Sunday, February 11, 2007

Cutting Texas Prison 'Leviathan' Down to Size

Two articles this morning show that many practitioners who know most about Texas' corrections system think it needs a dramatic overhaul.

The Paris (Tx) News quotes District Judge Jim Lovett expressing optimism at the direction Chairmans Madden and Whitmire are hoping to take Texas' corrections system ("Lovett finds Perry's plan arresting," Feb. 11). The paper also described some interesting local innovations in Paris spearheaded by the judge:
“We don’t need to just continue to build prisons, and we certainly need to change the idea that one size fits all,” Lovett said.

For years, the judge has called for more intervention programs. He brought changes to the 6th District probation department in 1997 when he issued a mandate to reduce recidivism (repeat offenses).

A decade later, the department documented a 23-percent reduction in recidivism related to a horticulture therapy program. A butterfly cultivation program has been added with plans in place for a dog training program — all aimed at changing attitudes.

Behavior modification is also included in the department’s repertoire, as is a cooperative program with Paris Junior College that assists probationers with obtaining a GED and securing college admission.
Lovett was encouraged by signs of an attidude shift in Austin. However in the Houston Chronicle this morning, Rice professor and former Brazoria County adult probation director Lawrence Jablecki said he doesn't think Whitmire and Madden's plan will be enough to fix the problem ("Think outside the cell," Feb. 11). He wrote:
I hope that Whitmire and Madden win this battle in the perpetual war against crime. I am persuaded, however, that their agenda is but a superficial tinkering with a very ugly Leviathan in need of a radical, bottom-up overhaul.
Jablecki cites a number of additional reforms, most of which should be familiar to Grits readers, that he thinks would go even further to reverse Texas' incarceration trends. He goes into much more detailin the article, but here are the highlights of Jablecki's proposals:

• Create a statewide public defense delivery system.

• Follow the strong recommendations of the ABA, the National District Attorney's Association and a commission by the U.S. Department of Justice and abolish the strictly for-profit commercial bail bond industry.

• Create a statewide system of pretrial diversion and deferred prosecution programs. The model for this legislation should be the programs designed by the county attorney's office in Travis County.

• Officially acknowledge that the war on drugs is a catastrophic failure. ... Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker of the Texas House Tom Craddick should appoint an interim committee to seek out the essentials of rational and humane drug laws that promote the safety and health of all citizens.

• Fix the Board of Pardons and Paroles. ... The entire parole process should be reinvented and given the resources to accomplish its mission.

•Reduce the number of probationers, parolees and persons on mandatory supervision who are sentenced to and returned to prison for minor crimes and noncriminal violations.

• Increase funding for in-prison vocation and education programs and Project RIO.

Kudos to Lovett and Jablecki, both. These are encouraging signs, when even those on the front lines see that a change in strategy is needed away from increased incarceration. Let's just hope Texas legislators are listening.

UPDATE: The Houston Chronicle published some letters to the editor responding to Jablecki's column.

5 comments:

800 pound gorilla said...

What about legalizing drugs and reduce the amount of crime related to the exorbitant prices of addiction to black market drugs? IF Texas had a true crime victims advocacy group I would believe that their first and foremost priority would be to reduce the number of crime victims.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Seriously, 800, Gov. Perry vetoed reducing probation lengths by letting offenders earn their way off probation through good behavior. What makes you think "legalizing drugs" would have a prayer?

OTOH, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, whose main funder Jim Leininger is one of Perry's most important donors, has advocated reducing low-level drug penalties for pragmatic, even conservative public safety reasons, so that's not outside the terms of debate at the capitol. But "legalizing" is not.

The overcrowding problem is the most likely trigger, IMO, for TPPF-envisioned sentence reductions to occur, and that would mean reducing "less than a gram" cases to Class A misdemeanors and low level pot cases from B to C misdemeanors, to free up county jail space. Driving with suspended licenses could also be reduced from a B to a C, as I wrote about today, or at least they might talk about it if it weren't so lucrative. Those are the steps that are posssible in the real world, as opposed to theoretical ones one might envision, whatever their merit. best,

lindad said...

If we are serious about cutting down the leviathan, we have to cut the incentives, whether political or monetary, for the people who are advocating for its continued growth at every citizen's expense.
The cost of incarceration could be borne by the counties whose judges and district attorneys make the decisions on sentencing, probation, and parole revocations. If the state builds and staffs the prisons, each county should be billed by the month, every month for every year, of the cost of the 'maintenance' of the inmates sent from the county. Revocations would drastically be cut-parole and probation fees are lucrative, paying for incarceration is expensive. The counties should be required, or the state do it for them, to post quarterly reports on the number of inmates, the length of sentence, and the total cost of maintaining the prison population attributed to them. It is easy to talk about costs in the abstract when it is included in a bloated state budget that no one understands. It is very real to a citizen to decide whether the decisions being made are good or hype when the money is coming directly from them...Once again, let those who have the ear and the political incentives to hype the prison industry to put their money, not mine, where their mouth is. It seems so simple, it just might work, and it costs nothing to implement.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

lindad, I REALLY like that idea and think it would solve the vast majority of Texas' overincarceration problems. Indeed, in just a few years we'd be mothballing prisons, because all the locals who got elected saying "no new taxes" wouldn't spring for them.

Of course, people would rightly claim it's an unfunded mandate, but right now it's an unfunded mandate the other direction - from the counties to the state! Also, there may be constitutional problems because of the state's obligations to maintain prisons (though I'm speculating, I really don't know). But I like the market angle to your idea - it makes a lot of common sense, and if it were possible to implement it would be a brilliant structural fix to a problem that clearly results from major structural flaws.

Anonymous said...

Lindad's idea would bankrupt Williamson County! The conservatives there would never contribute to anyone in government that even thought about such a thing let alone propose legislation.

Of course they're getting Federal Money now for Taylor's Hutto Prison conversion for Detention of children.