Monday, September 25, 2006

A Real Public Safety Agenda for Texas, Part I

I've been thinking a lot about how glaringly, if counterintuitively unproductive so many of our "incarcerate now, think later" policies in Texas (and the United States) have become, and how equally glaring is the lack of a clear, articulable alternative to that vacuum of ideas.

What follows is the first installment of a list of proposals, most of which would have to be enacted by the Texas Legislature, that I think would make a real, substantive difference to actually improving public safety, not just symbolic changes designed to "send a message." These ideas are aimed to actually improve the lives of Texans and reduce crime in the short and long term. In some cases, they're designed to expressly counter the criminal justice system's excesses where it has destroyed lives and corrupted civil society.

I'll be adding to this as we head toward the 80th Texas Legislature, but here's a start: What would state leaders be doing if they really cared about public safety?
1. Train 10,000 new teachers to perform individual training with dyslexic children, and increase funding for early testing for dyslexia. That's the low end of an estimate for how many are needed. Dyslexics make up 10% of children who are tested but 30% of Texas inmates, and illiteracy is a key indicator increasing the likelihood of imprisonment.

2. Create new programs to support children of incarcerated parents, including mentoring, tutoring, counseling, part-time jobs and access to social services. Without intervention, children of incarcerated parents are 6-8 times more likely than their peers to wind up in prison. Fund the programs that exist, including privately operated charities if they're effective and accountable, plus create new ones modeled on successful programs in Texas and elsewhere.

3. Cut probation lengths in half. Most probationers who re-offend do so in the first two years, the majority of those (says Tony Fabelo) within the first eight months. Texas has the longest probation lengths in the nation. Reducing them would reduce caseloads so probation officers could increase supervision during that most-important early period. (This will require revamping funding for probation departments, which are currently paid by the head.)

4. Give probationers ways to earn their way off probation early through good behavior and completion of assigned programs, reducing caseloads and giving strong, personal incentives for compliance with probation rules. HB 2193 would have this for some offenders, but the change should be made for all but so-called 3g offenders, or those who've committed more dangerous, violent crimes.

5. Use offenders' employment status and recidivism rates as outcome measures by which probation and parole officers are judged, as well as two of several factors for how probation and parole department funding is determined.

6. Hire 3,000 more guards to staff current prisons before building anymore.

7. Allow local governments to operate syringe exchange programs to promote personal responsibility, reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C and provide greater opportunities for outreach to hardcore drug users.

8. New money for border law enforcement should first go either to Internal Affairs Bureaus (instead of for patrols and equipment) or to a new AG-run investigative squad aimed at cleaning up law enforcement corruption.

9. Force pardon and parole board to adhere to its own guidelines and release more low-risk non-violent offenders to make way for more dangerous ones.

10. Fund re-entry programs designed to help ex-offenders get and keep a job, housing and stay out of trouble when they get out of prison, especially for the first 1-2 years.
It sounds like a lot of new money, but it's all a lot lot cheaper than building and staffing three new prisons.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to add another one, which prolly wont be popular.
Go back to parole opportunity after 1/4 time served for ALL inmates. I heard that sharp intake of breath out there, so let me explain why.

Texas is handing out longer and longer sentences. Now, while 'life' should indeed mean life, and LWOP should certainly be an option (as should the death penalty, but under fewer circumstances than it appears to be used right now), there are also individuals who are imprisoned for a crime that is violent or aggravated, and yet they themselves have shown no or little violent activity in their past. With the advent of plea bargaining, there is no opportunity for past behaviour to be properly scrutinised, and like it or not each crime and each individual is different. Bringing back 1/4 time parole for these inmates gives them more reason to behave well and attempt to improve themselves while in prison. Its an incentive that is lacking right now. If you give a 30 year old a 70 year sentence, he knows he wont see parole until at least his 65th birthday ~ so what's really the point of taking classes or learning a trade, when he knows his chances of employment even if he gets parole first time will be virtually zero.

Bringing back 1/4 time parole will not necesarrily release dangerous people back onto the streets. No one is garunteed parole, it is down to the board to decide who gets a chance to prove they have learnt their lesson ~ AND down to the families to keep contacts and work to support their loved ones. But there must be a proportion of inmates who have served between 1/4 and 1/2 of their time now, who would be good candidates for electronic tagging. We've already seen in the past week how accurate this can be. It is surely cheaper than keeping the inmate in prison. Put together with Grit's other proposals, I think it would be worth trying.

Anonymous said...

Not that much cheaper - 10,000 new teachers and 3,000 new prison guards will cost a lot.

Anonymous said...

Not that much cheaper - 10,000 new teachers and 3,000 new prison guards will cost a lot.

Anonymous said...

Right on...but how do we make these things happen....? Perhaps Grits for breakfast could begin some meaningful dialogue regarding the ways and means by which individuals who would like to support some of these suggestions can do something more than blah,blah,blah.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Betty: Maybe the first thing I'd suggest would be to join and get on the email lists for the organizations who've been pushing for criminal justice reform in Texas the last few years: There's a fairly mature movement in Texas to reform the criminal justice system from many perspectives: the traditional civil rights groups like ACLU, LULAC and NAACP, pragmatic reform groups like the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC), or the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) on the conservative side. There's also Restorative Justice Ministries if you're coming at it from a prison ministries perspective, and many other groups weigh in on one or more of these issues (a broad coalition of dozens of groups, for example, supported versions of items 3 and 4, which passed the Lege but was vetoed by Perry in 2005). These groups do a good job, most of them, of keeping their constituents informed - TCJC in particular sends out frequent, informative updates and tells people when and how to get involved (conflict alert: I work with TCJC, and just gave my 2 weeks notice at ACLU).

I also think it's important to talk to your own local representatives, even, maybe especially if they're in the other party (whichever "other" that may be). Make sure your state rep and your state senator know who you are and ask them to support these things, which are mostly non-partisan and only controversial because politicians reflexively fear being labeled soft on crime. Be really specific, and relay whatever intelligence you get to whichever of the above groups you feel most comfortable affiliating with - it will help them trying to achieve their goals.

That said, keep in mind that this agenda is my own personal wish list, not the official position of ANY organization. It is a brainstorming exercise; this list covers a lot of ground. None of the above groups, e.g., work on training teachers to educate dyslexic kids. But these are some of the groups that have been consistently working to better the criminal justice system the last few years, and if you're looking for how to get involved that's a good place to start. Thanks for asking! (Great handle, btw ;))

@sunray's wench: I'm down, sister! I'd add that not only is no one guaranteed parole, the parole board rarely gives it even now at 1/2 the sentence. But you're right that 1/4 parole would really improve incentives for good behavior, and thus the safety situation for guards and inmates inside prision. Best,

Anonymous said...

Grits ~ I'm not a Texan, nor do I live in the US, just involved with one Texan. So I dont have a vote or the right to influence Texan politicians. But feel free to use anything of mine you agree with, if the oportunity arises.

Mike Howard said...

These are some good, common sense fixes to our criminal justice system. I especially like shortening probation and providing counseling to incarcerated people's children.

I'm going to post on fixing probation on my blog. Since I'm no expert on the subject, I'm going to invite people to join the discussion and perhaps lead the direction for future posts/discussion. Come check it out: