Monday, January 29, 2007

New criminal justice statistical center raises questions about politicized math

Put me down as disappointed with this half-a-loaf outcome, and skeptical as to whether it will help or hurt in the long run:

Governor Perry's office today issued a press release announcing the creation of a new Criminal Justice Statistical Analysis Center which will operate out of his office and be run by one of Perry's political operatives, Janna Burleston, who formerly worked for Democratic state Sen. Royce West before entering the Governor's employ. According to the announcing press release:

Perry said, “This center will help us manage our prison population better and attract more federal funds for crime prevention and criminal justice initiatives.”

Under the governor’s order, the SAC will collect, analyze and report statewide criminal justice statistics; evaluate the effectiveness of state-funded initiatives; and disseminate analysis results to practitioners, policy-makers, researchers, and the public in order to enhance the quality of criminal justice and crime prevention at all levels of government.

Gov. Perry’s directive also designates the SAC as the state’s liaison to the U.S. Department of Justice on criminal justice data reporting and research. This designation will make Texas eligible for additional federal criminal justice funding.

The SAC will be housed within the Office of the Governor and will have access to data maintained by the Department of Public Safety, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, the Texas Youth Commission, the Texas Department of State Health Services, and other relevant agencies as needed.

Unless you understand a little more about the context of the proposal, perhaps that doesn't sound too bad on its face - maybe a little bland but not negative,

The backstory, though, is that in 2003 Perry line item vetoed the budget for the last similar agency Texas had - the Criminal Justice Policy Council, run for years by statistician Tony Fabelo, now a private consultant. Perry was supposedly unhappy that Fabelo's predictions of rising prisoner populations didn't fall in line with his desire to slash criminal justice funding that year, particularly treatment and programming inside prisons.

With Fabelo and his agency gone, the Legislative Budget Board took over some of these tasks (with about 1/3 the staff), and IMO their work has mightily improved in both depth and relevance since their initial offerings. But they have never had the resources to do everything CJPC once did.

Even so, they produce regular projections of prison population increases, and lo and behold when they began producing their long-term projections they wound up coming out with similar numbers to Fabelo's - bottom line, current trends would necessitate large-scale, expensive prison building, or a new focus on reducing probation revocations and expanding alternatives to incarcertion.

So now we see another unilateral move by the Governor - this time an executive order instead of a line item veto - that would create a new agency to perform those functions and produce "objective" analyses. But the structure of the proposed agency gives very little reason to think it will be "objective."

The Criminal Justice Policy Council was an independent agency not direcly under the Governor's control. (That's why Perry had to line item veto Fabelo's budget - he couldn't just fire him.) The Legislative Budget Board is jointly controlled with the Legislature and Perry's influence is mitigated by the legislative branch of government and its countervailing political weight.

But the new office will have no such independence. That worries me. I'm reminded of Governor Perry's continued useof utterly debunked statistics about crime reduction on the border as recently as last week to promote his Operation Wrangler scheme. The new agency's director will work directly for the Governor, and initially it will be run by someone who to my knowledge has far fewer statistician's credentials and experience than Tony Fabelo.

I like and respect Burleson and worked with her some back when she was Sen. Royce West's aide. But Burleson was the Governor's main point person working with Williamson County DA John Bradley in 2005 to oppose Chairmans Madden and Whitmire's proposals for strengthening probation, which Perry ultimately vetoed. So that would give me pause, for example, if her new office was charged with evaluating the effectiveness of programs she lobbied on behalf of the Governor to oppose. If she said the approach didn't work (after earlier analyses said it did), I'm just not sure I'd believe it. After all, resisting pressure to cook the numbers is what got Fabelo's office de-funded in the first place.

I'm willing to give this new office the benefit of the doubt, but until I become confident we're getting the straight dope from them, my approach will be like that of Ronald Reagan: Trust but verify.

Key legislative leaders were already receptive to reinstating the CJPC in its old form. Personally, I think Perry should have worked with the Legislature to make the new Statistical Analysis Center an independent office to avoid any allegations of political coercion or number-cooking from the get-go.

BLOGVERSATION: Corrections Sentencing has the story of a similar political predicament Michael Connelly found himself in working for a parallel-type agency in Oklahoma. He suggests that in these types of criminal justice statistical centers, " these kinds of interference are not uncommon." That's a grim assessment, but a also a first-hand one that IMO should not be discounted lightly.


Anonymous said...

Who does Gov. Perry think he is, the "Decider"? Does he not know that title has already been claimed? Perry vetoed every bill that would have help eliminate prison overcrowing and cut down the costs caused by this overcrowding a the last session. He then called three special sessions costing us millions of dollars to get his way with schools and that was worthless also. With him making decisions about something he knows nothing about, is scary. Senator Whitmire knows more about TDCJ than anyone in Texas and knows what a drain on money the overcrowding and abuse and mistreatment is causing people who are unlucky enough to get caught up in the corrupt justice system and the lose of famlies than Perry could ever learn. Let's hear a HURRAH for Senator Whitmire and Madden and a big hisssss for Perry.

Quismada said...

Pleeezzze...let me get my hip boots on if Perry is trying to spoon feed us more crap. It seems that anything he organizes to supposedly help actually ends up giving someone who does nothing a paycheck. Texas prisoners have never been helped by Perry nor will they in the future. We don't need more analysis, we need some decisive action as suggested by Whitmire and Madden to empty some the beds in the prisons and put programs into place to help offenders re enter society. Okay, I've got my boots on so let me read about more suggestions by Perry.

Anonymous said...

I am a probation officer in Bexar County. It seems to me Whitmire and Madden have some valid ideas that are working. Seems that Perry continues to be a bump in the road that keeps the system broken.