|Photo by Jaime Carrero, Tyler Morning Telegraph|
The data in the story on high geriatric health costs won't surprise Grits readers any more than the back-and-forth debate between prosecutors and budget-writers: "Records from the 2009-10 Correctional Managed Health Care report to the Texas Legislation showed offenders 55 and older averaged $4,853 in yearly medical costs, while the average for those below that age was $795." These are facts and debates most Grits readers have heard before and most of the data was accurate and well-presented, if not exactly "news." (More like "olds" - these are longstanding controversies.)
What caught my eye, though, were bizarre representations from parole board chair Rissie Owens that simply can't be justified:
Rissie Owens, presiding officer of Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, said there long has been a misconception that offenders are entering the Texas prison system young and staying until they are old. In reality, many enter prison late in life to begin serving their sentences for crimes they committed late in life, Ms. Owens said.
"Forty-five percent of all prison and state jail inmates received have been 55 and older at the time they entered prison to serve their sentences," she said. "It also appears that these older inmates are serving sentences for violent offenses as almost 6 percent of those 55 and older have sentences for crimes ranging from homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, robbery and assault/terroristic threats."
Ms. Owens said numerous factors are reviewed during parole decisions.
I don't know why Mrs. Owens would say such things or why any reporter would publish the quote when the error is so easily debunked, but this representation is about as far from accurate as you can get. While I can't find an apples to-apples number for received inmates 55 or over, according to the agency's annual statistical report (pdf, p. 30), in FY 2010, 6,854 inmates 50 years old or more entered TDCJ, out of 72,315 who entered Texas prisons or state jails that year. That's 9.4%, not 45%, and really the comparable number is less since my stat includes inmates received age 50 and up. Just 1,010 inmates age 60 and up entered TDCJ that year, according to the annual statistical report. So about one out of every 72 new inmates is 60 years old or older."Age is one factor, but we do not just focus on the age of each offender," she said. "The numbers indicate that there have been more offenders received at TDCJ in the age group 55 to 60 than any other age group at the time of prison entry."
One might think the reporters just misinterpreted Owens' use of data or the numbers were misquoted, but her other comments make clear she believes - or wants the public to believe - that older offenders make up a large proportion of new offenders. It's just a flat-out falsehood that "The numbers indicate that there have been more offenders received at TDCJ in the age group 55 to 60 than any other age group at the time of prison entry." That's not true. Here are the number of new receives for TDCJ in FY 2010 by age range:
14-16: 28So the suggestion that "more offenders [are] received at TDCJ in the age group 55 to 60 than any other age group" beggars belief. It's just a fabrication.
60 and older: 1,010
Similarly odd to me is the comment that "It also appears that these older inmates are serving sentences for violent offenses as almost 6 percent of those 55 and older have sentences for crimes ranging from homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, robbery and assault/terroristic threats." That explains denying medical parole for those 6%, but that also means, if accurate, that the overwhelming majority (94%) of inmates older than 55 did not commit those types of awful crimes. Should we punish them extra for the crimes of the 6%? What a strange assertion!
According to the above-cited statistical report (p. 31), 20.5% of total "new receives" at TDCJ in 2010 committed violent offenses to get there, so if the figure for violent crimes among older offenders is 6%, that's substantially lower, not some grave, extra cause for concern. It's possible to manage those 6% without applying the same release criteria to the other 94%.
All the data and analyses attributed to Mrs. Owens in this story were either a) false or b) did not support her interpretation. But it just gets quoted and repeated and for the most part, reporters don't call officials on it when they make such screwball comments.
October 6 will be Grits for Breakfast's 7th blogiversary - the first post on this blog was seven years ago tomorrow. The reason I started Grits was precisely to counter - on criminal justice topics, anyway - this brand of modern journalism where reporters don't resolve factual disputes in their stories but merely "quote both sides" without vetting statements from public officials to make sure they're telling the truth. The majority of posts on this blog have the same structure: Quote mainstream media reports then correct factual errors from self-interested or self-justifying pols who're blowing smoke up some poor reporter's ass. Though many days I find that task somewhat boring and repetitive, stories like this one show the function is just as necessary today as it was when the blog began. It's one thing to "quote both sides." It's quite another to quote lies and truth and then portray them as equivalents.