Jean Valjean and Les Miserables: Enhancements and Consequences


            If you can remember anything about your high school English class (I barely can), you probably remember the story Les Miserables. Jean Valjean, the protagonist of this particular novel, struggles to lead a normal life after he gets out of prison for serving a 19 year sentence for stealing some bread to feed his family.  He faces similar struggles that many felons face, including finding housing. In the story, Jean is forced to sleep on the street because of a yellow passport that marks him as a felon. He ends up having to use an alias in order to maintain a normal life, and goes on a series of crazy adventures that all of us barely remember (I digress) .


While some of you reading may be confused why I’m mentioning the plot of a random book everyone read in high school, this one seemingly random example shows a much bigger issue that’s at hand. Most people in the legal community understand the severe consequences that a felony or misdemeanor conviction can bring, but younger lawyers like myself may not understand how these prior felony convictions can be applied into sentencing enhancements, which in turn lead to clients facing longer periods of incarceration, as well as community supervision. As the focus of my future writing for HCCLA will be focused on helping young lawyers like myself, I felt a quick analysis would be beneficial.

There are two types of enhancements currently in Texas. First, let’s take a quick look at general enhancement statutes. General enhancement statutes raise the possible penalty range when a particular class of prior conviction is proved. For example, a class A or B misdemeanor offense can be enhanced by prior misdemeanor convictions, or prior felonies. However, felony punishment can only be increased by proof of other felonies. However, make sure to keep an eye out for state jail felonies, as they are a different class of felony under Texas law.


The second type of enhancements are called “element of offense” enhancements, or “special” enhancements. Both general and special enhancements can increase punishment ranges, but general enhancements only affect the punishment stage of trial, whereas “special” enhancements affect the determining of guilt part of trial.


Enhancements can also be based on a since-revised statute, which in my humble opinion is starkly unjust. Take for example, a recent case involving a client of mine. He has had a history of trouble, but the issue of sentencing enhancements arose during his bond hearing. The prosecutor was attempting to deny him bond on the basis of being a prior felon, but he was convicted of a “felony” for theft in 1989, when the theft statute classified theft of anything over $750 as a felony. (Specifically Theft between $750 and $20,000).  When this statute was amended to what is now the current statute under Texas Penal Code Title 7, Chapter 31, this crime would be a Class A misdemeanor. Kind of troubling once you see it in application firsthand.


Going back to the example from Les Miserables, priors truly can affect a client’s life forever. When convicted of a criminal offense, this can affect everything from a client’s punishment for subsequent crimes, to his future employment, and even housing, similar to Jean. Convictions can severely limit, if not bar clients from receiving public housing, and can even extend. To combat this, expunction and non-disclosure are available, but only work in limited circumstances. Expunctions are the best option for eligible clients, as clients will be able to deny the incident occurred in most cases, but the client has to either be acquitted of the charge, have the case dismissed, or the case not be filed. As far as non-disclosure, it is available when a client has received Deferred Adjudication. It does not apply to certain offenses such as DWI or family violence, and it also does not protect clients from certain job searches, such as ones that require state licensing, or government jobs.  All in all, a criminal conviction can carry horrible consequences for a client.