What follows is the first installment of a list of proposals, most of which would have to be enacted by the Texas Legislature, that I think would make a real, substantive difference to actually improving public safety, not just symbolic changes designed to "send a message." These ideas are aimed to actually improve the lives of Texans and reduce crime in the short and long term. In some cases, they're designed to expressly counter the criminal justice system's excesses where it has destroyed lives and corrupted civil society.
I'll be adding to this as we head toward the 80th Texas Legislature, but here's a start: What would state leaders be doing if they really cared about public safety?
1. Train 10,000 new teachers to perform individual training with dyslexic children, and increase funding for early testing for dyslexia. That's the low end of an estimate for how many are needed. Dyslexics make up 10% of children who are tested but 30% of Texas inmates, and illiteracy is a key indicator increasing the likelihood of imprisonment.It sounds like a lot of new money, but it's all a lot lot cheaper than building and staffing three new prisons.
2. Create new programs to support children of incarcerated parents, including mentoring, tutoring, counseling, part-time jobs and access to social services. Without intervention, children of incarcerated parents are 6-8 times more likely than their peers to wind up in prison. Fund the programs that exist, including privately operated charities if they're effective and accountable, plus create new ones modeled on successful programs in Texas and elsewhere.
3. Cut probation lengths in half. Most probationers who re-offend do so in the first two years, the majority of those (says Tony Fabelo) within the first eight months. Texas has the longest probation lengths in the nation. Reducing them would reduce caseloads so probation officers could increase supervision during that most-important early period. (This will require revamping funding for probation departments, which are currently paid by the head.)
4. Give probationers ways to earn their way off probation early through good behavior and completion of assigned programs, reducing caseloads and giving strong, personal incentives for compliance with probation rules. HB 2193 would have this for some offenders, but the change should be made for all but so-called 3g offenders, or those who've committed more dangerous, violent crimes.
5. Use offenders' employment status and recidivism rates as outcome measures by which probation and parole officers are judged, as well as two of several factors for how probation and parole department funding is determined.
6. Hire 3,000 more guards to staff current prisons before building anymore.
7. Allow local governments to operate syringe exchange programs to promote personal responsibility, reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C and provide greater opportunities for outreach to hardcore drug users.
8. New money for border law enforcement should first go either to Internal Affairs Bureaus (instead of for patrols and equipment) or to a new AG-run investigative squad aimed at cleaning up law enforcement corruption.
9. Force pardon and parole board to adhere to its own guidelines and release more low-risk non-violent offenders to make way for more dangerous ones.
10. Fund re-entry programs designed to help ex-offenders get and keep a job, housing and stay out of trouble when they get out of prison, especially for the first 1-2 years.