By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Stiffer criminal penalties start Tuesday for those who defraud senior citizens, carry out drive-by shootings that inflict injury or loot an area evacuated because of natural disaster.
Criminals also will face more stringent punishment under new state laws aimed at cracking down on street gangs, tampering with government records, and stealing air conditioning parts and other materials made of copper.
Graffiti writers will find less tolerance for their late-night work, with a new requirement that they fully reimburse the property owner and perform mandatory community service based on the amount of damage they cause.
In all, more than a dozen laws boosting the penalties for certain crimes will go on the books Tuesday.
Legislators raised the stakes even as they have tried to control the size and cost of Texas' prison system. Some critics question whether more mandatory jail time for various offenses makes sense.
But influential groups such as the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature urged that decisive action be taken against certain criminals, a plea that most lawmakers found hard to resist. For the Silver-Haired Legislature, made up of senior citizens who recommend changes in the law, one of the biggest problems in Texas is the growing number of fraud crimes against the elderly.
"It is a fairly widespread problem, which is being made worse by the increasing number of seniors and the tight economy," said Carlos Higgins, a representative of the group who lobbied for the new law.
"As folks get older, too often they are less able to recognize and defend against the sharks out there, and we know the sharks are targeting seniors all over the state. Unfortunately, we also too often see seniors abused by their own family members."
The law, sponsored by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, and state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, will allow prosecutors to increase the category of the offense – and penalty – for forgery, credit and debit card abuse, or fraudulent use of identifying information, if the victim is an elderly individual.
One of those crimes could be increased from a state jail felony to a third-degree felony if committed against a person 65 or older. That would increase the maximum jail sentence from two years to 10 years under the criminal code.
"The elderly who rely on the care of others are some of our most vulnerable citizens," Carona said of the new law, which easily passed the House and Senate. "Increasing the penalties for these crimes will help protect our elderly citizens."
Some areas where lawmakers enhanced criminal penalties:
Defrauding senior citizens: The punishment increases for forgery, credit card abuse and fraudulent use of identification in which the victim is elderly; the crime raised to next highest offense category.
Drive-by shootings: The offense and punishment increases to a first-degree felony in cases in which the shooting seriously injures a person.
Looting in disaster areas: Penalties are toughened for theft, burglary and assault committed during an evacuation order or a state of disaster; the crime increased to next highest offense level
Gang membership: Coercing, inducing or soliciting membership in a criminal street gang through threats of bodily injury to a child or his family members becomes a third-degree felony.
Copper theft: Expanding on a law passed two years ago, lawmakers made it a state jail felony to steal copper and aluminum products such as air conditioning parts.
Graffiti: Writers of graffiti who are convicted will face new penalties that require extensive community service and compensation to property owners for damage caused by graffiti.