Getting in the Ring: The Texas Crime Bill Work Group Works Exclusively to Analyze Pending Legislation

Article excerpt

During the last 10 years, the federal government has taken an increasingly active role in fighting crime and aiding states with the cost of incarcerating offenders, areas that traditionally have been the exclusive domain of state and local governments. In 1994, Congress instituted sweeping criminal justice reform with the passage of the Crime Control and Local Law Enforcement Act of 1994, popularly known as the 1994 Crime Act. By passing this act, Congress asserted its willingness to become a greater resource to the states in their crime control efforts.

The key resource that Congress made available to the states was money in the form of block grants, formula grants and, in one innovative move, reimbursement for the costs of incarcerating criminal, undocumented aliens. In order to fully tap into these potential new criminal justice resources, the state of Texas created the Crime Bill Work Group as a vehicle to analyze legislation and inform the state legislature and members of the Texas Congressional Delegation of the effects of criminal justice legislation on Texas.

In its three years of activity, the Work Group has reviewed and analyzed legislative proposals and has brought potential problems to the attention of Texas' congressional delegation. Recent efforts of the Work Group have been directed at providing extensive analysis of pending juvenile justice legislation. The group's comments on the proposed regulations for the recently passed Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant (JAIBG) resulted in changes that eased administrative requirements.

Background

The passage of the 1994 Crime Act, the most comprehensive revision of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (OCCSA) did not end the states' interest in federal crime control efforts. On the contrary, from the perspective of correctional agencies, the 1994 Crime Act presented an exciting first: the possibility of money for construction or renovation of correctional facilities for violent offenders. New programs, such as the Violent Offender Incarceration (VOI), Truth-in-Sentencing (TIS) and State Criminal Alien Assistance (SCAAP) programs and Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT), had the potential to bring new federal money to Texas at a time when the incarcerated population was rising sharply.

In addition, nearly 60 other new crime control or prevention programs of interest to Work Group participants were created, making it even more beneficial to work together to urge full appropriation and provide input as the regulations for allocation of the funds were written. Other federal programs, such as discretionary grants for improving the automation of state correctional systems, also were authorized to address some of the critical needs of growing state prison systems.

Birth of the Work Group

However, as in state legislatures, passage of a federal program alone is not sufficient to make funds flow; public funds must be appropriated to carry out the legislative directive. The programs created under the Crime Act were potentially beneficial to states; but would be of no use unless they were funded at or near their full authorized amounts. Because the Crime Act was passed near the end of the legislative year, many, if not most, of the new programs had not received an appropriation. More communication with the Texas congressional delegation would be necessary to inform the members which anti-crime programs could be most beneficial to Texas.

Therefore, early in 1995, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who presides over the Texas Senate, and speaker of the Texas House, James E. "Pete" Laney, wrote to the heads of Texas' state criminal and juvenile justice agencies requesting that they participate in a new bi-partisan interagency work group to evaluate criminal justice legislation and its impact on Texas state laws and budgets. All agencies and organizations with interest in criminal and juvenile justice issues were encouraged to participate. …