MORE THOUGHTS: I took quite a few notes myself and may have more to say on some of the topics covered, but one recurring theme throughout the day - especially from the institutional players represented on the panels - was that the Legislature and local government should spend much more money on criminal justice: On forensic science. On prosecutors' offices. On indigent defense. On mental health services. On alternatives to incarceration. On juvenile probation. On state oversight of probation. On reentry services following prison and jail stints. You name it, more spending seemingly was the solution.
That's all well and good, but the problem is - given the fiscal conservative predilections of the incoming Legislature and the budget crisis spawned by the Lege underfunding major budget items during the last one (Medicaid funding, for example, will run out early next year, long before the fiscal year ends) - throwing massive sums at our already sprawling system isn't really a viable long-term strategy.
Very seldom throughout the day were concrete suggestions made that had a remote chance of reducing costs, and then only in passing. The opinion leaders being questioned did not seem to have given much consideration to how to scale back the system to reduce its volume and expense.
One rare exception came in the panel on the coming legislative session. State Rep. Paul Workman, who is on the House Corrections Committee, mentioned he is interested in scaling back "overcriminalization," but offered no specifics. And Sen. Joan Huffman suggested that money can be saved in the out years if the state invests now in community corrections and mental health services. The Trib liveblog paraphrased her stance thusly: "Huffman said she's about punishing those who are bad and treating those who can be treated in a smarter way while at the same time saving some money."
So essentially, even the suggestions for "saving" money were couched as calls for spending more. The only exception among the politicians was Harris County DA Pat Lykos, who pointed out that the county jail population declined after she stopped charging crack paraphernalia cases as state jail felonies unless there was enough of the controlled substance available for the defense to re-test. Of course, her likely successor at that job has said he would reverse the policy.
Responding to an audience question, juvenile justice panelists briefly agreed that money could be saved by reducing police presence at schools (where more than 300,000 Class C tickets are issued by officers each year, it was estimated), but they all immediately dismissed the idea as politically not viable.
Surprisingly, the main person on the stage at yesterday's Law and Order track who suggested big-picture policy changes that would actually reduce corrections spending was, oddly enough, Rusty Hardin. He was brought in mostly to discuss his role as a special prosecutor in the Michael Morton court of inquiry and his representation of Roger Clemens against allegations of lying to Congress about steroids. But toward the end of his one-on-one interview with Trib publisher Evan Smith, Hardin opined that the pendelum had swung far too greatly toward the harsher end of the spectrum. He recounted that 20+ years ago he'd created a political action committee to elect less lenient judges but now felt the system had gone too far in the other direction
Hardin declared unequivocally that today's prison "sentences are too long," and stated flatly, "I don't believe in life without parole." Liveblogged Brandi Grissom:
Life without parole, he says, is an easy out instead of making the hard decision.Hardin said shorter sentences give offenders "hope" and prevent them from giving up on their future, offering a greater possibility they'll successfully reintegrate with society on release. He said he's particularly bothered by long sentences for juveniles. And he lamented the rise of pretrial detention as de facto pre-adjudication punishment. In Harris County, he noted, the system has turned the presumption of innocence on its head to where now there's essentially a "presumption of guilt." People are held in jail too long pretrial because courts are clogged, and often the conditions imposed by judges as part of pretrial release are so onerous that the person may as well have been convicted.
“Warehouseing people for all their natural life with no hope is a horrible, horrible thing to do,” he said.
Hardin's comments were framed not around fiscal questions but underlying principles of justice. However, more than any of the politicians or policy wonks interviewed before him, in his comments one saw the outlines of a justice system that might actually be cheaper to operate. (Keep in mind state corrections spending grew 274% more than inflation and population growth over the last three decades, with local costs similarly skyrocketing in most jurisdictions.) Reducing sentences reduces cost to prisons. Reducing pretrial detention lowers jail expenditures.
This blog has repeated many times that there are ways to reduce criminal justice costs by reducing volume: Lowering drug penalties by one punishment category, for example. Indexing theft categories to inflation. Reducing long sentence lengths, as Hardin suggests, and allowing inmates to earn their freedom through good behavior. Utilizing medical parole for sick, elderly inmates. Eliminating politicized expenditures with little public safety benefit like fusion centers, border security grants and military-style equipment. Ending local police subsidies to burglar alarm companies by requiring verified response. Hardly any of those questions were even hinted at yesterday outside Hardin's offhand remarks.
There are ways to reduce criminal justice spending while keeping crime rates low, and yes, some of them require state investment in long-neglected priorities like strengthening probation and upgrading mental health services. But judging from yesterday's event, opinion leaders seem as yet unready to grapple with bigger systemic changes to rein in the corrections spending behemoth Texas has created.