Saturday, February 24, 2007

What is the Sheriff's Association Lege Agenda?

The Odessa American reports today that Midland Sheriff Gary Painter was in Austin lobbying on behalf the Sheriffs Association this week. Here's the agenda they were promoting:
Members of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas discussed varying issues with their respective senators and representatives about bills they consider important, including issues of:
  • Blue Warrant inmates in Texas county jails.
  • Funding for MHMR, TDCJ and mental health services and the mental health patients impact on county jails.
  • Methamphetamine manufacture, dealing and abuse.
  • Texas Border Security.
  • The abolishment or elimination of county elected offices.
  • Annual pay supplement for deputy sheriffs and sheriffs and a minimum entry pay for peace officers.
Painter spoke to Sen. Kel Seliger specifically about the Blue Warrant inmates in Texas county jails. “It’s about being able to allow parolees kept for technical issues to bond out of the county jail. The county jail is being used as a sanction facility until they have their hearing, which could be from three to six months,” he said.
Looking at that list, for starters I wonder how much more damage the Sheriffs hope to do on the methamphetamine front? If they're not there to promote drug courts and treatment, IMO they're almost certainly pushing to make things worse. Clearly they don't know what they're doing on that score, or their big War on Sniffles last session would have worked.

I'm with 'em on the mental health issue, and they have a new ally in Advocacy Inc., too. I hope they get the beds they need to treat mentally ill defendants who've been declared incompetent to stand trial.

Regular readers know all they want on borders security is money, and that what's been spent so far had no effect on crime. They haven't spent what they've gotten already accountably, while I've argued that the money should be spent first to combat the mounting wave of law enforcement corruption on the border.

Finally, I've always laughed when counties complain about blue warrants as an "unfunded mandate" to the counties. That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard. Let me respond, "Pot, meet kettle. I think you'll have a lot in common!"

For starters, the state must accept these blue warrant prisoners within 45 days after they are "paper ready," and the last I heard the average wait time was less than three weeks. But that ignores the bigger hypocrisy: The funding of Texas' criminal justice system - and I suppose in most states - is really a giant unfunded mandate in the other direction, from cities and counties to state government via the prison system.

Cops and sheriffs who work for municipalities and counties make the arresting decisions, county prosecutors decide what to charge, and locally elected judges (and in rare instances, juries) are ultimately responsible sentencing. All those are local government actors. But the cost of incarceration is borne by the state. So local prosecutors who are super aggressive on lower level charges like John Bradley in Williamson County or Chuck Rosenthal in Harris actually cost the state a disproportionate amount compared to other counties, as do hang-em-high judges seeking to prove their "tuffness" as credentials for higher office.

Make me philosopher king and I'd require each county to repay the state for at least a portion of the cost for everyone it elects to imprison. (The magnitude of that imagined debt dwarfs the petty issue of blue warrants by a country mile.) Right now local taxpayers are artificially insulated from the decisions of local criminal justice officials, so prosecutors and judges can be "tuff" in their campaigns and in the courtroom without ever being held accountable for the fiscal consequences.

That's a fantasy, and would require reworking the state constitution to accomplish. But just contemplating such a pay as you go arrangement shows what a small issue blue warrants are in the scheme of things, and how hollow the Sheriffs' cries of injustice sound on the matter.

There are things the Legislature could do to reduce county jail overcrowding that would help far more than anything they could possibly accomplish on blue warrants, if they had the gumption. More on that topic perhaps soon.


Anonymous said...

Blue warrants-The parole officers call this "jail therapy"; let them sit in jail, waiting for their hearing (at which time they are reinstated) and get their heart right. All at no cost to the state. It's not just local jail bed space that parolees impact, it's all the peace officers that have to deal with them as well. The state needs to clean own their own mess by either deputizing parole officers in order to seek out and apprehend their own parolees or make that worthless DPS do it. California has special parole officers who arrest their parolees on violations on the spot.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sure, but isn't that also why parolees revocation rates are 17% for technicals while for probationers it's nearly half?

I don't mind deputizing parole officers, if the state can afford to train and pay them accordingly. But what's the difference between this unfunded mandate and Wichita County, e.g., sentencing somebody to 99 years for meth production?

The constitutional system we have basically mandates a dysfunctional pay scheme, is my point, where those who pay the bills don't have control over the source of their expenses. But the "unfunded mandates" counties cry about go both ways, with the state, not them, in the case of incarceration, getting the fuzzier side of the lollypop.

Anonymous said...

Grits, does it matter to you that the laws being enforced by the county officials are promulgated by the state? An "unfunded mandate" is a burden on those who had no say in the creation of the particular requirement. The counties must carry the state's water, with no power to alter the imbalance, while the state is simply having to lie in the bed it made. Please forgive the tiresome metaphors.

The state could (and should) address the cost of ridiculously long sentences by reducing penalty ranges accordingly. When the state empowers Williamson County to send a guy to prison for life for possession of 8 grams of meth, it can't cry foul when John Bradley and the Wilco jury pool goes for it. There will always be counties that go for it.

Two separate problems, both needy of lege's attention. Be grateful the counties are agitating on the unfunded mandate theme. And keep sounding the horn on stupid sentencing.

And drive around Williamson County. Cheers.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ Kelly: I agree to an extent, and that's why I suggested (more for purpose of making a point than as a serious proposal) that counties pay only "a portion" of the cost. But I still hold locals responsible for most high sentences for several reasons.

1. 99.5% of TX cases end in plea bargains, literally, so there's a huge amount of prosecutorial discretion involved when a first degree felon (5-99) gets a 60 year sentence, for example.

2. It's mainly the prosecutors, police and sheriffs who show up every session vigorously lobbying to INCREASE penalties. They are the instutional lobby for doing that, for the most part, and most of the dozens of penalty enhancements that come up every session.

3. Prosecutors abuse their discretion, IMO, when, e.g., Chuck Rosenthal in Houston charges people caught with a crack pipe with a state jail felony by sending resin to the lab and saying they possessed it, when in Travis or Dallas the same case would get a Class C misdemeanor ticket. Such routine overcharging invites the question of why they should get to do so without bearing any of the fiscal responsibility.

4. Some TX prosecutors frequently, routinely and actively oppose parole for folks their office convicted regardless of the person's record inside or any other factor. Historically these prosecutorial recommendations have held more sway with the BPP than I think is proper.

5. Local policing practices influence these things. When in Tulia or Palestine they target users on a large scale in the black community, charging them as "dealers," e.g., that's a practice I think they'd do less of if they had to foot the bill, even a portion. What would juries think about giving a 40 year sentence if they were told the cost at trial and what it would cost from their local propoerty taxes to implement the maximum penalies?

I could go on, but you get the point. Texas law provides wide sentencing discretion: 2-10 for 3rd degree felonies, 2-20 for second, and 5-99 for first. High sentences are the result of local decisionmakers choosing to pursue them, and they aren't held accountable when the state can't afford to finance them using the courtroom as a glorified extension of their campaign tactics.

I'm against the Legislature increasing penalties, too, and think they should actually reduce a few key ones, honestlhy. But there's plenty of blame to go around.

Thanks for the question. Good to see you commenting. best,

Anonymous said...

I feel there is a breakdown in the whole system. What needs to happen is Probation, Parole, Law Enforcement, and the District Attorney's office all need to get on the same page or at least in the same world. You have Probation trying to work with defendants on technical violations and the ADA's are doing their own thing. There is no Communication and one does not understand the other.

Anonymous said...

Probation revocation should be higher than parole. Probation gets a ton of plea bargains where the defendant has no intentions of ever complying with probation. Of my twenty new probationers five have absconded and 3 have new arrests.

Anonymous said...

If you think the judges actually listen to probation officers concerns you must be from another state or planet! In the end it's all up to the black robed "GOD" to decide what sentence the guilty party will receive. Probation officers and D.A.'s DO NOT decide punishment, only recommend it after violation upon violation upon violation!
By the way, I think it's the counties who send the state taxes they collect to the state.