Friday, December 29, 2006

Tyler's Alternative Incarceration Center opens, DA thinks no one qualifies

I was excited to learn that Tyler's new Alternative Incarceration Program kicked off this week, placing eight folks on the program as of yesterday, reports the Tyler Morning Telegraph (12-29) After voters rejected new jails in May, District Judge Cynthia Kent first suggested the AIP as part of several proposals to enhance public safety and reduce jail overcrowding.

I admire Judge Kent for spearheading this idea in the face of at best grudging support from local prosecutors. Local DA Matt Bingham signed off on the idea in theory - indeed after the spanking on the jail vote he had little choice but to go along with the program in public. So far in the trenches, though, his ADAs don't appear to be giving Judge Kent much support. Reported the Telegraph, "Prosecutors objected to the placements of all but one of the eight people, Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham said." Everyone the DA objected to was a nonviolent offender with no prior felony convictions.

You know, if Smith County prosecutors are going to object to nearly every eligible program entrant, that leaves Judge Kent and her colleagues on the bench in a position where they must begin to more routinely ignore the wishes of the District Attorney. Maybe it's just me, but in the long run I doubt that's a wise move for Mr. Bingham's office - better to cooperate with the judges' program and assist in achieving its goals than to thwart its aims in the courtroom then second guess the judge in the media.

In any event, with prosecutors' reduced to political posturing, it was left to the judges and the probation department to make decisions about who would enter the program:

Judge Kent said probation officers went over the jail list and selected several individuals who would be good candidates for the program, talked to the inmates to see if they were interested, and brought them to the Alternative Incarceration Center housed in the courthouse basement.

The district and county court-at-law judges all approved the program initiated Thursday. Judge Kent was selected to preside over the felony cases, and County Court-at-Law Judge Tom Dunn was selected to oversee the misdemeanor cases. Judge Kent said she was presiding over Dunn's cases on Thursday because he was out of the office.

"The Alternative Incarceration Program is a very new and ambitious and I hope a very beneficial program for the community," Judge Kent said.

She said it was an opportunity for inmates who would have otherwise been sent to jail or prison. Because of the crisis in jail overcrowding in Smith County and in Texas, it is necessary to look at other options, Judge Kent said, adding that the program was not in lieu of building a new jail.

If the program works, she said, it will reduce the number of new jail beds needed locally and statewide. The program provides the opportunity for rehabilitation and integration into the community. Instead of being locked up, the defendants will be required to report to probation officers daily, she said.

Judge Kent said that public safety is important, and that officials are carefully screening inmates that are non-violent offenders.

Those in the program will have access to counseling, treatment and supervision for substance abuse and mental illness, she said. They will also be required to have jobs, which will integrate them into the community. She said the program will also provide the opportunity for restitution to be paid to the victims and it has education benefits for the defendants.

"This is not just probation," Judge Kent said. "There is a lot more expected."

She said it was important for the "first class" of people placed in the program to recognize the opportunity and responsibility.

"Some people would love to see this program fail ... because they just want to lock people up with no hope," Judge Kent said.

She said that if a few of the people placed in the program fail, they would go to jail or prison. But, she said, if the majority of the people fail, the county would quit the program and go back to building bigger jails.

The judge said her focus was to give people another chance to stop victimizing people and to make something of their lives.

Tyler's new program ought be a model for other counties struggling with jail overcrowding, and there are a lot of them. But it's also important to remember that this one program won't be enough to fix the whole problem. Indeed, Judge Kent originally asked county commissioners and her fellow judges to approve a much more aggressive array of incarceration alternatives, including a special sanctions court modeled on successful initiatives in other counties. This more limited AIP was a compromise, a first baby step away from the spendthrift, lock-everybody-up approach that DA Bingham still can't seem to break free from.

Still, it's a first step that goes counter to many decades of momentum in the other direction, so in that sense it's a bigger deal than the small number of folks in the program imply. I didn't go home to Tyler for Christmas, so I need to get up there soon to visit the family, anyway. Maybe when I do I'll try to drop in to visit the new AIP center.

UPDATE: I emailed Judge Kent this post and congratulated her on the program's launch; here's how she responded:
Thank you for your note. We did start up our program. It has a few organizational issues we will work on but I am confident that this will be a positive program for our community. Our goals are:

1. Reduce the Jail population; 2. Focus on public safety; 3. Provide intensive rehabilitation services to offenders in the day reporting center 4. Help reintegrate offenders back into society with a focus on obtaining and maintaining gainful and lawful employment, drug and alcohol counseling, mental health counseling, housing arrangements, and other community assistance and 5. Provide restitution to victims of crime and child support to children and families in need.

Our goal is to place 100 defendants in the program and in the process also expedite other non Alternative Incarceration Center program defendants in case disposition.

If you check back with me in 30 days, I will have a better grasp on how the program is actually working and whether the public, the defendants, and victims are benefiting from its implementation.

Thanks a lot, Judge Kent! I'll definitely be tracking yall's progress and look forward to more updates.

See prior related Grits coverage:

4 comments:

800 pound gorilla said...

Why do we presume that most of these people need to be dealt with? Why should drug intervention necessarily involve innocent people having their identities stolen, their cars and homes burglarized and low income workers held up at gunpoint? Why should the victims - citizen taxpayers - have to pay additional money after these crimes are committed? If someone were running a similar scam that required victims to pay even more for "restitution" - the news media would be all over it, and police would be vowing to find the culprits. Yet we know who the culprits are for this scam: legisliars. We know their accomplices: law enforcement, news media lapdogs and educators who pimp for the drug war.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to resist the allure of a thriving Black Market when you are young, invincible, and looking for money. Counseling and education are needed, not the penitentiary.

Non-violent offenders go into the prison system, educated criminals come back out. They are exposed to violence and threat, drugs, prostitution, and a prison economy. They learn the value of lies, fraud, and manipulation from more experienced and worldly criminals.

Having worked the cellblocks of Texas prisons, I can tell you that they return to our communities a far more serious threat then when they were incarcerated.

Any Alternative must be explored, we simply cannot continue to pay these prices for political posturing.

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