Instead, the speech interested me because Perry's main claim to addressing the needs of black folks, besides job creation, involved reforming the criminal justice system. According to Rick Perry, Texas has:
found a way to reduce crime, while we’re also keeping kids out of jail. In 2014 Texas had the lowest crime rate since 1968. And, at the same time, we closed three prisons and reformed our sentencing laws. Too many prisons—or I should say too many Texans were going to prison for nonviolent drug offenses. And, once they got out of prison, many of them found they couldn’t get a job because they had a criminal record. I'm pretty sure nobody in here gets confused that Texas is a soft on crime place. But I also believe, like Texans believe, in consequences for criminal behavior, but I also believe in second chances and human redemption, because that too is part of the American story.Now, to be clear, I've insisted in the past that Perry be given credit where credit is due on these topics: He signed many criminal-justice reform measures while Governor, though he also vetoed and stymied quite a few others. Still, this speech represents a new position for Perry, not an iteration of his Texas record.
Americans who suffer from an addiction need help. They don’t need moral condemnation. By treating alcohol and drug abuse as a disease, we’ve given Texans who have experienced a run-in with the law the help that they need, the rehabilitation that many seek. And now, many of those individuals are living in recovery. They're engaged in saving the lives of others who are trapped in addiction.
Not once until he was on his way out of office - certainly never when it mattered in the legislative process - did Rick Perry come out as ardently for criminal-justice reform as in this speech. If he had, there's little doubt reformers would have accomplished more during his tenure.
To be blunt: Texas still incarcerates more people than any other state, by far. Along with our neighbor Louisiana, we're for all intents and purposes the global epicenter of mass incarceration. It's simply not true that we're "treating alcohol and drug abuse as a disease" instead of with "moral condemnation." Declaring an activity a crime and prosecuting people who engage in it is by definition "moral condemnation." Yes, more people get treatment now through local probation departments, but it's a sham to claim Texas treats "drug abuse as a disease." We treat it as a crime.
Texas cycles low-level drug users though the criminal-justice system by the thousands, including quite a few who didn't actually possess drugs. It's true, Perry signed into law probation reforms that included substantial treatment dollars, after vetoing essentially the same measure two years prior. But legislation to reduce penalties for low-level drug possession so the savings could be spent on treatment ran aground both in Perry's administration and this year in Greg Abbott's, with neither man lifting a finger to help nor uttering a supportive word. Republicans in Texas have shown little stomach so far for truly treating addiction as a disease - i.e., as a medical issue instead of a crime.
For that matter, to the extent that Medicaid would pay for drug treatment and mental health services that would ACTUALLY treat addiction as a healthcare issue, it's hard to take this "treat it as a disease" rhetoric seriously from someone who so ardently opposed extending health coverage to poor people. In his speech, Perry declared that the uninsured are just as well off as those covered by Medicaid, but that's an easy claim to make for somebody who has health insurance himself.
Finally, Texas has done scarce little to help folks who "couldn’t get a job because they had a criminal record": At most, we've piddled around the margins. That was never a priority for Rick Perry, certainly not the way he championed issues like border buildup, nor even the HPV vaccine or the Trans-Texas Corridor. He allowed others to do small things but his own actions were, at best, modest.
To be clear: Most other states would justly look at Texas' bloated criminal justice system with equal measures of disdain and incredulity. I'm glad Rick Perry is now advocating these things. And I don't begrudge a politician whose views change over time. Who among us doesn't learn and grow as we age? But everyone should be clear that this rhetoric is aspirational regarding the future, not descriptive of the past.