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March 22, 2000
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Photo: Members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee listening to testimony
Members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee listening to testimony during the March 22 public hearing.

Senate Committee on Criminal Justice Draws Large Public Audience at State Capitol in Austin

AUSTIN - The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice met March 22, 2000 at the State Capitol, in Austin. The committee comprises Senators Ken Armbrister of Victoria, chair, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, vice-chair, Mike Jackson of La Porte, Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, Florence Shapiro of Plano, Royce West of Dallas, and John Whitmire of Houston.

Today the committee addressed charges four, five and eight, as issued by Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. These charges are as follows: Charge four reviews the need for legal procedures and programs for children under the age of 10 who commit violent crimes so that they may receive necessary treatment and sanctions as part of the juvenile justice system (except for placement in the Texas Youth Commission) or a newly created separate system. The committee shall consider whether a system, similar to the adult certification process for certain juvenile offenders, should be established that would certify a person under 10 years of age into the juvenile justice system.

Charge five reviews the statutory purpose of all adult and juvenile correctional facilities, whether state, locally or privately owned or operated, and to recommend any needed changes in the statutory description or purpose. The review shall include facilities that are considered alternatives to incarceration or that are used for geriatric care. The committee shall consider whether state jails are adequately managed, if adequate sanctions are available for confinees who fail to participate in programming or who cause disciplinary problems, and how to ensure effective rehabilitation programs in facilities.

Charge eight reviews efforts by the commission on Jail Standards, the Juvenile Probation Commission, and the Youth Commission to monitor compliance with statues and regulations designed to ensure the safety of security personnel and offenders. The committee shall determine if current compliance measures and monitoring are adequate. Also, a review of employment standards and adequate background checks shall be conducted to ensure safe operations of facilities and programs. The committee also may consider methods used to employ and retain effective security personnel in adult and juvenile facilities operated by the Department of Criminal Justice and the Youth Commission.

Lieutenant Bill Walsh of the Dallas Police Department; Sara Webster, Director, Child Protective Services (CPS); and Deanne Johnson, Executive Director for the Texas Criminal Lawyers' Association all gave related testimony regarding charge number four.

Walsh stated that the current law regarding child criminals, which allows anyone under the age of ten not to be prosecuted in a criminal court, should be revised. He gave a personal example why he feels the law should be changed. Last year in Dallas three children ages seven, eight and eleven were involved in the same assault case. Only the eleven-year-old was charged with the assault although the seven-year-old was said to be the most violent of the three. The seven-year-old and eight-year-old were taken away from their homes and custody was given to Child Protective Services, due to living conditions within their homes. Walsh believes that children under the age of ten should be held responsible for criminal action, rather than experiencing a future of numerous adoptive homes, and not receiving any form of criminal rehabilitation.

Webster, with CPS, told the committee that if the current law were changed her agency would not be able to handle all the new cases. Currently there are 3,000 caseworkers in the entire state of Texas working for CPS.

Tom Baker, of the Texas State Jail System; Steve Robins, Director, Texas Youth Commission (TYC); and others gave related testimony regarding the fifth charge. Baker told the committee about his organizations efforts to properly manage the various incarceration centers located within Texas. Robins discussed the statutory requirements and the mission of the TYC. He also gave an overview of the TYC's criminal rehabilitation and prevention programs.

Mike Miracle, Kim McDonnell, and Julie Torres from the State Auditor's Office and others addressed the eighth charge. They told the committee about the current and future financial status of operating correction centers in Texas.

After invited testimony was heard on charge eight, the floor was open to public testimony regarding this charge. Texas prison guards and administrators came forth and urged the committee to review the current state of prison guard and correctional officer employment. Public testimony regarding charge eight was bleak.

Texas is hiring 400 guards a month while 450 are leaving. Numerous criminal agencies are understaffed, have inadequate training, and suffer from low morale. And, Texas has the second largest jailing system in America; yet it's guards are ranked 46th in the nation for their salaries.

Paul Antoine, a Sargent at a Texas prison, echoed what many other public testimonials expressed regarding the eighth charge. Antoine told the committee that being a prison guard is one of the most dangerous jobs an individual can not only have in Texas, but America. On a daily basis guards are exposed to life threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS and various forms of Hepatitis, they have to constantly be alert for violent actions from prisoners, and there are threats of being taken hostage during prison riots, raped, and/or killed. Antoine told the committee that many guards leave their jobs due to stress, long hours, and even longer over-time hours--which take a huge toll on families. But, the main reason prison guards find other work is because of being underpaid.

Antoine would like the prison guard pay scale revamped as soon possible. On behalf of all the prison guards in Texas, Antoine told the committee that he would like to see a pay scale equal to that of the national average. He also asked committee members to offer a cost of living pay raise and higher wages for more experienced guards. Currently a 15 year veteran prison guard, on the average, makes the same salary as a guard that only has two years experience--roughly $24,000 a year. Antoine believes that a career ladder salary system is in order. Chair Armbrister told him that currently there are Texas Senate and House members investigating such a pay scale. Antoine concluded his public testimony by urging the committee to "just be aware of what is going on within the Texas prison system, and that something needs to be done."

After public testimony concluded for charge eight, the committee recessed subject to call of the chair. The committee will submit copies of its findings from this meeting, and others like it, in a final report no later than September 1, 2000. This date has been chosen so that the work of the committee can be considered when the Legislative Budget Board is developing performance and budget recommendations to the 77th Legislature. Copies of the final report will be sent to the Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of the Senate, Legislative Council and Legislative Reference Library. The final report of the committee should be approved by a majority of the voting members of the committee and include any recommended statutory changes.

Session video and all other Senate webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's Audio/Video Archive.