Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A Big Idea for Texas Monthly: Slash Texas' prison system

I neglected to mention that Texas Monthly published a short blurb I wrote in their May "Ideas" issue - the one with Joel Osteen on the cover - touting "82 various and visionary ideas for how to make Texas a better place (Better than it already is, of course, which is pretty darn good)." My piece was in the printed magazine, but here are the ones they published on the web.

When he asked for my contribution, TM editor Jake Silverstein said the idea proposed "should be as daring, unusual, and ambitious as possible (even to extent of being entirely unworkable, so long as it’s a conversation-starter)." So here's what they published from me (at least, after their fact checkers updated the numbers):
Texas should dramatically slash its prison population and eliminate a majority of felony crimes. We have criminalized too many different activities: Texas has 2,324 separate felonies on the books, including 11 involving oysters. From 1978 to 2008, Texas's population increased 80 percent, while the prison population increased 595 percent. If prison growth had matched population growth, around 40,000 would be in Texas prisons today - instead the number is about 155,000. Texas must stop trying to manage every social problem through the justice system and re-empower its civil courts and regulatory functions to handle more conflicts among citizens.

19 comments:

Scott Dickson said...

But don't we owe justice for victimized oysters?

All kidding aside, criminal justice is big business here in the Lone Star state. Now that there are so many private prisons their lobbyists would probably resist any attempts to drastically reduce their business model. And what legislator would have the testicular fortitude to appear "soft on crime".

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between being "tough on crime" and creating new ones just to fill a private prison system.

Suzette Watkins said...

I love the topic! Thank you for the excellent work you do on this blog site. If I am so honored to be elected to Ft. Worth's City Council, I will "use" my office to advocate for the dire need for prison reform and jail reform.
To add to Scott D's comment above, another good question is "What legislator would have the testicular fortitude to 'appear' soft on crime, but have the courage to bring the issue to the forefront and articulate the misnomer of 'soft on crime?"
A different approach, and soft on crime aren't the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Little Johnny's kindergarten class was on a field trip to their local police station where they saw pictures tacked to a bulletin board of the 10 most wanted criminals.

One of the youngsters pointed to a picture and asked if it really was the photo of a wanted person. "Yes," said the policeman. "The detectives want very badly to capture him."

Little Johnny asked, " Why didn't you keep him when you took his picture?"

Gritsforbreakfast said...

And the police officer replied, "We had to let them go, Johnny, because the prisons are so full of drug addicts and nonviolent offenders that we didn't have room to keep them."

Anonymous said...

WOW!! I could not disagree more with your opinions on this issue. This is clearly one of the many issues that seperates conservatives from liberals!

Anonymous said...

"eliminate a majority of felony crimes"

Just curious-- which ones? You can talk all you want about oyster crimes, but in reality those don't make a dent in any court docket. To simply say we have too many felonies is intellectual laziness.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

There are 2,324 felonies on the books, most of them redundant. E.g., theft if theft. We don't need a separate crime for theft of an air conditioner. Or copper wire. Etc., etc.. The code is larded with that crap.

As for making a dent in the court dockets, Judge McSpadden and Harris County judges say 25-30% of their felony dockets are for less than a gram drug cases. You could start there.

Anonymous said...

Undo the massive prison-industrial complex of Bush/Perry? NEVER!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, 12:22 - a BIG chunk of those extra felonies on the books improperly use the criminal code as a substitute for business regulation. Tom Kirkendall at Houston's Clear Thinkers has written on this, as has Marc Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. TPPF is a conservative think tank whose primary funder is religious-right mega-donor Jim Leininger (which somewhat undermines the liberal/conservative stereotype offered up by 12:17). Marc Levin wrote last year:

"Between now and the next legislative session, Texas lawmakers should identify some of the thousands of criminal laws to repeal or convert to civil infractions. When hunters and fishermen must tether themselves to a lawyer or risk becoming unwitting criminals, our individual liberties could soon be declared the next endangered species."

It's hard to understand how a "small-government conservative" who's intellectually honest could support the ocean of trivial laws and vast costs of the 'prison-industrial complex,' to use 1:19's phrase, in its current scope and form. Given the massive growth of incarceration over the last three decades, we're talking about the biggest of Big Government enterprises.

Anonymous said...

Scott you are a Texas national treasure. Thank you for being who you are.

Anonymous said...

12:17, accusing Scott of intellectual laziness is akin to calling Einstein a simpleton.

You are clearly the lazy one here.

Anonymous said...

Add to GFB's earlier comment regarding the lack of room for offenders, there is also a lack of keepers that are qualified to keep these days.

The Waco Trib reports this morning that the reason for the overtime bill at the jail is due to staff shortages based on the lack of applicants without a misdemeanor conviction.

It used to be the pay factor.

Charlie O said...

The Texas Monthly article contained many good ideas for making Texas a better place. Unfortunately, most of those good ideas are not supported or shared by the bulk of inbred rednecks who inhabit that state.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 5/25/2009 12:17 PM. The overcrowded prison system and understaffing, and hiring of persons who are not qualified for the positions they are hired for, is not a Republican or a Democratic problem, it is a disservice to you and all of Texas, a State problem and disgrace and was allowed to happen beginning under George W. Bush and continued under Rick Perry.

The money spent to keep people in prison adds up and the reported amount is close to $40.00/per day for each inmate. With reported 155,000 in prisons in Texas, you do the math! The Texas prison system is a disgrace and the laws that send many to prison is also a disgrace.

Now is the time to do something about this disgrace, call your Legislators and tell them you are tired of spending your money to continue to use people to make merchandise to sell and raise cattle, etc. to sell to industries and vegetables sold that could feed those instituted and let those who deserve to go home, go home. Also, think about the families who have been hurt through this horrendous criminal justice system and give them their lives back.

Thank you, Scott for your blog, you are tremendous!

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. It amazes me on the charges they bring against juveniles! "Evading Arrest,Fail to Identify, etc." are popular ones to get a juvenile into the criminal justice system. Keep up the good work Scott and ignore the name callers. They obviously do not have any real, substantial arguments, just insults.

Jackie Buffalo said...

rOFlmAO ....
Some of these 'anonymous' critics smell like trolls.
I loved the blatant Texas piracy-in-guise-of-a-criminal-justice-system reported last night on CNN. They just don't even bother to pretend in Tenaha !! You hAVe to check out the local DA on stage doing her country singing act.
CNN reporters say they can't believe it !! hahahahaah ... 'scuze me while I compose myself ..
..
Whew. Anyhow, I had to leave my 2 cents and let them know that not only can you not complain to the police, obviously, the Texas attorney general does not take complaints on wayward district attorneys with their goonie squads, and the FBI don't want to be bothered.
B e c a u s e , this is all big b u s i n e s s in TEJAS. These legislators who perpetuate the situation by adding more laws to convict and send to prison are on their way out. The public really is waking up and past the point of being sick and tired.

Red River Redneck said...

There is a huge difference between being tough on crime and being stupid on crime. As usual, Texas opted for the second creating a monstrous prison system that it cannot afford to operate and making damn near every crime a felony. The state ignores due process and judges are pretty much free to do whatever they want. The result is what we have now. A justice system out of control but doing just what it is designed to do. Lock EVERYONE up.

Anonymous said...

How about you take away the drugs you take away the prisons. Texas makes a ton of money on inmates and the more inmates they have the more money they make. The goverement doesn't want to take away drugs as there making money off the prisons which is why so many Americans are doing time.
Why is it such a secret that inmates are making products for differnt companies and the inmates dont get paid for it but the prisons do? Why is it hard for those on parole to find a job, housing and places to support ex inmates if the goverment didn't want you back in the system they would help out, but they make too much money so they want you back in and make it almost impossible for you to live a crime free life once you have been convicted and sentenced to time