Thursday, July 09, 2015

Rick Perry's race speech and criminal-justice reform

Rick Perry's speech to the National Press Club arguing why black people should vote Republican has received wide attention, and Grits has little to add on questions about race and politics it posed which haven't already been discussed at length elsewhere.

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. 

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.
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.

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.


PAPA said...

Thank You Grits for telling it like it is, has been, and possibly will be...I hear the P.C. people talking in a manner that I think to myself where have I been, I must have missed that, thought I was keeping up with what was going on, certainly have not heard that before many recall Gov Ann Richards,how she was booed practically out of office for the work she did to set up facilities for helping the addict...if the money was used to provide help/medical/support for the addiction problems I feel we would be further along in helping these people instead of the destruction of humans that happen in prison systems especially when the previous Governor did not think it necessary to enforce the "RAPE" laws to protect the person which destroys their "souls" making redemption from substance abuse harder to overcome then once they survive prison they are again thrown to the wolves in the probation/parole departments...their are some really evil people working as officers especially the women men haters...I could write a book about what I know about the probation officers and this is something that needs to be discontinued,if the Inmate served his/her time, earned their "GOOD TIME" then when released should be enough time served. First thing that needs to happen is close the borders and stop the endless supply of drugs that come across Texas Borders, dry up the supply, will stop a lot of what is going on, no non-violent substance abuser should be thrown into the pits of hell aka TDCJ, I don't have the answer, BUT, I know what has been going on for the last 40 years is NOT working so when something is NOT working it has to be changed, adjusted, done away with, replaced to something that might work. GET REAL "WE THE PEOPLE" this is your TAXDOLLARS paying for all this stuff that is NOT working, demand your TAXDOLLARS be spent for something that does work.

Wolf said...

An evidence based review of the actions of past and present governors and legislators shows that substantive criminal justice reform will not be introduced by those folks. My guess is that too many fear political suicide if they stand up for reforms that are easily identified. What has been clear is that they will pay lip service only to reform and pass only tweak type reform measures when what is called for are big, bold, Texas style changes. Since fundamental reform proposals do not emanate from our elected representatives, it is time for all others interested in change to join together, create a blueprint for change, and lobby for it.
Fortunately, the nationwide, bi-partisan, surge of interest in serious reform makes this year an ideal one for serious change.

Anonymous said...

They can't get a job because of all their rapes. It's not their fault that they rape. Tear up their rap sheet and let them start over.

Anonymous said...

Thank god for the Legislative Reference Library of Texas and our written record of actual events! Maybe he should take a stroll down the old vetoe lane before getting his presidential hopes up. SB 1195 in 2005 will cost him one vote for sure. Then there's about 2,000,000 plus drivers from that silly Texas Driver's Financial Responsibility Act that he probably shouldn't count on just yet. Most still can't legally drive and w/o valid identification, are not allowed to vote, bank, or do much of anything but concentrate on paying those monthly surcharge payments. But I think it is quite safe to say they haven't forgotten Perry's years in Office.

Leave it to RP to devote an entire speech on the history of a town and county that deserve to burn in hell. I don't remember if he said anything about Waco and McClennan County's current travesties, but Lord knows I wasn't going to read that speech again to find out.