Monday, October 18, 2004

LULAC: Tough on crime doesn't work

This column from the Fort Worth Star Telegram deserves the widest possible play. My friends Ana Correa and Ann del Llano authored the report on which the column is based, and I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in the drug war or criminal justice reform.

The Texas Legislature reconvenes for the 79th time in January 2005, and the issues laid out in this column constitute the crux of criminal justice reforms demanded by Texas community groups, including a lot of the folks in my links section. Last session we had some success convincing the the Republican Legislature of these arguments, but hopefully LULAC's report and their series of local town hall meetings statewide will push this meme over the top, transforming views like this columnist's from iconoclasm to conventional wisdom.

Oct. 17, 2004

How about 'just the facts'?

By Richard Gonzales
Special to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Texas tall tales abound when it comes to fighting crime. Notions on how to reduce criminality have held political sway in the Lone Star State too long over scientific studies of "what works."

Politicians, who should know better, have pandered to fears that crime runs amok in the streets. The results are counterproductive "get-tough" policies that exacerbate crime, break up families and cost taxpayers billions.

In a criminal justice policy brief that the Texas LULAC state executive office released in August, researchers show that since the 1990s, Texas has tripled the number of prisons and has a 51 percent higher incarceration rate than any other state.

The Legislature gives the Texas Department of Criminal Justice about $5 billion each biennium. TDCJ spends 90 percent of the money on prison beds and 10 percent on treatment and probation programs.

Part of the reason for the hefty spending is that Texas felony sentences are double the national average. Yet 70 percent of the prison admissions each year are for nonviolent crimes. About half of the prisoners are serving time for drug convictions of possession of less than one gram.

The interest of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Texas crime and punishment stems partly from the over-representation of Latinos and blacks in prison. The Justice Policy Institute found that even though 40 percent of Texans in 2003 were black and Latino, 70 percent of the prison population was minority. LULAC projects that at the current Latino imprisonment rate, one out of six Latino men born in 2001 will serve prison time.

LULAC cites studies claiming that racial profiling by police departments and drug task forces results in more searches of Latinos than whites. To accommodate the millennium prisoners, LULAC predicts, there will be a need for 2,000 new prison beds each year.

Texas also has the distinction of having the largest on-probation population in the United States, mainly because of its long probation terms for nonviolent offenders.

The study found that probation officers have too large a caseload for them to respond adequately to probationers' needs. Although probationers can successfully meet the terms of probation for years, one slip-up may land them back in prison.

The average prison term on a revoked probation is 4.3 years. In 2001, this cost the state $470 million. Despite the money, probation terms and hard time, Texas crime didn't decrease more than any other state's. Instead, the crime rate is 24 percent higher than the national average, according to 2003 TDCJ data. Imprisonment of the heads of households also takes its toll on the family and community.

The LULAC study claims that the children of imprisoned parents tend to make lower grades, drop out, become delinquent and increase their chances of following their parents into prison. Removing the significant male adult from a child's life leaves a void difficult for the mom and grandparents to fill. The absence of fathers in a community devalues the importance of males and places increased child-rearing burdens on women.

The report also found that imprisoned parents owed $2.5 billion in unpaid child support. A cycle of intergenerational poverty and crime is set in motion, abetted by tough policies that punish criminals and families.

LULAC says that "tough on crime punishments simply do not work on most offenders." In a state looking for quick and easy solutions to crime, "lock-'em-up" blocks our chances to teach nonviolent felons internal restraints and different thinking patterns.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that punishment increased criminal behavior; psychological treatment and cognitive skills programs decreased criminal activity the most.

The study found that "what works" are job training, drug treatment, and peer and family support. That kind of treatment is meant not to mollycoddle criminals but to provide a way out of self-defeating thoughts and actions.

LULAC is traveling across the state to raise awareness in communities that evidence-based alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders save money, time, families and communities. It recommends that the Legislature reduce nonviolent, small-quantity drug use from felony to misdemeanor status.

Texas legislators should stop the bravado crime-fighter shtick that does little to reduce crime and instead rely on "what works" studies.

Texas needs fewer Robocops and more Joe Fridays. "Just the facts" will do fine.

Richard J. Gonzales is an Arlington resident and free-lance writer.