Friday, June 10, 2005

Why "Tough on Crime" Didn't Work This Time Around

This is a good article from the Austin American-Statesman about the lack of new felonies and enhanced penalties that passed in this legislative session. Lawmakers actually realized that when you add a two dozen new felonies every two years, your prison budget might go up for years to come. Imagine that. They also were not so quick to swallow the arguments of law enforcement groups about the necessity for creating new felonies. The classic example of this was the battle to change burglary of a vehicle from a class A misdemeanor into a state jail felony. Police groups insisted in their testimony that this is a growing crime problem and that they needed it to be a felony. Lawmakers shot back, however, that while the current maximum penalty for the offense was one year in county jail, the average sentence being given to those convicted was seven days in jail. They quite reasonably questioned why they should enhance the penalty for something that law enforcement is not assessing anywhere near the maximum punishment for anyway. There is also the pesky little problem that many police forces don't even investigate vehicle burglary cases, and that the only people prosecuted are people who are essentially caught red-handed. As someone who has had her car broken into three times in the last six years, I can attest to this fact. The police have never once done anything to investigate other than take a report over the phone. Although the newspaper article doesn't mention it, it seemed to me that the real reason local law enforcement wanted to make the offense a felony even though defendants weren't getting close to the maximum sentence available now was money. If something is a misdemeanor, the county must pay to incarcerate the person for their entire sentence because the sentence is county jail time. But if something is a felony, the state will have to pay for any incarceration time, because felons serve time in the state prison system. And since legislators pay for the state prison system, they didn't really feel like doing that for more and more crimes this session. How refreshing.

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