Sunday, December 02, 2007

House Corrections Faces Full Plate of Interim Studies

The Texas House Corrections Committee, which already had a lot going on with oversight functions at the Youth Commission, was handed a full plate, indeed, by Speaker Tom Craddick with the announcement of its "interim charges." (See here, p. 5-6) Since the Texas Legislature only meets 140 days every two years, interim charges are topics that standing committees study in between to prepare to address more complex issues in a short time frame, meaning it's highly likely these subjects will be the topic of substantive legislation in 2009. Here are the highlights:

Study Technocorrections
This should please Michael over at Corrections Sentencing: The first charge instructs the committee to:
Explore the use of technology practices that improve efficiency, safety, and coordination of criminal justice activities on the state, local, and county levels.
My guess is the intent of this item is to focus on GPS solutions, but I can actually think of many technology practices (or the lack thereof) that could be improved to benefit efficiency, safety and coordination. For starters, an array of silo'ed bureaucracies house a variety of different databases and information streams on related topics that are seldom cross-checked. E.g., pretrial services divisions prepare much of the same information as do probation officers' reports but frequently do not share it, requiring longer waits and redundant work.

Similarly, documentation generated by county probation departments typically does not inform decisions by state parole officers, even though they're frequently supervising the exact same offenders at different stages of the process. That's especially problematic for youth sent to TYC, most of whom were on probation before imprisonment, who may not stay incarcerated long, and who return to the same community supervised by a different bureaucracy. Better coordination between juvenile probation and parole should lead to both stronger supervision and better outcomes for the offender.

What to Do With Drug Offenders?
Two charges deal directly and indirectly with how the state should handle drug offenders. One charge directs the Committee to propose improvements to the state jail felony system (about half of state jail felons are drug offenders), evaluating "original intent for use, sentencing guidelines, and effectiveness." Another joint charge with the Appropriations Committee will have Corrections:
Review and research the availability, coordination, efficiency, and allocation of substance abuse treatment resources for probationers, pretrial defendants, people in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and parolees. This review should include methods to reduce and improve current assessments, training, and referring protocols and the identification of any barriers that may be impeding all of the above.
The results of this study will be especially interesting in light of recently expanded treatment funding from the Legislature; it's always been an open question whether sufficient capacity exists in every jurisdiction to make full use of new treatment dollars.

Re-entry Focus
The next charge focuses on prisoner re-entry:
Consider new strategies for meeting prisoner reentry challenges in Texas, including the evaluation of programs with documented success. This review should include the availability of housing and occupational barriers.
Given that as many as one in eleven Texas adults has a felony conviction, the need here is enormous. Housing and occupational barriers reduce the chances for successful reform and increase recidivism on their face. (Marc Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation recently published a white paper on the subject, arguing for ramping down occupational restrictions (pdf) on ex-felons, and you can also listen to a podcast from a recent public forum on the subject.)

Narrow Immigration Focus
In a joint charge with the Committee on County Affairs, House Corrections will focus on immigration matters, particularly:
Study policies and procedures related to illegal immigration and border security
of the TDCJ, county probation departments, and local and county jail facilities,
and make recommendations to improve coordination with international, federal,
state, and local authorities.
All sorts of crazy anti-immigrant proposals have been made over the last couple of years so this interim charge could be a minefield, but it sounds like Chairman Madden intends to limit its scope. According to Quorum Report's Daily Buzz:

Knowing that Chair Rep. Jerry Madden (R-Plano) is from North Texas makes it difficult not to think immediately of the current controversies in Farmers Branch and Irving. In Farmers Branch, voters passed an ordinance in May that would require landlords to check for citizenship status. And in Irving, Council voted to begin turning over all names of those arrested by Irving Police to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service, with the intention of deporting those in the country illegally.

Those were not the motivating factor in this charge, Madden said. Instead, the committee wants to make sure the state has consistency in it its policies on illegal immigrants with felony convictions, from the probation departments to the local jails to the prison system.

“We’re interested in specifically looking at what’s being done to check citizenship, and to make sure that uniform steps are being taken,” Madden said. “We shouldn’t be treating illegal immigrants any differently than we would treat legal immigrants.”

Mental Illness and Crime
Finally, I was pleased to see the committee has a substantial joint interim charge with the Appropriations Committee concerning mental illness and crime. The charge directs the committee to:
Assess the relationship between mental illness and criminal behavior and offer reforms needed to address the proliferation of mental illness in the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. This review should include an examination of data sharing between criminal justice and health and human services agencies, proper screening, assessments, treatment, discharge planning, post-release supervision, and community services.
Given that fully thirty percent of adult Texas prison inmates are former clients of the state's indigent mental health system, arguably this (and the quite-related "re-entry" topic) may be the most important of these interim charges from a public safety perspective.

This is a busy interim agenda for the House Corrections Committee considering the Lege is a little late this time around getting to interim charges in the first place. Good luck, folks - you've got a lot of important stuff on your plate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I don't see anything that addresses the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The power our legislature has bestowed on this part of the criminal justice system is out of control. By reducing technical violations and the subsequent reincarceration of said violators, the prison population would decrease significantly. By putting mandatory demands back on the BPP we would see the prison population decrease. As it stands, few are paroled and the population in TDCJ continues to increase at record speed. Too much power for "descretionary" action has been given to a group of people more inclined to exact revenge than justice. The "interim" subjects are clearly lacking focus when something as important as offenders being released on parole is ignored. Couple that with the sorry state of medical care in TDCJ and the term "warehousing human beings" should be the mantra of our prison system.