Friday, February 18, 2005

Dead Messenger Talking

Texas may have shot the messenger regarding reform of its chock-full prison system, as Texas Observer editor Jake Bernstein asserts in the title of his interview with former Criminal Justice Policy Council director Tony Fabelo in the February 18 edition. But they've adopted his message: reform the probation system and quit incarcerating so many non-violent offenders.

The article is not online yet. (UPDATE: Up now, here.) It just came in yesterday's mail.

Tony Fabelo has been considered the premier expert on Texas' prison system as long as I've been engaged in the subject. He'd studied the topic literally since his doctoral thesis, then joined the Criminal Justice Policy Council immediately out of college. He worked closely and well with then-Governor George Bush, but Gov. Rick Perry unceremoniously fired him with a line item veto after he'd (correctly) predicted Texas' current prison overincarceration crisis. (See a good Austin Chronicle piece on the subject here.)
In retrospect, Perry probably did Fabelo a financial mitzvah: he's now a consultant to many different states and to Puerto Rico, he told me once.

Fabelo may not be studying Texas professionally anymore, but he still has a learned opinion, and he thinks Texas won't be any safer by incarcerating more people, especially non-violent drug offenders. New York, he noted, has reduced crime more significantly than Texas while their incarceration rates aren't nearly as steep. "If we build more prisons and build 8,000 more prison beds, and that would cost a lot of money nowadays, probably over $1 billion, are you going to get dramatic increases in crime? The answer is no. [We] won't."

Fabelo said Texas' overincarceration solution is obvious (BTW, the fix he describes is embodied in HB 575 by Haggerty, R-El Paso), but "It hasn't been applied because you will need funding to replace all those [probation] fees that you're not going to have when you cut probation terms." That's why the state must pony up more money to make it work, he said.
But the solution is very clear: First you need to cut probation terms. We're talking non-violent offenders. We're not talking about sex offenders. Most of the probationers are non-violent offenders. So you cut the terms, have very strong supervision for the first year. Strong supervision means not only the guy knocking on your door, but making sure you go to the counseling that you need and all that jazz. If you survive that first year, we're going to put you in another year with lower supervision and see if you survive the second year, and if you do, you're off the hook. You've done good. Studies have shown -- I'm doing some work in Virginia -- 79 percent of the violations that lead to revocation occur in the first eight months. So most of the stuff happens in the first year, and you can do another year just ot make sure that now they can follow the rules. If you do that, you'll cut probation substantially.
High caseloads and overly long probation terms have made Texas probation system inefficient, Fabelo said, describing a system apparently designed to maximize fees from probationers instead of provide them incentives not to re-offend.
So we have a system that -- if you're a probationer and you get in trouble, you don't get a lot of services, you don't get a lot of attention that can help you get out of trouble. In particular, attention with employment problems, substance abuse problems, and so forth. On the other hand, if you're doing well on probation, you stay on probation forever because you're paying fees and they generate money for they system. Half of the funding for the system comes from fees paid by probationers.
Fabelo said he thought private prisons could play a transitional role in Texas, but in the long run Texas needed to own the facilities, because privates cost "less now and more later." (That's the kind of talk that gets your agency line-item vetoed.)

There's a lot more, though no new info about why the agency was terminated. The mild-mannered Fabelo brushes off an opportunity to take a shot at Perry for firing him, accepting on face value the Governor's assertion that Fabelo had done such a great job, the prison system was fixed and there was no need for his services any longer.

Tony, you're a class act.

ALSO: Rev. Alan Bean has a piece in the same issue of the Observer on the Tom Coleman perjury trial, which he guest blogged for Grits in January.

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