Sunday, March 08, 2009

More guards, more prisons, or fewer prisoners: Bill expanding drug treatment makes third option possible

In the medium run, the Texas Legislature has two options for managing its prison population - build more prisons and increase pay so they can hire sufficient staff, or reduce the number of prisoners so the Department of Criminal Justice can safely guard the inmates it's got.

This week we received mixed signals on the pay front, with the Senate suggesting a 20% pay hike for guards while the House removed pay increases from the budget and put them on their "wish list." The issue won't be decided until the conference committee on the budget.

If pay hikes don't happen, that leaves reducing the inmate population.

The good news on that front is that the Legislative Budget Board projects (see p. 14 of the pdf) that Texas' prison population will decline in fiscal year 2009 for the first time in many, many years. LBB says Texas will incarcerate 2,000 fewer inmates by the beginning of FY 2010, but after that, the prison population will slowly begin to increase again, exceeding capacity by 2013. If that's accurate, the Whitmire/Madden reforms of 2005 and 2007 bought the state a little time, but have only put off the prison overcrowding problem, not eliminated it.

That's one reason why I was glad to see an excellent bipartisan bill filed in the Senate aimed at building on recent years' reforms. SB 1118 boasts five primary authors - Senators Ellis, Carona, Deuell, Hegar, and Whitmire - and would reduce the number of low-level drug offenders cycling in and out of prison. It proposes a substantial shift away from imprisonment for petty drug possession felonies and toward using probation and treatment for those offenses. It's a bit of a complex bill, but here are the highlights:

If approved, for third degree drug felonies (1-4 grams of a controlled substance) and lower, "the judge shall suspend the imposition of the sentence and place the defendant on community supervision," except that the judge "may" send them to prison if they determine by a preponderance of the evidence that:
  • The defendant is a danger to the safety of others,
  • The defendant has a prior conviction (excluding drug possession or a violation of the Transportation Code),
  • The defendant is convicted in the same proceeding for an additional offense (excluding drug possession or a violation of the Transportation Code), or
  • The judge determines after an "evidence-based assessment" that that the defendant is unlikely to benefit from participation in a drug treatment program, and then only if they have been convicted in two or more occasions of drug possession or discharged unsuccessfully from a drug court program.
Defendants whose sentences are suspended must "submit to an evidence-based risks and needs screening and evaluation procedure" approved by TDCJ, and if the evaluation indicates the need, submit to a course of drug treatment that may include:
  • treatment in a faith-based program
  • outpatient treatment
  • halfway house treatment
  • narcotic replacement therapy
  • drug education or prevention courses, and
  • inpatient or residential treatment
A court can also order the defendant to participate in vocational training, family counseling, literacy training, or community service.

The bill gives judges plenty of options, including incarceration, for dealing with offenders who won't comply with their probation terms. One goodie for judges whose overcrowded county jails may limit short-term incarceration for probation: The bill authorizes using TDCJ-run "intermediate sanction facilities" for up to 120 days for probation violators. Those state-run are presently only used for parole.

Another interesting twist: After the successful completion of their probation term and a drug treatment program, the defendant may petition the court for dismissal of their charges.

This legislation would affect significant chunk of Texas' drug cases; as noted recently, among Texas' state jail felons incarcerated for drug offenses, 87.3% are in for possession of less than a gram of a controlled substance according to TDCJ, while 58.6% of more serious drug cases were possession-only offenses, not for "distribution."

I'm optimistic about prospects for this legislation, which builds on prior, successful legislative initiatives which demonstrably averted what, not long ago, was a looming, California-style prison overcrowding crisis. Removing small-time drug possession defendants from prison and shifting them to less expensive, more effective treatment programs would help solidify the prison population reduction LBB projects for next year, avoiding billions in costs for more prisons and guards in the budget-strapped years ahead.


Anonymous said...

ate jail inmates only account for a small portion of those incarcerated in Texas though. It's a good idea, but I dont think it will have a significant impact for 2 reasons:

1. It relies on judges to give the non-custodial sentences and the other players in the system to come up with the treatments etc - too many cooks spoiling the broth

2. Drug use itself would have to decline for there to be a significant decrease in those getting caught and prosecuted for possession.

A strategy that would have a more immediate impact, both in lowering inmate numbers and reducing costs for TDCJ, would be to look at accellerated release for geriatric and medically impaired inmates, on electronic monitoring where necesarry. This could free up as many as 10,000 beds in TDCJ.

Anonymous said...

sorry, that should have been "State jail inmates"

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sunray, this also applies to third degree felonies, which starts to divert offenders from the general prison population.

Also, all those cooks are already in the kitchen! At least this would give them a better recipe.

I agree about more medical and geriatric releases, but I don't think the numbers are quite as big as you suggest. That said, the truth is the parole board would solve the near-term overcrowding problem entirely if it would just follow its own guidelines for releasing low-risk offenders.

Soronel Haetir said...

Another issue I see, if right now simple possession is enough to send people to prison, I could see prosecutors dropping other charges that may be harder to prove. Bad as it sounds I could see prosecutors then adding those other charges back in to keep their incarceration numbers up

Anonymous said...

The next step is the governor’s supplemental budget, which should be out in the next two weeks. Overall, there is still much debate on exactly how the federal dollars should be used. The governor’s budget will help advance those conversations.

Anonymous said...

I read an article recently which was consistent with your position on drug abuse. It basically suggested that this country is the largest consumer of illegal narcotics and to be addicted to an illegal substance is not a crime. The majority of our narcotics cases as you suggest represent a community health problem which require a community health solution.
Keep up the good work. Your efforts impact the decisions of our policy makers. They are listening.


Don said...

While I am sure that the bill would be an improvement, there are problems. 1. Everybody on probation already submits to the so-called "evidenced based needs and risks assessment". Done by CSO's. CSO's do pretty much what the DA wants them to do, and they are not qualified to do a chemical dependency assessment. They usually have a couple of days training that makes them "qualified" but I have 6 years of college in the field and a license and 22 years experience, and I'm not always qualilfied. They tend to think more toward their own needs than those of the client. Though they use a numerical scale, there is a great deal of subjectivity. As I said, I'm sure it would be an improvement, but I'm always skeptical when you give CJ something to do. From the judge down to the janitor of the CSCD office.

Anonymous said...

Scott ~ using TDCJ's own figures, the numbers are indeed as big as I suggest. What's more, TDCJ have been predicting these figures for the past 10 years.

Also, there are plenty of inmates whose crimes were drug-fueled, but who took a plea bargain, and whose drug abuse is not documented by TDCJ. They do not then get offered places in rehab programmes.

Anonymous said...

In the first paragraph you mention that the 20% raise idea had moved to "wish list" Let me say that IMO
regardless of what other things happen, the corrections officers
deserve a significant salary increase. Higher salaries would attract a larger pool of potential hires and perhaps tdcj would be able to hire a better work force.

As the mother of a son serving a
3g offense that was , as sunray's
wench says "drug fueled" (good term)
DON'T leave these offenders out in the cold. there are many 3g offenders who can be rehabilitated
and restored to the free world.

Anonymous said...

If they can be rehabilitated, why didn'y you as the mother, raise him properly and you rehabilitate him. Don't drop your responsibilities onto the public to solve.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:59 - Rather than get on your horse about fixing blame, why not try to look forward for the solution, rather than toward the past for another opportunity to chastise.

Anonymous said...

Sunray's wench, I agree. Most especially with the numbers of drug users in prisons that are not reported by TDCJ. I would also like real numbers on the effectiveness of prevention and rehab programs. Judging by consumer demand for illegal drugs in the U.S., I would say not vey effective at all. Drugs are a big business. Many of those possession charges belong to dealers. Dealers are usually involved in a variety of crimes that pick right back up when they get out. Drug addicts steal to support their habits. Addicts often sell to pay for their habit, not to make money.
I just don't see the bill doing what you think.
Ther is no experience like first hand experience.
I still have an issue with TDCJ. Why is it so much more important than TYC. If you don't think thae are short then I challenge any of you to roll up your sleeves and volunteer. TDCJ is so corrupt, yet it still has to be. With juveniles, we believe they deserve more. What are we doing.?

Anonymous said...

0337...You're part of the problem. You don't want anyone to be responsible either. Just continue on with 'do as you please and we'll provide counsellin for your self made misfortune'. Get real; that is the problem. Since you do not want to face the problem are the problem.

Anonymous said...

@ anon 4.59 / 8.467 ~ I'm guessing you dont have kids.

@ anon 8.03 ~ TDCJ is not more important than TYC, not to me anyway. I just dont have any experience of TYC, and I hope our family never does.

everyone ~ any chance of some folks using random screen names? all these "anon"s get very confusing!

Anonymous said...

Hopefully they will put some thought, and planning into anything they do as far as drug rehab, and giving these folks the ability to succeed.

Gawd Knows we've seen enough half baked schemes by Gov. that weren't thought out, and underfunded.

Don said...

Sunray: I'm with you on the names. Better yet, use your own freakin' name. I do. Click on it and you'll get a profile. I believe what I believe, never needed anonymity.

Anonymous said...

So what is your big plan next, that is after the all important blaming and parental condemnation?

Some of us are trying to deal with the here and now, that is the reality of current circumstances. If you think it really does any good to lock up a 3rd degree drug offender then you need not make any more comments. Your position is to blame for the current incarceration situation in Texas.

Anonymous said...

I believe even if the CO's get raises (& I think they definitely should - they put up with a LOT) will still take approximately 2700 more jobs in order to make TDC fully staffed. This may or may not happen. I think Whitmire & Madden did a good job in starting the pre-parole treatment in order to help reduce population and recidivism. I wholeheartedly believe we need to keep the treatment beds comin' (not more prisons built). A great majority of the population is either drug or alcohol driven crimes...some may not even truly realize they have an addiction, until they are given true rehabilitation, not just staring at a wall in a cell all day. Incarceration alone does NOT cure an addiction.

And don't even get me started on the Parole Board...yikes. They are doing set-off after set-off, when they could be feeding the inmates into the proper pre-parole programs, or put them on strict parole (c'mon, the parole programs & electronic monitoring are there, use them)!

The programs and more parole when eligible are what will reduce the population AND make the prisons safer for the CO's and inmates!

Anonymous said...

By the way, the judges and DA's (especially in Conservative counties) are unfortunately not using what is available to them. They don't care about TDC overcrowding, nor do they care about the inmate or their future (or families). They just care about what the public might think if they put so many drug or alcohol inmates into probation vs. putting them in jail and throwing away the key. It's a notch on their belt.

It's frustrating how they can easily put these guys into Substance Abuse Treatment Facilities (funded by TDCJ-CS and the offender), and other Community Surpervision programs...that are less crowded and therefore more effective than the prison-run programs because of less offender to teacher/CO ratio. But they choose to just do the harshest thing they can possibly do, rather than being "smart".

Anonymous said...

Third option as Drug Treatment seems like a grand idea to me! Now if we could just figure out how to prevent so many teenagers from making babies that would be another giant step for mankind!