Capital Highlights 10-01-15

By Ed Sterling, Texas Press Association

Lawmakers get input on jails, suicide prevention

AUSTIN — The July 13, 2015, death of Sandra Bland, a woman arrested and jailed after a traffic stop in Waller County, has prompted meetings of Texas House and Senate committees. Bland, whose body was discovered in her jail cell three days after she was put in custody, was ruled a suicide.

Charged by the lieutenant governor to conduct an interim study, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee met for more than four hours on Sept. 22. The panel listened to invited testimony and discussed jail safety and inmate suicide prevention in county jails.

Under direction of Committee Chair Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the panel received input on how inmates are assessed and processed at intake, how inmate populations are grouped and managed based on risk category and mental health condition, and how jailers are trained.

Texas Department of State Health Services Assistant Commissioner for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Lauren Lacefield-Lewis was one of many people to testify.

Lacefield-Lewis said, of the entire county jail inmate population, you would expect some 30 percent to have a mental health illness, or about 20,000 inmates on any given day.

Each of Texas’ 254 counties is within the catchment of a local mental health authority, Lacefield-Lewis said, and those authorities provide inpatient and outpatient services and crisis intervention under contract or simply at the request of county jail authorities. 

She said the state health department is working to increase access to mental health crisis services across Texas.

A week earlier, on Sept. 15, the House County Affairs Committee met under the direction of Chairman Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. The panel received expert input on jail standards and procedures concerning the treatment of mentally ill inmates and on suicide prevention.

Paxton files amicus brief

Texas Attorney General Paxton on Sept. 25 filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Texas Supreme Court in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District, a case over the constitutional rights of public school children “to express their own messages at school and school-related events.”

In a news release, Paxton said the case stems from a 2012 complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation against Kountze High School for allowing cheerleaders to print Bible verses on run-through banners at football games.

When Kountze Independent School District banned students from using the signs, parents of the cheerleaders filed a lawsuit against the school district. The school district changed its policy to allow the banners, but in doing so claimed the banners actually convey the school’s speech, not the cheerleaders’ personal expressions of faith. 

The school district then asked an appeals court to dismiss the case. The Ninth Court of Appeals, in Beaumont, dismissed the case, effectively allowing the school district to control the speech on banners as “school speech” and to disassociate the cheerleaders from their personal expressions of faith.

The ruling is now before the Texas Supreme Court.

Whitmire seeks AG opinion

Sen. John Whitmire, dean of the Texas Senate and chair of the body’s Criminal Justice Committee, on Sept. 22 requested an attorney general opinion on matters regarding the state’s new open carry laws.

Whitmire is asking if the state Penal Code’s trespass provision applies to school district property, including parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and walkways; and if the Penal Code prohibits the carrying of firearms on the grounds of a school district “where educational activity is being conducted” to include parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and walkways.

The attorney general’s office has 45 days from the date of the request to render a decision or opinion.

Bond election information posted

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Sept. 22 drew attention to his agency’s Bond Election Roundup, an online resource.

“Our table is searchable and sortable, so you can easily parse through bond propositions from around the state to see the information that matters most to you,” Hegar said in a news release.

The database will be updated as new information becomes available, he said.

States to investigate VW

Texas is participating in a multi-state investigation of Volkswagen, the Texas Attorney General’s Office announced on Sept. 24.

Volkswagen came under fire earlier this month when news broke that its diesel vehicles, after being marketed as environmentally friendly, have tested many times higher in polluting emissions than promoted.  

On Sept. 15 Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said the program “offers state and local agencies vital resources to help prepare in protecting against radiological or nuclear terrorist attacks.”