Governor Greg Abbott', three weeks after effectively telling drug overdosers to drop dead by klling a bill to protect Good Samaritan 911 callers from prosecution for small-time drug possession, took another intexplicably regressive potshot at the Legislature's attempts to make Texas' criminal justice system just a bit more humane. Among the measures killed by the 42 vetoes he finished signing at around 2 a.m. Saturday was Dallas state Representative Eric Johnson's HB 1363, which would have reduced penalties for certain prostitution offenses.
Though clearly motivated by the notion that Texas' current prostitution laws are unduly punitive, Johnson's bill represented a modest reform. Offenders who successfully completed a prostitution prevention program — a program already established in Texas law — could have had their criminal charges dropped, so long as the prosecutor and judge were amenable. Current law allows only that offenders who complete the diversion program can have a nondisclosure order placed in their record; their conviction stands, but no one outside of law enforcement will know about it.
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Johnson's bill would also have made it incrementally harder to send convicted prostitutes to jail for extended periods. Now, prostitution becomes a state jail felony (minimum six months in lock-up) upon the third conviction. Johnson's measure would have raised the threshold to the sixth conviction. Offenses one through five would be misdemeanors.
The bill faced minimal opposition in the Legislature. It passed the House with zero nays. In the Senate, there were only four. It seems that all but a very small handful of hardcore social conservatives recognize that attempting to rehabilitate prostitutes, even repeat offenders, is both more effective and less expensive than throwing them in jail. Add Abbott to that tiny handful. While acknowledging that Johnson's bill "provides useful tools for courts" by tweaking the wording of prostitution offenses, Abbott concludes that "reducing penalties for willful repeat offenders is not in the best interest of the offender or the people of Texas."
It's a puzzling move. It's hard to find a policymaker in Texas, Democrat or Republican, who isn't in favor of cautiously reducing penalties for nonviolent offenders, and Johnson's bill is nothing if not cautious. That leaves only a few possible explanations for Abbott's veto: He's a true believer in an outmoded punitive, tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice; he's not a true believer but is in thrall to people who are; or he bears a deep-seated animosity toward prostitutes, as he does with drug users.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.