Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The end of state jails?

Of several notable moments over the last day or so I want to share with readers from my trip to Houston, first on this list has to be Chairman Jim McReynolds of the Texas House Corrections Committee questioning whether the state jail system has "outlived" its usefullnes, and the surprisingly warm reception the notion received at the committee's hearing in Houston this morning.

McReynolds suggested state jails could be replaced with "intermediate sanctions facilities" (ISFs) like those created by the Lege in 2007 that included treatment and services aimed at reducing recidivism. After hearing testimony that state jail inmates (particularly those with mental health diagnoses) had among the highest recidivism rates of Texas prisoners, the chairman questioned continuing to "bifurcate" ISFs and state jails. A big problem: State jail time is served day for day so offenders - even those with mental illness or other reentry barriers - are not supervised and don't have access to services available to parolees.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos readily (and surprisingly, to me) agreed, telling McReynolds that "state jails were ill-conceived from the very beginning." She said the committee revisiting the issue was a "ray of sunshine."

Relatedly, Judge Caprice Cosper of Harris County's Office of Criminal Justice Coordination told the committee substance abuse is the driving factor in jail crowding and court caseloads. Of 51,850 felony cases in Harris County in 2009, she said, 47% of those were state jail felonies. In 2000, she said, Harris County had around 5,900 "less than a gram" state jail felony drug cases. By 2008 that number rose to 11,700. That's far and away the most common felony offense in Harris County, she said; the second highest category of crime had 1,600 offenses that year.

Cosper said that while "incapacitation" was usually considered a primary purpose of incarceration, believing that is an effective approach for substance abuse is "naive." Substance abusers can do jail-time "standing on their heads," said the long-time Republican judge, but living clean in the free world is much harder for them.

The unanswered question, of course: If state jail felonies are eliminated, what happens to those offense levels? Possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance, for example, is a state jail felony: Would it become a 3rd degree felony or a Class A misdemeanor if the state jail system were abolished? Similar questions would remain for an array of other offenses. But it's a fascinating suggestion and I'll bet we haven't heard the last of it.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you remember, Grits, state jails originally had a modified theraputic drug treatment program that lasted about 6 months. The program coordinator would communicate with the district court and local probation department and the participants who completed the program would be bench warranted back to the counties and placed on probation. Aftercare would be handled by the probation department. This was actually a pretty good program so I'm not really sure what the hell Lykos is talking about when she says state jails were "ill conceived from the beginning.". The "no parole" aspect of state jails was, at least in part, to encourage drug offenders to complete the drug program and get onto probation. Of course, budget cuts torpoedoed the state jail drug program and now they're just 2 year prisons.

If I was a betting man, I'd bet there will be a serious discussion at the Leg about reducing state jail felonies to Class A's. What a great way to save the state a bunch of money when finances are tight. Just shift all those supervision and incarceration costs back onto counties.

Anonymous said...

Judge Caprice Cosper is an complete ostrich when it comes to relieving jail overcrowding. Not once has she poked at the sacred judicial cow(s) on the bench who pack that jail by issuing arrest warrants for technical violations on probationers.
Nor have they considered notifying Texas BOPP that the jail will no longer be used for "jail therapy" for wayward parolees who are put in time-out in County Jails, with no intention of revoking their parole.

Scott Stevens said...

Or perhaps they could become 4th degree felonies with a range of 13 months to some upper limit like 2 or 3 years? Especially if there were some mandatory time in an ISF followed by mandatory probation or parole?

Just brainstorming here, not advocating.

Prison Doc said...

What's the difference except admimistratively anyway? There are facilities that have Institutional Division, State Jail, and Therapeutic Communities on the same real estate only spatially separated, kind of like "bundling" adolescent lovers in colonial America.

There's gotta be some sentencing reform on these low-level drug offenses, and that's coming from a Redneck Republican Evangelical. The cops find a dope pipe with some residue in it and folks get charged for possession, transporting, distributing, possession of paraphernialia and get carted off to prison all at one fell swoop. Makes no sense.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:38, that's true about how state jails were originally pitched back in the day, but I don't know if they've ever lived up to that promise because, as you say, they pretty quickly just became 2-year prisons. Harold Dutton said at the hearing he thought at the time they passed they were designed to fail, FWIW, hindsight of course being 20/20.

Prison Doc, the main difference is that state jail sentences are served day for day and you can't earn a lighter sentence with good behavior, participation in programs, etc.. Plus in theory state jail sentences are two years long, while ISF stays are quite a bit shorter. I consider ISFs essentially a strong probation tool while the state jails as presently operated are purely vehicles for punishment with no supervision or help with reintegration after they leave.

Jules said...

Grits: “. . . the main difference is that state jail sentences are served day for day and you can't earn a lighter sentence with good behavior, participation in programs, etc.”
Without veering too far afield of the topic, you imply that good behavior and participation in programs benefit those in prison by shortening their time served, i.e. parole. While anecdotal, I know of numerous instances where so called “model prisoners” are continually denied parole despite having completed all programs, no loss of good time or class and having earned bachelor’s or master’s degrees during their incarceration. These folks would trade a sentence that is served day for day in exchange for annually begging the parole board to release them. The point being that good behavior and program participation is meaningless in the parole decision making process; it will not gain parole for the inmate.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jules, from my understanding (with the notable exception of DWIs), you're generally right that programming isn't considered much in parole, but it seems like compliance with programming matters more in the ISF context, where they're only there for a short time for parole violations and can shorten their stay even further through good behavior. That's how it was portrayed at the hearing, anyway, they haven't been running long enough yet for extensive recidivism studies, program evaluations, etc..

Anonymous said...

Prison Doc: I'm a conservative Christian and I have lately started to question the incarceration of people who have not hurt anyone but themselves. No, I don't believe in 'victimless crimes', drug abusers victimize their families and others; but how about putting folks in jail because they have actually committed a crime against someone else's person or property instead of just because they are taking something that people think make them likely to commit a crime?

In addition to be a social conservative, I am a fiscal conservative and I am frankly sick of spending billions of dollars a year to incarcerate people who committed the crime of stupidity by drug use. I also have some concern with SWAT teams busting down doors with no-knock warrants because they heard some guy had weed in there. Where is the fourth amendment on this?

Maybe it's time to question our methodology in the war on drugs.

Anonymous said...

Some people had high hopes that the State Jails would be something different. We were quickly shocked into reality as we realized the REAL reason state jails were conceived. They were basically a scheme to empty the county jails of TDCJ inmates and to house them cheaply (dormitory style housing instead of cells). The programming was never fully implemented (employment skills, vocational skills, etc). For those who had high hopes, the State Jails became a sick joke.

Don said...

The "modified therapeutic community" programs never got to all the state jails, and the ones that did have it quickly fell victim to the budget axe when most programs were chopped; SAFPF's turned back into ID units, etc. I worked in one that had both State Jail and ID people. The "TC" was pretty much a joke. It was modeled after the SAFPF program, but no provision for aftercare. What was said about being bench-warranted back to the county and supervised by probation was not the case here. These guys got a chance to go into the TC at about the time they had six months left, and they were released like any State Jail Detainee. To Scott: State Jail Felonies ARE already 4th degree felonies with a time range pretty much as you describe. If the ISF's were the same thing, you would pretty much just be changing the name, would you not? That is, except for being followed by probation. But I found that many "chose" state jail when they were offered probation for the express purpose of avoiding the probation hassle.

TDCJEX said...

One thing there is not good time credit in TDCJ that actually reduces your time served . It simply reduces the parole eligibly date for non 3g and capitol cases . Those prisoners know they in all likely hood will max out the only good thing is they are not on paper . In prison we said good time is good for nothing

The Lege wil make State jail felonies a 2 year TDCJ ID felony and not a thing wil change . Does any one think the prison towns and thos mostly right wingers who represent them will give up their make work jobs or power in the case of a law maker Not to mention and dependency on TDCJ along with being a legislative distinct and getting all those federal hand outs or being a “poor” county? Not a chance .

TDCJEX said...

One thing there is not good time credit in TDCJ that actually reduces your time served . It simply reduces the parole eligibly date for non 3g and capitol cases . Those prisoners know they in all likely hood will max out the only good thing is they are not on paper . In prison we said good time is good for nothing

The Lege wil make State jail felonies a 2 year TDCJ ID felony and not a thing wil change . Does any one think the prison towns and thos mostly right wingers who represent them will give up their make work jobs or power in the case of a law maker Not to mention and dependency on TDCJ along with being a legislative distinct and getting all those federal hand outs or being a “poor” county? Not a chance .

Anonymous said...

...and the inmates at the state jails count as population for purposes of representation, but they can't vote. They provide free political power, as well as money, for the communities where they are built, which are usually communities which have prevailing political attitudes which are diametrically opposed to the prisoners' political interests. It's a way of creating "virtual conservatives" inflating the political power of the districts.

R. Shackleford said...

Does anyone actually think prison is about reformation anymore? It's all about the money. Whatever will net the folks in charge the most money will be the option they will try to implement. And this Cosper person clearly has an unwholesome bias towards substance abusers, she ought to be ashamed at herself for being so obviously unlearned of even the simplest facts regarding substance abuse. I just can't understand what kind of idiot would keep electing a person to a position of such power who is so willfully ignorant. Mind you, I have yet to find a judge that actually understands the mechanics of any substance abuse issue. God, how depressing is that.

Anonymous said...

The State Jail program may have had the best intentions, but it is a stupid system at this point. Much like the SAFP program, the road to hell has been paved with good intentions, and both programs have fallen short of what they whould have been.

I don't think the legislature will eliminate an entire class of felonies and make them class A. They will fear that it will say soft on crime. Instead, they will have to create a 4th degree felony, maybe fiddle with the time sentences a bit and call it a 1-2 year sentence, but it will stay a felony. And doing so will cause major problems with the enhancement provisions of the penal code that note a difference between a "felony" and a "state jail felony."

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