"I just went through the jail roster and 68 of those 90 are in here for direct drug related offenses." That's what Montague County Sheriff Bill Keating says about the number of known users in jail and still at large is extreme. With a population only around 20,000, Keating says they're still watching another 107 active subjects not in jail.Montague County provides a great example of why Texas needs SB 1909 by Ellis, which was voted favorably from yesterday's House Corrections Committee hearing. That bill is a scaled back, modified version of California's Prop 36 drug treatment program, except unlike California it gives judges tools like short-term incarceration and new probation facilities to make offenders participate and improve success rates.
My former employers at the ACLU actually came out neutral on SB 1909, though it was favored by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Restorative Justice Ministries, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Saying many Texas judges were just "prosecutors in black robes," Will Harrell said the bill was too watered down and gave judges too much discretion to incarcerate instead of using treatment options. But at the Texas Lege, you always accept half a loaf in May, and at least SB 1909 starts building the needed legal and treatment infrastructure the state can build on in future sessions. As in the Senate, only the Harris County DA opposed the bill in yesterday's committtee hearing.
Even if it passes, SB 1909 won't work without substantial new funding for treatment and incarceration alternative sustained over years - as a base part of the budget just like prison spending. But the Senate proposed nearly a quarter billion dollars in new funds over the biennium to enhance treatment capacity all over the state, and particularly to provide new options for counties like Montague whose jails are filled with addicts that law enforcement must constantly monitor.
As reported Monday, Texas can avoid new prison spending entirely by investing in thousands of new treatment beds, but there's also a trickle down benefit to spending on drug treatment over incarceration. Most addicts who enter prison and receive no treatment are still addicted when they leave. However, people who overcome their addiction are much less likely to cycle back into the criminal justice system, either for drug use, sales, or stealing to support a habit.
I don't want to sound like a pollyanna or set false expectations: Not everyone who enters treatment will succceed. But experience in drug courts in both rural and urban areas around the state has been that a significant percentage will, and when they do they reduce the future burden on the criminal justice system. In Harris County, 60% of low-level drug arrests are repeat offenders.
Grits has lamented that, except for Rep Madden's HB 2391, hardly any legislation in the 80th session appears directly aimed at solving Texas county jail overcrowding crisis. But SB 1909 and the other probation reform legislation making its way through the Texas Lege should help quite a bit indirectly by providing better outcomes for some of those addicts the Sheriff is arresting over and over.
A lot of smaller counties don't have treatment facilities close by, and TDCJ will need every bit of the Senate treatment budget to implement SB 1909 in ways that don't cause smaller jurisdictions problems (the House proposed treatment budget is $100 million less). The level of funding for prison alternatives will be decided in the same conference committee that will decide on new prison spending.
Looming over all this action, of course, is Governor Perry's veto specter. In 2005 he vetoed both probation reforms AND money for leasing bed space - essentially a little publicized choice that directly caused our immediate crisis. So things just got worse. Now, counties all over the state are struggling just like the Sheriff in Montague. Arresting more people won't help that Sheriff, he's overwhelmed now.
It's easy at the Lege to watch the horse race and focus on various bills' success or failure as "the story." But the real story happens out in the world, where laws and policies decided under the Pink Dome may only be judged by their outcomes, not good intentions. You can see the sorry outcomes of Texas current tuffer-than-thou drug war policies in the roster at the Montague Jail. I bet a lot of beleagured jail administrators join me in hoping SB 1909 and the package of bills that support it pass legislative muster so we can try a different approach.
Speaking of jails, I thought I'd shift gears away from the Legslature tomorrow to attend a meeting of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (see the agenda), at least for a while. Harris and Dallas are among the non-compliant jails commissioners will discuss, and I want to see what kind of oversight state regulators are really providing these facilities.