Monday, August 10, 2015

Political correctness won't cut Texas' prison population

A pair of researchers from UT's Institute of Urban Policy Research and Analysis suggested in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram op ed last week that "Reinforcing a national narrative that celebrates the success of the Texas model [of probation and parole reform] spreads harmful misinformation about the ability of fiscal austerity designs to substantively reduce incarceration and racial disproportionality."

Regular readers know Grits is sympathetic to criticisms that de-incarceration proponents overstate the import of the 2007 reforms dubbed "the Texas model" (see here, e.g.). Those changes happened eight years ago and, until the state raised thresholds for property theft this spring to adjust for inflation, there hadn't been another significant bill to stem incarceration since then. Like an aging high-school jock reliving former glory, there are only so many times folks want to hear about how great you were back in the day. Boasts about the "Texas model" exude a whiff of that sort of dated self aggrandizement and deserve rebuttal.

But it's also wrong to say those reforms failed because the state did not "reduc[e] the number of people Texas incarcerates" or that the reforms were solely rooted in "fiscal austerity." That lacks historical context.

For starters, those reforms included more than $200 million per biennium in new money for treatment and diversion programming, which hardly bespeaks fiscal austerity. That's a significant investment which the Legislature has sustained, if not added to, in subsequent sessions.

And to criticize the reforms for not reducing incarceration ignores the situation faced by Texas state leaders at the time. Dating from the period when Ann Richards and a Democratic controlled Legislature nearly tripled the size of the prison system, Texas' prison population had been on an uninterrupted upward trajectory and was predicted to add 17,000 more prisoners to its bloated rolls between 2007 and 2012. Instead, the prison population declined slightly overall since then, creating the opportunity to close three prisons for the first time in the state's history.

That's no small thing, in this writer's view, even if there's far more to be done.

Grits considers it wrong and counterproductive to downplay the importance of halting prison population growth or reducing incarceration rates. The real, more substantive criticism to me is that, afterward, our politicians rested on their laurels and joined the national speakers' circuit to pat themselves on the back instead of doubling down and finishing the job over the subsequent eight years.

I was also non-plussed to read the suggestion that reform efforts are "best led by the experts — those who have experienced incarceration themselves, together with their families." Really? Who are these inmates and inmate-family groups who will devise de-incarceration policies that our Republican legislature will enact? This is a politically correct throwaway line, not a serious comment. While there are a handful of former inmates who are capable of participating in the process at the conservative Texas Legislature and understand what will move Republican lawmakers, most struggle just to find employment, meet parole requirements, and keep their heads above water. Insisting that only ex-inmates are qualified to lead reform efforts sets the project up to fail.

Worse, that stance allows more mainstream constituencies to abdicate responsibility. Folks in the free world - mostly Democrats,  as a matter of historical fact - created the laws and policies which spawned mass incarceration in Texas, and those of us in the free world must take responsibility for reversing it. This can't just be something that's mainly the problem of incarcerated people and their families. We need conservative leaders, progressive leaders, and community activists; we need law enforcement leaders, thoughtful prosecutors, lawyers, and policy wonks; we need lots and lots of enthusiastic people with good ideas from all walks of life. Mass incarceration is not just a prisoners' problem.

Grits also isn't a fan of the authors' "call for racial impact statements for all criminal justice policies, practices and proposals." With certain notable exceptions like the drug war and police interactions at traffic stops, I don't find it constructive nor useful to view most criminal justice policy through a racial frame. Do I consider the justice system color-blind? Of course not. But neither do I see every prisoner as a victim of the system and I'm sympathetic to folks in minority communities who are disproportionately victims of crime and deserve protection.

According to Politifact, for example, "young black men, ages 14 to 24, suffer disproportionately from murder. While the numbers have been falling since the mid-1990s, in 2008 about 16 percent of homicide victims were young and black. As a group, they represented just 1 percent of the population." And since overwhelmingly most of those murders are committed by other young black men, in truth some disproportionality in prison populations is entirely reasonable, even if it's not politically correct to say so. (Grits sympathizes more with a racial disproportionality critique if one cabins discussion to the drug war, where differences in incarceration rates are far less defensible.)

I suppose I'm arguing for a dose of realism when it comes to de-incarceration, mainly because I want it to actually happen instead of just talking about it. There are systemic stakeholders - cops, prosecutors, judges, probation departments, the prison system, and of course the politicians in charge of it all - who can be ignored in an op ed but not in the legislative/policy arena.

This column, however well-intended, charts a path for reform which leads down a dead-end.

Texas' 2007 reforms were important but should be viewed as a first step, not a final result.  Much more remains to be done and there appear to be legislators in both parties who intend to try, as evidenced by juvie de-incarceration and the successful effort to adjust property thresholds for inflation.  So while I agree with many of the authors' aims in this column, greater strategic and tactical acumen will be necessary to accomplish those goals.


sunray's wench said...

Perhaps not ex-inmates, but current inmate families are a good place to find the educated, professional galvanised and committed individuals that would contribute to the reformation. The TIFA and TXCURE have been instrumental in the past in improving conditions. Leaving it in the hands of a few wealthy old men clearly doesn't work as well as it should.

Inmate families are not always the stereotype people love to assume.

Anonymous said...

It bothers me for identity politics to influence the issue of who is "qualified" to properly participate in criminal justice reform. Offenders and offender families' participation should be welcome if they are effective articulate spokesmen; and let us not include "wealthy old men" if they have the desire and wherewithal to promote needed reforms.

The public desire for retributive justice remains strong in our country and our communities. Larding up the reformist side with various racial or demographic qualification quotas can only assure our defeat. Lets not shoot ourselves in the foot on this...God knows reform moves slowly enough as it is.

Prison Doc

Anonymous said...

"Who are these inmates and inmate-family groups who will devise de-incarceration policies that our Republican legislature will enact?"

Rick Perry and Ken Paxton?

Oh, and Judge Kent from Galveston.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If those folks took up the cause I'd be thrilled. National analogues would be Pat Nolan or the late Chuck Colson, etc.. There are Texas ex-prisoners who can effectively participate - my friend Jorge Renaud, a former journalist, comes to mind, but there are others, too, most of whom came from a political backround of some sort before they went inside. I don't begrudge help from anybody.

And SW, TIFA and CURE play an important role but neither have been leaders pushing for de-incarceration policies in my adult lifetime. Their efforts are welcome, they're just not the only experts qualified to lead on the issue.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to the researchers for daring to say what few are willing to say or admit -- the 2007 "reforms" in Texas have been way overblown and have done nothing more than flatten the prison population. Texas may not have the highest incarceration rate among the states any more, but it's incarceration rate is still the 6th highest in the country and much higher than the national average. Why should a state with that kind of record be held up as an example of goodness or success? Since when is "our record could be horrible, but instead its only really bad" something to brag about? The only reasons why Texas is touted as a model is because: 1) many Texans, especially Texan politicians, love to brag about Texas, even when its a bunch of BS, and Texas politicians and bureaucrats have been running around the country for the last 8 yrs bragging about how great their "reforms" are; 2) there are members of the "non-profit industrial complex" who have been running around the country bragging about these so-called Texas reforms that they were involved in so that they can get more money and entice other states to reform their CJ systems; and 3) advocates or politicians who are trying to make conservatives in other states feel like its safe to reform their criminal justice systems or guilt liberals into reform point to Texas so they can say "EVEN TEXAS reformed its criminal justice system" because historically Texas has been a bastion of injustice. All of this misinformation has the added bonus for Texas politicians and criminal justice bureaucrats -- they can declare victory and refuse to enact real reform because they can hide behind this false narrative that Texas has already improved its criminal justice system sooo much. Hopefully this op-ed and Grits' continuing coverage of the lack of reform since 2007 will spur some real sentencing/corrections reform next session and future sessions.

jmaddeninsurance said...

Grits as always has written a very good piece. You hit the problems of their op ed right on the head. It is a recipe for failure. You hit the biggest thing we knew we needed to do in 2007 and that was change the direction things were going. We did that. There are a lot of great groups and people we listened to including all the groups mentioned and many more. Building a consensus for reform was very difficult in the environment but it was done and now the environment for further steps is in place. Those first steps are important and it is equally important to keep momentum going. I appreciate your understanding of what is needed for rational reform in criminal justice. Also the solutions we looked at are a good model for any reformers to look at. We did not look at just one segment like in prison actions. We looked from early childhood through the juvenile and school systems, to pretrial, to court actions, to probation, to in prison actions, to parole and reentry. The solution to the problem is not concentrating on one segment or group but in looking at everything in the system to include areas like sentencing and specialty courts.

Wolf said...

2:24 is exactly right about the need to concentrate on everything in the system. The last legislature offered another piecemeal, small tweak, modification to the existing system. Texas is heading in the right direction, but the steps taken have not focused on the entire system. Gov Robert Bentley of Alabama recently requested a thorough look at their prison system by directing all State agency heads who had anything to do with prisoners to put together a report with analysis and recommendations for change concerning over-incarceration.
With a reputation for being open to some change, Texas could build on Bentley's example, and create a Commission on Criminal Justice Reform that would gather input from the huge variety of people and organizations already concerned about reform. The time is right to look at the whole picture and identify how current policy meets the objectives of TDCJ. Expanding way beyond that to include the entire birth to prison, and afterwards, pipeline is very much needed. Only with a bold and comprehensive examination of the entire system can we hope to make a serious and tangible difference that satisfies political, moral and economic beliefs and principles.
With widespread agreement that change is needed, now is the perfect time for Texas to be a true leader in reform that protects lives, saves money and meets our highest principles.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Btw, folks the commenter @ 2.24 is foemer state Rep. Jerry Madden who authored the 2007 reforms along with Sen. John Whitmire.

@ 1.38, that's an ungeneroua portrayal but I can accepr some folks view it that way. (On my more jaundiced days I share some of those opinions.) But, like Jerry, I also know how difficult it was to get that much and what it took to peel off opposition. Blog commenters aren't big on deal cutting but polirics remains the "art of compromise " and, on theae questions, half a loaf is nearly always better than nothing. That'll be true of the next round of reforms, too. It's rhe nature of the process.

If reform had continued in the following sessions, the 2007 reforms would look more like a watershed and less like a one off, which is the legacy they could end up with if more can't be accomplished.

TIFA Mom said...

As a 28 yr veteran of state government I understand the complexity and glacial movement of bureaucratic processes and how difficult it is to make changes to such a bloated, complex criminal justice system. And I also know that there is a good ole boys political club and breaking into those ranks is not easy. You don’t just step up to the table and get a seat. We at TIFA would welcome invitations into some of the backroom conferences to voice our personal experiences. There are very competent people who advocate for our loved ones but we also appreciate the opportunity to ‘be out there.’

TIFA understands that we have to work with all groups in order to accomplish change. We supported pay raises for the COs last session and this session, knowing the only way we could improve the supervision of our incarcerated loved ones was to raise wages in order to lure more competent applicants to the never ending job vacancies.

We don’t understand why there is so much resistance to independent oversight when you continue to see people die because of neglect and the heat. Why the abuses continue from correctional guards who have the incorrect mindset for the job they perform. Why parole is such a game of chance, will you fall into the 34% percent who will luckily be released and not rebuked again because of nature of the crime? And let’s not forget the elderly who are costing the system millions, are no longer a threat to society, but not released on intensive supervision.

We applaud the advances made in education, not only for pre-school but especially for potentially expanding prison college opportunities with future access to Pell Grants.

We at TIFA welcome these conversations because maybe a few more people will dig down deeper and find the facts instead of making judgments and ignoring the cruelties in the system.

Because without these conversations we will lose another family member this week from suicide or heat and no one will hear about it.

Anonymous said...

TIFA Mom hit the nail on the head regarding two important issues:

1. Independent oversight is a must. The current ombudsman office is so ineffective it is a scandalous waste of taxpayer money.

2. The parole system is need of serious reform.

sunray's wench said...

I wish there was a "like" button for comments - TIFA Mom illustrated what I was suggesting :)

Anonymous said...

Realism is seldom encountered on this blog.

Anonymous said...

The immediate solution is for every Texas County to adopt a standard definition of recidivism in order to measure and compare these processes and programs more accurately. It is also necessary to begin studying legislation making reintegration a formal goal of the sentencing process in Texas. Since goals and objectives are normally tied to measureable outcomes, reintegration as a goal and a standard definition of recidivism is an ideal combination. This new legislation should include a presentence reentry plan and risk assessment instrument used at the time of arrest, pretrial release, bond hearings, during sentencing negotiations, actual sentencing and while on probation or in prison. This new process beginning at the time of arrest should provide for more defendant specific planning, individualized recidivism rates, the opportunity to establish a more individualized and fair sentence, earlier release from incarceration and a reduction in recidivism.

Anonymous said...

Those changes, which happened eight years ago, included dangerous reductions in food budgets - reducing the cost to .58 cents per meal per inmate. In turn, the meals served are substantially garbage. Prisoners are being poisoned, literally, by a high soy diet as the "meat" is stretched with dangerous amount of unhealthy soy-based powders made by Archer-Daniels. The Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) is a nutrition education and activist group who has led a longstanding Soy Alert! Campaign, to warn people about the health dangers of modern soy-laden foods, particularly, soy protein isolate, a waste product of the soy oil industry, which is a different product than healthy soy-beans or tofu. It causes dangerous health effects to hormonal, gastrointestinal, immune and other organs systems. Some of the changes are irreversible.

There are several news article in the media about the WAPF lawsuit to end the soy feeding “experiment” in the State of Illinois. Currently, there are soy-diet prison lawsuits pending in Illinois and in Florida. If you want more information, Google: "soy prison lawsuit".
The articles contain information about the dangers of a this type of chemical soy as well.