Sunday, October 02, 2011

Should reformers praise or chastise Rick Perry's criminal justice record?

Via Sentencing Law & Policy, my colleague Cory Session of the Innocence Project of Texas went just a bit further in praising Governor Perry's criminal justice record than Grits would have. According to Yahoo! News:
Cory Session's brother Tim Cole died in the middle of a 25-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit.

So it's something of a surprise that Session, who serves a policy director for Texas' Innocence Project, has nothing but good things to say about Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry is known as a tough-on-crime governor who heartily supports the death penalty. He's presided over more executions than any other governor since the death penalty was reinstated 35 years ago. When a special commission began to look into evidence that Perry could have presided over the execution of an innocent man, the governor abruptly removed three of its members and appointed allies in their stead, effectively quashing the probe.

But Session says Perry's support of other criminal justice reforms overshadow his record on the death penalty.

"Governor Perry has done an exceptional job when it comes to criminal justice reform, more so than any other governor in Texas history," Session told The Lookout. "That's a record nobody can take away from him. His stance on the death penalty, well that's another thing. But we are very pleased with that record that he has."
Readers may recall that last month Grits compiled a list of "Things to like about Rick Perry as a criminal justice reformer," citing a fairly substantial list of criminal-justice reforms Perry has signed into law over the years, as well as his pardons of Tim Cole, the Tulia defendants, and other reform-minded actions.

Nearly all of the national criticism of Texas justice during Perry's campaign has centered on the death penalty, but seldom is Perry given credit for signing a life-without-parole law in 2005 that reduced new death sentences to low levels not seen since the Texas reinstated the practice three decades ago. In FY 2009, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Texas juries sent just eight new defendants to death row - the lowest number in any single year under (at least) the state's four prior governors. That's a direct result of legislation Rick Perry signed. (CORRECTION: A reader alerts me that, according to TDCJ's annual statistical reports, 11 new defendants were sent to death row in FY 2009 and 10 in FY 2010, numbers which are for some reason slightly higher than reported in the MSM.)

It's been said many times that Texas executed more people during Rick Perry's tenure than under any modern US Governor, but that stems mainly from two factors: His longevity in office and the fact that, because death cases take so long to get through the appeals process, the number of executions in any given year more reflects the policies of the past than the present. Most executions on Perry's watch stemmed from convictions obtained during the tenures of Ann Richards, Bill Clements, and Mark White, plus a few from the Bush era, and his record on the subject differs little from those governors save for his support of life without parole (which couldn't pass under any of his predecessors when Democrats controlled the Legislature). He also signed into law the Texas Fair Defense Act, which created improved standards for attorneys representing death-eligible clients.

Despite the common refrain that Perry "presided" over 235 executions (so far), it's not like he plays a big role in the process. The number of death sentences carried out in Texas really is a function of decisions made years ago by prosecutors, juries and judges, (not to mention the shortcomings of an often pathetic criminal defense bar). The Governor simply has very little to do with it, and his clemency power is much more restricted than executives in other states. Just as his critics overstate the governor's role, Rick Perry claiming credit for the number of executions in Texas is a lot like the rooster who believes his crowing caused the sunrise.

IMO, Perry has latched onto the death-penalty issue so vehemently because it's virtually the only item in his portfolio that crosses partisan lines to grab independents and conservative Democrats (since the death penalty is widely supported across all those demographics). Indeed, polls show that even those who believe the state has already executed an innocent person still support the death penalty by roughly a 60-40 margin. From a purely Machiavellian political standpoint, there's simply no downside for politicians in Texas (or in the GOP primary) from being seen as an eager executioner.

Indeed, arguably death-penalty demagoguery has played an important strategic role in Texas' criminal justice reforms, diverting media focus from more  workaday criminal justice issues to an area where pols can look "tuff," even as they enact more moderate or even progressive reforms in other areas. Perry has signed legislation diverting tens of thousands of criminals from prison, but because of the "most-ever executions" tag, it'd be impossible in the political arena to successfully label him "soft on crime."

All that said, I also agree with Texas Criminal Justice Coalition chief Ana Correa's assessment in the story, that "He has not been an obstacle for us but he has also not been a key leader." (In the interest of full disclosure, I'm presently employed doing consulting work for both TCJC and the Innocence Project of Texas.) Criminal justice reform has never been a Perry priority, but as support for reforms grew among Texas Republicans, quite a few good bills passed on his watch and with a few notable exceptions he usually signed them. Governors in Texas wield relatively little power save for vetoes and appointments, so not vetoing things gets him credit, in my book, but it doesn't mean he'd make criminal-justice reform any sort of priority if he were President. Indeed, I seriously doubt he would do so.

Rick Perry doesn't deserve demonization for his criminal-justice record; he's not the one-dimensional, execution-crazed nutjob that death-penalty abolitionists have portrayed. But he also doesn't merit the effusive praise Cory lavished on him in this particular article. Tolerating reform is different from championing it.


Anonymous said...

If Perry believed it would be to his political benefit to be anti-death penalty, he would be rabidly anti-dp. The only true conviction he has is to himself and power. Anything beyond that is like fancy evening dress on a gigolo.

Anonymous said...

hey! tell me something about Cameron Todd Willingham

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Here you go, 4:47.

Incandesio said...

Hi Grits!
I was born and raised a conservative Republican; always very supportive of the criminal justice system. But since I started paying attention (only the past year) I have been appalled by how it sucks.Would you say it's worse here in Texas, or does it just seem that way because Perry's trying to fix the system?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It's worse in Texas than most states, IMO, Incandesio, and it's bipartisan, to boot. The Ds are generally as bad as the Rs, or on some issues worse. Our incarceration rates are near the top and most of the problems you find elsewhere one sees here in spades. There are about 3/4 of a million people in prison, jail, probation and parole, which is nearly 5% of the adult population.

As for Perry "trying to fix the system," really he's been a pretty passive actor. He's signed reform legislation when it came to him but as mentioned in the post he rarely initiates it. That's not to belittle his contribution - if he didn't approve them, reform bills can't become law. Just that criminal justice stuff has seldom been a big priority for him one way or the other.

Incandesio said...

Thanks for the reply; I really appreciate your blog.

Gloria Rubac said...

3/4 of a million people in prison, jail, parole or probation in just this one state? Good grief! Outrageous! Where did you find this info?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That was a guesstimate, Gloria, but let's add them up. From the TDCJ annual statistical report for 2010, representing the number at the end of the fiscal year:

Prison/state jail: 154,795
Parole: 106,667
Probation: 419,920

And from the county jail population report from the Commission on Jail Standards, the number in jail is 69,085. That figure is not exactly comparable to the others because it's for Sept. 2011, not the last month of FY 2010, but good enough for an estimate.

Tally those up and you get 750,467. I was pretty darn close for a rough guess!

That said, when I check the 2010 census number for the adult population, it's higher than I'd guesstimated, at 18,789,238. That would put the total under supervision of the justice system at about 4% of adults, not 5%. Still a lot of folks.

RSO wife said...

I am by no means a Perry supporter, in fact you could say I lean so far in the opposite direction that if I'm not careful, I could fall over. HOWEVER, Perry is only the tip of the iceberg where the Texas In-Justice System is concerned. It starts with law enforcement who presume you are guilty before ever finding any evidence of it, prosecutors who are eager to get convictions on their record and judges who want to be re-elected and convictions make them look good.

I know these things are true because my family and I are the result of these three things and Perry had nothing to do with any of them

Sheldon tyc#47333 said...

We tend to gloss over the hate crimes commuted by Christian organizations like the kkk against white people of lower socioeconomic class. From a historical perspective it does not serve the self interest of our minority’s to discuss the number of kkk cross burnings in the yards of poor white people during the late 19th and early 20th century. Our images of white supremacist being of lowly white trash dragging poor unsuspecting Negro’s from the back of a truck tends to deflect our attention from the judgmental WASP mentality that drives the true hate crimes in our state. Granted, that as a minority in Texas prisons, white people tend to sport a white supremacist motif, mostly for protection but primarily out of ignorance. However the true Christian white supremacist could be difficult to find in our Texas lockups but easily spotted in high positions of status in our society. From these lofty positions they are able to control an army to rid the state of so-called undesirables. This army is obfuscated under the guise of our Texas criminal justice system.
Texas has a history of white supremacy like no other southern state. Texas fought 2 wars to keep slavery and was the last hold out for desegregation with a major issue in Burleson Texas that rivals the historic event that happened in Georgia. The dildo lady in Burleson Texas could be the poster child of Christian white supremacy, a person whom Perry appointed to the BPP but fortunately was denied by our Senate.
The death and cover up related to Cameron Todd Willingham for all practical purposes should be considered a hate crime perpetrated by our states true Christian white supremacists. A the very least, he got a decent last meal.

rodsmith said...

yea grits guess i need to find the study. but there was one done not long ago that puts the number of americans convicted of SOMETHING at about 1 out of every 36 people in the country.

A Texas PO said...

I'm not a Rick Perry supporter in the least, and I'd give much more credit to the Lege that to Perry on these criminal justice reforms. As Ana stated in the article, he's not been a key leader in reforms. However, he'll sign anything that comes across his desk, so long as the media haven't made those items major talking points. The Lege took the lead to make some pretty awesome reforms over the last few years and those should be lauded, but we have so much further to go.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Rod, a few years ago the Pew Charitable Trusts came out with a report that said 1 in 31 Americans were in prison, jail, on probation or on parole. The Texas number from that study was 1 in 22.

Since then, though, Texas overall population has grown and prison population growth has leveled off; by the calculations above, the ratio cited by Pew has declined to about 1 in 25, a slight improvement but still higher than most states.

rodsmith said...

ahh hadn't see that one grits nice. of course that just makes it worse though.

all it counts are those "1 in 31 Americans were in prison, jail, on probation or on parole"

wonder how bad that number would be if it also counted those who HAD been in prison, jail or probation or parole" but have now finished it!

you know kind of like the pogus unemployment numbers since the govt doesn't include the million who have exhaulsted all thier benefits like the 99'ers