Monday, March 20, 2006

Criminal justice gets preview of Texas Legislature's return

I know everyone is as excited as I am that the Lege is coming back to Austin in April, right? :-/ Those of us who follow criminal justice topics get a preview on Wednesday (March 22) when the House Corrections and House Juvenile Justice Committees each meet in morning and afternoon sessions.

Most interesting to me, they'll discuss
three "interim charges" Wednesday morning at a 9 a.m. House Corrections hearing: a once-a-decade "Sunset" review of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, strengthening Texas' probation system, and evaluating recommendations from Governor Perry's Criminal Justice Advisory Council. (UPDATE: Just Another Matt reports that the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition intends to offer testimony.)

All three charges on the Corrections committee agenda are things Grits for Breakfast has written about extensively, so I thought I'd link to some background reading for interested parties:

Interim Charge 1:
Study the organizational structure of the department to determine if the current system is effectively and efficiently addressing the needs of all components of the criminal justice system in conjunction with the Sunset review of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in 2007.
Clearly the answer here is "no," the needs aren't being addressed. For starters, as Chairman Madden himself pointed out last year in a letter to Governor Rick Perry (pdf), the Governor's vetoes included line item funding to pay for prison overflow capacity and drug treatment at a time when Texas prisons are full to the brim . That means, because of the vetoes, the state has too many inmates and too small a budget to pay for them. Texas presently is 2-3,000 prison guards short of full staffing. TDCJ is so broke it quit paying current guards for overtime. Hurricane Rita exacerbated the crisis - now extra rented beds mean Texas will likely exhaust its prison budget well before the biennium is through. The Legislature contributes to the problem when fiscal notes attached to bills consistently fail to accurately predict how much new penalty enhancements cost.

Inside Texas' prison walls, sentences are too long while treatment and education programs are unstaffed and underfunded. In the big picture, TDCJ spends about 90% of its budget on prisons and only 10% on probation and parole programs, even though perhaps 4-5 times as many Texans live under community supervision as are in prison. I'd like to see that number migrate to something more like 80-20 or 75-25 over the next few years, but the trend's heading in the other direction.

On the outside, probation and parole officers are as understaffed as prison guards, and little time is spent on tactics like
drop-in visits because caseloads average 150 clients per officer. Technological solutions are available that might help, but mostly what's needed is shorter, stronger probation and parole supervision aimed at monitoring the worst offenders while reintegrating the rest more rapidly into society. We need more help for children with incarcerated parents. Outcome measures for probation and parole officers do not evaluate officers based on their charges' employment or recidivism rates, and programs don't exist to help ex-offenders succeed. That must change.

One in twenty Texans is currently under some form of TDCJ supervision, including everyone in prison, on probation and on parole. Bottom line: Big government solutions have failed. The state simply can't afford to monitor 5% of its population on the budget the Legislature has assigned to the task, especially when the state's leadership opposes new taxes. Short of spending
billions on new prisons, Texas must shift gears.
Interim Charge 2:
Examine the probation system and reforms debated during the 79th Legislature, including using strategies such as graduated sanctions and specialized courts for reducing revocations and recidivism. Study the the organization and cost of our probation system and make recommendations about how to prioritize and strengthen general supervision.
As mentioned above, Governor Perry's veto of HB 2193 was perhaps the most short-sighted and certainly the most underreported Texas political blunder of 2005. That legislation, authored by Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, would have given offenders ways to earn their way off probation through good behavior while reducing caseloads so probation officers could more closely supervise those who remain. The system is broken : So many probationers have absconded the state can't count them all.

While some
new money was approved to help counties reduce probation revocations, without Chairman Madden's bill it's unclear whether they have the tools to do so. Give me my druthers and I prefer the version of HB 2193 Chairman Madden passed out of his committee in 2005 to the one that was vetoed by the Governor - the weakened version just won't do enough to resolve the pending crisis, and the Lege would be back two years later facing the same problem.
Interim Charge 8:
Monitor the agencies and programs under the committee's oversight and monitor the Governor's Criminal Justice Advisory Council.
While the CJAC was still preparing its recommendations, I pointed out how the body seemed to have been captured entirely by special interests looking for pork . Regrettably, that Grits prediction more or less bore out. See what I thought was good about their recommendations , plus discussions of CJAC's inadequacies. I still intend to do another post about CJAC's stance on consent searches, but the Corrections committee wouldn't take up that issue, anyway.

As the Houston Chronicle editorialized recently, Texas' criminal justice system is
broken at every level, and that includes TDCJ. The whole concept of the agency's role needs revamping. The Sunset review process offers a great chance to do that kind of careful rethinking, if the Legislature has the will.

As an aside: Special session really is coming too soon, isn't it? This is a $7,500 per year part-time job - how do these guys earn a living coming back to Austin every few months? The only good thing you can say about it, IMO, is that
Pink Dome and In the Pink's session kickoff party ought to be fun (they're still seeking donations, if you think the Legislature's arrival might put you in a drinking mood).


Catonya said...

something interesting - sad - humourous?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'll go with humorous! :-)

I posted a link to it on ACLUTX's Liberty blog.

Just looked at your site, BTW, for the first time in a busy week or two and plan to write about several things you've posted, especially directing folks to your new summation page and your note on Jim Phillips' passing. Sounds like all your family/personal stuff is turning for the better, too, so I'm happy for you. Buena suerte amiga.

Catonya said...

Hey there-
I just saw your reply here in my stats last night. Life's been so upside down lately that I keep missing things. :s

Wanted to take a moment to say thank you for your support -helping me get Rick's story out there. You and your work are such an inspiration to me. thank you.