Remember the Sherlock Holmes story in which the great detective solves a mysterious death case because a dog did not bark at a thief in the night? The lesson is that what doesn’t happen can be just as important as what does happen—in crime or in the Legislature. (Please, no what’s-the-difference jokes.) Allen Hightower’s role as the longtime chairman of the House Corrections Committee has been to keep bad things from happening. Session after session, he makes it his business to ensure that tough-on-crime demagoguery doesn’t get in the way of a sensible and affordable criminal justice policy.
Hightower is no bleeding-heart liberal; a former game warden, he came to the Legislature in 1983 as a commonsense conservative Democrat and has stayed long enough to see the number of his like-minded buddies dwindle to a few. He is all for law and order; he just wants to remind people that it doesn’t come cheap. For nonviolent offenders, he prefers intensive supervision after release to continued incarceration. This year he opposed a bill endorsed by Governor Bush and victims-rights groups that retroactively prevented prisoners who had earned time off their sentences for good behavior from being released to serve the rest of their sentence on parole. The bill sped out of the Senate on the fast track, only to be shunted by Hightower onto a dead-end siding because it was (1) too expensive, bearing a price tag that could reach half a billion dollars over five years, and (2) unconstitutional (the U.S. Supreme Court had voided a similar law in Florida).
The best thing about Hightower is that he is a teacher. “He is an awesome chairman,” says his vice chairman, Ray Allen of Grand Prairie, a self-described law-and-order Republican. “Every new member of his committee wants to lock people up and throw away the key, but after a couple of sessions of listening to him, they start to realize that you can’t have a free society if too few people are in prison, and you can’t have a free society if too many people are in prison.Ó Unfortunately, Hightower will almost certainly retire after this session, and we will be left to hope that the message outlasts the messenger.