AUSTIN, Texas — A very large political wind has shifted in the state of Texas. The Texas Association of Business (TAB), known as the most powerful business lobbying group in the Lone Star State, recently made criminal justice reform one of its main legislative priorities.
Bill Hammond, president of TAB, said his organization would be pushing lawmakers to expand programs that have successfully promoted rehabilitation and community-based correctional efforts. He also promoted changes to state drug-sentencing laws; calling for more low-level offenders to be given reduced penalties and placed in local treatment programs for crimes involving possession of small amounts of drugs.
The organization’s president also called on lawmakers to modify licensing laws that keep some ex-convicts from earning certification from various trade agencies. Hammond argued that this change would give inmates a better shot at finding legitimate work after their release from custody.
“We’re sending too many people to the slammer,” Hammond proclaimed. “The taxpayers and the business community are both being harmed.”
Hammond is no stranger to politics. He served four terms in the Texas House of Representatives during the 1980s and was named one of the top 10 legislators in the state by Texas Monthly and Dallas Morning News.
The business lobby’s stance on reforming the justice system is being viewed as a seismic shift in the Texas political scene, leading the Austin American-Statesman to predict a legislative session that could rival the 2007 political season. The legislature signed off on a $240 million initiative to support addiction treatment and rehabilitation programs, instead of building new prisons, during that historic session.
At the core of the argument is a set of budget math the business group provided along with its proposals. The legislative platform argues that, “while the daily cost of probation is $2.92 per person, only $1.40 of which comes from taxpayers’ dollars, it takes $50.79 per day for taxpayers to hold a single inmate in prison. That comes to a total of $18,000 per inmate, per year, with Texas currently housing over 150,000 prisoners.”
The lobby put forward several head-turning proposals when it came to providing specific changes that could save the state money. The group suggested that shoplifters and other petty criminals could serve their sentences out in community-based supervision programs, using a law that was passed two years ago but never funded.
TAB also proposed changing prostitution from a low-level felony to a misdemeanor. The business group argued this would lead several hundred women to enter rehab programs that have seen success in other states, instead of sitting in prison. The lobbying organization said these programs cost $4,300 per year for on prisoner, compared to $15,000 for a state-funded cell.
Hammond supported a recent recommendation by the state’s Legislature Budget Board, which called for the creation of a new sentencing commission. Judges, prosecutors and other officials sitting on the panel would review the state’s sentencing laws for the first time since 1993.
Another proposal would lift restrictions on ex-cons getting commercial driver’s licenses or other occupational certifications after a few years of good behavior post-incarceration.
The lobbying organization proposed that the state should make it easier to give parole to terminally ill and bedridden offenders, explaining that the 10 sickest convicts in the state cost taxpayers close to $2 million in 2011.
Hammond also called for a law that would release employers who hire ex-cons from liability, as many companies are afraid of being sued if an employee with a criminal record breaks the law while working for them.