Sunday, September 23, 2007

Silly Season causes pols to embrace ridiculous "tuff" positions

For more than 12 years I made my living working in Texas elections, but these days I dread the electoral Silly Season, and with state primaries upon us in February, we're just now heading into it full-swing.

During the Silly Season we may expect the most asinine, foolish, and unrealistic criminal justice proposals imaginable bandied about before an ignorant public as though they actually had some relationship to the real world. I'll never forget the first campaign by Todd Staples, now Texas Ag Commissioner, who ran on a platform of imposing the death penalty for all drug dealers. (No, really.)

To me, Staples' absurd campaign position (which immediately vanished when he got into office - never even a bill filed on the topic) marks the all-time gold-standard for the ridiculous "tuff on crime" grandstanding we routinely see in Texas elections. So far, though, this year's front-runner has to be District Judge Tryon Lewis who's running in the GOP primary against Republican incumbent Buddy West out in west Texas. (Lewis was recruited against West after the incumbent sided against Tom Craddick in the Speaker's feud at the end of session.) Said Judge Lewis in today's Midland Reporter-Telegram ("Ailing and aging, West scraps for 8th two-year term," 9/23):

"Perpetrators can get probation for almost every first-degree felony and serious crime. There shouldn't be some right to commit one free felony."

Honestly, from a public policy perspective that's just dumb. Dumb as a creosote post. Texas has made more than 2,300 separate acts felonies. Graffiti can even be a first degree felony, which brings a 5-99 year sentence. Can he really be saying that under no circumstances should judges or juries have discretion to impose probation?

Even worse, I find it disingenuous bordering on irresponsible for a former judge to call probation a "free felony," since granting probation is entirely at the local judge's (or, rarely, a jury's) discretion. Probation requirements in Texas typically are quite strenuous, especially for the most serious offenses, and a felony conviction makes it difficult to get a job or housing for the rest of your life. Not only are many probationers revoked for failing to live up to supervision requirements, in many cases offenders PREFER incarceration to probation because probation requirements would make them change their lifestyle, while they can just wait out a jail stint.

I notice the Judge failed to call for higher taxes to pay for his idea, another disingenuous omission. Texas prisons are chock full, mostly with non-violent offenders, so eliminating probation for "serious crime," however that's defined, would increase the prison population significantly. It would also cause fewer defendants to accept plea bargains, boosting local costs for trials, pretrial detention, and other county expenses off the charts.

If a politician does not simultaneously explain to the public how he or she plans to solve Texas' prison and jail overcrowding crisis, it's straight-up hypocritical for them to run for office proposing harsher penalties for this or that crime.

There's one more philosophical disconnect I find annoying between such rhetoric and politicians who claim to be small-government conservatives. When speaking of criminal justice, Judge Lewis wants to take power away from local decision makers, but in the next sentence he espouses the opposite philosophy about schools: "Much too many [sic] of those decisions have been moved to Austin, but who knows what's right better than the teachers and principals who know their students?" he said.

My question in response: Who knows better than local judges and juries about the correct sentence for criminals in their community? Why does he support local control for schools and oppose it for the justice system?

I'll tell you why: It's the Silly Season.


Catonya said...

The terms of probation are more restrictive than the terms of parole in Texas. Given this, probation hardly qualifies as a free felony.

yep, very silly.

Anonymous said...

This post should be required reading for everyone in Texas that seeks to or actually does participate in State Government.

It should also be read by everyone that participates in Main Stream Media. Why aren't reporters asking about these issues when the Tuff on Crime mantra comes up?

Anonymous said...

I suspect Texas prisons have a substantial fraction of inmates who are serving sentences shorter than 5 years for property, public order and drug offenses. The dilemma is that many of these inmates are probation violators or returnees who have violated parolee or been convicted on a new charge and are not good risks for parole. If they return too often they can be classified as habitual offenders.

I think the problem is that we do not adequately supervise persons who are placed on probation for a first offense. If the violate probation too often they can be revoked and sent to prison and in my opinion the battle has been lost at that point. I have heard judges all over the country complain about spending too much time dealing with low level repeat offenders.

When community based corrections funds were cut they moved clients from supervised to unsupervised probation (aka self-supervised-probabtion) and there was a big increase in probation violations and revocations and the prison population growth rate increased.
This increased to cost of corrections so they cut funding for supervision of probationers again. Eventually they caught on and restored some of the funds (as our district director said they threw a couple of shovels of dirt into the hole).

There is no silly "season" they are silly all seasons.

Anonymous said...

He's a west Texas lawyer, what did you expect?

Unknown said...

Hey anonymous: reporters save their tuff questions for reformers or critics of current policy. Asking a politician,police official,school official, or any other authority figure a serious question would influence political debate. And that would subject them to criticism as a "liberal media". Screaming "liberal" loud enough and often is not the same as screaming "wolf". It somehow doesn't resonate as nonsense to the public.

The irony is that the media do influence public debate by not asking for details and exposing the lack of linkage between legislation and money. Just because you don't have financial expertise to tally exact costs of legislation doesn't mean you shouldn't state the obvious: tougher laws mean more people in prison and prison isn't cheap. Why should the taxpayers be penalized double for crime: the cost of crime and the cost of punishment. Are there no crime victim advocates out there. A true advocate would want fewer victims. Today's media declared advocates want more victims and more punishment assuring that criminals and criminal suspects become victims too.