Friday, December 02, 2011

Advocacy groups compiling Sunset wish lists ... Do you have yours?

At the Texas Tribune, Ben Philpott has a brief item on how various liberal and conservative groups are approaching the opportunities presented by the Sunset review of Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The Texas Civil Rights Project, according to attorney Scott Medlock, is "proposing measures he says could improve prisoner conditions while cutting costs for the state, like reviewing sentencing policies that keep geriatric inmates behind bars, where they disproportionately use up the prison system’s limited health care dollars." "So that results in old and frail prisoners who have already served an extremely long time in prison that then become very expensive to care for as they reach their later years," Medlock said.

Meanwhile Marc Levin of the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation suggested that Texas:
must prioritize its prison space to keep threats to society behind bars but should steer lower-level offenders, like individuals convicted of minor drug possession, out of jail.

"We have about 17,000 low-level drug possession offenders in our Texas prisons right now," Levin said.

"Not all of them would be eligible under this because it excludes those with prior significant felony convictions and so forth. But it certainly would save several hundred millions of dollars."
They're right that the Sunset process presents a great opportunity to pursue changes at TDCJ, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and also the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, all of which are up for review in 2012-13. During Sunset, agencies are vetted thoroughly once every 12 years by the Lege and Sunset Commission staff, and the Lege must pass a bill verifying the agency continues to serve a vital function. Sunset bills often include various reform measures, though just as frequently legislators tack on pork or other favors for special interests. The bills must pass or else, at least in theory, or the agencies cease to exist. Much of the Sunset action is already happening behind the scenes as staff prepare preliminary reports and ready for public hearings next year, so early input is generally more effective, though of course Sunset bills can and will be amended all the way down to the waning days of the Legislature.

How to Get Involved
If you're interested in reform at these agencies and want to participate in the Sunset process, you can do so by submitting written comments, lobbying Sunset Commission members (which is a very helpful approach), or showing up to speak at public hearings, which may be less effective if you don't show up with written testimony/materials and very specific recommendations. Go here to learn more about how to participate in the Sunset process. More people should. Here are the "self evaluations" from the criminal-justice related agencies currently up for Sunset review:
The self-evaluation report for the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee is not yet online.

It's not just organizations but also average folks can also get involved in the Sunset process, if they're willing and able to do a little brain and legwork. In this case it's not that hard: Read the self-evaluation of the agency that concerns you. Take notes as you go, thinking both about what's been said and what's been omitted. Identify problems you see at the agency - particularly any not identified in the self-evaluation - and (really important!) suggest proposed solutions. Write down your concerns, ideas or questions. Submit them to the Sunset Advisory Commission as comments.

If you're in Austin, or can make it for a visit, try to visit with Sunset staff in person about your concerns. (The Sunset liaison staffer for each agency is listed in the self-evaluation document.) It's also considered common courtesy at that point to share your concerns with the agency up for review (contact info is also in the self-evaluation report). Who knows, maybe they'll preemptively implement your idea, or maybe you'll be turned down but still get a chance to ask questions and gather more intel. Either way, at least at the hearing you can say you've spoken to them about it.

The next step, if one were pursuing the task the way a lobbyist would, would be to contact the offices of the various members of the Sunset Commission and share your comments/concerns/solutions, preferably in in-person visits. Unless you have personal connections with the legislator in question, you'll probably end up talking with a legislative staffer assigned to the topic (which is fine). Those meetings not only give you a chance to pitch your ideas but also to cultivate intelligence about what commission members are thinking about, what other special interests are asking for, etc..

So if you do your job right as a citizen lobbyist in the Sunset process, by the time the Sunset Commission holds a hearing to discuss the agency that concerns you, all of the Sunset staffers and commissioners (or at least their staff) will already be aware of the concerns you're raising. When that's the case, it's a lot easier to get your ideas seriously discussed than if you simply show up cold at the hearing for the first time. Some ideas brought forward that way end up in the Sunset recommendations, it's true, but one's chances are better if there's been a lot more prep and legwork done before-hand.

I'm excited to see the Sunset process unfold for each of these agencies, though I'm concerned (but hopeful) that advocacy groups are well-positioned to capitalize on the opportunity. We'll see.

See related, recent Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

You can bet the 17,000 low-level drug abuse offenders is nothing more than the reflection of a bunch of stubborn jackasses occupying prosecutor offices. Don't count on anything changing RE: overutilizaiton of prison for low level offenders, even with sunset unless the prosecutors are called out onto the carpet. The irony is that TDCJ is getting blamed for receiving the wrong category of offenders in prison. The problem is on the sending end and I don't think sunset creates a venue to address prosecutoral ignorance.

A Texas PO said...

When I read TDCJ's self-evaluation, I couldn't help but laugh at the CJAD portion of the report. I find it hilarious that TDCJ wants to take all the credit for the huge efforts and successes achieved by CJAD and CSCDs (non-TDCJ employees doing TDCJ's work) after they decided to throw us to the wolves during the budget fight this year. I am submitting my opinion that CJAD and the CSCDs be removed from TDCJ during Sunset the same way the BPP has been removed. TDCJs failures should not reflect poorly on CJAD and the CSCDs, and vice versa. I was glad to see that there appeared to be a bit of enlightenment in the Lege this year (and the last few sessions) that probation on the front-end actually saves the state money, and I think funding the program better (read: costing the offender less financially) would lead to better outcomes and, hopefully, fewer revocations. After all, CJAD admits that the significant cost of probation to the offender, although a great way to get the support of the anti-tax crowd, causes heavy burdens. Throwing a monthly fee amount equivalent to that of a new car note payment takes its toll. Better funding can lead to better salaries which will attract better people to become officers, keep the good ones we have, provide more (and better) treatment options and services, and create that hope that we try to instill in our folks day in and day out.

Anonymous said...

A Texas PO...
Very well said and you are absolutely right. However how can CSCD and CJAD get funding priority when the "TOUGH ON CRIME" crowd keeps shoveling 17,000 + low risk substance abuse offenders to TDCJ? Unless I am wrong, 17,000 low risk substance abuse offenders weren't sent to TDCJ because there is more money in TDCJ than CSCD/CJAD. Offenders continue to be funneled to TDCJ because of the constant bantering by prosecutors and law enforcement to be TOUGH ON CRIME. These two entities steer/mislead public opinion to support more prison beds and the expansion of prison industry.

A Texas PO said...

11:59- That's not the whole picture. We have plent of low-level drug offenders on probation and thanks to the last few legislatures we have had great successes with treatment options for many of these. But those 17,000+ also include offenders who chose to take their time in State Jail. As one of my judges told me, he's frustrated with state jail drug cases because many offenders (particularly those with significant criminal histories who have been through many in-patient drug treatment centers) would rather cut a deal for 7 or 8 months in State Jail rather than going through SAFPF or a SATF and be on probation for 3-5 years. I can't argue with that, because it just makes financial sense for most in this population. But if we were separate from TDCJ during Sunset, we would have a voice in this argument. A voice that, right now, we don't have.

Anonymous said...

ATP 11:59
Is there data available to quantify the breakout of the what you are pointing out or is that just an experiential hunch?
How can you have successful substance abuse treatment and large numbers of people in prison who repeatedly failed at treatment?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"How can you have successful substance abuse treatment and large numbers of people in prison who repeatedly failed at treatment"

The way it's been explained to me: Failure is common in treatment, with or without the hammer of prison hanging over you. (The criminal justice system is probably not the best vehicle for confronting addiction, but that's a topic for a different post.) Treatment is not a cure-all, you're working the margins, peeling off percentages for whom it's successful. But the volume of probationers (around 450K) means that even small percentage reductions in the number revoked to prison is a big "success" from a savings/cost-benefit standpoint.

Anonymous said...

Reluctance to let the innocent out of TDCF also costs us money. They are a small percentage, but because the prosecutors do not want to admit there was false evidence, reverse false testimonies, or because they do not want to spend the money on dna testing (but they'll spend more on incarceration). Even when they have proof that someone is innocent. They refuse to let them go until a group like the Innocent Project finally takes them to court.

Anonymous said...

Maybe if the county that convicts had to pay the state for the inmates needs, they may just think twice about sending everyone to prison and keep them in the county to work and pay taxes.