- Study incarceration rates for non-violent drug offenses and the cost to the state associated with those offenses. Identify alternatives to incarceration, including community supervision, that could be used to reduce incarceration rates of non-violent drug offenders.
- Study inmate release policies of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, including the release of inmates directly from administrative segregation. Identify best practices and policies for the transitioning of these various inmate populations from the prison to appropriate supervision in the community. Identify any needed legislative changes necessary to accomplish these goals.
Study recidivism, its major causes, and existing programs designed to reduce recidivism, including a review of current programs utilized by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and the Windham School District for incarcerated persons. Examine re-entry programs and opportunities for offenders upon release. Identify successful programs in other jurisdictions and consider how they might be implemented in Texas.Let's walk through be basics on these.
Reducing drug offenders in prison
On incarceration rates for nonviolent drug offenders in Texas state prisons, the go-to source is the TDCJ Annual Statistical report; here's the FY 2014 version. According to that source, about 16 percent of TDCJ offenders on hand as of Aug. 31, 2014 were incarcerated for a drug offense as the primary charge, or 24,005 inmates out of roughly 150,000 incarcerated in TDCJ that day. Of those, 14,256 were incarcerated for possession only and 9,699 for drug delivery. Of the subset of those locked up in state jails (essentially fourth-degree felons), the same report found 37 percent were incarcerated for a drug offense, almost all of them (90 percent) for possession.
Notably, there were 1,998 inmates with a drug offense as their primary charge who are categorized by TDCJ as 3g offenders, a category largely reserved for violent crimes. The reference is to Sec. 42.12(3)(g) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Drug offenses become 3g offenses if a child was present or involved or if the offense were committed in a drug free zone. While we may not like these drug offenders, its probably unhelpful to group them with murderers. This might be an example of people serving unnecessary extra time because we're "mad at" them, not afraid of them, as Sen. John Whitmire is fond of saying.
As far as the costs of housing drug offenders, the uniform cost report document prepared biennially by the Legislative Budget Board is the go-to source. They put the average FY 2014 cost at $54.89 per day.
OTOH, in truth, how much it costs to house a prisoner varies widely based on what unit they're housed in, whether they receive drug treatment, education, or other services, and whether they get sick, among other things. Recently Grits requested breakdown of the cost per prisoner at all TDCJ units as of 2014. (Thanks to TDCJ Public Information Officer Jason Clark for fulfilling that request.)
Looking at that level of detail, we can see, for example, that SAFP services delivered at the Jester I unit (built in 1885) cost $90.85 compared to an average of $58.72 at the four other units delivering SAFP services. These unit-by-unit data give a clearer sense of how widely costs can vary per prisoner depending on where they're housed. The $55 average LBB uses masks a wide range of differences and could be lowered by closing some of those higher-cost facilities.
As for alternatives to incarceration, my hope would be that debates could move beyond drug courts to the need to adjust drug sentences for low-level possession downward. Texas has invested a great deal in drug courts and proven conclusively that strong probation works. But the resource-intensive tactic cannot scale up to handle the volume of drug offenders cycling in and out of the system at all levels.
Thus, as the committee contemplates alternatives to incarceration, it's worth considering whether offenders caught with four grams or less of a controlled substances should be treated as felons at all, considering all the job and housing implications and other the collateral consequences a felony label entails. Shifting penalties to a Class A misdemeanor for up to four grams of a controlled substance would save the state big money and dramatically reduce collateral consequences for those low-level offenders.
How much money could be saved from reduced penalties? Last session, Rep. Senfronia Thompson proposed HB 254, which would have reduced the sentencing category for people possession less than a gram of a controlled substance, so a subset of the up-to-four-grams category. The Legislative Budget Board estimated that the state would save more than $105 million in the first biennium and upwards of $139 million in the second. If sentences for up to four grams were reduced to a Class A misdemeanor, the reduction in the incarceration budget would be even greater.
Those levels of savings could finance an impressive amount of treatment and diversion programming for these new Class A drug offenders, nearly all of whom would inevitably receive probation (just like most Class A drug offenders do now). Once the Comptroller certifies the savings, some or all of it could be diverted to probation departments to pay for additional treatment services and possibly reduce the portion of probation budgets paid for by probationer fees, an issue getting increasing levels of attention lately.
Last session the Legislature boosted TDCJ's budget by more than $400 million, which seemed like a remarkable amount for a bunch of self-styled fiscal conservatives to spend on a Big Government program with no clear extra benefit in public safety effectiveness. (Of course, the same can be said of the border surge.) And that doesn't include the portion of corrections spending outside of TDCJ's budget. In a fiscal environment where oil revenues are down and legislators will be looking for cuts, not increases, the best way to pay for alternatives to incarceration would be sentence reductions, which themselves constitute an "alternative" to sending low-level drug addicts to state prison.
Inmate release policies and ad seg
Regarding releasing inmates directly from ad seg, Grits has addressed this question previously and refer readers to those related posts. Texas recently had its first prisoner pass the 30 year mark in solitary confinement, which seems outlandish except that he won't be the last. As of 2014, Texas had more prisoners in solitary confinement than the entire prison populations in 12 states. The union for correctional officers has claimed excessive use of solitary is responsible for higher assault rates on prison staff.
Staffers preparing their legislators on these issues may want to check out a new report on solitary confinement titled "Time in Cell" and a series of essays published recently in the Yale Law Journal reacting to its findings. Also, Texas figured prominently in a Marshall Project story from last year related to inmates released directly from solitary.
Also relevant: Last year the United Nations issued the Mandela Rules related to the use of solitary confinement which include some relevant suggestions. Those rules emphasize that the period of imprisonment should be "used to ensure, so far as possible, the reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life." When prisoners who've been in solitary are released, "the prison administration shall take the necessary measures to alleviate the potential detrimental effects of their confinement on them and on their community following their release from prison."
The Mandela Rules suggest a step-down pre-release strategy which at present is foreign to TDCJ's programs and culture.
Before the completion of the sentence, it is desirable that the necessary steps be taken to ensure for the prisoner a gradual return to life in society. This aim may be achieved, depending on the case, by a pre-release regime organized in the same prison or in another appropriate institution, or by release on trial under some kind of supervision which must not be entrusted to the police but should be combined with effective social aid.Whether or not Texas fully adopts the Mandela Rules, that particular suggestion makes a lot of sense.
Understanding recidivism, planning for reentry
The interim "charge" up on Wednesday really addresses two separate but related issues: recidivism and reentry. This LBB report is the go-to document for recidivism data. For the cohort of prisoners released in 2011, the proportion rearrested within three years was:
- Prison: 46.5%
- State Jail: 62.0%
- Intermediate Sanction Facility: 57.5%
- Prison: 21.4%
- State Jail: 30.7%
- Intermediate Sanction Facility: 36.5%
If Texas commits to a strategy of de-incarceration, in all likelihood recidivism rates will rise. But that's a sign of normalization, not of failure. The day we're really limiting incarceration to those we're "afraid of" as opposed to people we're mad at, those we're "afraid of" who're released will, as a class, recidivate more. But that's not an argument for locking up low-risk offenders!
As to reentry questions - which are related to but separate from the recidivism debate - legislators could do worse than to look again to the Mandela Rules, cited above, which advise that, "The duty of society does not end with a prisoner’s release. There should, therefore, be governmental or private agencies capable of lending the released prisoner efficient aftercare directed towards the lessening of prejudice against him or her and towards his or her social rehabilitation." In Texas by contrast, released prisoners are given $100 in "gate money" and a bus ticket.
The committee should look at some of the barriers to successful reentry, like restriction on TANF benefits and food stamps for certain drug offenders discussed in a Grits post earlier today. I'd also like to see the committee look for policies to reduce the accumulation of fines, fees, and debts facing ex-prisoners upon reentry. And there should be more focus on reducing the burden on families when their loved ones come home from prison.
The two biggest barriers to reentry, though, remain housing and jobs. These are difficult problems which don't lend themselves to simple solutions. In fact, it's hard to imagine making a dent in either without some state investment, which as mentioned runs counter to an oil-starved budget environment. And yet, if the Legislature doesn't address these questions then we're not being honest about the often state-created barriers to reentry facing ex-offenders.
The Lege eliminated job assistance for ex-prisoners during the 2011 budget crunch and has declined to limit the extent landlords can discriminate against ex-offenders regarding housing, even though one in five Americans has some sort of criminal record. In the past, efforts to expand reentry housing opportunities have been too quickly scuttled in response to NIMBY backlash. Legislators will need to pony up money for jobs programs and other reentry services and stand up to NIMBY opposition over housing to make much more headway on reentry questions. These problems are fairly well understood, but they'll require unusual political courage and money to honestly address them.
MORE: Grits contributing writer Michele Deitch emailed to say:
I wanted to flag for you that the Lege doesn't even have to reach to an international source like the Mandela Rules for guidance on this issue. The ABA's Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners provide similar guidance as to the need for step-down type approaches. Here is a link to the ABA Standards.
You would want to look at Standards 23-2.6, 2.7, 2.8, 2.9, and 3.8, all of which deal with seg issues. Pay particular attention to 2.9, which addresses procedures for placement and retention in long-term segregated housing, and especially subsection (f), which addresses the need for a less-restrictive setting in the months before release to the community. The drafters definitely had in mind a step-down type approach to segregated housing. (As the original drafter, I can say that with some authority! :) )