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.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.
"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."
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:
- Texas Department of Criminal Justice
- Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles
- Windham School District
- State Commission on Judicial Conduct
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: