Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Some TX prisons are only 62% staffed; trustees doing guards' work

Yesterday's hearing offered interesting insight about how TDCJ uses "trustees" to perform duties in the prison that one would traditionally associate with guards - even running errands in TDCJ trucks outside of the prison grounds.

Chairman Whitmire asked why trusties aren't more frequently considered good candidates for parole? Parole Board Chairwoman Rissie Owens replied that often people plea bargained to a lesser offense and the BPP doesn't think they're as low-level as they're classified. (That view was echoed recently by a writer at the Back Gate.)

That begs the question, though, of why they're trustees with special privileges in the first place if they're more dangerous than the classifications indicate? That question remains unanswered. Only TDCJ could tell us.

TDCJ Chief Brad Livingston implied a more mundane reason why so many trustees remain incarcerated - chronic understaffing at Texas prisons. Prison units with the worst problems retaining employees, said Livingston, are presently operating at 62% staffing capacity. He didn't say so outright, but his comments seemed to suggest that in some cases trustees are filling roles that might be filled by guards if TDCJ could hire enough to staff its facilities.

Whitmire pointed out that of 6,200 inmates currently classified as "outside trustees." 5,700 are already parole eligible. If these people are trustworthy enough to be allowed outside-the-prison privileges, reasoned Whitmire, it's highly likely they're prepared for parole.

He speculated that the reason these trustees weren't paroled more readily was that TDCJ improperly relied on their labor at the expense of their rights, that in fact they were being punished for being model, trustworthy inmates. Nobody from TDCJ had a great answer to that argument.

If it's true, it's pretty grim. And it also means Texas could be shorthanded by up to 5-6,000 guards and support staff, instead of the 3,000 we hear discussed more routinely.

Whitmire and Madden: Programatic decisions, not population growth, causing prison overcrowding

Dominic Gonzales at Texas Criminal Justice Coalition pulled some choice quotes from yesterday's hearing that respond directly to Lt. Gov. Dewhurst's ill-informed assertion that Texas hasn't built enough prisons to match population growth. Check out the short flash video with audio clips from the two chairmen speaking at yesterday's joint meeting between the House Corrections and Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Fabelo: We've created the "Walmart of prisons" in Texas

How fast is Texas' prison population growing? According to Tony Fabelo's presentation at yesterday's hearing, in December 2001 Texas had 6,910 empty prison beds. Indeed, Texas' total empty bed capacity in 2001 was larger than the entire prison capacity in 15 states.

By Feb 2003, just 14 months later, all of those beds were full. As of last year, Texas was renting 1,900 extra beds from county jails. By 2012, said Fabelo, Texas will be 17,000 prison beds short if policies don't change. That rate of growth can't remotely be attributed to Texas population increases.

We have “created the Walmart of prisons in Texas,” Fabelo, who argued for creating a new array of incarceration alternatives that will compete with "Walmart" for the confidence and attention of judges responsible for sentencing.

That's a bit of an odd market analogy, but overall an astute observation, IMO, in more ways than one. Just as Walmart often drives away other businesses, the over-reliance on prisons has caused Texas to de-emphasize approaches that may actually be more effective at reducing crime. Without question that's what's happened in Texas since all the in-prison drug treatment money was gutted in 2003.

Fabelo's advocating a more responsible long-term approach. By contrast, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst has proposed a politicized and ill-considered one. It's a long way till the legislaion is finalized, but these initial blowbacks indicate Texas' response to its overincarceration crisis may not enjoy the smooth ride Chairman Madden had earlier predicted.

Following Rissie Owens

The funniest scene from yesterday's joint hearing of the House Corrections and Senate Criminal Justice Committees didn't take place in the meeting room but in the hall outside, where a camera crew from KHOU Houston, a CBS-affiliate tried to get Parole Board Chair Rissie Owens to comment on Dr. Tony Fabelo and Sen. John Whitmire's statements pinning the bulk of Texas' prison overcrowding problems on her agency.

Owens, who wore a deep scowl, wanted no part of that conversation. She power-walked away from them with the reporter trailing behind repeating, "Why are you running away from me Ms. Owens? I just want your reaction."

When she got to the door of the packed room, the reporter caught up with her and repeated his question about her agency's culpability in prison ovecrowding. She grabbed his mike in his hand and shoved it downward while she tried to squirm in sideways into the room. "Please don't touch me or my microphone, Ms. Owens, I just want to ask you a question." She did let go, but by then a space opened up for her to squeeze through, and Rissie Owens was gone.

The next reporter who gets that chance, I hope they also ask Ms. Owens whether she thinks its a conflict of interest that her husband Ed is deputy director of TDCJ, and whether she thinks any of the Sunset recommendations to reduce conflicts of interest on the parole board were because of that relationship?

For those interested, here's a webcast of a Nov. 14, 2006 Sunset Commission hearing where Owens was forced to grumpily and defiantly answer some of those questions in response to Sen. Whitmire. She also responded formally, if again grumpily, in writing to the Sunset Commission's report. See more from Grits on the subject here, here, and here.

Should assertions of innocence be held against parole applicants?

With the rash of newly discovered innocence cases in Texas, it now appears inarguable that SOME percentage of those in prison today, however big or small the number, likely face the stark choice described in this new article, "The Innocent Prisoner's Dilemma: Consequences of Failing to Admit Guilt at Parole Hearings," by Daniel S. Medwed.

If you're in prison but actually innocent, should you lie to the parole board to "take responsibility" and "demonstrate remorse"? Odds are you'd get out a lot quicker, says Medwed. But then should the system be allowed later to admit such statements in court? In this context, Medwed reflects on whether it's wise to hold "assertions of innocence" against prisoners in the parole process and offers reform suggestions. Here's the abstract:
The granting of parole in the criminal justice system is often viewed as an act of grace: the dispensation of mercy by the government to an individual prisoner deemed worthy of conditional release prior to the expiration of his sentence. Yet the criteria upon which state parole boards base these acts of grace, let alone the propriety of using such criteria, has received little scholarly attention and remains something of a mystery to those outside the inner sanctum of parole boards.

Denials of parole are largely unreviewable and courts have held that due process imposes only a minimal burden upon parole boards to reveal the rationales for their decisions. Nevertheless, surveying state parole release decisions and policies demonstrates that, among other factors, a prisoner's willingness to "own up" to his misdeeds - to acknowledge culpability and express remorse for the crime for which he is currently incarcerated - is a vital part of the parole decision-making calculus. That is, admitting one's guilt increases the likelihood of a favorable parole outcome for an inmate whereas proclaiming innocence serves to diminish the chance for release. The main objective of this Article is to consider whether this is wise. Should a prisoner's assertions of innocence be held against him in the parole process?

Part I of this Article briefly discusses the origins of parole in the United States as well as the contemporary features of parole release decision-making. Next, Part II explores how the reliance on prisoner admissions of guilt as part of the parole release decision intersects (and potentially interferes) with the efforts of innocent inmates to win their freedom. Part III then critically examines the theoretical and normative implications of the current parole system's emphasis on remorse and responsibility. Finally, Part IV recommends several specific reforms concerning the treatment of inmate claims of innocence at parole hearings: limiting the use of parole hearing transcripts at future post-conviction proceedings; distinguishing statements of remorse from those of responsibility; and re-conceiving the role played by parole boards in entertaining questions of guilt and innocence.
Via the Legal Theory Blog.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fabelo: Plummeting parole rates, excessive probation revocations boost prison overcrowding

Another stunning fact bite from today's hearing. According to Tony Fabelo, Texas' average parole rates were 78% in 1990 but only 26% today.

In other words, Texas paroles prisoners today at roughly one third the rate as it did just 16 years ago.

“The parole board is not meeting its own guidelines,” said Fabelo. He said that if Texas just followed the minimum end of the guidelines, that would increase the overall parole rate to 31%. That would mean about 2,500 more people released from prison EVERY YEAR. Extended backward, said Fabelo, just meeting these minimums over the past few years would mean Texas would have no overincarceration crisis at all.

Fabelo also said that reducing needless probation revocations combined with parole reforms (and investments in interim-sanctions and DWI facilities) could solve the immediate problems. The 12,240 technical probation revocations in 2006, said Fabelo, will cost the state a total $757.5 million in incarceration costs.

Reducing probation lengths and creating progressive sanctions that give judges alternatives to revocation, said Fabelo, would go a long way toward forestalling the need for more prison building.

Texas high incarceration rate yields lesser crime reductions

Here's another interesting tidbit from Tony Fabelo's testimony this afternoon: Texas' high incarceration rates haven't corresponded with crime reductions enjoyed by other states that incarcerate far fewer people.

Said Fabelo, in 2005 4.6% of Texas adults were in prison, on probation or on parole. The comparable number in California was just 2.8%, in Florida, 3.2%, and in New York, 1.8%.

Now compare those to the same states' relative crime reductions over the period 2000-2005: Texas -19%, California -40%, Florida -31%, New York -54%.

So Texas crime declined, but not nearly as much as states with far fewer people under control of the criminal justice system.

Indeed, to hear Fabelo tell it, Texas prosecutions far outstrip both population increases and the statewide crime rate. In last five years, he said (2000-2005),Texas' population increased 9.6%, the crime rate declined 1.9%, adult arrests increased 5.8%, while felony convictions increased a whopping 29%.

Why would arrests and convictions outstrip crime so dramatically? I don't know the answer, but these data sure raise a lot of interesting questions.

Waiting lists for programs heighten prison overcrowding

According to Dr. Tony Fabelo speaking at a legislative hearing this afternoon, waiting lists for treatment programs and transitional housing are causing delays in releasing parole eligible offenders from Texas prisons:
    Current Waiting Lists for
    TDCJ Treatment Programs
Substance Abuse Felony Punishment: 823
In-prision therapeutic community: 174
Halfway houses: 600
The waiting lists, said Fabelo, not only create backlogs but also suppress use of the programs in general because many officials simply don't assign offenders to programs because the wait is too long.

According to Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire, 1,900 offenders incarcerated today are eligible for parole but waiting for space in a mandatory six month treatment program to open up before they can be released. Another 1,700 offenders have already been paroled, he said, but cannot be released because the state does not have adequate re-entry programs, halfway houses, etc.

Interesting stuff. No wonder the prisons are overcrowded. See more background on the lack of transitional housing contributing to prison overcrowding.

Hearing will highlight new Fabelo report

He's been called a Dead Messenger Talking, but Dr. Tony Fabelo (pictured at left) will be walking back into the Texas capitol this afternoon to deliver another message.

Polly Ross Hughes reports in the SA Express News ("Report says treatment could save prison space, money," Jan. 30.) that today's joint House Corrections-Senate Criminal Justice hearing will feature the unveiling of a new report by Fabelo suggesting ways to manage Texas' correctional population to avoid building new prisons. His report:

will recommend saving $377 million by avoiding construction of prisons for up to 5,000 more inmates.

The report estimates its recommendations could save $65 million more by reducing recidivism, helping keep probationers out of prison in the first place and paroling nonviolent substance abusers sooner to halfway houses.

"The Texas prison system is full and predicted to be out of capacity if we do not change policies," said Tony Fabelo, former director of the former Criminal Justice Policy Council.

Fabelo wrote the report, "Justice Reinvestment: A Framework to Improve Effectiveness of Justice Policies in Texas," backed by grants from the State Council on Governments, the Pew Foundation and Justice Department.

"We need to enhance the probation treatment component of the probation system so that we are able to stop the recycling of offenders coming in and out of our prisons," he said.

Fabelo estimated a change in policies could result in a prison population of 155,600 — more than 12,500 less than if the state sticks to current policies.

So Dr. Fabelo thinks we can avoid up to 12,500 new max security beds just by tweaking current policies under existing laws. That tells me that with more significant policy changes like those proposed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, it might be possible to reduce the rate of increase even further.

See more background on today's joint committee meeting, and check back at Grits later today for updates from the scene.

UPDATE: More from the Austin Statesman's Mike Ward.

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.

Joint House/Senate Committee hearing promises to reveal prison alternatives

Tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m., the Texas House Corrections and Senate Criminal Justice Committees will hold a rare joint meeting to discuss Chairmans Madden and Whitmire's proposal to avoid building new maximum security prisons.

The stakes for the hearing definitely jumped up a notch or three last week after Lt. Gov. Dewhurst's endorsement of more prison building. One would expect the two chairman to query agency staff about some of Gov. Dewhurst's odd assumptions.

Heading into that hearing, I wanted to recap Grits' recent analyses of interim reports from these two committees and the Sunset Advisory Commission on the major criminal justice issues facing the 80th Texas Legislature:

TDCJ Sunset Advisory Commission Report
Senate Criminal Justice Committee
House Corrections Committee
See also Grits' coverage of an instructive House Corrections Committee interim hearing in March:

What happens if the Court of Criminal Appeals is de-funded?

Texas Monthly called them a "laughingstock" and "Texas' worst court," while the Austin Statesman suggested that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is so embarrassing to the state that the Legislature should simply delete their funding from the budget.

De-funding the CCA is a bold idea (though I'd rather somebody just run better candidates). As a practical matter, I guess that would mean that the state's 14 appellate courts would become the de facto courts of last reort for criminal defendants. Depending on where you live, there could be worse outcomes by comparison to the status quo.

What would that save (besides embarrassment in the public eye and injustice in the courtroom)?

According to LBB's new 2008-2009 budget estimate, doing so would save the state about $8.6 million in general revenue and $27.8 million total funds in the next biennium (p. IV-3).

Not that it's likely, unless House Judiciary Chair Will Hartnett or Senate Jurisprudence Chair Jeff Wentworth get a burr under their saddle.

I'm just saying. It's getting pretty bad.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Deconstructing why criminal justice committees are considered "least important"

I do not dispute Paul Burka's assessment in his deconstruction of Texas House Committee assignments that, for legislators, media, and capitol hands, the Corrections, Criminal Jurisprudence, Law Enforcement, Judiciary, Defense Affairs, Border and International Affairs, Urban Affairs and Juvenile Justice Committees in the House are considered among the "least important.".

But I find it interesting and wanted to pause for a moment to deconstruct his deconstruction.

Think about it: These seven committees are those that primarily deal with public safety and security issues which are the bread and butter for both parties' hackneyed tuff-on-crime campaign rhetoric. How many times have you heard a politician say, "Public safety is my number one priority"?

So why are these committees considered dogs by the members themselves, so much so that droves of freshmen in the opposition party to the Speaker fill their ranks and Robert Talton won't even deign to attend Criminal Jurisprudence Committee meetings, he finds them so unimportant?

Partly that's because those seven committees' work funnel into two Senate committees, so in practice House members' power is diffused. (Juvenile Justice, in particular, has no budget officer on Appropriations.) It's also because there aren't as many opportunities for these committee members to make big-money lobby connections that help in campaign fundraising.

I also agree that's an accurate assessment because legislators' real-world willingness to spend money on corrections has never matched their rhetoric. Spending represents priorities in their most raw, honest form, but the courts are overworked, TDCJ guards, probation and parole officers, and their suport staff are all woefully underpaid, and meanwhile the Legislature elected to dole out billions in budget busting election year tax cuts.

So when is public safety really a priorty? Only during election season, certainly not during budget crunching time. Ask a TDCJ guard if I'm wrong.

Still, I think there's another reason. I believe that the "tuffer" rhetoric for many lawmakers is no more than a steaming pile of horse hockey some poltical consultant told the politician to repeat during campaign season to get elected (and I've been in the room when it was said to them when I worked in campaigns, I should add).

Problem is, Texas laws are already ridiculously "tough." We literally lead the known universe in the percentage of our population under control of the criminal justice system, with one in 20 adult Texans in prison, on probation or on parole. For two decades, dozens of "enhancement" bills, as they're euphemistically called, i.e. bills increasing penalties or creating new crimes, passed in the Lege each session.

Every behavior that is reasonable to criminalize or "enhance" has basically already been outlawed in Texas, usually in spades. All that is left are unreasonable things, though those are still frequently suggested.

So that leaves managing the problems created by this long-time casual dismissal by the pols of these important topics (in their actions at the Lege as opposed to their rhetoric in the campaign) - basically mopping up the mess. But it doesn't have to be that way. If I were a Democratic strategist I'd look at those committees as among the session's biggest opportunities for House Democrats to work together to make a difference.

The Corrections Committee oversees prisons, probation and parole, including TDCJ's $5 billion plus budget - this one should be easy because the chair is already working closely with the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's John Whitmire, a Houston D, on that committee's big reform ideas. The Criminal Jurisprudence Committee is responsible for setting most sentences and for all of the myriad due process reforms that would be necessary to address the growing concerns over convicting innocent people. At the Juvenile Justice Committee, TYC itself faces both crises from prior mismanagement and poor legislative plannning and opportunities from current events. On Border and International Affairs, these are precisely the topics a) around which flux a the immigration and drug war debates and b) which will decide Texas' long-term economic future as the international economy transitions.

I could go on, but you get the point. It's the same one Christ was making in his parable of the talents.

Tradition and other legislators may deem these committees "least important." But it is possible to BE important, to do important things for Texas, from those committees, and I see no reason not to.

As Eleanor Roosevelt declared, no one can make you feel inferior without your permission.

My advice to members on these committees would be to ignore Burka's opinion and listen to Eleanor Roosevelt. The Speaker's race is over. All that matters right now is 150 House members, 31 senators, and what they do, or don't do, in the next 121 days, and counting.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

More Details on "Operation Wrangler"

Here's a little more fuzzy detail on what exactly will constitute Gov. Perry's new "Operation Wrangler," the bastard child of last year's Operation Linebacker and the 2006 election, which according to a Perry press release has cost Texans $20 million since October 2005, most but not all of it federal grant funds.

To me, whether it's Wrangler or Linebacker, if you don't change from the same, failed strategies you spell it the same way: B-O-O-N-D-O-G-G-L-E.

Governor Perry continues to tout discredited, campaign generated statistics that falsely claim Operation Linebacker caused crime to decline by 60% on the border. In fact, crime slightly increased.

Building on Linebacker's "surge" concept, Perry will add 604 more national guard troops (who I suppose would rather be there than surging in Iraq) who will work for "11 joint operational intelligence centers" along the board.

My first question: If they're "joint," why are there 11 of them? How will these 11 distinct entities be coordinated, or are we setting ourselves up for more turf battles down the line?

And doesn't "joint operational intelligence center" sound like made up bureaucratese? That doesn't tell me who will be calling the shots on a day to day basis, or what are these guard troops' rules of engagement on the border. More to learn to understand what's really going on here. (I'll bet Rep. Rick Noriega - whom I should pause to welcome back from his national guard tour on the border and congratulate on his Appropriations assignment -would have some insight into what's happening down there.)

In addition, 48 helicopters and 33 fixed wing aircraft (which come from where? Quien sabe?) will patrol the border, though again there's no word on what they'll do (shoot them down?) if they find someone illegally flying over. Perry also mentioned that up to 35 patrol ships would assist in the "wrangling."

This is the kind of thing where, when I still worked at ACLU of Texas, I'd just file a big honking open records request to find out what they're saying behind the scenes. But I don't really have a budget for such things anymore, so I hope some enterprising MSM reporter picks up the mantle and tracks down what the hell's going on down at the border: the story for sure hasn't been fully written yet.

Anyway, now that the election is over, all the politicized rhetoric has finally (thankfully) reduced: Perry's press release this time focused on securing the border against "smugglers," not "terrorists." Part of his new kinder, gentler, possibly even vice presidential (?) look, I guess.

The financing of the thing remains another matter. El Paso Mayor John Cook says local governments are participating at their own expense in exchange for a federal IOU. "Why is Texas, Texas taxpayers paying for this?," he asked. Reported a local news station, "Cook says protecting the border from illegal activity is the federal government’s job."

An earlier article I saw said this would be paid through a federal DHS grant, so the financing of Operation Wrangler will be another item to watch.

It's going to be an interesting year, huh? Let me know what else you hear out there about "Operation Wrangler."

UPDATE: Sen. Shapleigh's website has more details. NUTHER UPDATE: Mexican consulate blames profiling on Wrangler.

Who's on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committees?

Having examined the makeup of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in more depth, here's a quick take on the assignments to two other important criminal-justice related committees in the 80th Texas House:

On the Corrections Committee, Jerry Madden will remain committee chair with the surprise addition of veteran Houston Democrat Scott Hochberg as vice chair. Madden will lead a seven member committee with a 4-3 Democratic majority, but honestly most of the issues facing the committee this session don't really have a partisan slant to them. Vince thinks Democratic Caucus leader Jim Dunnam's appointment to this committee was an example of Craddick opponents being "benched," and if so I suppose fellow Democrat Rene Oliveira joins in the benching. Democrat Jim McReynolds is CBO with Delwin Jones of Lubbock and Pat Haggerty of El Paso rounding out the GOP members, all of whom were on the committee last time. Haggerty chaired Corrections himself a few years back, and joined Madden and Ray Allen, another past Republican Corrections Chair, to support strengthening the probation system in 2005. On its face, the committee's makeup bodes well for Madden and John Whitmire's proposed revamp of the probation system.

Juvenile Justice and Family Issues
Houston Democrat Harold Dutton will chair what must rank among the oddest of all the Craddick appointment decisions - a nine member, ALL DEMOCRAT Juvenile Justice and Family Issues committee! Craig Eiland, who's smart as a whip, joins the committee as vice chair. The rest are Yvonne Gonzales Toureilles, Mark Strama, Jessica Farrar, and freshmen Valinda Bolton, Ana Hernandez (who won the late Joe Moreno's old seat), Alan Vaught (who is also on Criminal Jurisprudence), and Joe Farias. It'll be interesting to find out, via this committee, what the Democratic agenda on these topics looks like; certainly this appears to be one committee where one would think some Ds could do some business.

Obviously from the inclusion of all the freshmen Ds on the Juvenile Justice and Criminal Jurisprudence Committees (and given Rep. Talton's reaction), Craddick doesn't consider these plum committee assignments. But every aspect of government is important, especially related to public safety and kids, and if Democrats want to show Texas they know how to govern, those committees will give them a platform.

MORE on committee assignments.

Speaker's race drama already spilling over into Criminal Jurisprudence Committee

Geez! Will the drama over the Speaker's race engulf the whole 80th Texas Legislature, or are these guys going to pull it together?

In the hours after House Speaker Tom Craddick announced this sesion's committee assignments, legislators' howling reactions sounded as though members time-traveled back two weeks ago to the height of the Speaker's race brawl.

Edinburg's Aaron Peña got the chairmanship of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee he wanted, but one of his new committee members, Robert Talton, already has defiantly declared he won't attend the meetings. As quoted by Peggy Fikac on the Texas Politics blog:
"I never asked for Criminal Jurisprudence. I don't want to be on it. I'm not going to go to a committee I don't want to be on," said Talton, who added that he will read a statement from the back microphone next week.
Heavens! ... Pout much, Mr. Talton?

Anyways, back to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which is particularly important because it decides on the bulk of bills that create new crimes, increase criminal penalties or change trial procedures affecting innocence cases, etc.. Not only will Peña, one of the Craddick Democrats, chair the committee, but Democrats hold a 7-2 majority overall, 7-1 if Talton makes good on his promise not to attend. Here's the list of Criminal Jurisprudence Committee members and party affiliations:
Chair, Aaron Peña (D)
Vice-Chair, Allen Vaught (D)
CBO, Debbie Riddle (R)
Terri Hodge (D)
Juan Escobar (D)
Barbara Mallory Caraway (D)
Paul Moreno (D)
Paula Pierson (D)
Robert Talton (R) ?
From that list, Reps Vaught, Caraway and Pierson are all freshmen and thus obviously newbies to the committee. Vaught is a Dallas lawyer specializing in civil environmental litigation. Caraway and Pierson were members of the Dallas and Arlington City Councils respectively.

Reps Moreno, Hodge, Escobar and Riddle all served on the committee with Peña in 2005 under Republican Terry Keel's leadership.

Of these, only Rep. Riddle, the committee's budget officer, is a Republican, and an arch-conservative at that from suburban Harris County. But I was happy to watch her knowledge of the often-difficult subject matter, IMO, mature over her first session on the committee in 2005. I bet even Ms. Riddle would agree she had more to contribute by the end of the 79th session than at the beginning, and given the complexity of the subject matter this committee handles, that may be true of the Democratic rookies this time as well.

Rep. Hodge is a long-time activist on prison reform, Moreno is an old-school liberal's liberal from El Paso, while Escobar is an ex-cop and former South Texas drug task force chief.

For good or ill, the Dallas Democratic surge in 2006 definitely affected the makeup of this body - with Terri Hodge, the three freshmen make four Dallas-area Democrats serving on the 9 member committee. If Rep. Talton makes good on his pledge not to participate, Dallas Ds will constitute four of the committee's 8 votes.

I can see why Talton felt back benched! What can you say? To the victors go the spoils.

Good luck, Chairman Peña, if all this turmoil keeps up you'll need it.

UPDATE: Analysis of Corrections and Juvenile Justice committees' membership.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Texas Bills Filed So Far By Topic

What issues interest you in Texas politics? Read what bills have been filed by topic at the 80th Texas Lege. Legislators can and will continue to file bills until the final hours of the 60th day of the session, which this year is March 9.

UPDATE! Committee assignments are out for the 80th Texas House of Representatives! Here's the list. More soon on who's where and what it might mean, but for starters, congrats to Texas' best-known blogger/legislator Aaron Peña on his elevation to chair of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

: Billy Clyde has a first blush blog analysis. Paul Burka has Jim Pitts' reaction. Rick Perry vs. the World has several items analyzing committee assignments. Capitol Annex runs through the list. See also the Houston Chronicle, Austin Statesman, Startlegram, and AP coverage.

More suicides, more guard arrests, more illness: 2006 Texas prison stats

Guard/blogger Marcus Smith at the Back Gate pulls some interesting numbers from TDCJ's annual 2006 statistical report:
  • About 58 Texas prison inmates attempt suicide every month - typically two or more succed. The number of attempted prisoner suicides in Texas increased from 559 in 2005 to 700 even in 2006.
  • A whopping 70 TDCJ guards are arrested monthly. Employee arrests increased from 761 in 2005 to 839 in 2006.
  • On the health front, "615 tested positive for the virus [in 2006], which brought the total level of HIV infected inmates to 2,400, [including] a population of 894 living with the full blown active AIDS virus."
See more from The Back Gate.

Prison ministries make a difference

Two stories caught my eye this week about small prison ministry programs in Texas making a difference. First, Dave Maass at the SA Curent lets us know about a prison ministry I was unaware of called "All Life Is Precious":
On Sundays, from 1–6 p.m., All Life is Precious Ministries broadcasts a “Shout-Out” radio show on KDOL 96.1 FM, preaching the gospel to the 2,900 inmates at the nearby Polunsky prison unit and providing a venue for supporters to communicate with the incarcerated. The night before an execution they broadcast a special show dedicated to the condemned inmate.
Meanwhile, the Longview News Journal has the story of Restoration Prison Ministry, a shelter and re-entry program in Longview. Said one participant of the program's matron: "With most people, it doesn't matter what happens to us ... We're just outcasts. But she puts you under her wing, and she tells you about God's love and forgiveness."

Our criminal justice system is far too screwed up for the politicians to fix it by themselves. People of goodwill must step forward to help, and that's a role that many Texas prison ministries fill. For my part, I'm glad they're there.

MORE: Another prison ministry story from The Back Gate.

Arrogance and Innocence

Dave Mann at the Texas Observer explores the arguments in favor of a Texas Innocence Commission, as does Glenna Whitley at the Dallas Observer, and Sheron Patterson at the Dallas News.

I wanted to also link to a particularly hostile string on the prosecutors' user forum criticizing the proposal, but they appear to have taken it down.

However you can still read the DA's consoling one another that negative public perceptions of prosecutors don't matter because their critics are morons: "The understanding of our work and choices are not for the least common denominator," said an Amarillo prosecutor. "While the American society has generated great persons of deep understanding, we also came up with Susan Sarandon and Steve Urkel."

I hope that's exactly the attitude DAs take when the Innocence Commission comes up for debate at the Legislature. Such arrogance, indeed the utter failure to acknowledge reality, belies DAs' weak position in the debate. Too many exonerations have occurred over the last few years for anyone to believe their critics are all ignorant and ill-informed.

La Mordida in Houston?

Those who think the practice of "la mordida" just happens in Mexico should check out this Houston Chronicle article. The accused cop allegedly accepted $200 (from an undercover officer in a sting) in exchange for releasing a motorist without giving a ticket. He faces felony bribery charges.

In Mexico "la mordida," which means "the little bite," is typically a small bribe paid to get out of a traffic ticket, or sometimes to bureaucrats in exchange for quicker or better service. A lot of people I've spoken to in Mexico view the practice as odious but acceptable or even justified because of the extreme low pay for Mexican cops. (I've even heard the practice compared to tipping for service at a restaurant.)

My friends south of the border tell me that the typical Mexican mordida on the highway runs around $15-20. The mordida in Houston, apparently, costs ten times that.

Snitches contribute to crime, corruption

Two recent, very different stories about law enforcement's use of confidential informants raise similar concerns: When police rely too heavily on "snitches," they risk tolerating crimes or even committing them.

First off, this month the Fourth Texas Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of a Fredericksburg police officer who thought it was "cool" to return seized marijuana to a snitch. (See coverage from the original trial.) Officer Clint Stewart performed a "consent search" at a traffic stop, arrested the driver for marijuana possession, then gave her back a portion of the dope after she agreed to work for police as a snitch. Stewart claimed he thought that was normal procedure. Said the court in a footnote to its decision:
Stewart was asked where he had heard that "this is done ... with some officers, you give a little bit of dope to them and then they bring you information?" He replied, "I've heard it from other officers, just TV, you know, just listening to people." He later explained he had heard of this behavior from a veteran narcotics officer in Corpus Christi. Stewart admitted on cross-examination that his law enforcement training did not include instruction that returning a portion of seized contraband was appropriate conduct.
Great - so now Texas cops are getting their notions about what's good policing from watching television!

To me, though, Stewart's likely innocent error of returning pot to a snitch pales in comparison to his real malfeasance: his willingness to lie in court and cover up the mistake. The ironically named Detective Weed in the Fredericksburg police department testified against his fellow officer:
Weed testified that when Stewart told him about returning part of the marihuana, Stewart asked "whether he should lie about it in court," to which Weed replied, "that's the last thing you'd want to do." As explanation of why he had returned some marihuana to Lavender, Stewart told Weed that he "thought it was cool" to give some back to develop a relationship with an informant. Weed, who had three to four years of narcotics experience, testified that he had not heard of officers giving back drugs to gain the rapport of an informant. Weed stated that he had explained to Stewart that the only time an officer might give drugs back would be in an undercover capacity.
The Fredericksburg police chief is angry about the case and said last year he questioned the motives of the District Attorney who brought it. But I say any DA who knows that a cop offered to lie in court and doesn't prosecute isn't doing their job. Even a snitch with critical information isn't worth that, much less some gal you picked up at a traffic stop with half an ounce of smoke. It's sad, and a shame, that a chief of police wouldn't understand that.

* * *
Meanwhile, the Statesman reported this week that a federal informant has been indicted for stealing thousands of dollars from more than 250 credit cards at convenience stores he ran in Austin ("One time informant pleads guilty to other crimes," Jan. 24).

In 2003, [Muhammed] Aslam became a federal informant, ratting on some associates to help FBI and IRS agents make their case in a multi-million-dollar illegal gambling and money laundering investigation that targeted a network of game rooms and convenience stores in Austin, according to federal court testimony.

In exchange for immunity in the case, Aslam told the agents about the convenience stores he operated that were owned by Tariq Majeed, who has since been indicted, along with 14 others in the case, an FBI agent testified last year.

But as the investigation progressed, authorities began to suspect Aslam was involved in a bevy of other criminal activity.

What is unclear in Aslam's case is whether his cooperation with the FBI and IRS drew authorities' attention to his other crimes. The Majeed investigation was led by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, while Aslam's investigation was led by a state and local financial crimes task force. FBI agent Timothy Stephens testified last year that Aslam was an informant until September 2005.

The federal charges came in August.

As part of the plea deal, investigators agreed not to pursue charges in federal and state court related to other crimes they suspected Aslam committed. According to court documents and testimony, he is suspected of frequently buying stolen gasoline, cigarettes, alcohol and other goods to sell at his stores. Since 2002 he has reported just $1.1 million in receipts for sales tax purposes to the state comptroller, even though more than $8 million went in and out of his bank accounts in that time, the documents show.

Some of that cash was sent to Pakistan, where Aslam has family, court documents show. It is unclear how it was spent.

So this fellow was an informant targeting improper money transfers to Pakistan, meanwhile he stole from more than 250 customers and had $7 million in unaccounted-for income pass through his bank accounts, some of which itself made its way to Pakistan, either to the defendants family or for heaven knows what purpose.

But the Joint Terrorism Task Force didn't care about any of that - it took state and local officials investigating to bring this case forward. Aslam's federal anti-terrorism handlers apparently never caught on that their snitch was funneling potentially millions of ill-gotten gains to a country widely known as a terrorism center!

You tell me: Were these snitches' contributions to justice worth the crimes tolerated or the police integrity breached? Or would officers (and the public) have been better served if they tried to make their cases another way?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Texas incarceration far outstrips population growth

A couple of people have told me they had trouble understanding the chart in the previous post, so let me bottom line it for you.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst says we need more prisons because of "population growth." But from 1978 until 2004, the Texas prison population increased 573% (from 22,439 to 151,059), while the state's total population increased just 67% (from 13.5 million to 22.5 million).

That's right - a 573% increase in prisoners and a 67% increase in population over the same period.

So tell me again how population growth is driving Texas incarceration?

Dewhurst wrong that "population growth" justifies prison building


Lt. Governor David Dewhurst says he thinks Texas needs to build more prisons because of "population growth." It sounds to me like he's been listening to Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who is the only person I've heard spouting such foolishness.

I would have thought it a little early for Gov. Dewhurst to make such pronouncements. His Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire and House Corrections Chair Jerry Madden haven't even revealed the details of their alternative yet (that's coming next week at a Jan. 30 hearing).

In the meantime, though, let's debunk this absurd notion right now that Texas needs more prison beds because of "population growth." The argument that prison building hasn't kept up with the population is only justified if you accept the most short-sighted possible analysis. Here's a quick comparison I compiled of Texas prison and population growth rates over the last century:

Year Prison Pop % Change Texas Pop (in millions) % Change
1900 4,109
1950 6,424 56.34% 7.8 155.74%
1972 15,709 144.54% 11.8 51.28%
1978 22,439 42.84% 13.5 14.41%
1985 37,621 67.66% 16.3 20.74%
1990 49,608 31.86% 17.0 4.29%
1994 92,669 86.80% 18.3 7.65%
1999 149,684 61.53% 20.0 9.29%
2004 151,059 0.92% 22.5 12.50%

Sources: Prison stats from Handbook of Texas and Texas Politics, except 1985 (letter) and 2004 (LBB report). TX population stats from the Texas State Library.

So yes, over the last five years or so Texas prison growth hasn't kept up with that of the entire population. But let's not kid ourselves: Texas would have PLENTY of prison capacity if population growth were the issue. Indeed, if Governor Perry hadn't vetoed SB 2193, which received broad bipartisan support in the Senate in 2005, Texas wouldn't be renting extra prison beds right now. (UPDATE: See this post summarizing table results.)

It's fine to have a debate about whether more prisons should be built, and it's certainly true that the Legislative Budget Board has projected that current policies would require more prison building. But let's not pretend current policies are Texas' only option. Besides, Texas can't find enough prison guards to staff current prisons. If we're 3,000 guards short now, how are we going to hire enough guards for three more maximum security units? Bottom line, we can't.

It's time for Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to undergo the same reality check that drove Chairmans Whitmire and Madden to seek new approaches. It's almost irresponsible to suggest that Texas build three new prisons. We're talking about big bucks here, not chump change. Dewhurst estimated three units might cost $50 to $75 million in annual debt charges, and the Sunset Advisory Commission said another $75 million per year would be required in staffing and operations costs.

Can you think of anything you'd rather the Lege do with $250 - $300 million per biennium?

Meanwhile, more than 400,000 people are supposedly being "supervised" by a broken-down nag of a probation system that Chairmans Whitmire and Madden want to strengthen. And thousands of parole-eligible non-violent offenders sit in prison after being refused parole in defiance of the parole board's own guidelines. (Sunset Commission testimony revealed that if the parole board followed its own release guidelines, there would be no Texas overincarceration crisis.)

Indeed, most people in Texas prisons are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. A few years ago the Justice Policy Institute calculated the memorable statistic that "Standing alone amongst the states, Texas' non-violent prison population represents the second largest incarcerated population in the country (after California), and is larger than the entire prisoner population (violent, and nonviolent) of the United Kingdom - a country of 60 million people - or New York, the nation's third largest state." (emphasis added)

That's nothing to be proud of. I'd encourage Gov. Dewhurst to embrace some of the reforms proposed in the past year by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and others who watch the system closely.

Big prisons are Big Government's crowning epitome. Texas tried the Big Government/Nanny State approach to crime for the last half-century, as the above chart indicates, yet our crime rate remains worse than states that incarcerate much smaller portions of their population. Why not try something besides throwing money at the same, failed approaches?

UPDATE: Kuff thinks the money would better be spent on enrolling more kids in CHIP. Vince says CHIP could use the cash.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

GOP doctor files needle exchange bill in Senate

All I can say is "Wow!" A conservative East Texas senator just filed a bill authorizing local governments to implement needle exchange programs. His backing may well give the legislation new life and legs in the 80th Texas Legislature.

Sen Bob Deuell, a medical doctor and state Senator from northeast Texas, just issued the following press release on the subject, which I'll reprint here in its entirety:

Deuell Files Needle Exchange Bill

Doctor / Senator Says Program Will Save Lives and Money

AUSTIN -- State Senator Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) today filed Senate Bill 308, relating to disease control programs aimed at reducing the risk of communicable diseases. A key component of the bill would allow local health authorities to set up programs that permit anonymous exchange of used hypodermic needles.

Deuell, a practicing family physician, stated the program will save lives, save money and could actually help get drug abusers into rehabilitation and treatment. Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), a certified pharmacist, has signed on as a joint author.

"I have seen extensive research that show programs like this reduce the spread of hepatitis and HIV, and do not encourage or increase the use of illegal drugs," Deuell said. "On the fiscal side, the cost of treating a single HIV case run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars making this program cost-effective as well."

Deuell also said this initiative may have the added incentive of getting drug users into treatment.

"The local health authorities who administer these programs may also provide drug counseling and treatment," Deuell said. "This might be the only time we can get to these people and give them the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves. One study showed more than 1,000 drug users found their way into treatment through a needle exchange program."

"As a physician and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, I am confident these programs make sense from a medical and a fiscal standpoint," Deuell said. "I firmly believe this represents good, conservative public policy."

Co-sponsoring with Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (one of my personal favorites in the Texas Senate) was an especially astute move. As a prominent Democrat she gives the legislation serious bipartisan support, and as a pharmacist by trade she, like Deuell, can draw on her professional credibility to advocate for the bill.

In each of the last three sessions, Sen. Jon Lindsay (R-Houston) sponsored similar legislation. In 2005 it finally cleared a Republican-dominated committee before receiving majority support on the Senate floor, but couldn't quite muster enough votes to overcome the 2/3 rule, so never passed. With the powerhouse duo of Deuell and Van de Putte pushing the idea on medical and public safety grounds (Lindsay, as a former county judge, was more concerned about rising medical costs to local hospital districts), this should be a somewhat different debate, and a potentially fascinating legislative journey to watch in the coming months.

Congrats to both Deuell and Van de Putte for embracing this important effort. There's no big money lobby pushing needle exchange; the only reason for these senators to take up the mantle is that they want to do the right thing to prevent disease and encourage addicts to enter drug treatment. I applaud them both for it.

UPDATE: Guess what other conservatives like the idea? Our friends at the Lone Star Times. Who'da thunk it? As one supportive LST commenter put it, “'Conservative' should not be synonymous with 'oblivious.'”