Penal Code Tinkering by Texas Lawmakers May Forebode Prison Overcrowding


The Houston Chronicle cites a scandalous affair between a teacher and student as a case study in what happens when lawmakers get political mitts on the penal code.

State Rep. Helen Giddings researched the Texas penal code and noticed what she thought was a loophole. The law forbidding sexual contact between an adult and a child stopped after age 16. To the Dallas Democrat, it did not seem right to let 17-year-olds go unprotected in school. So she sponsored a bill during the last legislative session to change the law, making sexual conduct by a teacher with anyone 17 its own offense.

As often happens in the Legislature, no simple idea can go unmolested, the Chronicle says. Other legislators amended Giddings’ proposal to make sexual contact with a high school or grade school student of any age punishable by up to 20 years in prison, doubling the sentence for indecency with a child.

The resulting new law is typical of a ceaseless stream of bills in recent years that have increased sentences for particular crimes and which are slowly strangling the Texas penal code, once ranked as the best in the nation, experts say.

Experts worry that the incessant tinkering by well-meaning lawmakers could eventually deform the code so badly that Texas could be plunged once again into a prison-overcrowding crisis. And the changes make interpretation of the code increasingly difficult, in some cases causing prosecutors to shy away from using certain sections of it.


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