Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Seeds Of A New Centrism?

Via Kuff, I was fascinated to read about attorney and Quinlan school board member John Cornuaud who is switching parties, from Republican to Democrat, to run for District 2 in the Texas House. Hadn't heard of anybody doing that in a while, huh? Given the heavily GOP bent of the Northeast Texas district covering Van Zandt, Hunt and Rains counties -- 70-30 in '04, Kuff reports -- that seems like a potential suicide run, but Cornuaud said the decision was based on his concern over two issues: education and meth.

A recent study showed it costs about $7,100 to educate a student each year, he said, juxtaposing the figure against the $16,000 per person, per year that it costs to incarcerate a non-violent criminal.

"I think our priorities are screwed up," he said of Republican leadership.

Kuff's right, that's an incredibly powerful and potentially contagious meme. Not only does the public seem to blame the GOP leadership for the school finance debacle, but Governor Perry's veto of legislation to strengthen Texas' probation system boosted incarceration costs and worsened Texas' overincarceration crisis.

Does that put the seat at risk? Unlikely, unless Cornuaud's a helluva candidate. But as Kuff put it, "the process he went through to arrive as a Democratic candidate is exactly the sort of thing the Dems will need to happen with voters if they're going to climb back out of the hole. It's the same process that created a lot of the current crop of Republicans, just in reverse." That's the real, long-term risk for Republicans -- when local public officials start switching parties it could signal a tipping point in public sentiment.
While a lot of Republicans did stake out sensible views -- Carter Casteel comes to mind on education, Jerry Madden and Ray Allen on promoting treatment and stronger probation for drug offenders -- Cornuaud's opponent Dan Flynn wasn't one of them.

I found a somewhat more extensive statement in the Rains County Leader outlining the candidate's views on incarcerating low-level drug offenders:

"We also need to focus on the increasing drug problem in our community that is destroying lives and tearing apart families. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, for each person incarcerated in the state of Texas, we pay $44.01 per day, or $16,063 per year (not including prison costs). Most of these persons are non-violent offenders. On the other hand, for our children's education in Texas we only spend an average of about $6,500 a year per student. We need to create viable alternatives to spending $16,063 per year, per person, for non-violent offenders.

"We need to focus on establishing solutions that accomplish our goals of punishing the illegal activity, while reducing the astronomical cost of incarceration, and work on actually deterring future criminal behavior in the process. Work programs, community service, lower cost minimum security facilities, halfway houses, increased fines as a form of punishment, and effective community supervision are some possibilities that need to be explored. Illegal drug use is draining our society of needed resources, and it is destroying families. The money saved can be used to educate our children on how drugs affect families, reduce our property taxes, provide effective and competent police protection, and put money back into our community, while actually reducing drug activity in our district."
He's not alone in the Piney Woods looking for real solutions to meth instead of easy "tough on crime" rhetoric. I'd like to think Cornuaud's reasoning could be a bellwether signalling a breach in the public's willingness to accept simplistic answers to difficult problems like drug abuse, crime, and the impact on families. At the end of the day, I wouldn't think most centrist Texans would prioritize incarcerating non-violent drug offenders over paying for public schools. Too often, voters just haven't been given another option.


Anonymous said...

The second paragraph of the statement given is simply bowing to the inevitable; a realization that the days of "lock 'em up and throw away the key!" only worked so long as there was money to pay for the upkeep of mostly low-level nonviolent offenders. A booming economy can afford lots of clanging prison doors, but a moribund one simply cannot; the DrugWar was always what I call a 'rich man's hobby', a 'champagne taste' that can no longer be afforded by a nation now forced, after years of bingeing on fiscal Dom Perignon, to live on a 'beer' budget.

The sad part about it all is that drug law reformers have been trying to use the 'social conscience' card in arguing against the immorality of caging people mainly for using plants and their derivatives, without much result. It will be the sheer cost of maintaining finacial 'black holes' like prisons that finally does what moral suasion couldn't, and lead to the eventual debate of the wisdom of ever having a DrugWar in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I have always believed there is an external cost to locking up non-violent drug offenders. That is the fact that many of those locked up lose their job and income and become essentially wards of the state. If they work for the system, in prison, they make pennies per hour and have to pay for all of their personal items (soap, toothpaste, etc) in a company store (prison commisary) for inflated prices.

So the prison system is a net loser for society at large. Not only is the system locking otherwise productive, taxpaying people up, we are paying the price. All for the high and mighty principles of our "fearless" prohibitionist leaders, GW Bush, et al.