Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Prison alternatives bill would help county jail overcrowding

Local officals in Montague County know who the drug addicts are, says the local Sheriff, because they cycle in and out of jail ("Meth Wars: The Effects on Small Towns," KAUZ, May 8). But there aren't enough resources to handle them under the current system.
"I just went through the jail roster and 68 of those 90 are in here for direct drug related offenses." That's what Montague County Sheriff Bill Keating says about the number of known users in jail and still at large is extreme. With a population only around 20,000, Keating says they're still watching another 107 active subjects not in jail.
Montague County provides a great example of why Texas needs SB 1909 by Ellis, which was voted favorably from yesterday's House Corrections Committee hearing. That bill is a scaled back, modified version of California's Prop 36 drug treatment program, except unlike California it gives judges tools like short-term incarceration and new probation facilities to make offenders participate and improve success rates.

My former employers at the ACLU actually came out neutral on SB 1909, though it was favored by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Restorative Justice Ministries, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Saying many Texas judges were just "prosecutors in black robes," Will Harrell said the bill was too watered down and gave judges too much discretion to incarcerate instead of using treatment options. But at the Texas Lege, you always accept half a loaf in May, and at least SB 1909 starts building the needed legal and treatment infrastructure the state can build on in future sessions. As in the Senate, only the Harris County DA opposed the bill in yesterday's committtee hearing.

Even if it passes, SB 1909 won't work without substantial new funding for treatment and incarceration alternative sustained over years - as a base part of the budget just like prison spending. But the Senate proposed nearly a quarter billion dollars in new funds over the biennium to enhance treatment capacity all over the state, and particularly to provide new options for counties like Montague whose jails are filled with addicts that law enforcement must constantly monitor.

As reported Monday, Texas can avoid new prison spending entirely by investing in thousands of new treatment beds, but there's also a trickle down benefit to spending on drug treatment over incarceration. Most addicts who enter prison and receive no treatment are still addicted when they leave. However, people who overcome their addiction are much less likely to cycle back into the criminal justice system, either for drug use, sales, or stealing to support a habit.

I don't want to sound like a pollyanna or set false expectations: Not everyone who enters treatment will succceed. But experience in drug courts in both rural and urban areas around the state has been that a significant percentage will, and when they do they reduce the future burden on the criminal justice system. In Harris County, 60% of low-level drug arrests are repeat offenders.

Grits has lamented that, except for Rep Madden's HB 2391, hardly any legislation in the 80th session appears directly aimed at solving Texas county jail overcrowding crisis. But SB 1909 and the other probation reform legislation making its way through the Texas Lege should help quite a bit indirectly by providing better outcomes for some of those addicts the Sheriff is arresting over and over.

A lot of smaller counties don't have treatment facilities close by, and TDCJ will need every bit of the Senate treatment budget to implement SB 1909 in ways that don't cause smaller jurisdictions problems (the House proposed treatment budget is $100 million less). The level of funding for prison alternatives will be decided in the same conference committee that will decide on new prison spending.

Looming over all this action, of course, is Governor Perry's veto specter. In 2005 he vetoed both probation reforms AND money for leasing bed space - essentially a little publicized choice that directly caused our immediate crisis. So things just got worse. Now, counties all over the state are struggling just like the Sheriff in Montague. Arresting more people won't help that Sheriff, he's overwhelmed now.

It's easy at the Lege to watch the horse race and focus on various bills' success or failure as "the story." But the real story happens out in the world, where laws and policies decided under the Pink Dome may only be judged by their outcomes, not good intentions. You can see the sorry outcomes of Texas current tuffer-than-thou drug war policies in the roster at the Montague Jail. I bet a lot of beleagured jail administrators join me in hoping SB 1909 and the package of bills that support it pass legislative muster so we can try a different approach.

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Speaking of jails, I thought I'd shift gears away from the Legslature tomorrow to attend a meeting of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (see the agenda), at least for a while. Harris and Dallas are among the non-compliant jails commissioners will discuss, and I want to see what kind of oversight state regulators are really providing these facilities.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

"...the Senate proposed nearly a quarter billion dollars in new funds over the biennium to enhance treatment capacity all over the state, and particularly to provide new options for counties like Montague whose jails are filled with addicts that law enforcement must constantly monitor..."

This would be like throwing money down the toilet. You can't forcably send someone to teatment and expect the treatment to work. Ask the addicts. Even those who DID want to stop, have been in and out of treatment centers again and again. Now they just use the treatment centers as a free place to stay when they run out of money, or in winter when it's too cold to live on the street.

It just does not work. And in the meantime, crime due to money needed to support their habit is spiraling upward. And then there's the money needed to "constantly monitor." The public will want this, to see whether it's really working or not.

I don't think these guys have really thought this through. They have an idealistic view of how this is going to "help" the addict and decrowd the jails and prisons.

More changes would have to be made:

1. Current programs support offenders going back to families, even when the family may be dysfunctional and/or supporting of criminal behaviors. I'd like to see offenders transferred into a new environment, with a new functioning "foster family" (maybe on a farm, they can always use the extra hands). The new family would be the "monitors."

2. Case Managers, Parole/Probation Officers have no personal interest in the offender's success at becoming a good and productive citizen. I'd like to see a better quality of people picked for these jobs. They would also be "monitors."

3. Current reintegration programs put ex-offenders right back into the same peer group, and neighborhoods, who support the resumption of criminal behavior and subsequent recidivism. This basically goes with #1 above. I'd like to see these people go back to school and learn a career skill, keeping them off the welfare roles (or SSI and food card) and lessening the idle time that usually goes along with an addiction.

Maybe I'm a little idealistic too, but what is currently being proposed hasn't worked before (see history of Arizaona), so my ideas don't seem that bad to me. I kind of like the idea of building town for people to start a new life in (see the blog at God bless.

Anonymous said...

We do have alternates to prison right here in Texas. I know there is one in Fort Worth and one in Houston. These are an 18-24 month programs. Regular reports are submitted to the judge (or whoever wants it) and if the person is not progressing as they should, they will be pulled and sent to prison.

These are a lot less costly than prison. To the person that said these people do not want to be reformed--no, you are wrong. This is true in some cases, but not all. We are sending people to prison for their first drug charge, when we should be trying to cure the drug problem first.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous... Just because there are drug "repeat offenders" going in and out of jail like going through a revolving door it doesn't mean they want to continue down that path. Drugs can be easy or hard to kick - some people can do all sorts of different drugs and stay on a strictly recreational basis. In order to effectively treat the addicts in our communities, you must first look at and understand how to treat the underlying issues that may have contributed to that person becoming addicted in the first place. Low confidence, low self-esteem, clinical depression - these are all major factors in the life cycle of an addict. Think about it... if you feel like you are completely worthless and all you can do is lay curled in a fetal position and cry, then when someone offers you a "cure" - a drug that when you ingest it makes you feel like you're on top of the world - why would you not do it??? But there comes a point in time (not for all, but for many) when you become overrun by the drug. You are elated to get it, but at the same time ashamed, tired, worn out from chasing the drug, buying the drug, trying like hell to stay out of the Texas prisons because of the drug. You have come to the point where the "drug is doing you, instead of you doing the drug."
So, yes, Annie, there are the die-hard druggies out there that will not quit until the drug becomes the death of them. But your statement "it just does not work" is way too broad and, I believe, very wrong.
I think this proposed plan is awesome and we need people who can come up with innovative ways to raise funding and awareness - then we need to follow through and help those people who just can't seem to help themselves.