Friday, February 11, 2005

Gov. Perry: "Better ways" than more prisons

In yesterday's Austin Statesman, Governor Perry lent his voice to the recent chorus of Texas Republicans calling for reforms to the probation system in lieu of prison building. Reported Mike Ward:
Gov. Rick Perry joined the debate, labeling new prisons as last on his list of justice priorities."

"There are better, more efficient ways to deal with this prison population than going and building more prisons," he said.
Democrat Sylvester Turner, who chairs the subcommittee on criminal justice on the Appropriations Committee, similarly offered promising predictions about how the Legislature would react to the overincarceration crisis:

"We're talking about changing our whole mind-set on criminal justice, redefining and fundamentally changing the way our whole system works," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who chairs the panel. "We simply don't have the money to continue building more and more new prisons that will just fill up and then make us build even more.

"We can't afford that system any more."

You know, as unlikely as it seems, if I didn't know any better, I'd think these folks were working together in a bipartisan way looking for pragmatic solutions to one of the state's biggest problems. According to the article, legislators in Tuesday's budget hearing explicitly spoke in terms of a tradeoff -- more treatment programs in lieu of more prison beds:

Instead of earmarking millions to pay for new prisons and leased prison beds to hold a growing population of new convicts, lawmakers discussed a tradeoff: Figure out what the new beds would cost, then allow prison officials to spend much of that money on expanded probation programs, rehabilitation and drug treatment services that would give the lawbreakers a much better chance of returning to the streets as law-abiding citizens -- and are much cheaper.

Ward called the proposed reforms a "clear and potentially significant shift in state policy," and opined that, "Not so many years ago, such public talk about spending big money on alternatives to prison, in a state that prides itself as being tough on crime, would have stood little chance of passing."

That certainly has been the conventional wisdom in the past, but it doesn't appear to represent the current consensus: "Committee members nodded in agreement as they discussed diverting future funds out of prisons and into those programs," reported Ward.

Regardless of which party is backing proposed probaton reforms, I find myself nodding along with them.


kaptinemo said...

Grits, you may expect to hear the words "Let's get smart on crime!" begin to fall from the lips of the involved parties any day now. The reason for that is the one you've illustrated: the State budgets, not only in Texas but around the Union, have reached the breaking point.

The 'champagne tastes' of the DrugWarriors, with included their frenzied building of prisons, has run smack into the reality of the 'beer budget', uh, budget. The long overdue day of 'paying the piper' has arrived.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

My friend, that phrase has already been used many times, and I fear I've even been guilty of it myself. I agree that budget constraints are the reason, but they're a valid reason. A budget is a moral document, a friend reminded me recently. Society must make choices based on its values using the available scarce resurces. Do you want to fund more schools, healthcare for uninsured kids, better roads, or more prisons? It's basically as simple as that.

That's why I don't attribute any nefarious motive to the decision to de-prioritize incarcerating low-level drug offenders. I'm happy for it. To me, it's one of the only good and certainly the best outcome of the recent ascension of tax-cut-and-spend, big-government conservatism that's currently in vogue here and in Washington -- it's brought these big-picture value decisions into sharp relief, demanding a bottom line answer.

BTW, the San Antonio Express News had the full Perry quote on probation:

"The knee-jerk reaction -- 'Let's go build more prisons' -- I don't think is the appropriate response. It's the last response," he said. "There are better, more efficient ways to deal with the prison population than to build more prisons."

"Knee jerk." Cool.

kaptinemo said...

Grits, I have nothing against the phrase itself; it's the intent of those who use it that is indicative of their true concerns.

From the mouths of seeming former 'Lock 'em up and throw away the key!" frothers, it means that they have begun to realize that what they've done was economic suicide; I don't expect any such to ever admit that they committed any moral transgressions in doing so. But they will attempt to give the impression that they have had an epiphany of sorts. But you could bet that there's still a cornute and cloven-hoofed gentleman sitting on their shoulder whispering "If we only had more money, we could lock more up!" The forces of prohibition haven't changed; the economic situation has.

Because, if they had truly been 'smart on crime' in the way a reformer means it, they would never have engaged in this punitive orgy of arrests and incarceration. The necessity would never have arisen. From us, it's a logical move; from them, it's a grudging admission.