Friday, November 09, 2007

Public Participation Required for Vigorous Jail Debates: Before blogs, "citizen journalism" meant Letters to the Editor

Tyler doesn't have any active local political bloggers, that I know of, but the Letters to the Editors section of the Tyler Morning Telegraph rocked during the recent jail bond vote, consistently providing an outlet for "citizen journalism" that we hear so frequently touted as the purview of the blogosphere, stamping it onto dead trees and tossing the product into driveways and yards around East Texas.

Today's example comes from Tyler jail opponent Dale Watson, writing in retrospect, who made as cogent an argument as you could ask for in a letter to the editor why the Smith County jail bonds failed by a whopping 70-30 margin. He writes:
There has been a lot in the local media as to why the jail bond failed. These are some of the reasons I think caused the jail bond to fail.

1. Price way too much.

2. Commissioners' and judge's pay raise. Totally out of line for work done.

3. Many people simply feel their property taxes are too costly now. They simply cannot afford more taxes. This may be the number one reason for the failure of the bond.

4. The arrogance of most of those for the bond in advertisements and news articles. The demeanor of those people was we had no choice but to vote the way they wanted us to. If we did not, we were very stupid. The greatest thing about our country is we can vote a secret ballot no matter what someone thinks about it. We did that.

5. When the jail bond issue failed in 2006, then-County Judge Becky Dempsey put together a task force of "community leaders" to put together a new plan. For the most part, these people were well-known people who had been parts of groups wanting a new jail but only differing on the plan. A task force for a jail bond issue to be effective should include members of the community are not part of the "elite" crowd in Smith County: people such as blue-collar workers, housewives on a budget, senior citizens on a fixed income, and even people who just do not want their taxes to go up.

6. Figures do not add up. I heard on several "For" ads that it costs us $4 million per year to farm out prisoners to other counties. I am not sure if this figure was the total cost or the difference of what it would cost to house them here. That was not made clear. Four million dollars multiplied by 20 years is still only $80 million. That is much less that the $225 million or so that the issue would have cost.

7. There are several new programs by two judges that have the hope of decreasing the jail population. The drug court and the program have inmates work at a real job, but check in every day. These programs need to have an opportunity to see if they would work.

There were many reasons people voted their conscience. Thanks for the opportunity to explain my reasons.
Thank you, Daryl. I think your analysis is spot on. Compare this citizen journalist report to the Houston Chronicle's analysis why the Harris County Jail bonds failed, written by reporters Bill Murphy and Alan Bernstein. Their report doesn't look so much at the issues of whether Houston needs a jail, which is what voters really care about, but mostly at polls and the mechanical functioning of the pro-bond campaign. Even the few references to substantive issues about the jail were framed in terms of the horse race:

In a pre-election poll, the jail bond had the support of only 38 percent of African-Americans likely to vote, said Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist who conducted the polling.

Franklin Jones, a Texas Southern University political scientist, said jail referendums often do not fare well among some African-Americans, who believe society should invest more in education and other programs and less on jails.

"It becomes a question of priorities and spending," Jones said. "In the black community, many believe that if the money was spent on the front end, you wouldn't need these factories and warehouses at the back end."

I'm not trying to pick on Murphy and Bernstein (professional reporters are sadly taught to cover elections as a horse race) so much as to praise Mr. Watson and other letter writers who contributed to the Tyler jail debate in a way that professional journalists too often overlook - focusing on the substance of the issues. (I should add that Kuff's coverage of the Harris jail vote was a welcome supplement to the Chron's minimalist efforts.)

Tyler voters were well served by their local paper during the last election, which functioned as a true community forum and clearinghouse for all sides of the jail issue. I don't think the same can be said for the Houston Chronicle or the Bryan College Station Eagle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The feeling among a lot of residents, is that if the new jail was created, it would produce new rounds of arrests just to fill it up! It is not so much the jail in Smith county that needs revamping, it is the justice system itself that needs change. The incarceration rate is 50% higher than the state average already, and that in a state with a 44% higher rate than the nation. Figure probation into the equation, minus the doubling, and you get the idea that if you haven't been arrested yet, they just haven't gotten around to it. I suspect that there will soon be some contrived jail related disaster to show us how wrong we are.

There is one local blog from Smith County