Friday, November 12, 2010

Veasey Refiles Hate Crime Study Bill

HB 172 by Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Tarrant County) would require the state to conduct a study on how the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act is being used.

The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act allows for increased sentences for crimes committed because of the victims real or perceived "race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, or sexual preference".

Over 1,800 potential hate crimes have been reported to the Department of Public Safety since the Texas hate crimes statute went into effect in 2001. Only 12 have been prosecuted as hate crimes according to Equality Texas.

There are different ideas about why the Hate Crimes law is not being used. One excuse often given by District Attorneys for not attaching the Hate Crimes enhancement is that crimes like assault already carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. Attaching the Hate Crimes charge would not increase the maximum possible sentence and would create more work for the DA, since they would have to prove the motivation for the crime.

Another theory about why the Hate Crimes enhancement is not being used is that prosecutors are not properly educated about how it works and are reticent to prosecute what they do not understand.

The hope is that a study of the effectiveness of the law would help lawmakers better understand its faults and that legislation could then be passed that would amend the law to make it more usable.

Veasey filed this same bill last session (HB 616). That bill made it through subcommittee and committee hearings but ran out of time and never received a vote of the full house. HB 172 was filed on Monday, the first day to file bills. I'm very happy to see Veasey file this so early, it shows that he is serious about it. The lower bill number will mean that the bill is referred to committee earlier in the session and will have more time to work through the legislative process.

The next step for Veasey is going to be convincing a State Senator to file a companion bill. Bills must be passed by both the House and Senate before going to the governor to sign. Bills originating in the house bills are "read" on the house floor and then referred to a committee. The committee then holds public hearings on the bill. If the committee likes the bill and votes "yea" on it it's then referred to the "Calendars" committee which places it on the schedule for the whole house to consider. When its scheduled spot on the calendar comes up the bill is then "read" a second time and the whole house has an opportunity to debate it and then vote on whether it should become law. The bill is then "read" a third time (usually the day after the 2nd reading) and must be voted on again.

After passing on third reading the bill then goes to the Senate and starts the process again (1st reading, referred to committee, public hearing, voted out of committee, calendars, second reading, third reading). Then, if the Senate amended the bill so that it is different from the House version 5 members of the House and 5 members of the Senate get appointed to meet in a "conference committee" which hashes out a compromise between the two versions. The conference committee's version of the bill must then go back to both the House and the Senate and be approved by majority vote. Only then can the bill go to the Governor to be signed into law.

(The process for Senate bills works in the same way, only starting with the Senate and going to the House.)

But wait! There is a short cut! If a Senator introduces the same bill in the Senate as a House member introduces in the House then they can both work their way through the system at the same time. Then, if the House bill passes on third reading before the Senate bill does the House bill can simply take the place of the Senate bill at whatever stage of the process it's in.

(So if, when the House bill passes on third reading, the Senate version has already been put on the schedule by calendars the House version can skip first reading and committee hearings in the Senate and just take the place of the Senate version on the schedule).

Most bills that eventually become law are introduced in both a House and Senate version. If Veasey is serious about the study taking place he needs to start talking to State Senators about carrying a Senate version.

To read a detailed, day by day account of one bills journey through the legislative process read Anti-Bullying Legislation in Texas

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