Yesterday on their website Goliad prosecutor Terry Breen lodged an ill-informed complaint against a Senate bill on Monday's House Corrections Committee agenda. I mention it preemptively in case the same spurious arguments are repeated by one of the DAs' lobbyists prior to or during Monday's hearing.
The legislation says that parolees can only be revoked to prison for serious new crimes and creates a system of "intermediate sanctions" - which is amply funded in both House and Senate budgets - for technical violators and people who commit lower-level offenses.
Under SB 838, technical parole violators can be sentenced to 2-12 months incarceration in an "Intermediate Sanctions Facility" (ISF), which is just what it sounds like - a short-term prison facility for holding parole violators. (Ideally they also should include opportunities for drug and alcohol treatment, job placement and training, and teaching other re-entry skills.) For parolees who commit new misdemeanors, counties would continue to prosecute the newly committed crime, and on top of whatever sentence the offender received, they would also spend 2-12 months in an ISF.
Breen complains that SB 838 by Whitmire "makes parole a joke," but ironically his own comments demonstrate that the system is already broken. Writes Breen:
I realize that parole is already largely a joke, but a statute mandating that they can never revoke a parolee unless he commits a felony is terrible policy. It will set in stone a policy that seems to already exist. But because it is a statue, parolees will know that the worst that can happen to them if they blow off parole is they'll spend some time in an intermediate sanctions facility.Well, if they beat someone up you prosecute them for it, smartass! And if they don't report you send them to the ISF. And yes, Mr. Prosecutor, parole is a joke. That's the point! This legislation acknowledges that reality and attempts to fix it - what do our prosecutor friends offer in response except a lot of whining and the chance to live with the failed status quo?
The ISF's will then fill up with the hard-core parolee violators, and the rest will be free to do as they please.
So what if they beat someone up every week? So what if they don't report, and have absconded? So what if they hang out with their gang buds, violate curfews, and do drugs? So what if they don't get a job, and pay restitution to their victims? What can the parole officer do about it--nothing.
Breen's comments sound like a broken record, but it's a song that's long out of fashion and doesn't really apply to either this bill or other reform bills working their way through the system. (It's like listening to a Bee Gees record - you remember liking them in junior high but hearing them again can't for the life of you remember why.)
Breen and his prosecutor brethren apparently cannot come to grips with the fact that the community supervision systems we have today - both probation and parole - are essentially broken. They know it - "parole is already largely a joke," he said - but you never hear any proposals to fix it other than spend more money on prisons.
The unspoken truth behind such tuffer-than-thou grandstanding is that it makes a prosecutors' job easier to simply revoke someone to prison for low-level misdemeanors - say, writing a bad check or driving with a suspended drivers license - than to prosecute the case and incarcerate them in the local county jail.
For starters, they must prove a new offense "beyond a reasonable doubt," while the standard for parole revocation is merely a "preponderance of the evidence." But also, just like the state prisons, county jails don't have room for such petty offenders. So it's in the prosecutors interest to ship their problems upstream in the system. As a class, DAs are a lot more accountable to local politicos like county commissioners who control their budget (and the jail's) than they are to state leaders, whose opinions they routinely ignore.
The average prison stay for technical parole violators is 4.3 years, so from a taxpayers' perspective, it makes sense to create a system of intermediate sanctions besides full-blown revocation to prison for petty technical violators. Only 19% of parole revocations are for technical violations - most revocations right now happen for new crimes.
Finally, Breen's simply ill-informed about the lack of availability of ISF space. Expanding capacity and use of ISFs was a key reform proposed by Dr. Tony Fabelo in a consultant's report earlier this year, and it's one legislators took seriously and have acted on. In both the House and Senate budgets there's ample funding to pay for new ISF beds, and a new private facility just opened up in East Texas specifically aimed at filling this need.
SB 838 passed unanimously in the Senate, on the local and uncontested calendar no less, because it's just one piece of a giant puzzle crafted by legislative planners over many years now. The bill does nothing except make the punishment fit the crime. As a matter of public safety, I'd rather we reserve long prison terms for people who are out committing new offenses, not the guy who violated curfew or failed to show up for meetings.