Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hopeful electoral pattern emerging among GOP leaders on criminal justice reform

First, congratulations to Rep. Jerry Madden for pulling out his primary challenge from a 23-year old neophyte who's main past experience was an internship at the office of the Washington D.C. drug czar. No election result on Tuesday pleased me more.

Madden's young opponent ran an energetic and vitriolic campaign, accusing the chairman of being soft on crime for opposing new prison spending and spearheading, with Sen. John Whitmire, legislation to reduce the number of probation revocations filling up Texas prisons. Columnist Mitchell Shchnurman this morning in the Fort Worth Star Telegram summed up my feelings about Madden's position and the attacks he withstood in these closing lines ("A focus on savings resulted in prison reforms," March 5):

"We're doing the right thing for people who've broken the law and the right thing for taxpayers," Madden says.

Try telling that to his political opponent. In Tuesday's primary, Madden faced a Republican challenger, who blasted him for opposing new prison construction and preventing thousands of drug and property offenders from returning to prison.

In politics, that may be a liability. In the real world, that's leadership.

Though Madden pulled the race, out, it was closer than one would prefer. Still, I'm heartened that this is the second time a Republican House Corrections Committee chairman has faced a stiff electoral challenge based on being called "soft on crime" for supporting much needed and practical criminal justice reforms, and both won re-election.

In 2003, then Chairman Ray Allen filed legislation that would have reduced low-level drug crimes (possession of less than a gram) to a misdemeanor from a state jail felony, but in the political process the legislation moderated to keep the offense a SJF, and to require judges to give probation on the first offense for those with no serious priors.

Still, the bill (HB 2668) was the first move by legislators to reduce reliance on incarceration instead of increasing it. The following session in 2005, Allen and Madden co-authored more sweeping probation reform legislation that Gov. Perry vetoed. Then Allen retired and the Governor signed essentially similar legislation in 2007.

Allen's district in Grand Prairie was a "swing" district, and the Republican who replaced him (Kirk England) switched parties. So what did the Democrat who ran against him in 2004 do right out of the box? You guessed it: Accused him of being soft on crime for reducing prison time for first-offense, low-level drug offenders.

The absurdity of this charge can only be fully understood if you know that Ray Allen was the House author for Texas' most draconian sex offender legislation in the '90s - it's just that as Corrections Chair, he understood the pragmatic reality that if he wanted to have a place to warehouse all those sex offenders (1 in 6 Texas inmates, as I write this), he couldn't fill up the prisons with drug addicts. He was also one of the most zealous pro-life advocates in the Legislature when he was there.

Allen defeated his opponent, Katy Hubener, and went on to work with Jerry Madden and John Whitmre to help craft what became the basic architecture of the 2007 probation reforms, which Ana YaƱez Correa told the Star Telegram are causing "a whole cultural change in probation departments." Certainly itwas the first, important overhaul of the adult justice system since 15 years ago, when the decision was made to triple prison capacity to current levels.

(Conflict alert: I was a paid consultant on Allen's 2004 re-election campaign.)

I've brought up Allen's case when pols tell me they fear a political backlash for pursuing policies they know are best for the state but which they fear will earn them a "soft" label. That was a general election, the Rs would say, I'm worried about my primary.

So it's good to see Allen's successor as Corrections Chair prove he can win on such a record in the primary, too, and against an opponent who used those attacks as his main campaign message. I think this demonstrates, as I've long believed, that the GOP electorate is much more diverse on criminal justice topics than sometimes is portrayed by the neocon attack line, "soft on crime." An academic quoted in the News agreed:

"That's what this contest is about," Dr. Jillson [a political scientist at SMU] said. Mr. Madden's views "were what conservatism has been about through much of the 20th century. It's what George W. Bush has called 'compassionate conservatism.' "

What I take from this race is that opponents took their best shot trying to label the chief GOP proponents of criminal justice reform in the Legislature as "soft," and twice now - in a general election in 2004 and in this year in a GOP primary - those arguments failed to carry the day. Both incumbents ran on their record, not away from it, and voters rewarded them with re-election.

Perhaps that means other legislators in the future will feel more comfortable voting their conscience and the best interest of the state and taxpayers instead of voting from their fear somebody will label them "soft."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My congratulations to Rep. Jerry Madden. He is a true to his word man and an honest Legislator and is doing what should have been done years before for many years, i.e.pass laws to release those who have been paroled and give back good tiem and work time and let those who have been paroled go home to families and work and pay taxes and cease to be a burden to the State. I know from a reliable source, there are 14,000 who have been paroled who should have already been released but due to the dragonian laws and ideas of TDCJ and the BPP, are being kept to do jobs that should be done by persons hired by the State or TDCJ.

Pass laws to release those who have been paroled and give back good time and work time and let's make this a productive State, a proud Republic again and not a laughing stock of the whole country. The dragonian laws passed during the short Bush term as Governor has absolutely left Texas in hole we are having to try to dig out of.

Texas has the reputation of being worse than California and there are far many more people in California that in Texas but Texas has about the same number of people in prison who don't belong there and would be honest, hard working family persons and work and pay taxes instead of just taking money from the State that could be used far better than paying to keep thousands in prison and using them for cheap labor and selling things made and talents of those who are educated to do the jobs that should be done by TDCJ. I would like to see the BPP removed from their positions and close that office and go back to good time and work time and release those who are needed to bring this State and the back to the proud state and country we used to be.

This was written by a Democrat who thinks Rep. Jerry Madden is terrific!!