Wednesday, July 07, 2010

State Jail creators: 'Don't kill our baby'

Mike Ward at the Statesman today has an article titled "Lawmakers might scrap or revamp state jail system" which relates a development covered last week on Grits: A suggestion at the House Corrections Committee to eliminate or radically modify the state jail system. (Back in the days when they used to print news on dead trees, I think they used to call this a "scoop.") The story opens:
When Texas' network of state jails was established by lawmakers in 1993, the goals were simple: Nonviolent drug offenders, thieves and first-time offenders would be housed in separate lockups with treatment and rehabilitation programs to cut their risk of returning to a life of crime.

Now some legislative leaders are considering a plan that might do away with the Lone Star idea that once attracted national headlines.

"I think there very well may be interest in changing the current state jail system," House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin , said Tuesday. "The recidivism rates for state jail inmates are higher than for our regular prisons. We need to consider modifying the original model. They may have outlived their usefulness."
FWIW, "Considering a plan" is probably strong. It sounded to me like members of the Corrections Committee were voicing for perhaps the first time ideas in reaction to testimony from Harris County officials about state jails' effectiveness, or the lack thereof.

Ward went for reactions to the two men who arguably are most responsible for the existence of  Texas state jail system: state Sen. John Whitmire and Williamson County DA John Bradley. Wrote Ward:
two architects of the state jail system, which holds more than 12,000 of Texas' 155,000 convicts — those sentenced for fourth-degree felonies, the most minor type — warn that doing away with the special breed of prisons would be a big mistake.

"Tell (McReynolds) it ain't gonna happen," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who authored the state jail law. "We created this system to take all the low-level drug offenders and property criminals out of state prisons so we'd have enough room to keep the violent offenders behind bars longer. The system has worked well.

"It would be a disaster to do away with state jails."

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who served as a liaison for prosecutors and law enforcement groups when Texas' criminal laws were rewritten to create the state jail system, agreed.

"Instead of considering doing away with it, the state should be considering renewing its commitment to the state jail system."
Ward says Bradley served as a "liaison for prosecutors and law enforcement groups" when state jails were created, and as a purely practical matter I'm sure that's true. But as I understand it (that's a couple of sessions before my time), officially he worked as a legislative aide to Sen. Whitmire that session back in 1993. So perhaps it's no surprise that the creators of the state jail felony would not only defend it, but declare that it is the the main bulwark standing between the citizenry and the early release of violent criminals.

To be fair, Chairman McReynolds didn't actually suggest eliminating state jails entirely, but beefing up probation for petty offenders and merging state jail functions with Intermediate Sanctions Facilities - short-term, treatment focused punishment for probation violators that aim to prepare the offender to succeed upon reentry. Arguably, McReynold ideas simply return the state jail concept to its roots.

Created as a way to divert nonviolent prisoners away from a life of crime, budget cuts eliminated treatment at state jails and "tough on crime" amendments eliminated what Ward says was originally "automatic" probation. "Republican George W. Bush lambasted Democratic incumbent Gov. Ann Richards, insisting she had been soft on crime in supporting the state jail law," writes Ward. "Lawmakers subsequently changed it to mostly drop the automatic probation." So if state jails were merged with ISFs, they would once again become essentially a probation sanction instead of the little mini-prisons they've become. In that sense, McReynolds' idea would return state jails to their conceptual  beginnings, whatever name one gives to them.

Despite Whitmire and Bradley's understandable pride of ownership, not everybody agrees Texas' state jail experiment has performed so swimmingly. The Corrections Committee's discussion portrayed current state jails' "day for day" time served as fulfilling only a "punishment" function, not a rehabilitative one. In fact, the committee was told, state jails worsen recidivism, particularly among the mentally ill and other high risk groups. That's because, as McReynolds told Ward, state jail inmates leave lockup "with no supervision, no intensive treatment or programs, and their recidivism rate is as high as 34 percent, compared with about 28 percent for the inmates coming out of regular prisons."

Harris County DA Pat Lykos and Caprice Cosper, a former judge who now coordinates Harris County efforts to reduce jail crowding, were the most virulent critics of state jails at last week's hearing. Whitmire's comments were aimed at Chairman McReynolds, but it was the Harris County DA and the head of Harris County's Office of Criminal Justice Coordination who most loudly called for reform.

Chairman McReynolds wasn't jumping the gun or saying he would absolutely move on this idea, he was reacting to testimony. And as Ward later reports, far from presenting a "plan," McReynolds merely "asked members of his committee to poll local prosecutors and officials in their districts about perhaps changing the state jail concept to be more like special lockups called Intermediate Sanction Facilities, which house mostly parole violators."

Considering the most virulent critiques of the state jail system at last week's hearing came from the Houston senator's hometown DA and a former Harris County district judge who spent 16 years on the bench - not to mention the fact that 16 out of 22 Harris County felony court judges support reducing "less than a gram" penalties to a Class A misdemeanor - perhaps running the idea of reforming state jails by local officials would be a good idea for Chairman Whitmire. His belief that state jails as constituted have "worked well" isn't universally shared among Harris County officialdom.

18 comments:

R. Shackleford said...

I don't see the point in having state jails if there isn't any treatment going on in them. By all accounts, they're actually worse to do time in than TDC. Incidentally, when people like Bradley use words like 'commitment', it makes my skin crawl. You just know any commitment he makes can't be good for somebody.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Judge Cosper told me before the hearing that she expected to hear John Bradley's screams "all the way from Georgetown" after her testimony, and just as she predicted, here we are. :)

Anonymous said...

"Tell (McReynolds) it ain't gonna happen," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who authored the state jail law. "

Whitmire needs to go. Who does he think is anyway? The arrogance of this man is pathetic. He is the very reason we need to pass legislation for term limits in Texas.

Anonymous said...

For the last several years now, first offense State Jail Felony drug possession offenses (less than one gram) have required automatic probation. I'm not sure what's going on in Harris County, but in our county there's quite a bit of treatment provided at the community level through the probation department on the front end. It also takes quite a bit of effort to get these probationers revoked (usually a new felony offense). For repetive positive UA's, they initially get outpatient counseling, sometimes treatment through an ISF and ultimately SAFPF. As to the SAFPF option, I would point out that inevitably these probationers usually don't want to go there and ask the prosecutor "how much will you offer me if I just go to State Jail and do my time?" Hardly anyone in my county goes to State Jail straight out of the box unless they have multiple priors on their record. And sometimes, seasoned offenders just don't want to go through the hassle of probation and simply want to go do their time and be done with it. For these types of offenders, I'm not the least bit surprised to see the recidivism rates somewhat higher. Lots of these offenders just like doing drugs and fully intend to get out and start using again. Parole wouldn't do them a darn bit of good. Many of these offenders are career petty thiefs--you know the kind that you don't want us enhancing up to regular felonies for shoplifting cigarettes from convenience stores. They too don't mind just going and doing their time so they can get out and start over again. Doing a sentence of 2 years or less for these well "institutionalized" offenders is nothing.

One other thing worth noting, under Art. 42.12, Sec. 15 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, there are all sorts of ISF-like confinement sanctions a district judge can impose on SJF probationers. In fact, the district court retains jurisdiction to "shock" an offender back out of the state jail and place him or her on probation all the way up to the expiration of a 2 year period of confinement. In short, if the courts want to use state jails like ISF's, they can do that right now.

As far as I'm concerned, Sen. Whitmire is a jerk and pompous A$$ of the highest order. Rarely do I agree with him. But in this instance, as much as it pains me to say it, he's right. Budget cuts have eviscerated state jails and changed them completely from their original concept. While I'm not sure about what the folks in Harris County might do, I can almost promise you that if the Legislature restored funding to the state jails for inpatient drug or alcohol treatment, prosecutors and judges would use those programs.

On a marginally related note, it's amusing to see you cozying up to Pat Lykos on this issue. Regarding Lykos' credibility on any matter related to criminal justice I will simply refer you to Murray Newman's blog. 'Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

For the last several years now, first offense State Jail Felony drug possession offenses (less than one gram) have required automatic probation. I'm not sure what's going on in Harris County, but in our county there's quite a bit of treatment provided at the community level through the probation department on the front end. It also takes quite a bit of effort to get these probationers revoked (usually a new felony offense). For repetive positive UA's, they initially get outpatient counseling, sometimes treatment through an ISF and ultimately SAFPF. As to the SAFPF option, I would point out that inevitably these probationers usually don't want to go there and ask the prosecutor "how much will you offer me if I just go to State Jail and do my time?" Hardly anyone in my county goes to State Jail straight out of the box unless they have multiple priors on their record. And sometimes, seasoned offenders just don't want to go through the hassle of probation and simply want to go do their time and be done with it. For these types of offenders, I'm not the least bit surprised to see the recidivism rates somewhat higher. Lots of these offenders just like doing drugs and fully intend to get out and start using again. Parole wouldn't do them a darn bit of good. Many of these offenders are career petty thiefs--you know the kind that you don't want us enhancing up to regular felonies for shoplifting cigarettes from convenience stores. They too don't mind just going and doing their time so they can get out and start over again. Doing a sentence of 2 years or less for these well "institutionalized" offenders is nothing.

One other thing worth noting, under Art. 42.12, Sec. 15 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, there are all sorts of ISF-like confinement sanctions a district judge can impose on SJF probationers. In fact, the district court retains jurisdiction to "shock" an offender back out of the state jail and place him or her on probation all the way up to the expiration of a 2 year period of confinement. In short, if the courts want to use state jails like ISF's, they can do that right now.

As far as I'm concerned, Sen. Whitmire is a jerk and pompous A$$ of the highest order. Rarely do I agree with him. But in this instance, as much as it pains me to say it, he's right. Budget cuts have eviscerated state jails and changed them completely from their original concept. While I'm not sure about what the folks in Harris County might do, I can almost promise you that if the Legislature restored funding to the state jails for inpatient drug or alcohol treatment, prosecutors and judges would use those programs.

On a marginally related note, it's amusing to see you cozying up to Pat Lykos on this issue. Regarding Lykos' credibility on any matter related to criminal justice I will simply refer you to Murray Newman's blog. 'Nuff said.

Charlie O said...

Here's a clue, stop locking up drug offenders in the first place. The "War On Drugs" is nothing but a War on the American People. Tell the lege to smoke a fatty and chill out.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Charlie O, you're dead right. Less than a gram cases account for more than a third of state jail felony inmates at TDCJ, last I checked, and most of the felony judges in Harris County want the penalty reduced.

11:00, Murray Newman's got some personal axes to grind and though I like the fellow personally, IMO some of his Lykos rants are over the top. I'm hardly "cozying up" to her to report what she said and express approval for positions I share with her. I've agreed with some things she's done (e.g., on paraphernalia cases) and been critical of others (like the DIVERT court). I don't know the woman and have no particular stakes in cultivating her good opinion. At last week's hearing, what she said made sense, and to more folks than just me.

10:50, like the Sheriff, there's an extent to which Whitmire's comments reflect an institutional stance, not an intellectual conclusion. (After all, debate on the subject has only just begun.)

If you don't hang out much at the capitol, it's hard to grok the complex relationship between legislators serving in the Texas House and the Senate, even though many senators were previously House members.

Your comments bring to mind an old story that characterizes that oppositional relationship better than I could ever portray. The person who told it to me attributed the tale to the late US House Speaker Tip O'Neill. I don't know if it's factually true but it really doesn't matter; it's iconic and applicable in an Aesop's fable kind of way, capturing a universal truth regardless of the precise verity of specific details:

The story goes that a young, freshman Democrat came to Congress and at some point was granted his first private meeting with the Speaker. "I'm ready, Mr. Speaker," the young Congressman said, "Put me out there in the trenches and I'm ready to do battle with the enemy."

"Fighting the 'enemy,' eh? What 'enemy' is that?" O'Neill skeptically queried. "Why the Republicans, sir!" the young Congressman offered enthusiastically.

Patiently, the elderly Speaker explained the rookie Congressman's thinking error: "No son, please be clear. The Republicans are the opposition. The Senate is the enemy." :)

From what I can tell, that dynamic more accurately explains what's going on here than any actual substantive disagreement between Whitmire and McReynolds. If Whitmire and Bradley want state jails to return to first principles, that's really not far from what McReynolds, Lykos and Cosper were suggesting. When everybody gets in a room together and aren't relying on Mike Ward for shuttle diplomacy, I suspect they'll rather quickly figure that out.

Anonymous said...

Is there any evidence that Cosper has actually accomplished anything? What has she done to help reduce overcrowding? So far, the only option has come from Garcia, who is just parrotinThomas, with a couple of alterations designed to address current hot button topics in the hope of getting a bond passed. No real solutions are coming from commissioners or county employees.

gravyrug said...

The "day for day" part of state jail often ends up giving people more time for minor offenses than major ones. The people I've known who've been through it got no treatment whatsoever. However good the intention was in the beginning, the way state jail is run now is just wrong.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:07, if in 12-18 months you can point to no accomplishments from Cosper, there will be time enough to declare her efforts a failure. These aren't easy problems to solve, and she has little authority as far as I can tell but to cajole and "coordinate." Her job is primarily one of cat herding and it will take a 2-3 county budget cycles, at least, and a legislative session or two for there to be tangible results.

That's not to defender Cosper - she may yet prove incapable - it's just how I view the nature of the task she's been assigned.

One smart thing Dee Wilson did at TDCJ's new reentry division is pick one big thing - in her case getting inmates enough documentation to get IDs - and make sure she at least accomplished that. Cosper needs to similarly pick something tangible to help the jail crowding problem and at least make that one big thing happen. The frustration that's evident in your comment likely stems from the inability to identify exactly what that is yet.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not frustrated at her, just wondering what the over-incerceration czar has done. I agree completely that it's a longer term issue, but there are some things she can try to do (admittedly, with no real authority to do it), that would show instant results. Cite and summons, to name one. I think that alone would, once its effects cycle through the system, would eliminate the need to house inmates elsewhere. Going with the sitting judges on the residue cases would be another. And there are others that would essentially nibble away at the edges of the problem with smaller gauins, but those are the biggies that can be done without any real expenditures, and in fact would save time and money.

By the way, I've also heard your story attributed to Tip--as told to me by Jim Wright, who shared his views.

Don said...

10:59 & 11:00--you are right on--on just about everything you said. "As to the SAFPF option, I would point out that inevitably these probationers usually don't want to go there and ask the prosecutor "how much will you offer me if I just go to State Jail and do my time?" Therein lies one of the problems with the SJ "treatment" when they did have it. They tried to model the tx programs after SAFPF, which is not really alcohol/drug abuse treatment. You are right in that many of the probationers opting for just "doing the time" and forget the SAFPF nonsense. The treatment in State Jail was voluntary. If they chose it, it just made the time harder, at least the way they looked at it. If anybody is going to talk about "treatment" in any kind of a lockup situation, they need to look at the type of "treatment" they are doing. These "modified therapeutic community" models don't resemble anything I ever learned about substance abuse treatment. I have been an LCDC since there has been such an animal, and CADAC before that. I also worked in State Jail with a "TC", as well as SAFPF, and about a dozen other modalities. It's totally understandable to me that recidivism from the State Jails is worse than ID units. I like the idea of some kind of wedding between them and ISF, with a new look at what treatment should consist of.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine from back in the day had got his life together career, wife, kids. In his early 40’s things went bad and he lost is job then his family. During this down turn he returned to drugs and eventually became a heroin junky. Got busted in Dallas County and went to Dawson state jail. His wife said Dawson in 01-02 was worst than Ferguson and Clemons farm in 80-81. He got nothing and he especially got no treatment. Within a week of his release his son found his dad dead from a hereon overdose.
To think our criminal justice system is anything more than a way to provide jobs to the ignorant mass and the arrogate lawyers is foolishness. The war on drugs is a war on the American people, some get locked up, some pay for those who are locked up, and our society as a whole suffers. It’s said what we call justice in Texas.
Sheldon

Anonymous said...

Your Tip O'Neill analogy was an interesting comment. Thanks for the comment

Since you're in the know, I have to ask: How much "shuttle diplomacy" really occurs when these issues arise and in your opinion, how accurate has the media been in explaining the issues at hand? I personally quit reading anything that Mike Ward puts out because everyone knows he's a sounding board for Whitmire. But what's your take?

Lance said...

They need an early parole option in state jails. The offenders in the state jails are doing day for day and have no incentive to change or conform to treatment programs, such as CID offenders. This is why the recidivism is higher in state jails. The state of Texas could save millions by moving the State jail division over to CID and using parole for these offenders who conform to the rules and treatment programs.

Anonymous said...

Anytime you put the words "John Bradley" behind anything you have to know it's going to be a problem.

SJF and SAFPF both started out with good intentions, but neither is working. People don't want to go to SAFPF because it does not work, it's essentially prison, and judges fight like hell not to give them credit for the time they were in jail toward their sentence. It has gotten better since the 09 lege amendments, but they still fight. As for the SFJ concept of day for day, gravyrug is right. It's idiotic to give someone more time in jail for a lesser crime.

Also chew on this. If you take away the concept of good conduct time, and you take away parole, don't you take away some of the incentive for people to change and to do well in prison, as they have in upper level prisons? I've heard this over and over.

Anonymous said...

Texas will never scrap it's "state jail" system. They may create more felonies to fill the beds but they will never close a prison.

Renee said...

Can someone please tell me if it is "legal" to place a prisoner with a 10 year sentence, in Lychner State Jail, Harris county Texas. They say it is a transfer unit, but from what I have read that is not correct. What can I do to get my husband transferred to a TDCJ facility and not a state jail? Thanks-