Sunday, December 19, 2004

99 Is Not Enough?

To see the absurd impact of "tough on crime" policies on government's bottom-line finances, look no further than the following scenario rising up out of Wichita Falls, TX:

In mid-November, a 32-year old Wichita Falls man with no prior convictions
received three concurrent 99-year sentences for meth manufacture in a well-publicized case. As he entered prison, Don Horton left behind children who now must be cared for by their grandparents. His mother testified at sentencing she thought her son could be rehabilitated, that his addiction had simply overcome him."You all need to realize that it can happen to anybody," she said.

Though he's young and healthy enough to work for a living, pay taxes and still contribute to society,
taxpayers instead will finance housing, board, clothing, sundries, and, at increasingly greater cost, healthcare for this non-violent offender, possibly for the rest of his life. Inside prison, his every action will be under state control, so the values that instill personal responsibility, indeed that might have prevented his descent into addiction and drug dealing in the first place, will not be taught there. Similarly, he will not be around to teach any lessons he's learned from all this to his children. Prison is the ultimate nanny state, and the cost of incarceration isn't cheap -- in Texas, it's around $16,000 per year and growing. Texas prisons are already overflowing right now.

One might think 99-year sentences for non-violent offenders with no prior convictions already is harsh enough, but two weeks later state Sen. Craig Estes from Wichita Falls proposed new legislation increasing penalties further,
not just for dealers but for low-level offenders caught with less than a gram of meth. Estes announced he was "declaring war" on methamphetamines. (Wasn't that war already declared?) "My proposed legislation is much tougher and would redefine these offenses as third degree felonies punishable by prison sentences served in the state penitentiary," Estes said. No word on how he intends to pay for it, but that's an expensive proposition.

Maybe just as expensive, and a lot more complicated, another Estes bill proposes a mandatory 15-year minimum sentence for anyone caught cooking meth in the same dwelling as a minor. Since most folks charged with that crime will be, like Horton, parents who are meth addicts, many of those children almost assuredly will become wards of the state. Again, though, the bill's current language includes no mention of new funding sources for Child Protective Services or the state foster care program to pay for those kids' care, much less to cover Texas' matching share of their Medicaid costs. (Rep. Leo Berman filed similar legislation in the House, which suffers from similar omissions.)

So how to pay for all this? Reportedly Estes would like to
"modify the business franchise tax to get more education funding," and also favors an "increase and broadening of the sales tax," but those reforms wouldn't cover what's needed to pay for court-mandated increases in education spending. The certainly won't cover the cost of building a new prison, which had been estimated to run anywhere from $350-$500 million.

Because Texas already
is on track to exceed its prison capacity before the 80th Legislature meets in 2007, the only way to implement Estes' proposals would be to finance a new prison costing in the low to mid-nine figures. When I mentioned that amount that to an insider in Texas' school finance litigation, he literally laughed out loud and said it was "impossible" the 79th Legislature would spend that much new money on criminal justice. In any event, it seems highly unlikely.

Meanwhile, the drive to incarcerate as many meth users as possible is actually bankrupting Estes'
hometown criminal justice system in Wichita Falls, forcing recent requests for an emergency infusion of funds. Providing medical and dental care for meth users has been especially costly, local TV station KFDX reported:
"The Sheriff says the department needs more money for the same ongoing problem, A jail population that`s often higher than expected. One specific inmate related-cost has really been eating up county funds lately, medical care.

"More bodies behind bars often means more visits to the doctor, which the county has to pay for. Officials say a major reason for the higher medical costs, Meth....

"Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom says, "People who have drug problems, especially the meth problems, have severe medical costs. It`s our responsibility to deal with them if they`re in our care."

"'A lot of these inmates are coming to jail with much more serious illnesses.' says drug counselor Adam Collier. He says frequent meth users are at a higher risk for kidney, liver, lung and other problems. Adam Collier with the Treatment Center says, 'The biggest thing with meth users is teeth. I see it every day, it attacks the teeth. People`s teeth fall out.'"
So, Sen. Estes would arrest more meth users, who the state can't afford to incarcerate, and while they await trial, the county must pay for their quite-expensive health and dental care, which it can't afford, either. (I don't know about you, but the government isn't paying for MY health and dental care.)

It really does seem sometimes like the concept of limited government has been thrown out the window by today's Republican Party -- such proposals can only be described as "Big Government Conservatism," and a particularly unrealistic brand at that. Neither state nor local government can afford to pay for Texas' current incarceration policies, but that doesn't seem to stop the biennial flood of politicized tough-on-crime proposals for more of the same.

I retain my hope that the relevant criminal justice committee chairs in both chambers at the Texas Legislature (assuming they don't change next spring) today
fundamentally understand the fiscal dilemma facing the state regarding extended incarceration for drug offenses. With luck, they'll begin next year to enact smarter policies. But they obviously will need to spend a lot of time educating their colleagues.

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