Bills to Help Violent Criminals Spark Emotional Opposition in the Legislature

Very emotional testimony greeted three bills in the Texas Legislature designed to make life easier for people on probation in Texas, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Roughly 100,000 people are released from state prison and from county jails on some form of probation each year, and supporters of the bills say current laws prevent those people from getting the education and support they need to put crime behind them and move toward a productive, tax paying life.

One bill would forbid judges from making one condition of probation being that the individual is not allowed to associated with anybody else who is on probation or has a criminal record.

"This restriction sends a message to people under supervision that they are inherently not worthy or trust," said State Rep Alma Allen (D-Houston), the sponsor of the bill.

Supporters like Lauren Ortell says this law creates a sense of isolation among probationers, which frequently leads to additional crimes, by denying the individual the needed support system.

"Peer support is vital for helping people get through the difficult conditions that they face, as well as the restrictions of the supervision," she testified before the House Corrections Commitee.

Many supporters said the restrictions can prevent a probationer from talking to his or her father, for example, if that person has a criminal record.  It prevents a probationer from getting advice from other people in his or her same situation on how to successfully survive probation, where to get resources, and how to emerge on the other side.

By far the most controversial bill designed to give a helping hand to convicts is H B 2120.  It would allow people who are in prison for the most serious violent crimes, including rape and murder, but not including capital murder, to accrue  'good time credits' toward an early release from prison.

Supporters say it would allow especially young offenders the hope they need that they will be free someday to take classes and vocational training to turn their lives around. 'Good time' is also a good prison management tool.

But that proposal resulted in a firestorm of opposition from several witnesses like victims rights advocate Andy Kahan.

"Inmates who have murdered, raped, robbed, sexually assaulted out children should not be rewarded by merely behaving good in prison," Kahan said.

Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood agreed, saying the proposal would result in a flood of violent inmates being released back onto Texas streets.

The most emotional testimony against the bill came from the parents of murder victims.

Cindy Netchey, whose daughter was murdered, says the DA and the lawyer for the killer agreed on a plea bargain agreement in good faith, and this bill would blow up that deal.

"When we made this plea deal with our offender, a lot when into that consideration," she said.  "We didn't pull twenty years out of the air."

When told she could go to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and fight the offenders release, Netchey said 'I never want to see him again, let alone have to spend my money and waste my time going to hearings.'

Debra Wilkinson was even more adamant.  Her son was murdered, and she said the state has no business even considering releasing his killer early.

"These are the most violent offenders that we have," she said.  "To let them out on the streets or even give them a chance to be out on the streets makes no sense.  Do want him to go and live in your neighborhood when he gets out?"

Supporters say just like the 'Ban the Box' initiative to help paroled or probated convicts get jobs, this proposal goes a long way toward ending the 'cycle of crime.

'"It removed the excuses from the incarcerated that they are a 'victim of circumstance,' and instead focuses on good conduct for their consideration for release on parole."

The third proposal would allow probationers to do their required reporting in the evenings and the weekends, to make it easier for them to hold a steady job.

All three were left pending in the committee.

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