Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Full prisons boosting parole rates for nonviolent offenders

Now that Texas prisons are overflowing, we're going to see a lot more articles like this one in the Paris News over the next couple of years: "Inmates' early release worries prosecutors," Dec. 9. Reports Bill Hankins:
A new and serious issue relating to justice is developing across the state of Texas, and local district and county attorneys are being caught up in the state’s drive to clear prison beds.

To do so, parole officials are under pressure to release some convicted people early to have space for more violent offenders.

“Clearly, this is a money issue,” said Lamar District and County Attorney Gary Young. “The state has to find a way to pay for these folks to be housed in prisons. But justice is not being served when someone does eight years of a life sentence.”

Young was referring to a Lamar County case in which Clifton Blackshear was sentenced in 1999 to life in prison for the manufacture of a controlled substance.

He was released earlier this year and is back in Lamar County.

In another Lamar County case, Timothy Brett Taylor received a three-year sentence and began serving his time in April of this year.

Parole officials already have announced his release. He is back in Lamar County.

“We are back to where we were in the late eighties and early nineties,” Young said. “Prisons are full again and the parole system is working to free up beds.”

“It is sad when defendants are getting their first parole consideration when they are still in our county jail awaiting transfer to the actual prison,” Young said .

That has happened in some Lamar County cases in which an inmate received his parole while still in Lamar County Jail.

“There are people who know how to work the system that are agreeing to go to prison for what appears to be decent five or six-year sentences who know they will be out in less than a year,” Young said . “Many of them would rather do that than be on probation for two or three years.”

Assistant County Attor-ney Bill Harris said he was amazed at the defendant’s reaction in a recent burglary of a habitation case.

“I was prepared to offer him a lengthy probation, no jail time, but he told me he just wanted a sentence,” Harris said. “He knows that on non-violent offenses, inmates are doing about a month and a half for each year of their sentence. He knows he is going to be out of prison in less than a year, so why would he want to be on probation six or seven years, when he can go to prison and get it over with in just months.”
The article spins this story in a very narrow fashion, and exhibits many assumptions common to MSM crime coverage that I find misleading if not outright fallacious. From a systems perspective, though, the cases described don't surprise me at all. Texas simply cannot sustain the rate of incarceration growth our state has experienced over the last thirty years.

As I've argued ad nauseum, what's really happening here is that pure pragmatism is forcing the parole board to make decisions that the state Legislature does not have the courage to impose: Shortening sentences for nonviolent offenders to free up prison space for more dangerous folks. The fellow whose life sentence turned out to run 8 years was imprisoned for drug manufacturing (probably meth). If you had to make the choice whether to house a drug addict for life or a rapist, who would you choose?

Is it ever appropriate to give life sentences for nonviolent offenses? Texas' law frequently allows it, but it makes little sense to me - not when there's not enough space to house much more serious offenders.

In addition, the story implies that the Legislature could just throw more money at the problem and solve it, but that's not true, either. Regular readers know that Texas prisons are already understaffed, and though voters approved new debt to build three more, even if they're built it's unlikely the state can find enough employees to staff them. There is a pragmatic limit to how much prisons can safely expand without sufficient staffing, and Texas already reached that threshold several years back.

The article hints at another big problem that the state only this year has begun to address: Texas' probation system is broken, and long probation terms with minimalist supervision maximize the number of low-risk offenders revoked to prison. Probation terms are so long and have become so onerous and expensive that many offenders would quite rationally rather serve an incarceration stint than agree to long, draconian supervision terms.

The Paris News says "“We are back to where we were in the late eighties and early nineties," but that's not quite true. In the late '80s the prison system actually had to let some violent offenders loose early to free up prison space. Today, more than half of Texas prisoners are nonviolent offenders, and they're mostly the ones the parole board has been releasing sooner when they become eligible.

Prosecutors like to spin Texas' overincarceration crisis to say more prisons are the answer, but to reach that conclusion they usually focus on the wrong questions, as did critics quoted in this story.

I predict similar articles will crop up more often in the coming years, but reporters writing them should ask more and different questions of a broader array of sources to get the context right: Why are low-level offenders receiving decades-long sentences, and does that help or harm public safety? How understaffed are current prison units? Where would guards come from to staff new prisons? How much would new prisons cost taxpayers in the long haul? What other priorities (roads, education, healthcare) must be short-changed to spend more money on prisons? Why aren't more drug offenders sentenced to treatment instead of incarceration?

The Lamar County DA says justice is not served when a defendant sentence to life serves only eight years, but arguably justice is not served by assigning such a draconian punishment to someone whose offense was nonviolent and addiction-driven. Texas' overincarceration crisis will push these justice defining issues to the forefront over the next few years, and its high time to have a collective conversation about whether it's desirable or even possible for the state to continue along its current path.


Catonya said...

DA's (and politicians - one and the same) promote prison for drug offenders because addiction is harmful to society. They ignore their system is failing because correcting it translates to "soft on crime" - and that doesn't win re-elections.

...tell me again, who are the addicts?

Anonymous said...

There are to many State prosecutors playing pleaball with peoples lives. Have these prosecutors waste their time on real criminals and stop all the petty and or false arrests and wrongful prosecutions in this state. That should stop some of the overcrowding and other

Anonymous said...

"Why aren't more drug offenders sentenced to treatment instead of incarceration?

Why are they arrested in the first place?

Drug use and drug addiction are two very different topics. The former is common and frequently causes little harm outside of the risks undertaken in obtaining and possessing a "controlled dangerous substance."

There's no doubt that drug addiction and abuse are harmful, but that harm has only been magnified by the ineffective methods used to address the problem.