Wednesday, September 02, 2009

California's partisan prison meltdown: Why Texas didn't go there

It's been fascinating to watch from afar California's "perfect storm" regarding its prison system. They face massive overcrowding, with double the number of prisoners their facilities were designed for. A federal court has ordered them to release 40,000 prisoners or spend billion more on prisoner healthcare, a case they're appealing to the US Supreme Court. The Legislature cut funding to prisons by $1.2 billion but failed to specify how. Recent riots were attributed to overcrowding and federal court orders to desegregate California facilities. And amidst all this, a modest reform proposal by a Republican Governor was gutted on party lines, with nobody in Arnold Schwarzenegger's party stepping forward to push through his plan in the California Assembly.

Compare this to Texas' experience, where Republican committee chairs in the House (first Ray Allen then Jerry Madden on House Corrections) led bipartisan reform efforts in 2003, 2005 and 2007. By contrast, in California Democrats "have the votes to carry reform with no Republican help," but on these issues you can never count on Democratic unity. On any criminal justice reform legislation, in my experience, one can reliably assume one in four Democrats will back away out of fear of being labeled "soft on crime," so courting votes from both parties is critical to passing bills no matter which group is in power.

Ironically, California may be suffering because it's trying to confront this problem with a Democratic majority. The turning point for Texas' prison system came in 2003, when Republicans found themselves in charge of both chambers of the Texas Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. That year, Speaker Tom Craddick named Ray Allen from Grand Prairie House Corrections chair, and Allen was immediately confronted with projections that Texas' already full prisons would require billions in new construction to keep up their astronomical growth rate.

In response, Chairman Allen filed HB 2668, the story of which tells a lot about how Texas confronted its prison overcrowding dilemma. Few remember today that the original filed version of that legislation would have reduced penalties for low-level drug crimes, dropping less-than-a-gram offenses from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor. That move, predicted the Legislative Budget Board, would have saved the state $72 million per year by 2008.

Members balked at the idea of reducing drug penalties (though increasingly quite a few judges have gotten behind the suggestion), but the problem of prison overcrowding was real. So Chairman Allen changed his legislation to keep the penalty at state-jail felony levels, but required judges to sentence offenders to probation on first-offense less-than-a-gram possession cases - a move that diverted around 4,000 offenders from prison per year at a savings of more than $30 million annually.

That model - reducing incarceration by diverting offenders to probation and keeping more of them there until they're off supervision - became the central strategy Texas employed to reduce incarceration growth. In 2005, Jerry Madden became Hosue Corrections chair and - along with the Democratic Criminal Justice Chairman in the Senate, John Whitmire - sponsored legislation to revamp probation in order to provide more meaningful supervision (especially through reduced caseloads) and alternatives to incarceration, but leaving sentence lengths, at least on the books, alone.

That legislation was vetoed by Governor Perry. An essentially similar version passed in 2007 which he allowed to become law. Basically for low-level, nonviolent offenses the bill shortened probation lengths and gave offenders more chances to earn their way off probation through good behavior.

The Texas Lege in 2007 also expanded funding for diversion programs, giving probation departments more resources for and incentives to use intermediate sanctions prior to revocation. And they expanded in-prison treatment, reducing long waiting lists so drug and DWI offenders could become eligible for parole more quickly. New probation funding was provided through grants instead of expanding base funding, and grant recipients were required to set goals for reducing revocations and have their officers use intermediate sanctions before resorting to imprisonment.

The result: Texas prisons avoided a 17,000 bed shortfall predicted to occur by 2012, giving the state some breathing room on corrections spending and allowing state leaders more lead-in time to address still-troubling long-term trends. Lately the national media has been taking particular notice of Texas' relative success on this score.

By contrast, in California prison debates resulted in a partisan meltdown characterized by tuff-on-crime demagoguery, not to mention gridlock in the face of federal court orders requiring the state to slash the number of inmates. (We have our own partisan meltdowns, of course, but these topics aren't the cause.)

With 20/20 hindsight, we can see that avoiding a similar fate in Texas was one of the most important achievements at the Texas Lege during the 3-term House Speakership of Tom Craddick - a mitzvah that shouldn't be lightly overlooked.


Charlie O said...

California's legislators are also butt buddies to the incredibly overpaid CO's union. Max. base pay is over $73K. Some CO's make over $100K per year with overtime. That's just plain ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Of course, then there's the case of little 4 year old Emma Thompson from Spring, Texas. Oh well, what the life of one little girl worth compared to the money saved by Texas in making sure that more probationers stay out of prison thereby saving the state money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

We don't have that problem here, Charlie. Guards make about a third of that and their union isn't powerful. But that's another strong argument why they wrong party may be in power in CA to achieve reform.

And 10:21, Re: Emma Thompson, blaming that on probation reform is nearly as ridiculous as it is self serving - CPS investigated and didn't intervene and apparently her MOTHER knew of the abuse and concealed it. Lisa Falkenberg had a column on this case calling your argument "misplaced." No law can prevent f'ed up families.

No wonder you take such a cheap shot anonymously. I wouldn't want my name associated with such drivel, either.

Anonymous said...

Turn them loose. They won't commit any more crimes. We trust them.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"We trust them"

By the time one in 22 adults is in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole, as is currently the case in TX, them is us.

As California is discovering, you've got four choices: 1) Imprison fewer druggies and petty thieves to make space for violent 3g offenders, 2) Release violent offenders to make space for the druggies, 3) Raise taxes, build more prisons, and hire more guards, or 4) Do nothing and wait for the federal courts to take over, like in California.

We already did #4 with the Ruiz case in the early '80s; it's a lot easier to manage the system better on the front end. So which option do you prefer?

Anonymous said...

I'd prefer that Texas continue prison growth methodically and with a long term view toward the state's population growth and growth in our economy. It's unrealistic to think this state can continue to grow without there being a corresponding increase in crime and need for prison bed space.

I'd prefer that we become realistic about the secondary consequences of drug use and abuse, and realize that it impacts the lives of all sorts of innocent people. While treatment is an option and should be afforded to first time offenders, we need to realize that some people just don't want to change. Without significant punitive consequences, some people will not change and will continue to harm themselves and, more importantly, other innocent victims within and without their families. This applies to alchohol abuse as well.

I'd prefer that we actually require people on probation and parole to abide by the terms of their supervision. Testing positive for drugs is not a "technical" violation of the terms of the subjects supervision. Instead, it means the person has been out using drugs--in most cases another criminal offense. When a probationer has been afforded one treatment option after another, and persists in using drugs, that person needs to be revoked. Period. Likewise, criminals who decide not to report to their probation and parole officers for months on end are not "technical" violaters. Instead, they are "absconders" and are more than likely out committing new crimes.

Let's not perpetuate this belief that coddling criminals is being "smart on crime" especially as it applies to sex offenders. Texas has managed to maintain fairly low crime rates over the last couple of decades in large part due to the prison expansion of the 90's. Now is not the time to become complacent. This state is growing and while it's easy to bury our heads in the sand while crime rates are down, relaxing our vigilence and allowing our system to return to the "revolving door" days of the 70's and 80's is not the answer.

Anonymous said...

4:06 spoken like a true blue old school PO. The research is in and old school doesn't cut it. Who really "wants" to change? You clearly don't. And therein lies the challenge - tapping into what motivates people to change. It is hard work. Hard work is dern rewarding, though.

PirateFriedman said...


I agree with you that as a population increases, aggregate crime may also increase. However I think there is reason to believe that these times will be different from the 70s and 80s.

We can shrink the prison population as long as we allow a liberal concealed handgun policy in Texas. We need to keep the process streamlined so that there is never a backlog. If the ordinary citizen is armed, they can give an assailant something better than a prison sentence.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To be clear, the suggestion about building prisons to keep up with the population is utter hogwash. Since the late '70s, Texas prison capacity has expanded about EIGHT times as fast as the population overall. The tactics described by 4:06 require building prisons MUCH faster than population growth.

In truth, we'd have to stop prison building for many years to let the population catch up to the (much lower) imprisonment rates Texas had for most of its history.

Anonymous said...

The principal reason for the accelerated increase in prison expansion in the late 80's and early 90's was the Ruiz case. Texas was already severely behind the curve and the overcrowding conditions necessitated a quick expansion just to catch up.

You can play with numbers as much as you like, Grits, but the fact of the matter is that the low incarceration rate in the 70's and 80's was a simple result of not having enough prison space to incarcerate violent criminals.

Those of us who were around, "back in the day," remember vividly how it was when violent criminals were being paroled just as fast as they were being incarcerated. People in Texas were afraid to go out after dark.

What is "hogwash" is the notion that we can truly protect society by implementing a whole host of "feel good" social programs for people who have no desire to change their behavior.

At the end of the day, a significant percentage of our criminal population demonstrates a continuing desire to engage in violent predatory behavior. The only real solution is to lock them up. As Texas continues to grow, it only makes sense to make sure that our prison capacity is large enough to house these incorrigable offenders.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm "playing with the numbers, 12:04"? How would you parse them? And I mean actual numbers, not just statements of opinion.

We agree capacity determines prison population. If you build it, they will come. Where we disagree is the relation between prison expansion and crime.

Texas crime rates per capita were about the same in the mid-'70s as now, but the rate of incarceration has skyrocketed. About halfway through that expansion, crime maxxed out at all-time highs, then declined again. So we've built all these prisons to get us right back where we started, while jurisdictions that never built so many prisons are seeing greater crime reductions, even, than here.

David C said...

It sounds like your argument is that Republicans will vote for a proposal that they themselves have proposed, but won't vote for an identical proposal proposed by the opposition party. You claim three out of four Democrats in California support fixing the system, but good bills still can't get passed. I know sentence reduction bills in Texas don't get close to the support of three out of four Republicans, so the reason Texas does better must be because Democrats in Texas are more willing to compromise than Republicans in California. You seem to believe this is because Republicans are more benevolent as majority party leaders, but isn't it more likely that Democrats are simply less cynical than Republicans when in the minority?

Anonymous said...

My take is different. Namely, that the Texas Legislature got prison reform by lying. The pols could trumpet to the public that they were tuff on crime by keeping sentences high and then divert the actual crooks around the system to save money. From a financial perspective this may be "smart" but it's flat out dishonest. It's the reason that sooner or later people wind up supporting truth in sentencing or mandatory minimums. From a moral perspective, the legislature should be ashamed, not given kudos.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

David C, I didn't say the GOP is more "benevolent," I argued that the political dynamics for criminal justice reform work better when the GOP is in charge.

If the GOP is in the leadership proposing reforms, at least some of their base will go with them. Then you can get 75% of Dems to support it and pass a bill. When Dems are in charge, it's much harder to gain those crossover votes.

2:50, I think you've misstated the "lying" that goes on about sentencing debates. IMO the Lege was quite up front about what the 2007 reforms would do, and it's played out on the ground just like they predicted. By contrast, the real "lies" that lead to the truth in sentencing critique were discussed recently in this post - the Lege has jacked up penalties without adequately paying for it, so that there's not enough funding to imprison everyone who receives the long sentences they've authorized. That's the much bigger and more important "lie" on sentencing issues.

Anonymous said...

i can tell you 100 CA prison guards do not make 70k base pay till they are over 15 years in. some do make over 100k but majority are not even close to making that.Blame it on giving these inmates this high level of care going to UCSF for surgery and care that is bull. People on the street can't afford that . they get meds everyday the stuff people have trouble buying. They just need to cut out the medical for inmates run it like a prison in mexico no food unless your family brings it

Anonymous said...

Charlie and Grits,

CO's in California are required to pass a extensive pre-employment back round check, including a psychological evaluation, plus complete 16-weeks of training. Your $73K number is for someone with 25 years of service. Not unlike a Texas State Trooper VI who makes $65k+ per year. And ask yourself, how many hour of forced overtime one has to do in order to make $100K per year?

Want to know why CO's in Texas are the dregs of society? Look at their pay scales and benefit package.

R.Mitchell said...

You just did not call My fellow officers the Dregs of society. Let me tell you about the dregs that I work with, I have had a Misunderstood offender attempt to cut my throat and it was one of those officers you just called "Dregs" that came to my assistance and helped me make sure that I went home to my family that night. Who are you to judge the character of all TDCJ employees by a few that are bad.Every state has those people and Texas is no exception. the mere spite that you showed when you called TDCJ employees Dregs shows that you can not percieve what it takes to walk the corridors by yourself with Three hundred of the states worse criminals surrounding you, people you would not want to move into your neighborhood next to your family. I challenge you to meet a true Professional Correctional Officer of Texas speak with them to great length about your concerns and you will hear this.Yes we have problems in TDCJ every system does,Yes we have some dirty bosses, again every system does, No we are not payed very well and are mean mouthed on every corner in the state, we deal with the people that the tax payers say they cant, they broke a law so they must go to jail. once the judges gavel falls that's when Our job begins. The next time you want to mean mouth the "Dregs" walk a third level Tier at the Pulonski unit then see who you call what. I am a low payed,overworked,most melined, and Most Proud to be called a Professional Correctional Officer of Texas. Call my fellow Officers "Dregs" in my presence and I will show you REAL Texas Justice through the gentlemen code.

R. Mitchell