Saturday, June 30, 2007

Open Thread: Evaluating the Ombudsman's Plan and TYC Media Coverage

Via Quorum Report, here is Texas Youth Commission Ombudsman Will Harrell's plan for his office and the letter for House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden and Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa. As mentioned previously, Harrell told the Austin Statesman: "I asked for $3.5 million (for two years), and I got $600,000 to do this job. And I have no staff until Sept. 1. ... The Legislature has given me a huge unfunded mandate." I haven't had time to examine either document but TYC employees in particular should take a look and let me know in the comments whether you think this article by Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman was a fair representation of the plan given limited resources.

In addition, some commenters here thought Ward misrepresented in this article how determinations are made at TYC for how long to incarcerate youth and when to release them. One commenter suggested next time he contact his ex-wife, Pamela Ward, who was formerly TYC's public information officer (!). I never knew that tidbit!

Consider this an open thread to discuss these articles and other TYC-related topics.

MORE: FYI, here's a pretty substantive media report from the TYC State of the Agency meeting Thursday in Waco.

AND MORE: The Dallas News says 503 misdemeanor offenders were still incarcerated in TYC facilities as of June 13. Question to TYC readers: What are the reasons these kids haven't been processed yet? What rules, practices or other impediments must Ed Owens and Dimitria Pope change or overcome to do this before school starts in the fall? And finally, how many of these kids haven't been released because they don't have anywhere suitable to go, and what are their options?

Chaos Theory and Restorative Justice

Twila Hugley Earle was introduced in Kerrville as the wife of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who was an early adopter among prosecutors of restorative justice practices and who gave a plenary address I'll discuss soon. But after hearing Twila's presentation on "Chaos Theory and Restorative Justice," I think perhaps Ronnie might have been better introduced as her husband - she's quite a smart gal, and her presentation represented some deep, big-picture thinking that made me tell the Travis DA after her talk that Twila's clearly the brains of the outfit. ;)

What follows are taken from my notes, and like all these missives much of the language, even that's not in quotes, I paraphrased closely from how Earle put things. So here and elsehwere in notes from this conference, attribute any perceived eloquence to the speakers and all errors or misunderstandings to the transcriber. Her ideas, like Zehr's, Umbreit's, and several other presentations, reframed fundamentally how I and most people usually think about criminal justice, so it's worth laying the ideas out in one place as she presented them and I understood them.

Earle said she'd been attending conferences on crminal justice topics for more than 20 years, and became tired of hearing high-level practitioners, then she'd go home as a practicing social worker and sex offender counselor and try to implement them, only to discover that often she couldn't make them work. She heard the same frustration from others, she said. As a practitioner, she's less interested in theoretical arguments than in understanding what works and why.

A basic shift in science is driving the world we live in that can also inform how we approach criminal justice. Newtonian science is linear, mechanical, focused on cause and effect, she said - you know, the way lawyers, judges, journalists and engineers think.

The Newtonian worldview sees both change and order mechanically, but reality is more dynamic. Chaos theory offers an alternative.

Chaos theory is a mathematical concept that can be applied to human systems. The core focus of Chaos theory in the context of corrections policy is the study of "order," she said, giving insight into how to produce stable systems from a dynamic context. Chaos theory sounds like a paradox in name, but it's really the study of how turbulence transforms into order organically.

Chaos theory offers a framework when Newtonian models break down. It's not a replacement, but an accompaniment to Newtonian math and physics. It's not an either-or thing: Both are true, side by side. Linear, Newtonian cause and effect explains many things in the world, and simultaneously, for reasons that often appear ineffable at the time, other systems' stability can only be explained through models providing less certitude.

The world is moving from two dimensional thinking to multiple dimensions, three dimensions but even more. Three points is the smallest number of points with which you can surround something. Two points just gives you a line. There's the difference in a nutshell, from a mathematical point of view.

It's said that the social sciences lag 100 years behind hard science, and what was happening in the hard sciences 100 years ago? Basically, she said, Einstein's theory of relativity changed math and science forever. Similarly, today the social sciences must come to grips with ever-more dynamic, complex realities that don't fit into linear equations. As with chaos theory in math, it's not that reality can't be accurately described, but old ways of thinking don't always provide the right tools.

Only by becoming multi-dimensional can we operate in civilization's third milenium, she said, when societies' economies, technologies and even ideologies change rapidly and linear thinking can't always generate a solution. Restorative justice operates more along such a model.

Charles Darwin, she pointed out, did not say that the strongest or most intelligent species would survive, but those most responsive to change.

It's more difficult to create a dynamic program that's responsive to change than a one-size-fits all, top-down model, and many efforts didn't succeed because they couldn't meet dynamic sets of circumstances and needs. In the restorative justice arena, she said, programs that work usually have something to do with self organization and self governance. For that reason, she particularly liked sentencing circles, victim-offender mediation programs, and other RJ practices that contained a self organizing component.

Chaos theory is so named because of nonlinear math equations called chaotic equations. Equations where X never has the same value. This was thought to be meaningless – random. Then computerization allowed more complex graphing in three dimensions, and mathematicians found new patterns.

One such equation graphed three dimensionally produced massive figure-8 patterns but where the lines, in three dimensions, never touch. Mathematicians call holes in the figure 8, formed naturally and inexplicably in the graph, “basins of meaning.” The result's not like a machine, she said, more like a seemless flowing web of interconnectedness.

These recurring shapes generated through chaotic equations go way back in human culture before anyone was able to do such higher level math. Jung talked about spirals and their importance in human history, she said, and she had slides of images of combined figure-8 spirals strikingly similar to the "Lorenz" pattern she'd shown us dating back as far as ancient Babylon.

Fractals are patterns that exist in nature, which Earle said were characterized by "self-similarity of pattern across scale." Looking at a fractal in micro appears the same as in macro, she said, like a person standing between two mirrors who can see ever smaller images of themselves instead of a single figure. In the mind's eye, a fractal is a way of seeing infinity. The classic biological example is the human circulatory system, which is fractalized all the way to the finest capillary.

You can also use fractals to identify problems in a complex situation. Look at the pattern, go backwards, and often you'll find it's still there. You can see fractalized patterns even buried in the white noise from pre-identifiable patterns once you look back. It all begins to raise the question, "how deep is order?"

When you think about social problems as massive and intractable as crime and the justice system, she said, it's always important to determine whether it's possible to expand or reduce any suggested change to the appropriate scale. Fractals provide a good method for analyzing such otherwise paradoxical problems.

"Dissipative structure" is a form of organization that gathers energy from the turbulence of its environment, self integrates the energy into a form, then put the rest of what it needs back into the environment. The first applications of this in the hard sciences came from meteorology examining hurricanes, tornadoes, and funnels.

More controlled experiments were possible by analyzing patterns in streams of water that change dynamically over time. Newtonian physicists thought that was because something happened upstream, but even in controlled experiments, patterns in watter were found to occur naturally. Such patterns in water build toward tipping points, she said, in four distinct phases:

  1. No observable pattern at first.

  2. Pockets of order and patterns. Islands of order.

  3. Quite a few islands of order will have disappeared, others got bigger through “resonance” Some patterns catch on, others fall out.

  4. Almost all patterns have fallen out – only one, two, maybe three are left.

After that, she said, everything falls apart again with no observable pattern – or at least you can't tell what pattern. This is not the same as randomness. Scientists can predict there will be patterns but not what they'll be or their sequence.

In a Chaos theory model, conflict and turbulence aren't viewed as disrupting to the process but as their own source of energy and power. The Founding Fathers realized this when they created the separation of powers in the US governance structure. Conflict is a resource! If you don't have enough resources, but you have conflict and turbulence, those are energy - you have an potentially endless fuel supply.

New patterns and shapes emerge when you get enough turbulence to brings diverse points of the system into greater levels of interaction in a braiding effect, until they're in simultaneous or near-simultaneous action, then the pattern "tips" into a shape.

The classic example in water is a Vortex. You never see part of a Vortex. It's a pattern that's created because of a specific set of temporary interactions. This is one of the most common recurring fractal patterns. Even 80% of galaxies are vortices, though 20% are not. The spiral is ineffably hardwired into our system.

A society is a dissipative structure. So is a person. So is a whirlpool. People build toward change then hit tipping points. So do social systems. The trick is learning to integrate linear and nonlinear approaches, she said, to understand that both may be useful depending on the situation and application and making the right choice to avoid unintended consequences. This is why she likes restorative justice models with a self organizing component - because it allows a dynamic adjustment to the situation instead of just following a pre-set, perhaps inapplicable set of rules.

She looks for programs with natural, self organizing orders combining a few simple rules with randomness, wildness. There's not a universally applicable program or rules for practice. Each result must be appropriate to situation. Most successful RJ programs, she said, had these key elements:

  • Diversity of viewpoints – like diverse points in turbulence that interact to create the whirlpool. If you don't get "enough of the problem in the room" you don't have enough to work with to develop a stable pattern.

  • Interaction is required.

  • Mutual respect – this is the key leadership issue for facilitating RJ practices. Define a process that's conducive to the emergence of mutual respect. The most important thing a leader can do is set tone.

For example, she said, sentencing circles seem redundant sometimes, talking "around and around," but after just a bit, patterns form from the conflict. Most "circles" operate on consensus rules, meaning any one person can overturn the sentence (and send it back to the judge or jury for sentencing). The consenus requirement and creating structural rules to require listening help the process work. You can't know up front what a sentence will be, but the sentencing circle process reaches consensus 80% of time or more. Discussions in these settinsg dig deeper into causal layers you'd never get to under trial court rules, said Earle, giving richer information on which to base decisions and craft solutions.

These ideas can be used to create something, she said, but also to diagnose a problem: you can look at patterns in a system to see which one of those three things has a deficiency.

In Newtonian physics disorder is bad. But that kind of order is brittle because it doesn't make use of the energies causing disorder. The rules of power and engagement are changing. Conflict is a resource. Sometimes the answers aren't obvious, she said, and all you can do is "Make a pocket of order and see what resonates."

Earle asked participants to close their eyes and identify the image associated with "peace." Most were typical, calm, pastoral scenes. The dove, nature, etc. Most images of peace are low energy, she said, but real peace must have conflict embedded in it, will require conflict.

True peace, said Earle, must be designed to include, to embrace "turbulence."

Judge Rob Junell and his wife's wildest dreams

I was flattered while in Kerrville when federal district judge and former Texas House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Junell came up to introduce himself and declared himself a blog reader. He first began reading blogs, he said, because Eileen Smith of In the Pink Texas was a staffer of his at the Legislature, and he'd stumbled onto Grits thanks to her, he said. (The judge asked me to tell her "hello," so "Hello, Eileen.")

Junell told a story during one of the workshops that cracked me up and I thought I'd share it. When he was first appointed to the federal bench, he said, he came home one night to the missus and bragged to her about the authority of his new position. I'm making life altering decisions every day, he told her, and everyone gives me so much respect. When I walk into the room everyone stands until I'm seated, and they all stand up whenever I leave. When I speak the courtroom becomes quiet as a tomb and everone pays close attention, he said. Honey, did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine you'd be married to someone so powerful?

"Rob," his wife replied, "you aren't in my wildest dreams."

Are there options to warehousing mentally ill offenders in jail?

Though the topic of the Kerrville conference was on "restorative justice," you can probably tell from my posts on the subject so far that the definition of what issues that entails remains unsettled. Two presentations I heard didn't focus on restorative justice per se, as I understand the concept, but rather on problems managing mentally ill populations in local Texas county jails. However, since that's a keen interest of mine, I was happy to get the opportunity to learn more about what's going on in two major Texas cities: Houston and San Antonio.

Scott Hickey from the Harris County MHMR Authority - one of 31 regional MHMR "community centers" in the state - gave an overview of mental illness by the numbers in the Harris County jail system based on extensive database matching with state and local sources.

Hickey found that 24% of the Harris County jail population (9,000 people at any one time) have been diagnosed with a mental illness and 11% have serious mental illness, defined as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression.

The most frequent diagnoses for adults in the Harris Jail are bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, schizophrenia, major depression. "Conduct disorder" in this context is an interesting case (19% of those with an MH diagnosis in jail) because that's largely a designation for kids, not adults. Hickey said this means those people likely were involved with the juvenile justice system as youth before getting into trouble as adults.

People with mental illness, said Hickey, end up spending more time in jail than others with similar charges. A large number are there for minor things, he said, but it's incorrect to assume that's always the case. Those with MH diagnoses in jail are slightly more likely to be charged with felonies than non-MH offenders, he said, though in many cases these are low-level drug felonies instead of more serious crimes.

Hickey's number crunching revealed some shocking data regarding the rate of charges against Harris County residents per 100,000 people. Regular citizens, he said, accumulated 2,565 charges per 100,000 county residents. For people with mental illness, though, that figure skyrocketed to 16,354 per 100,000: A 6-1 ratio.

“We take as evidence that mental illness is being criminalized,” said Hickey. Jails are full of people with mental disorders largely because of lack of indigent mental health care and arrests for drug crimes, said Hickey.

Fewer than 55,000 Americans are treated in psych hospitals, said Hickey, while almost 10 times that many, nearly 500,000 mentally ill people, are serving time in US jails and prisons. He estimated that 6-7% of Americans have a mental disorder severe enough to impair day to day functioning, and said rates for mental illness have been flat over the years.

Less than half mentally ill get treatment, Hickey said, and when they do most have already suffered and delayed treatment for ten years. (That's particularly problematic for patients with schizophrenia, he said, because psychosis releases toxic chemicals that cause more brain damage the longer it goes untreated.)

But it doesn't end there, because those with mental disorders are more likely to stay in the system longer for low-level offenses than their "regular" counterparts - while people with mental illness are six times as likely to be charged with a crime, said Hickey, in Harris County they're 12 times as likely to end up in jail as people without them.

Hickey has performed prelimnary estimates to discover the cost of treating mental illness through the Harris County crimnal justice system.

People with mental illness committed 2,597 felony cases in Harris County in 2004, he said, and 3,505 misdemeanors. Overall, they accounted for 7,933 separate law enforcement events (the number of times police are called to scene). In all, these offenders accounted for 183,016 jail days in Harris County for all diagnoses. The total costs in 2004: $23,746,127 for 4,675 unduplicated persons, at $5,079 per person.

By contrast, people in community cost $2,311 per person for treatment through the community center.

I should mention that these figures are lowballed, for sure - I asked Hickey, for example, if they included expenses related to competency restoration for mentally ill defendants charged with crimes, but he said that was separate. Harris County is the only area in the state where the local MHMR community center provides competency restoration services in the jail instead of sending defendants to a state hospital.

Using local competency restoration services reduced waiting time for those defendants from 60 to 21 days, he said.

Hickey also discussed juvenile mental health issues, declaring that one in five kids in the juvenile justice system in Harris have a serious mental disorder. Rates of mental disorder are higher for girls than boys, he said, especially for affective and anxiety disorders. No parent of a teenager will be surprised to learn that juvenile offenses peaked at age 14 then decline thereafter.

Federal studies say 70% or more of juvies incarcerated are mentally ill, but when Harris County matched mental health records with the juvenile probation roles, they found 24.8% of kids matched. Hickey wondered why the others did not have access to mental healthcare and whether, if they had, it could have changed their criminal ways, and provided data to support the suggestion

Of kids listed in both the mental health and juvenile probation rolls, about 6,500 came in first through mental health system, and more than twice as many, 15,600, came in first through the juvenile justice system.

Hickey found that kids who get earlier MH treatment have fewer criminal referrals and court dispositions. He concluded that kids who get treatment earlier are associated with fewer charges, less serious charges, and less severe offenses over their lifetime. His results suggest there are benefits to entering through the "mental health door" instead of the courts. His findings confirm the value of early treatment and support diversion from the juvie system to the mental health system wherever possible, he said.

* * *

If Dr. Hickey defined the scope of the problem, I was pleased to hear Dr. Gilbert Gonzales from Bexar County describing systems they use to manage such folks, coordinating efforts with 43 different police departments in Bexar to divert mentally ill misdemeanor offenders from the county jail.

Bexar launched their jail diversion center planning when the 78th Texas Legislature cut $8 million from the budget for treating mentally ill in jail in 2003. This was a big financial hit, he said, so in response the county formulated a series of jail diversion initiatives that became the Crisis Care Center.

Gonzales desribed a "jail diversion continuum" beginning when the officer comes out to the scene to jail intake, pretrial services, probation, parole, and other points in the system. Bexar's goal with the crisis care center was to create a 24-7 facility with a policy of no refusal for psych assessment and minor medical issues. They needed a method that was quick so officers wouldn't prefer to simply dump clients in jail, he said.

Researching the idea, police told them they had disaster on their hands because they had to take every person with the smallest scratch on them, even if they were mentally ill, to emergency rooms for treatment before they could get a psych referral or be taken to jail.

Working with law enforcement, they developed training in new, joint procedures that gave police one place to come for medical clearance and psych screenings. An officer can give the Crisis Care center authority for “emergency detention,” then leave within 15 minutes. Gonzales called the concept "stop and drop." Police loved it, he said, because it solved so many operational issues.

Prior officer wait times for medical clearance in San Antonio exceeded 9 hours, down to 45 minutes. For combination med and psychiatric screenings, the wait went from 12-14 hours to about an hour.

Legislators listen to dollars more than justice arguments, said Gonzales. Estimated savings to the jail in first year was $8 million, and police saved another $620,000.

Many independent entities bear different expenses for mentally ill defendants, but nobody talks so he couldn't estimate a total. Savings accrued to the local hospital, the city, the county, the Department of State Health Services, etc., but each within their own system, so the full amount is not quantifiable. He did show a chart from Bexar's data that clearly indicated when utilization of mental health services goes up, incarceration rates go down.

Gonzales cautioned that in order to work, police officers need to see diversion schemes as active partners. Officers need authority to take a longer period of time at conflict resolution, and giving them that leeway has helped keep quite a few low-level offenders out of the system..

There's also a need on the civil side, he said, for dealing with people who, left unattended, would likely need help later.
* * *

Once I learned more about the definition of restorative justice, I realized that these presentations, however interesting, really didn't fit under that rubric. Neither man spoke of victims of the mentally ill's crimes, and the only "restoration" contemplated by either was of the offenders' mental state. Hickey and Gonzales aren't practicing restorative approaches, they're government bureaucrats trying to manage the system we have, which often doesn't work very well. That's not a beef, just an observation.

However, restorative approaches that focus on "healing" inevitably must focus on healing those who are actually sick, especially when that sickness is a root cause of the crimes they commit. Healing damage to victims may repair past wrongs, but healing these populations contributes to reducing future crime. And as Dr. Hickey's research shows, using healing approaches BEFORE incarceration leads to better outcomes for offenders and victims all around.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Site Stuff: Conference Funding Update, and How Many Grits Readers Are Regulars?

First, I want to thank everybody who donated for me to attend the Restorative Justice conference in Kerrville - I'd asked readers to pony up $400 for me to attend, and by the time I'd returned from the event the total was just over $500 in response (and that's before I've checked the PO Box). Thanks, y'all, that really helps make it possible for me to provide higher-level stuff on this blog. It'll take me a few more days to finish up my reporting and thoughts on the conference, and I hope when I'm done writing up the event everyone thinks their contribution was worth it.

In other site news, since I signed up for Google Analytics three weeks ago I've gotten a lot of interesting data about Grits' site traffic. Perhaps the most interesting data have been metrics that give me a better sense of the number of Grits "regulars," which for these purposes I'll define as readers who visit the site on average three or more time per week.

According to Google Analytics, over the last three weeks 6,233 unique readers visited this blog nine or more times! That's a lot of folks, especially now that the Lege session is over. Thanks for reading, everybody!

Texas Criminal Justice News Worth Watching

I've been focused on writing up what I learned at the Restorative Justice conference and haven't paid much attention this week to the daily news, but I wanted to point out several items of interest that cropped up while my thoughts were diverted elsewhere:

Houston city councilman proposes inmate re-entry 'welcome center'
Harris County has a larger population - about 3.5 million - than more than half of US states. In addition, because of local prosecutorial and policing practices, they incarcerate a disproportionate share of their citizens compared to other large cities and the rest of Texas. So it makes a lot of sense, if you want to prevent crime, to pay attention to folks returning to your community from prison. Houston City Councilmember Peter Brown wants to create a welcome center where the Greyhound bus drops off inmates in downtown Houston to offer "job counseling and social guidance." I'll tell you right now, the two things they need are jobs and a place to live - help them there on the front end, and I'll bet Houston could prevent quite a bit of future crime down the line.

Collin County DA takes courageous stand against TV vigilantes
Big kudos to Collin County District Attorney John Roach for refusing to prosecute cases based on the NBC Dateline TV show's infamous "To Catch a Predator" series - he said he won't pursue indictments in 24 cases stemming from the show's investigation, the first district attorney in the country to refuse. He told AP "neither police nor NBC could guarantee the chat logs were authentic and complete." By comparison to Dateline, AP reported, "Eric Nichols, a Texas deputy attorney general, said that when law enforcement authorities pull an Internet sex sting, officers posing as decoys follow strict rules. Detailed chat logs are kept to ensure that 'sex talk' is initiated by the potential predator. That way, a defendant cannot claim entrapment."

Everybody wants to build a jail
The county commissioners court in Midland thinks a new jail is necessary. In Huntsville, Walker County officials foolishly are proposing new jail construction on the assumption that a new facility will "generate revenue for the county." (Wanna bet?) In Brenham a surfeit of female inmates is making it impossible to meet state jail standards. A new jail proposed in Bryan-College Station would require a 2 cent increase in the property tax. The billion dollar jail-and-courts bond package proposed in Harris County would result in nearly the same tax hike, estimated at 1.73 cents, or require massive cuts elsewhere to avoid a tax increase. In Palestine, voters approved a jail expansion plan with a low-balled budget, but construction defects and extra expenses may tie the thing up in litigation and keep it from opening. In Lubbock a new jail wing just opened that cost taxpayers $96 million plus interest. They'll need to hire 140 more guards in Lubbock to staff the facility, but I'd bet dollars to donuts they can't find that many people. The can't find enough guards in Dallas, that's for sure.

TYC ombudsman under fire
More on this soon, but the Texas Youth Commission's new ombudsman, who happens to be Will Harrell, my former boss from ACLU of Texas, is taking some media-generated heat from politicians who're criticizing his plan for the new office. Reading between the lines, this was a bit of a hit job by Austin Statesman reporter Mike Ward, who generated the response from legislators himself with an open record request and reported the story before Harrell had seen their letter. Will's response "I asked for $3.5 million (for two years), and I got $600,000 to do this job. And I have no staff until Sept. 1." Although the overhaul legislation took effect immediately, the new state budget does not take effect until this fall. "The Legislature has given me a huge unfunded mandate," he added. "I'm working right now on assistance from foundations and through grants." I've asked Will for a copy of his plan and the legislators' letter, so I'll post them soon and let readers see for themselves what the fuss is about and what y'all think about it.

Another day, another corrupt LEO
A Dallas County Constable has resigned amidst a corruption scandal, reports the Morning News: "Thursday began with a court hearing in which Mr. Dupree lost his final chance to avoid a jury trial that would have sought his removal. At trial, dozens of employee allegations – many of them sexual and criminal in nature – probably would have been aired." You tell me, is this justice? He pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge and will avoid jail, but here were the allegations in the removal petition:

• Ordered one of his deputies to plant cocaine on election opponents during traffic stops.
• Ordered the same deputy to shoot out his car windows so he could file a police report blaming an opponent for the incident.
• Made inappropriate social and sexual advances toward employees.
• Had an employee drive him around Oak Cliff so he could flirt with young Hispanic men.
• Ordered a deputy to dismiss traffic tickets written to young Hispanic men so he could see them socially.

America has more prisoners than ever
Finally, nationwide prison admissions have jumped more than 17% since 2000, and the US prison population is at its highest level ever at 2.2 million people.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Toastmasters teaching inmates public speaking skills

One of the cool things I was privileged to witness at the Restorative Justice Conference in Kerrville was the presentation of completion certificates to two female ex-inmates who'd participated in the Toastmasters public speaking program while incarcerated. A gentleman who'd been with the organization for many years in the Texas Panhandle visited the prison unit weekly where they were incarcerated to mentor women who'd volunteered for the program. One of the gals had been out of prison for three weeks, the other just five days.

It was really neat - both were so bright, well-spoken, and deeply appreciative of the fellow who'd volunteered his time. (I didn't catch his name, but to me this fellow is a true, unheralded hero.)

I've heard of Toastmasters my whole life, and known a few people who've participated to hone their public speaking skills. But I've never heard before of the program working with prison inmates. What a great idea! Those kind of communication skills will benefit those women for the rest of their lives.

See a video example of inmates participating in the Toastmasters program, and go here for more information if you'd like to participate in such a program.

Blogversation: Does the Criminal Justice System Meet Victims' (or Anybody's) Needs?

With all the talk of victim's rights and restorative justice, I was interested to read this post by Houston defense lawyer Mark Bennett reacting to a prosecutor's email and this Grits post. From Bennett's observation, if the criminal justice system meets anyone's needs, including the victim, it's usually only by accident. He writes:
Do you suppose that those victims who want retribution (their idea of justice) feel that justice has been delivered when (because of police or prosecutorial error, for example) their attackers go free? The criminal "justice" system is not there to provide a forum -- or anything else -- to the victims. Witness how often the wishes of complaining witnesses are disregarded by proescutors. If it happens that the criminal "justice" system satisfies some need of some human being, it's mere coincidence. Anyone who expects it to do so or has faith that it will doesn't understand the system.

Clarence Darrow said:
We have heard talk of justice. Is there anybody who knows what justice is? No one on earth can measure out justice. Can you look at any man and say what he deserves -- whether he deserves hanging by the neck until dead or life in prison or thirty days in prison or a medal? The human mind is blind to all who seek to look in at it and to most of us that look out from it. Justice is something that man knows little about. He may know something about charity and understanding and mercy, and he should cling to those as far as he can.
I suppose that if I had to be a prosecutor I would have to believe that people can know what justice is. I would further have to believe, hubristically, that I knew who should be "held accountable" for what transgressions, and how. The prosecutorial venture would seem entirely hollow otherwise. But -- thank God I'm a defender -- I know that Darrow was right.

In a perfect world, I would want to see a criminal justice system based on restoration -- making whole the people who are hurt -- rather than retribution. In such a system I could comfortably operate on either side, working to heal victims as well as offenders. But that's not the system we have.

If ex-prisoners can build a country in Australia, why can't they be barbers in Texas?

Introducing Leigh Garrett from Adelaide Australia today at a Texas Public Policy Foundation luncheon, Center for Effective Justice Director Marc Levin pointed out that Australia's story as a former prison colony turned indpendent nation state demonstrates that ex-offenders can contribute to building a just and fair society. It's ironic, Levin pointed out, that in Texas ex-felons cannot be barbers but in Australia ex-felons built an entire nation of their own.

At the conference in Kerrville, Garrett said that restorative justice - which in the UK is called relational justice - is about "real life, real problems, and real solutions." More than most other participants in the conference, Garrett has participated in operationalizing restorative justice principles in ways that make me optimistic it might have applications for a system as massive and sprawling as ours here in Texas.

The former senior executive in Department of Correctional Services in South Australia began looking for alternatives to a failed criminal justice system in 1996. The state of South Australia has 1.5 million people, he said, and about 1.4 million live in Adelaide, about the same size city as San Antonio. Ultimately he joined a non-governmental organization, deciding it was easier to impact system from without than from within.

"Who owns justice?" Garrett asked. The police say "we do." The courts say "we do." The Corrections division, he said, doesn't really CARE - "we're just at the bottom end of the nightmare," he declared, and all they generally want is "give us more money." But justice, he said, doesn't belong to the state, it belongs to the citizenry. The government is supposed to exercise its authority on behalf of the people, but too often its aims and solutions are self aggrandizing, not focused on repairing damage.

He rightly pointed out that the traditional message the public gets about criminal justice is that "what we've got isn't working so we need more of it." That's certainly our attitude here, but by contrast the Australian system Garrett is criticizing is a fraction of the size of ours in Texas. About 70 people are incarcerated per 100,000 population in Australia, he said. For the United States that figure is around 700 per 100,000. For Texas the figure is about 1,035 per 100K population.


In other words, Australia incarcerates its citizenry at around 7% the rate we do in Texas. Now tell me, who do you suspect has the lower crime rates?

Garrett focused on improvements to the system for the victim, and said victim satisfaction for restorative justice programs in Adelaide were around 85%, compared to 16% for victims whose cases were processed through the regular justice system.

Some of Garrett's more concrete examples involved using sentencing circles to determine punishments and outcomes for offenders, particularly in lower level offenses but also in several vehicular manslaughter cases. The victim does not have to participate - they can always choose to have the case processed through the regular court system - and if the parties cannot agree on an outcome it falls back to the traditional court process, which gives teeth to the measure and strong incentives for offenders to comply. Indeed, said Garrett, both restitution and compliance with probation terms are higher for offenders whose sentences are determined through a conference with the victim.

As in other jurisdictions, the first area to embrace restorative practices in Adelaide was in the juvenile justice arena. In South Australia many low-level juvie cases are handled not through the courts but through agreements extracted through a police officer with youth and their parents that keeps them out of the system entirely. In addition, for 15 years they've had a juvenile diversion court for kids who've been cautioned several times or reneged on agreements with officers - they go through sentencing circle process that may include the victim but also people from the neighborhood and other stakeholders.

His organization does a lot of work in schools on bullying, he said. Most people in Australia, when asked, can tell stories of being bullied as a child, and research shows that when victimization has no other outlets, it often can cause its targets to victimize others later in life. That's probably true here, too, though I've never seen research on the subject - for me it was a fellow in 7th grade named Jimmy Don who was twice my size, sported a full beard by middle school, and whippped my ass with great regularity for most of a semester, to the point where I took different paths walking to school each morning to avoid him.

Garrett's group is working with schools to implement restorative justice responses to student misconduct from the earliest ages, hoping that when they're older an entire generation will have learned a different way of handling conflicts.

Garrett's organization also does post-release restorative conferencing, and he praised the healing effects of such encounters even when they have no impact on sentencing. In one case after such a post-release conference, a victim's mother told him, “I've unlocked myself from my own prison, one I've been in for 15 years.”

They've also influenced state government to use restorative policies in lieu of instead of a "three strikes and you're out" policy in public housing. Since most people in public housing are already poor, he pointed out, expelling them into the streets only postpones, usually for a short time, their entrance into the criminal justice system. Now they have a restoratively based dispute resolution process in place when neighbors can't get along.

The concepts of restorative justice, he said, are alive and well in Australia.

Garrett cautioned, though, that virtually all anti-crime resources go toward addressing offenders after they get into trouble, with not nearly enough focus on prevention, which he thinks is given short shrift.

I liked Garrett a lot - he was pragmatic but visionary, aggressive, but patient enough to adopt a long-term approach that from his account appears to be paying benefits. Impressive, inspiring work from down under. His account finally for me was a tipping point that made me think these ideas can be scaled up and successfully operationalized, not just promoted theoretically from the ivory tower.

Truth, Reconciliation, and the Risks of Restorative Justice Lite

In the comments to this post a reader asked me to better define restorative justice. I tried there, but perhaps the comments of Dr. Mark Umbreit from the University of Minnesota, a luminary in the field who spoke at the national Restorative Justice Conference on Monday, will clarify the matter more. (Those interested should also poke around his center's excellent website for more research and background on the subject.)

Umbreit began by pointing out the paradox that restorative justice is a combination of the very old and the very new. While Tony Blair made headlines implementing restorative justice principles into some of the UK's criminal justice system, he said, in many ways the movement is really just the modern world catching on to ideas first used in North American indigenous settings for thousands of years. It's not just a paradigm shift for justice, said Umbreit, but potentially a fundamental change in our way of life.

(A speaker from Australia who I'll discuss more later said the same thing - in Adelaide they hope to begin using RJ techniques early in the schools, as soon as kindergarten, in the hopes that when those kids grow up they'll have a different understanding of crime and punishment and as adults look at the prison system and say, "That's not how we do things.")

Which brings us to Umbreit's next point: Restorative justice is a philosophy, not a program. It's not just victim-offender mediation or sentencing circles, it's a different way of understanding and responding to crime and conflict, about how we treat each other in all aspects of life. What is that philosophy? In a nutshell: "Crime is a wound and justice requires healing." It's the idea that "People most affected by crime [should] have the opportunity to come together to talk about impacts, repairing harms and to further healing."

His definition was essentially similar to Howard Zehr's, who said under a Restorative Justice model, violations create obligations for which offenders should be accountable. Restorative Justice, said Zehr, asks: "Who's been hurt, what are their needs, and whose obligations are they?"

RJ provides a different path, said Umbreit, neither liberal nor conservative. It's "going back to the future, back to core values of all of our cultures."

Restorative justice ideas are slowly seeping into government institutions and popular culture, Umbreit said. In 2002 UN endorsed RJ principles. The same year the European Union required states to provide victim-offender mediation by 2006. Russia, several former Eastern bloc countries, Colombia, El Salvador, and Bolivia all have promising RJ initiatives, he said.

With all these positive developments, though, Umbreit declared that the restorative justice movement is in danger of "losing its soul" and becoming "Restorative Justice Lite." The word victim often isn't even included in planning or documents of some so-called RJ programs, he said, whereas a true restorative justice model is always victim-centered, not focused on the offenders' needs.

Offender rehab is not restorative justice, said Umbreit. Restorative Justice is always victim driven. It's a broad set of principles, but the centrality of victims is at the core.


Umbreit in particular praised the effectiveness of peace making circles, where victims, offenders and other affected parties meet in a mediated setting, but said they're hard to implement in significant volume. He said the process is very helpful to survivors and touches inmates more than most other interventions.

Restorative justice fosters healing and accountability instead of punishment. We are deficit oriented, said Umbreit, focused on identifying and punishing people's shortcomings instead of building on their incredible strength.

Umbreit said at least 88 studies from 7 countries have found restorative justice methods have more success at reducing crime, boosting restitution rates and repairing harm to victims than other criminal justice practices. RJ victim-offender interactions reduces recidivism by more than 25% compared to punishment alone. If our systems of justice focused on recidivism and best outcomes, he believes, most prisons would be shut down and probation would completely redesigned.

Several speakers including Umbreit pointed to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a watershed moment for restorative justice principles, the first time a nation chose truthsaying and storytelling as a way to heal terrible rifts in the populace instead of punishment and retribution. Umbreit said the United Nations is doing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia now that goes further than in South Africa.


For me, Umbreit's presentation caused several of these ideas to "click" for the first time. His clear distinction between restorative justice and rehab programs based on their philosophical approach finally made it clear to me what's really new about restorative justice ideas.

Indeed, when he described the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example of RJ principles, I thought others nearby might be blinded by the light bulb going off over my head. That was such a truly remarkable historical event, it had never occurred to me that the principles they applied to mass victimization under apartheid might also have applications for everyday crime and punishment. But it could. And if it does, it will be because of the implementation of restorative justice philosophies and practices.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

TYC "State of the Agency" Briefings

Thanks to a commenter for letting me know the Texas Youth Commission Executive Director Dimitria Pope is holding a "State of the Agency Tour" to inform staff and the public what's going on at the troubled youth prison agency where an internationally publicized sex scandal led to incomplete, sometimes eviscerating reforms. The first briefing was held today already in Odessa, the next one is tomorrow in Waco, then there's another one Friday in Richardson, with later dates in Houston, Harlingen and Austin. (See the complete "tour" information and a pdf flyer.

I wrote yesterday that Texas folks who work on Restorative Justice in the juvenile field should take the opportunity of the agency's reorganization to promote some of these new ideas, and these briefings would be a good opportunity to learn more about what's going on and ask questions from the top dog and unnamed "operational staff". (I'll attend at least the one in Austin, but we're last on the list.)

If you attend one, take notes then shoot me an email describing the event and I'll update Grits readers.

Ruben Cantu case shows why Texas needs an Innocence Commission

I rolled back into town this afternoon to discover press coverage about a new report by Bexar County DA Susan Reed on the Ruben Cantu case (see prior Grits coverage) that, to me, shows why the Legislature should have acted this Spring to create an Innocence Commission to evaluate such cases.

Cantu was executed 12 years ago, but the sole witness in the case recanted in 2005 saying his original eyewitness identification was coerced by police. The new report concludes the right man was executed for the crime.

However, because DA Susan Reed was at the time the judge in the case who approved Cantu's death sentence, and because from the moment the possibility of his innocence was raised she has been hostile and defensive, it's hard for an outside observer to accept this as the final word.

The report deemed the witness who says his testimony was coerced by the police "not credible," though the same office earlier thought him credible enough to present as a witness in a death penalty case. For that matter, then-Judge Reed at the time considered him credible enough to allow his testimony in court.

But the new DA report claims the man's recanted testimony is tainted because a defense investigator paid $1,700 for meals, a motel room, and lost wages for participating in the investigation. That's silly! Police do the same thing with informants every day, often for much more money than that. That's not reason enough at all to cast his testimony aside. The private investigator in the case, Richard Reyna, a former Sheriff's deputy hired by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said of the District Attorney in the Houston Chronicle ("Bexar DA calls investigation justified," June 27):

"She's shameless," ... adding that the report has "discounted, disrespected and insulted" Moreno.

"No fair-minded person could doubt his account that police repeatedly pressured him to falsely identify Cantu," Reyna said. "It is deeply insulting to Mr. Moreno to suggest — as this DA's report does — that he would go out of his way to exonerate the man who killed his friend and who tried to kill Mr. Moreno himself — and very nearly succeeded."

I haven't seen the report, but I've read all the Houston Chronicle coverage that first suggested his innocence, and none of the arguments from Reed presented here make me think she's proven anything one way or another. Said the Chronicle:

The DA's investigation was launched in late 2005, after the Houston Chronicle reported the lone witness in the case, Juan Moreno, had recanted. Moreno survived nine bullets and provided the only trial evidence that tied Cantu to the crime.

The DA's report, however, said that Moreno's current statements "are vague and inconsistent" and that he is unable to provide any significant detail or positively identify the shooter.

The report released Tuesday is based on interviews with 50 people and included evidence from 35 Texas agencies.

While the report relies on conversations with former prosecutors originally involved in the case in 1985, prosecutors did not talk to the district attorney at the time of the case, Sam Millsap. Millsap has publicly called the Cantu case a "mistake" and apologized for it.

Especially given that last fact-bite, it's difficult to believe this report represents a thorough or credible investigation. Why wouldn't they interview Sam Milsap, the DA at the time? Probably because they already knew he disagreed with their preferred conclusion, so it would be inconvenient, to say the least, to solicit his views.

When investigators refuse to talk to people who disagree with them, the result is no longer an investigation, it's propaganda. This illustrates precisely why Texas DAs shouldn't be left to investigate innocence claims in their own jurisdiction - their biases frequently are too strong and overt to create the necessary appearance of objectivity, much less the kind of actual intellectual detachment that should govern such inquiries.

A bill to create an independent commission to credibly investigate such cases cleared the Senate this Spring but died when House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Aaron Peña stalled the bill in committee then waited to bring it up for a vote until supporters were gone.

The skeptical reception to this report shows that was a mistake. In Dallas County, District Attorney Craig Watkins called in one of Texas' Innocence Projects to manage such investigations, which gives a much more credible face to the conclusions. A thorough investigation of innocence claims shouldn't be a "maybe" thing, or something that depends on the District Attorneys personal conscience.

Because of her past involvement in the case and her defensive posture, the public cannot trust Reed's results, and even worse, the appearance of putting out a CYA document harms the credibility of her office and the justice system in ways that shouldn't be tolerated.

Since the Lege failed the state by letting the Innocence Commission bill die, for now when innocence claims arise DAs themselves should seek outside investigators like the state's Innocence Projects to vet cases for errors. Especially by comparison with what's happening in Dallas, the way the Cantu case has been handled in Bexar County has done little to clear the air.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Juvenile corrections could be next venue for restorative justice in Texas

I've got much more to write about when I get a chance, but wanted to record this thought: In Texas, perhaps the Texas Youth Commission's transformation might be an opportunity for testing restorative justice principles in the Lone Star State.

On Sunday night, Dr. Gordon Bazemore of Florida Atlantic University spoke on the topic of restorative justice and youth crime, aiming to go "beyond treatment and punishment for juveniles." He pointed out that in US states where restorative justice initiatives had been tried, about 20, they were mostly used in juvenile justice instead of adult corrections settings. Bazemore had just returned from Northern Ireland, where he said these extra-judicial models are now the primary approach to juvenile crime, along with a number of other European countries.

As he spoke it struck me that, with the implosion in Texas juvenile corrections this spring and the "Sunset" review of the Texas Youth Commission that will be performed between now and 2009, Texas has perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to reinvent its juvenile justice system to implement some of these alternative models.

Indeed, some RJ programs that experts at this conference say can be documented to succeed at reducing recidivism and crime might actually be more appropriate in a juvenile setting than for adults. A "sentencing circle" for a child would inevitably include the victim and any other injured parties, parents and relatives, neighbors, church congregants, basically anyone with an interest in the child. (Sentencing circles are sometimes used in Travis County, though most juvie sentences are still decided by a judge.) By contrast, adults who may not live where they grew up and be more isolated in society might not always be as good a candidate for such peer-centered sentencing.

Radical change is possible now for Texas juvenile justice that was inconceivable a short while back. Texas youth prisons have rapidly reduced their inmate populations in a fashion that would have been a political impossibility a year ago before the TYC scandal. If something as big as reducing the inmate population by 1/3 and sending them back into the community is politically viable, surely some of these RJ ideas could be implemented which are actually popular with victims and the public.

The juvenile justice legislation Texas passed in 2007 was only preliminary. Legislators installed new oversight, but declined for the most part to address the root, structural failings nearly everyone acknowledges in the Texas juvenile justice system. That's why TYC will get a full "Sunset" review in the 81st Legislature in 2009 analyzing the agency from top to bottom and recommending reforms. I'd like to see restorative justice advocates (and to judge by this conference there are quite a few in Texas) focus some of their energies on engaging this formal, massive change process in the juvenile justice arena.

Many RJ techniques have a local component, so convincing county judges, prosecutors and probation departments to participate would be criticial. OTOH, they're struggling with unfunded mandates now from youth sent home early and the refusal of misdemeanants into TYC, so they too might be at a point where they're willing to change how they do business. It's sure worth a shot.

Some big things will change regarding Texas juvenile justice in the next legislative session, nearly without question. Whether those changes will be informed by best practices and cutting edge, victim-centered restorative justice techniques, or just a ham-handed shuffling of incarcerated youth between jurisdictions, today no one can tell. But now's the time for anyone who'd like to see RJ techniques tested in Texas to push their agenda for juveniles. You couldn't ask for a better opportunity for real change than we've got in the next two years.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Restorative Justice and Transcending Victimhood

"Transcendence is the only alternative to extinction."
- Vaclav Havel

Another update from the Restorative Justice Conference in Kerrville. On Sunday afternoon, Dr. Howard Zehr, a pioneer in victim-offender mediation gave a particularly thoughtful plenary address that should supply readers a good introduction to many recurring themes at this event.

Dr. Zehr was concerned that restorative justice be a victim driven process, not just for the benefit of the offender. "Victim's experiences are central to justice," said Zehr, who illustrated his talk with anecdotes from his book, "Transcending,” which features interviews and photographs of victims of violent crime.

Many victims, he said, have trouble describing the trauma they've experienced verbally. They frequently use metaphors, he said, instead of directly descriptive language. One victim told him it was as though she were climbing a ladder, fell, and the rungs on a ladder were broken so she could never get back where she was. Another said, she felt like "shattered glass you try to put back together, but it's never quite the same." Another said he felt, "Rage with a lot of chili pepper on top of it."

One thing he said victims aren't seeking is "closure," because most don't believe it's possible. One of the family members of an Austin yogurt-shop murder victim told him, "Closure – I hate that word with a purple passion. People use the world closure to give people like us hope, but it won't happen."

After many such interviews, he said, Zehr settled on the word “transcendence” to describe the process of getting over victimization - to rise above the negative and ordinary limits. "Transcendence," he declared, "begins in trauma."

When crime happens, he said, it can create great stress for victims, even minor crimes. There is spiral of emotions, a sense of disbelief, fear, vulnerability, a loss of control. Some victims complain they can't get the person out of their mind, that they haunt their dreams, or that they can't get rid of their anger. They feel an isolation no one understands, anger at those who try to comfort them, shame and humilation. Some feel angry at God. Others turn their anger inward.

Victims typically have many questions: Why me or why my family member? They often want to know the details of crimes, what else happened that they didn't know about, and most frequently,why the offender did what they did?

In general, said Zehr, victimization authors three crises: A crisis of identity, a crisis of relationships (who can I trust?), and crisis of meaning. Transcending these crises requires a "re-creation of meaning" of oneself and the world. They must reconfigure their lives, "re-story" their life - they must somehow create a new narrative of self.

Part of this process is encapsulating experiences of victimhood and making them part of your own story, drawing boundaries around them, trying to articulate new metaphors for self. People seldom have adequate words for this process, he said, so they use metaphors. A central part of truly restoring victims to wholeness is enabling them findnew metaphors to transform their narrative of humiliation into stories of honor and vindication.

When someone wrongs us we need to be vindicated, Zehr said. Victims want to know what their own responsibility was for what happened, if any, but most importantly for offenders to take responsibility for what they did. We search for ways to replace humiliation with honor.

A particularly important insight was Zehr's observation that the failure to make victims whole contributes to future crimes, because frequently victims later victimize others. Victims become offenders when have no other outlets, he said.

To keep that from happening, victims need safety, answers, truth-telling from everyone involved (authorities as well as the offender), empowerment (which the system generally denies them) and most importantly vindication and a chance to "re-story" what happened to them in a way that lets them regain honor.

In many ways, said Zehr, the current criminal justice system denies victims almost everything they need. He quoted Judy Herman saying that if you set out to design a system to create post traumatic stress for a victim, you couldn't do better than a court of law. This theme was repeated in other conference events so far - that the court process places unfair demands on victims that exacerbate their emotional response to crime instead of help them.

Zehr said the traditional criminal justice system assumes a crime violates the law of the state, that violations create guilt, and that the state's goal should be to identify offenders and dish out punishment. The central focus is offender-driven, he said, making sure perpetrators “get what they deserve.”

Under a Restorative Justice model, violations create obligations for which offenders should be accountable. Restorative Justice asks: "Who's been hurt, what are their needs, and whose obligations are they?"

"Restorative Justice is not about forgiveness or reconciliation," he said. "That may happen but that's not what it's about. It's about letting victims and offenders reconcile differences and repair harm," said Zehr.

Many restorative justice programs feature facilitated victim-offender mediation to negotiate agreements about what ought to be done. Other approaches don't involve direct encounters. Here in Texas, Bridges to Life brings victims to talk to offenders who committed similar crimes but AREN'T the offenders who harmed them. (I talked today with a social work grad student from UT who volunteered for the program last year. She described it as remarkable, inspiring experience.)

In principle, said Zehr, restorative justice ought to be the best thing ever for victims because it puts victims at the center of the process. It generates higher money restitution rates, reduced trauma and stress, and higher satisfaction among victims where it's been implemented. Studies show victims get a short-term post-traumatic stress reduction from restorative programs, and they're more satisfied than their counterparts in formal justice system.

But he questioned whether all restorative justice programs as constituted are as accountable to victims as they should be and involve them in significant ways, not just speaking for them. Many RJ advocates, he said, came to the movement as offender advocates, and some are uncomfortable championing crime victims. Zehr said these are the signposts of a victim-centered program:
  • Are victims and advocates represented on planning groups and boards?
  • Is the desire to help victims genuine or is it motivated by a desire to help offenders?
  • Are programs really taking seriously justice needs of victims?
  • Do victims have information, opportunities and resources to identify their own solutions?

Restorative Justice, he said is about changing the questions asked in the criminal justice system. Not what laws are broken, but who's been hurt, what are their needs, and what process can we use to meet those needs and help them transcend their victimization?

Good stuff to kick off the conference. I'm taking a lot of notes but have had little blogging time amidst the jam-packed schedule, so look for more posts from the event over the next few days.

Second Chance Act author speaks at Kerrville conference

The opening speaker yesterday at the national Restorative Justice Conference in Kerrville was Congressman Danny K. Davis of Illinois, author of the Second Chance Act presently pending in Congress, the most significant piece of federal prisoner re-entry legislation ever proposed.

Davis predicted the legislation would pass the House of Representatives before the August recess, and thanks to Republican support he thought it should be favorably received in the Senate in the fall.

He offered a telling anecdote, though, that displays how nasty politics around these issues can be: "Someone put out a press release" about the bill, he revealed, "that said the US would do more for ex-offenders than they do for soldiers coming home from Iraq." That scared many supporters and caused him to slow down the bill for time to negotiate with critics. Now, though, he thinks obstacles have been cleared for the bill's passage.

This attack on the Second Chance Act brings to mind two observations: First, Incarcerating people in prison is MUCH more expensive than any amount of money spent on re-entry. Plus if that person commits another crime, taxpayers spend even more on them. Failing to spend money on re-entry is penny wise and pound foolish.

Second, whose fault is it besides Congress' that we aren't taking care of soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan? We've been at war longer than World War II went on, so they've had plenty of opportunities to take care of soldiers if they really cared to do so. Congressman Davis didn't say who'd attacked his bill, but I'd be willing to bet that whoever it was hasn't proposed services for returning military personnel that would balance the score.

I hope Congressman Davis is right that the Second Chance Act can pass this year. The criticisms of the bill sound more political than substantive.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tarrant DA's new DWI policy will overcrowd jail

A new legal interpretation by Tarrant County prosecutors could end a 20 year old practice punishing DWI offenders with manual labor instead of incarceration, a change that could add more than 700 offenders to the already-full Tarrant county jail. Reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ("Sheriff: DA's DWI policy will overcrowd jail," June 13):
For more than two decades, Tarrant County defendants convicted of driving while intoxicated have routinely managed to avoid a jail cell by working "labor detail."

Labor detail allows defendants to serve their jail sentence by picking up trash, mowing or painting once a week for the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department.

Now there is a debate brewing about whether the practice is legal.

The Tarrant County district attorney's office recently told judges and defense attorneys it would no longer agree to allow defendants convicted of alcohol-related offenses to work labor detail.

No one was more surprised than Sheriff Dee Anderson, who said the program keeps the population down at the jail, which is at capacity; saves taxpayer money; and benefits the community.

"It came out and blindsided us," Anderson said.

Anderson said that without labor detail, DWI defendants would be required to serve their sentence behind bars. Last week, for example, 1,182 defendants were in the labor detail program. Of that number, 721 had a DWI conviction, which is about average at any given time.

"It certainly would impact us negatively, if you add 700 people to our jail population," Anderson said. "Did we think this through?"

I don't understand why the DA thinks it's even his call - that's what judges are for, right? Judge Billy Mills told the paper, "we disagree on what the law is." Usually when lawyers and judges disagree, the judge's opinion trumps.

But I suppose if ADAs won't agree to the labor program as part of a plea agreement, judges can't force them to accept it, though they could impose the sentence over the DA's objections in non-plea cases. Maybe someone needs to explain to this office that it's judges, not them, who get to interpret what the law does and doesn't allow.

The Sheriff is right: The Tarrant DA didn't think this through. When the new policy inevitably creates a jail overcrowding crisis, the District Attorney deserves to become the media posterchild for all necessary tax increases proposed for any new jail construction.

Dallas DA Looks to Build Legacy

The Dallas district attorney says he's embarrassed at the tuffer-than-thou cowboy image prosecutors have encouraged over the years in Texas, and that more prison building won't solve Texas' crime problems. What's more, he hopes changes in Dallas' approach will create a reform legacy that will spread across the state.

A column in the Fort Worth Star Telegram this week by Richard Gonzales quotes extensively from Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins speaking at a Juneteenth event ("Heresy, healing, courts and crime," June 20). Wrote Gonzales:

A new civil rights movement began in Dallas County with the November 2006 election of Watkins as the first African-American district attorney there. As a defense attorney, he had seen firsthand the inequities of the criminal justice system.

"African-American males between 18 and 25 are more likely to be in prison, probation or parole than in college," he said. "That doesn't say that African-American men are bad people. I believe that there is something wrong with the system."

National Public Radio reported in February that Watkins had opened the Dallas DA files from the last 30 years to the Innocence Project, which seeks to determine whether DNA tests may find wrongful convictions.

Watkins explained that the era of "get tough on crime" had little impact on Dallas County's crime rate. He said the county has the same murder rate that it had in 1960. All the Texas prisons built in the 1990s did little to reduce that rate.

He argues that Texas is behind in progressive criminal justice reform, and he plans to change that in Dallas. His "radical" idea is one that he has seen work in the Bronx, Baltimore, San Francisco and Atlanta.

Since 1989, the African-American district attorney in the Bronx, Robert T. Johnson, has implemented programs that seek to rehabilitate drug offenders. One result has been a 77 percent reduction in homicides, says the Bronx DA's office: from 653 in 1990 to 153 in 2006.

To applause and laughter from the audience at last week's Juneteenth celebration, Watkins said that he's embarrassed by the stereotypical image of Texas district attorneys as prosecutors in cowboy boots walking around with a dip of snuff in their mouths, telling folks to get in line.

Simply building prisons and locking up people without addressing the root causes of crime are not the current "industry standards." Those include implementing drug rehabilitation programs, reaching out to the community, developing community programs as alternatives to incarceration and opening files to the Innocence Project.

"Putting people in jail doesn't work," Watkins said.

Watkins said we go through life phases in which our focus changes. When we're young, we think mainly about ourselves. As we mature, we realize that it's more important to think about the people coming after us and about laying foundations for others to live better lives.

"I want to leave a legacy that will improve the criminal justice system not only in Dallas County but throughout this state and country," he said.

Looking back at the heretical ideas of Martin Luther King Jr., people now realize that he was truly a healer. Some may consider Watkins a heretic today, but he hopes that history will prove him to be a healer of an ailing criminal justice system.

I hope any Democrat considering running for District Attorney against Chuck Rosenthal in Houston next year is listening carefully to Mr. Watkins - he's already developed your campaign message.

Pedagogy of the Confined: Harris County turns to computer learning for incarcerated kids

From a corporate press release we learn that the Harris County juvenile probation board has contracted for a computer teaching program that will be used for incarcerated kids and those in alternative disciplinary schools. Said the release:
PLATO Learning, Inc. (NASDAQ:TUTR), a leading provider of K–adult computer-based and e-learning solutions, today announced an agreement with the Harris County (Texas) Juvenile Probation Board to provide web-delivered credit recovery, intervention, assessment, and on-grade curriculum solutions using the PLATO Learning Environment™. Harris County will implement its PLATO Learning solution at four residential facilities for incarcerated students, as well as at two schools for expelled students.

“We were looking for a complete solution that covered all subject areas, but we also required a very flexible implementation model,” said Margaret Rhode, deputy director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. “Many of these kids have severe academic deficiencies that must be addressed individually, so we were glad that PLATO Learning offered us a versatile, self-paced learning and assessment option.”

For Harris County, their electronic learning system needed to address the unique challenges of teaching incarcerated kids. A web-based model was essential for providing lesson access to transient students, many of whom are transferred between facilities as part of the adjudication process. With PLATO Learning’s web-based solution, students can use their log-on to complete lessons from any location.

“In the juvenile justice system, kids are not always grouped by grade level,” said Rhode. “There are often complicated territorial issues, such as gang allegiances, that need to be considered before putting kids together in a learning lab. The PLATO Learning Environment gives us the flexibility we need to foster truly individualized learning at each of our sites.”

Harris County is committed to getting the most out of its implementation by training extra teachers to use the system. “We received federal grant money for training,” said Rhode. “We want to make sure all of our teachers know how to use the product every single day so we can have a better handle on measurable results.” To prepare students for the statewide Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) examination, teachers will use benchmark assessments aligned to TAKS with PLATO® Test Packs with Prescriptions on PLE™ and monitor time-on-task to measure student engagement and lesson effectiveness.

Different kids learn in different ways, and this might work well for some. I'm glad to see they're training extra teachers, and I hope the PLATO program isn't seen by the county as a substitute for providing human teachers for these kids. A teacher isn't just a source of facts and figures to remember, they're a role model for proper behavior and the benefits of education that, when they succeed, also teach kids important lessons on a human level you can't learn from a book. So I hope this is a successful tool, but that it is never viewed as an alternative to providing teachers for troubled kids.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Funding Update and Blog Roundup

I wanted to point folks to a few quick items before I head out for the day.

First, an update: I'm more than halfway to Grits' fundraising goal to pay my way to the Restorative Justice conference next week in Kerrville: We're at $215 out of $400 needed. Thanks to everyone who's given so far. If you haven't donated and support coverage of the event on this blog, pony up a little through the PayPal button below or in the sidebar on Grits' main page. At this point, having raised more than half the money and registered, I'm going either way, but it'd be nice to get my expenses covered.



Elsewhere in the blogosphere:

Do state policies even matter in reducing crime?
Sometimes we fail to ask the most basic questions. The Texas Observer blog points to a study comparing California and Texas incarceration and crime rates for juveniles over ten years, finding that crime rates appeared to fluctuate (in tandem) independently of state policies.

Mexico's Drug Crackdown a Statistical Bust
Mexico has made fewer drug related arrests than in previous years, reports Beyond the Border blog, and is on pace to have its highest-ever total of drug-trafficking related murders. I worry a lot more about the second number than the first one - arresting lots of people isn't as important as arresting the RIGHT people. But the numbers aren't encouraging given the enormity of the task facing President Calderon, who earlier this year made a big show of sending in the military.

Dallas cop turns off camera for misconduct
A Dallas police officer turned off the camera in his squad car before allegedly extorting $700 from motorists at a traffic stop, reports I Was the State.

I guess those 15 million people don't vote
Another post at I Was the State brings word of an interesting survey declaring 21% of adult Americans have tried "street drugs" OTHER than marijuana, with 5% having used them in the last 12 months. Robert crunches the numbers to discover that this means 15 million Americans committed a felony drug crime in the last year!

Mayor punishes publication critical of Laredo Superjail
According to Texas Prison Bidness, negative reporting on Laredo Superjail (a proposed immigration detention facility for the US Marshal's Service) caused the Mayor to ban the publication LareDos from the airport and city hall. Here's the article that caused the controversy.

Book reports as punishments
Andrialegaldiva discusses the use of book reports as punishment. I added my two cents in the comments as did another parent with an interesting experience on the subject. I think this is a REALLY good idea, and not just for kids but also for technical probation violators.

Mass release of prisoners in UK makes a lot of sense

Good Heavens! Is there anyplace that's NOT straining under overincarceration pressures?

On his way out the door Prime Minister Tony Blair is taking heat for his decision to release 25,000 British prisoners, about a quarter of the national prison population, 18 days earlier than their sentences would otherwise require. Naturally, the press is portraying the move in the most heated manner possible: "More than 25,000 criminals will be handed a 'get out of jail free' card in a desperate attempt to solve the overcrowding crisis," said the London Evening Standard.

But you know what? That approach makes a lot more sense than the way we handle early release decisions here, where the Board of Pardons and Parole has sole discretion when to release anyone who hasn't fulfilled all of their sentence. So in Texas, individual offenders might get out years earlier instead of 18 days if the parole board is under pressure at the time to release more people, as they are right now. Making the decision to identify a class of low-level offenders and reduce their sentences by a short amount across the board makes a lot more sense to me than the haphazard way Texas uses back-end controls to reduce prison overcrowding now, especially as a short-term crisis management measure. Whaddya think?

Austin Police Flacks Just Make Things Up

After Austin police claimed 2,000 people stood around watching as a man was beaten to death at a Juneteenth festival, their PR department adjusted their story this week to say just a few people were present and the incident happened blocks away from the festival in a housing project.

The story immediately drew international coverage; the headline in Mexico City's La Reforma had declared, "Hispanic is Lynched in Texas." You can bet the retraction won't get as much attention.

This incident confirms my long-time sense that nearly every Austin police press release put out within 24 hours of a death, whether officer involved or not, is essentially a practice in fiction writing. (Other cities, too, I'd bet, but I know Austin best.) That's a big reason I seldom comment on officer-involved shootings when they make the papers. Too often the information put out in the initial aftermath of these incidents is simply wrong, whether fabricated or just produced by talentless hacks I cannot say. Often, as in this case, there's no obvious advantage to the police to misrepresent what happened. I really don't understand it.

Usually in my experience there's about a 3-6 month cycle after one of these police spin sessions where inchoate claims are backed off and slivers of truth slowly emerge through open records or litigation, then it's possible to better judge what really occurred. This week the correction came within a couple of news cycles after the initial misrepresentations, which I suppose is an improvement, in some sense. An even better improvement would be if crime beat reporters stopped taking police press releases at face value and waited to publish until they investigated incidents on their own steam. I won't be holding my breath on that, though.

Changed, but not fixed: Locals struggle with new TYC law consequences

First, the good news for county juvenile justice systems: The Houston Chronicle reports today ("TYC law puts Harris County in tight spot") that:
The Texas Juvenile Probation Commission will seek its board's approval in July to provide $57 million over two years to counties that detain or treat youths formerly held by TYC.
Now the bad news: Nobody knows if that's enough, the money won't come immediately and the effects of the new law - particularly disallowing placement of misdemeanants at TYC - are already impacting counties.

Even so, the Chronicle article is filled with speculative naysaying by people who opposed the legislation in the first place, so to me much of the whining about the impossible situation Harris County is in must be taken with a grain of salt. We're not talking about that many kids in the scheme of a 3.5 million person county.

Bottom line: The law is what it is and will remain that way for at least two years, probably longer. I'd suggest local officials stop complaining about it - the legislative session is over - and start seeking solutions instead of saying it can't be done. TYC has stopped accepting misdemeanants, the state is going to provide resources, and the fact is, it MUST be done.

Friday, June 22, 2007

"Unsellable" Tyler jail still too small: New solutions needed for jail overcrowding

Having described today Bexar County's continuing struggle to manage its jail population, I should update readers on another county whose efforts I've been following - my home county of Smith, whose county seat is Tyler. Voters rejected new jail building there last year, but the Tyler Morning Telegraph reports that a master planning firm hired by the county has suggested a facility that's nearly twice as costly - $134.75 million ("Jail facility proposal 'unsellable,'" June 21).

Smith County Commissioner JoAnn Fleming said that "'value engineering' principles had not yet been applied to the estimates. 'This is clearly an unsellable number.'" If they're going to come up with a different number, though, they'd better do it soon if they plan to put a new jail on the November ballot.

"Value engineering," of course, is bureaucrat-speak which, translated, means, "This costs way too much so we're going to throw out the consultant's plan we just paid good money for and do something cheap and half-assed." (The voters would be better served if they'd just listen to Judge Cynthia Kent.)

Even at the new, exorbitant pricetag, Sheriff J.B. Smith told commissioners "this isn't enough beds." He's right. It's not. It will NEVER be enough so long as we fill jails with low-level offenders and law enforcement continues numbers-driven policing strategies. Neither the state nor Texas counties can build their way out of the current overincarceration crisis. What's needed is a new approach.

One such alternative approach was suggested in the Fort Worth Star Telegram today by columnist Bud Kennedy ("A thrifty move: Lightening up a bit on those who light up," June 22). Commenting on the passage of HB 2391 (discussed by Grits here and here), Kennedy suggests police could save money and jail space by exercising new discretion given them by the Legislature to issue citations instead of arresting for certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors:

"We want to get tough on crime, but we also want to get smart on crime," said state Rep. Jerry Madden, the author, a Plano insurance agent.

"Let's not spend a lot of taxpayers' money putting people in jail who don't need to be there," Madden said. "Let's give local police more discretion."

You might think this idea came from liberal Democrats.

Wrong.

It came from thrifty Republicans.

"The idea was to free up more county jail space and law officers' time for violent offenders and sex offenders," said Marc Levin of the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative organization that lobbied for House Bill 2391.

"We looked at how to save counties money. We always came back to the same answer: Take the low-level offenders out of the county jail."

As of Thursday, 302 misdemeanor suspects were among the 3,498 jailbirds awaiting trial in Tarrant County.

They're living off our dime because they can't afford to make bail.

"Some of these people are taking up jail space at $60 a day," Levin said.

He quoted a 1999 Washington study showing that a typical arrest costs taxpayers almost $4,000, figuring in jail costs; judges' and prosecutors' time; indigent defense costs; the cost of transporting prisoners to jail and to court hearings; and the value of the arresting officer's lost patrol time.

"There is no reason for an officer to spend three hours putting somebody in jail when they could write a ticket," Levin said.

Kennedy was talking about Tarrant County, but this new law should reduce overincarceration pressures everywhere. A lot cheaper than spending nine figures on a new jail in Tyler would be getting law enforcement officers in Smith County to exercise this new discretion under HB 2391. Instead of proposing an expensive jail voters don't want, why not stop filling the jail with low-level offenders?

Let's hope officials in Smith and other Texas counties are educating police about their new discretion under HB 2391, and preparing their courts and intake systems to accomodate the new law. More soon on some of the things locals need to do to maximize the effectiveness of this new authority (especially since Gov. Perry vetoed the only other new law aimed at reducing overcrowding). But for now it's worth pointing out this is just one of many tools counties can use, when they choose, to manage jail populations instead of spending ever-more on bricks and mortar.