improve substance abuse treatment of Texans in the criminal justice, juvenile justice, and CPS systems
  • Examine the impact of overdose reporting defense laws known as “Good Samaritan” laws
  • Determine the effectiveness of substance abuse specialty courts and consider solutions to increase their number in Texas

The complete list of more than 200 interim House charges can be viewed here. The bulk of the charges assigned by the speaker will not be taken up until next year, but don’t be surprised if a few committees start to tackle these issues in the next six weeks. We will post notices of those hearings as they are made public.

 

Senate interim charges released

            Not to be outdone, the Lt. Governor also released his list of interim charges in the days after the House charges were made public. They include the following items of interest:

 

Senate Criminal Justice Committee

  • Identify successful re-entry programs and make recommendations to improve outcomes for jail/prison releasees
  • Perform a comprehensive analysis and study of the state jail system to determine whether current programs are effective; find more efficient ways to reduce recidivism and improve offenders’ outcomes
  • Study tele-medicine for inmates in jails and prisons
  • Determine ways to increase awareness of human trafficking among the public, local officials, schools, and businesses
  • Monitor recent legislation on grants for bulletproof vests, curriculums on civilian/peace officer interactions, and competency restoration

Senate Finance Committee

  • Review state funding formulas for adult and juvenile probation departments
  • Review revenue sources funding the state’s trauma care system and evaluate the impact to that system of proposed efforts to eliminate the Driver Responsibility Program
  • Monitor the impact of increased CPS funding

Senate Health & Human Services Committee

  • Analyze and make recommendations to improve the timeliness of DFPS visits to children reported to be a victim of abuse or neglect
  • Review and make recommendations to improve substance abuse prevention, intervention, and recovery, including ways to expand on recent efforts to curb the overprescribing of opioids
  • Monitor initiatives to increase capacity and reduce waitlists in the state’s mental health system
  • Monitor the transfer of case management of foster children to single source continuum contractors

Senate State Affairs Committee

  • Review laws related to looting crimes and examine whether current penalties are sufficient to deter looting during a disaster
  • Review local ordinances affecting gun sellers and related venues; recommend legislation to address regulatory barriers to keeping and bearing firearms
  • Ensure public pension system retiree benefits are preserved and protected
  • Examine the Attorney General’s jurisdiction regarding alleged violations of state laws regarding abortion and multi-jurisdictional human trafficking cases; make recommendations to ensure uniform enforcement across the state
  • Examine the structure of court fees and make recommendations to ensure filing fees and court costs are appropriate and justified; ensure proper oversight of fee collection

Senate Transportation Committee

  • Review toll road penalties and make recommendations to improve customer service and eliminate unjustified penalties
  • Examine anti-human smuggling efforts and make recommendations to improve them

Senate Veterans Affairs & Border Security Committee

  • Review programs in other states that allow U.S. Border Patrol agents to be certified as state peace officers and determine if Texas could create such a program
  • Study and make recommendations for the eradication of invasive plant species along the border that provide a natural shelter for various criminal activities

Senate Select Committee on Election Security (new)

  • Make recommendations to safeguard the integrity of elections, ensure the confidentiality and security of voting records, and ensure the will of the people is reflected through their ballots

The full list of interim Senate charges can be viewed here (part one) and here (part two). And for the exceedingly curious, the Senate’s earlier list of Hurricane Harvey-related interim charges can be viewed here. As with the House, we expect some of the Harvey-related topics to be taken up relatively soon, but most other issues may not be discussed until after the new year.

 

Key Personnel & Victim Assistance Coordinator training

            Registration is still open for TDCAA’s Key Personnel & Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar to be held in Houston on November 8–10 at the Westin Oaks Galleria Hotel. Among the offerings will be classes on the Comptroller’s witness fee claim program, new VAC training, a grant writing workshop, and a fascinating Dallas County case study. Please consider sending your staff to this excellent training opportunity; see https://www.tdcaa.com/training/2017-key-personnel-victim-assistance-coordinator-seminar for hotel and registration information. Online registration closes next week.

 

Quotes of the month

“This is the first time in decades that a speaker has been able to leave this office on his own terms. So, I feel good about that.”
            —House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), during his retirement announcement last week.

 

“Though disasters often spawn widespread reports of [major crime], in actuality, that rarely happens. Floods just don’t cause societies to fall apart or fall into savagery. People don’t go crazy just because there’s water in the streets.”
            —Andy Horowitz, Tulane University history professor specializing in natural disasters, on the faulty conventional wisdom about looting and related crimes during those events.

 

“If there is a way for me to resolve the case—if that’s to offer a court trial or a plea agreement or a dismissal—we are doing it.”
           —Nathan Beedle, chief prosecutor for the misdemeanor division of the Harris County DA’s Office, describing the extraordinary post-Harvey steps they are taking to triage cases while the criminal courthouse is shut down.

 

“Americans are just waking up to the fact that their smart devices are going to snitch on them, and that they are going to reveal intimate details about their lives they did not intend law enforcement to have.”
            —Andrew Ferguson, law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, in a Washington Post story on how authorities cracked a murder case using “sensorveillance.”

 

“To put it mildly, this is a huge, huge problem. It impacts investigations across the board—narcotics, human trafficking, counterterrorism, counterintelligence, gangs, organized crime, child exploitation.”
            —Christopher Wray, Director of the FBI, in a speech at which he noted that the agency has been unable to retrieve data from more than half the mobile devices it has seized this year due to encryption.

 

“I don’t know why the police are ever involved in something like this. It smacks of debtors’ prisons. You find yourself involved in a misunderstanding or even a legitimate dispute, and one side can have you hauled to jail. We need to look at that. That doesn’t sound fair.”
            —State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), when asked about some of the special theft of service laws that are used—or perhaps abused—by the rent-to-own industry that lobbied to put them in statute.

 

“There’s almost no way Republicans can lose to Democrats next year, in a state as red as Texas, even if Buffy the Clown was running for governor.”
            —Lee Reed, a Georgetown rancher, when asked about the prospects of Texas “turning blue” in the 2018 election cycle.

 

“You can’t fix stupid, but you can give it a court date.”
            —Stephen Burres, an Irving PD officer who dedicated his career to DWI interdiction after being victimized by a drunk driver himself.

 

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