Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Burka v Riddle on prison diversion funding

Texas Monthly named state Rep. Debbie Riddle to its Ten Worst Legislators list, in part because of her performance as chair of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee Appropriations, and in part because Paul Burka apparently just doesn't like her. Riddle responded, and the ensuing debate casts more light on some of the Appropriations battles in the House this session over prison diversion funding. Riddle responded to Burka:
One of the reasons you rate me as among the ten worst legislators in the state is because you claim I shifted money from incarceration diversion programs to programs that “weren’t requested, such as $20 million for new cars for the Department of Public Safety.”

If you disagree with the funding decision to give DPS the tools they need to do their job, that is a legitimate political viewpoint. However, there are two major errors in your claim.

First, the funds for the cars were not shifted away from any program. The money my subcommittee spent on this item was a one-time expense from freed-up general revenue as a result of the federal stimulus money. It was one of the last things we funded, and even then only after we fully funded the diversion programs (the same ones you claim I shortchanged) at the levels they were appropriated last session. However, the more glaring error on your part is that those black-and-whites actually were requested by the DPS. In fact, it was one of their top exceptional items, and they backed this up in public testimony on more than one occasion.
Burka replied thusly:
Members get on the Ten Worst list because they do public harm. Debbie Riddle writes that the DPS cars were funded “only after we fully funded the diversion programs (the same ones you claim I shortchanged) at the levels they were appropriated last session.” But fully funding them at the same level as last session was not the same as fully funding them at the level TDCJ requested.

The Legislature’s best minds on criminal justice–Sylvester Turner, Jerry Madden, Jim McReynolds, and John Whitmire–have worked very hard to establish programs in the prisons that are designed to reduce recidivism and alleviate the necessity for building yet more prisons. Turner explained that TDCJ releases 70,000 inmates a year, and these programs are aimed at helping these inmates with reentry to life on the outside. They range from substance abuse treatment to adjustments such as job counseling. I interviewed both Madden and Turner about this. Both said that these re-entry programs are the best tool we have to reduce recidivism, and that they appear to be working.

Turner offered an amendment to move money from information resources–he said that Riddle had given TDCJ $12 million more than the LBB recommended in this area–to re-entry programs. TDCJ had specifically asked for it, he said. [Readers may view the tape on the Appropriations debate for amendment 119.] Madden supported him. Riddle moved to table. The House rarely votes against a subcommittee chair in such instances, but the motion to table failed with 57 ayes and 78 nos, and the funding to the programs was restored. Another Turner amendment took away $15 million of the $20 million for DPS cars and shifted it to the diversionary programs backed by Turner and Madden. Riddle wanted to move the $15 million to a wish list, where it was likely to die, and keep full funding for the cars. McReynolds, standing behind her at the back microphone, is seen on videotape shaking his head vehemently.

The problem here is that Riddle gave new cars a higher priority than the policy of using reentry programs to avoid building new prisons — at a cost of $600M per prison. I don’t think for a moment that she is malicious. But she is prideful, and that led her to substitute her judgment for the judgment of the best minds in the Legislature on criminal justice issues. The moment that Turner, Madden, and McReynolds were aligned against her, she should have realized that she was on the wrong track and should work with them to fix the problems she had created.

Certainly it's true that funding prison diversion programs at the same level as last session amounts to underfunding them. Drug court programs in particular were underfunded in 2007 to the point that some counties couldn't meet state mandates, while TDCJ is still short of its needed number of aftercare beds, We've reached the realistic limit of relying on probationer fees and at some point the state must fund these programs if they're going to succeed. The alternative, as Burka points out, is building much more expensive prisons.

Burka also could have also mentioned that Riddle was the chief opponent of TDCJ's proposed 20% pay hike for prison guards, or anything close to it - needed, said the agency, to draw workers to dangerous jobs in out of the way areas. TDCJ is about 3,000 guards short of minimum staffing at its 112 units, and has had to close down wings in Dalhart and elsewhere because they couldn't hire enough guards to cover the units. They wound up getting 3.5% raises each of the next two years, which better than a sharp stick in the eye, but not remotely enough to expect the agency to eliminate a 3,000 guard gap. That has safety implications both for prisoners, short-staffed guards and other prison workers, not to mention it makes it harder for the agency to assign staff to interdict contraband.

OTOH, there was some mean-spirited sniping to the TM piece on Riddle, dredging up comments from six years ago, for example, to justify giving her a "worst" tag today. The truth is, though I disagree with her a LOT on criminal justice matters, including the budget debates described above, Riddle has grown a lot as far as her knowledge of criminal justice subjects, about which I think it's fair to say she knew extremely little when she first walked into the House chamber. After several sessions on the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and spending last session on Appropriations, today she's a lot more knowledgeable. Though we often disagree, I don't consider her incompetent, whereas in 2003 I would have been frankly concerned to see her hands anywhere near the levers of power.

Debbie Riddle is a nice, well meaning person, she just has different priorities and a more politicized, partisan approach than the legislators Burka names with more history as leaders on the topic. But she was elected to call the shots as she sees them, so I can't blame her for that. If you want to point fingers, blame Joe Straus for disempowering Jerry Madden and Sylvester Turner at the beginning of session, not to mention Jim Pitts (one of Texas Monthly's Ten Best) for naming her subcommittee chair for Criminal Justice on Appropriations. Anybody could have predicted that replacing Sylvester Turner at that spot with Debbie Riddle would lead to precisely this type of reprioritization.

None of that changes the bottom line, though, which is that the 81st Legislature represents a missed opportunity regarding prison diversion funding, largely because of Debbie Riddle's role. We know the investments made already have worked and we know if further investments were made it would free up even more prison beds, which are a lot more expensive and less effective at reducing recidivism.

If in the next couple of years if we begin to see prison commitments at higher rates than LBB's current projections, it arguably may be because Texas failed to build in 2009 on the landmark work done in 2005 and 2007 by the Lege to expand prison diversion for addiction-related offenses and free up space to house truly dangerous criminals.


Anonymous said...

I would suggest that instead of buying DPS new cars, we get them some additional training. Have they caught the person who burned the Governors Mansion yet? Have they been trained in anti-intrusion detection? Have they learned to watch security cameras instead of playing on the internet? These people need coloring book based training from what I see, NOT new cars!

Anonymous said...

Joe Straus really just screwed his own County. Bexar Probation cannot keep officers and has had to lower standards on officers. You can bring in all the Diversion Programs in the world but if you do not have officers that make the right placements or even care to make placements then you have a problem. Now, San Antonio has a increase in crime???? Pay the staff fair.....fix the out of control director....get the Urinalysis Lab so it can be used in court.

San Antonio finally got a little power and then he misses the ball.
We have a full jail....and more crime??? The Diversion funding will work and would save money in the end.

I think if the dang state would get the funding straight for probation we would then save enough from incarcerations to buy DPS their cars.

Don Dickson said...

I beg to differ with anon 11:05. To begin with, I sincerely doubt the Mansion would have been lost had DPS not had 300 Highway Patrol Division vacancies a year ago today. The very modest raise they got from the Lege is not going to staff-up DPS any better than the crumbs that the prison guards got is going to send people flocking to the TDCJ personnel office.

And without making a value judgment about patrol cars versus diversion programs versus uninsured and malnourished children, I will tell you that the patrol cars are truly needed, and that over time the appropriation is likely to actually SAVE the state money. The $20 million is $7 million LESS than the Department requested. And yes, it was one of the Department's highest budget priorities.

As for catching the arsonist, a few months ago Pam Colloff of Texas Monthly reported that it is suspected in many quarters (including my own quarter) that the arsonist was the same person arrested by Minnesota authorities around the time of the Republican National Convention....with a carload of Molotov cocktails.

doran anon. said...

On a more prosaic level than the other commentors: Really. Who cares what Paul Burka and Texas Monthly think about the best and worst Legislators, other than those named.

Boyness said...

The Texas DPS is so dysfunctional on so many levels, I am not sure an "over-haul" can truly fix it. Cars? Yeah, cops need cars to patrol but to ignore the fact that DPS was responsible for protecting the Governors Mansion does not cut it with me.

I agree Troopers need to be better paid but they need to be better trained. Texas has too many idiots with badges. As for the possibility of the arsonist already being caught? How convenient for DPS. I suggest that you folks dispatch the RANGERS up to Minnesota and find out if this is the guy.

I am sick and tired of excuses in this state. It is time for results!

BB said...

Don Dickson,

You are very perceptive. The people of Texas are being distracted over the debate between diversionary programs or cars, and they are unable to see the train wreck which is headed directly for this state. What we see in DPS is the same deterioration many of us have directly observed in our prison system for the last 15 years. We do not screen our new recruits proeprly and we never have. Many unsuitable people enter our correctional system every month. We continue to suspend, probate and terminate hundreds of these employees monthly because it seems that no one really cares and the culture has never really changed with the times. It is virtually impossible to alter the leadership style without the necessary investment being made by those who control the public purse. It will take a catastrophe to force our political leaders to ensure their state organizations are competitive and healthy.
The prison system has always been the invisible component of our criminal justice system. We can only be indifferent to the genuine needs of such a large organization for so long. The next two years in Texas corrections will be extremely interesting.


Anonymous said...

If Texas were to use some of the cars the way they are supposed to be used, instead of giving some in County the ability to use that as second of third vehicles, they might last a bit longer. Two cases to look at. I have a marshal that lives three blocks down, he/she must also be married to a county deputy as there is also a Sheriff's car parked there daily as well. I see both of these cars disembarking groceries and kids on a daily/weekly basis but see no other vehicles in the driveways at all.

I do not think that Texas taxpayers agreed to allow their tax dollars to be spent so that a sheriff's deputy can use an official vehicle as their personal mini van.

If we take care of the cars we have, and limit their purpose to strictly official use, that would go far in extending their lives.

Anonymous said...

DPS is incompetent. 2 directors post the Mansion disaster and still no one in custody and nothing more than excuses about who, why, when, where and how.

They went to West Texas, en masse, and participated in a botched, and likely illegal, raid on a bunch of polygamists that it took the Texas Rangers to discover was started by a hoax.

Anyone can join DPS. Recruits fail the polygraph and some may have criminal records.

Clean up your house and then ask for cars. The idiots at DPS don't deserve anything. Working there and knowing this stuff goes on is complicity so you are all a sad bunch.

Don Dickson said...

While I would agree that DPS needs to tighten up its recruiting standards, I would disagree with the assertion that our Troopers are poorly trained. In fact, they receive the most comprehensive and rigorous training of any of the fifty state police forces.

I'm a little confused by the previous commenter's point about his neighbor the sheriff's deputy. Those vehicles are not provided at state expense, they're purchased with county and municipal funds. DPS vehicles may be driven to and from the officer's home but may not be used for any other personal use. You will never see a DPS officer unloading groceries from his or her black-and-white.

I don't believe, as one commenter suggested, that anyone is "ignoring the fact that DPS was responsible for protecting the Governor's Mansion." DPS was and is responsible for a LOT of things - in fact, too many things - with not enough human and financial resources.

You should read the letter which I wrote (for signature by the Troopers' Association's executive director) to the Sunset Advisory Commission the day BEFORE the Governor's Mansion was torched. It's online at:


I took little comfort in prophecy.

There are a lot of things that could be substantially improved at the DPS. The Public Safety Commission said that getting over $100 million in additional compensation for officers was its HIGHEST budget priority. The Legislature came up with $19 million. So much for substantial improvement.

Anonymous said...



I emailed this to State Reps, should have included Debbie. Wonder if she canread?

Don Dickson said...

I neglected to address one point made by anon 9:49 about DPS hiring officers who failed a pre-employment polygraph exam.

My response: thank God.

These stupid polygraphs are utter voodoo. And too often, instead of being used as a tool of investigation, they turn out to be a substitute for investigation. Hiring people who fail a polygraph is the the first indication I've ever had that DPS "gets it" where polygraph examinations are concerned.