Sunday, March 28, 2010

Texas "more liberal" than Massachusetts?

By one measure, Massachussetts criminal justice columnist James Alan Fox thinks Texas is more "liberal" than the home of Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis:

What a shocker! And for Massachusetts liberals like me who are proud of our state's tradition of social progressiveness, what an embarrassment! When it comes to punishing juveniles, Texas is apparently more enlightened than Massachusetts--Austin more liberal than Boston.

In case you missed it--and I admit that I did as well--the Lone Star State legislature voted last year to abolish life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles. Actually, the legislation passed with little attention, as Texas had rarely sentenced juvenile offenders in this way. Prior to the change in criminal code, only four Texas inmates were serving LWOP for offenses committed while under age 18.

If it's any consolation to folks from Massachussetts, we're kind of embarrassed by y'all, too. And I'll go Mr. Fox one better on his lamentations about losing the mantle of social progressivism on juvenile justice: Texas is in the process of depopulating our juvenile prisons: Under Governor Perry, the Texas Youth Commission reduced its inmate population by more than half in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that broke in 2007; even more impressive, releasing the majority of Texas' youth inmates had no observable effect on juvenile crime rates. The state will close two juvie prison units in August.

Further, Texas has expanded investments in treatment and community corrections options for juveniles in recent years, created abuse hotlines at state and county lockups, and expanded investigative staff to handle abuse reports.

And it hasn't only been juvenile justice which witnessed reform. On drug policy under Rick Perry's watch, Texas increased its number of drug courts from 7 to 74, most of them with startup funds from the Governor's office. The state passed landmark legislation mandating probation instead of incarceration on the first offense for low-level drug crimes (less than a gram cases). He signed off on major investments in diversion programs that eliminated the need to build 17,000 new prison beds by 2012. And Perry shut down Texas' network of drug task forces after a series of high-profile scandals beginning with the Tulia debacle, eliminating jobs for hundreds of narcotics officers.

Can any Massachusetts pol say as much?

Does all that make Texas more "liberal" than Massachussetts? Not by a longshot. There are strong fiscal and social conservative arguments to be made for each of those positions. What's more, Governor Perry has vetoed a great deal of additional reform legislation that actually casts him on the obstructionist end of the spectrum compared to the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature. Despite the record described above, there's not much that's "liberal" about Texas' incumbent governor.

Years ago I quit applying such strict ideological labels on criminal justice politics. Excepting a handful of hot-button culture war issues, in practice, ideological predilections by both liberals and conservatives usually cut both directions. There are small government conservatives who promote scaling back incarceration and big government liberals who insist there's no social problem which criminal enforcement can't resolve. The whole "left-right" continuum hardly applies on these questions - people's real-world views simply don't conform to those artificial constructions on criminal justice politics.

What we've witnessed for most of my adult lifetime in Texas is a bipartisan "tuff on crime" consensus that both liberals and conservatives could support for different reasons. That's changing now to a certain extent, driven in equal parts by reactions to scandals and immediate budget needs. And if it makes folks in Massachusetts feel inferior, that's yet another good argument for continuing down a reformist path.


Mike Howard said...

I agree that abolishing LWOP for juveniles is a good development, but I think there will be an unfortunate side effect. From my time in the system, it seems that juveniles who have committed a crime serious enough to be sentenced to the old LWOP instead get certified to be tried as adults. Then they can get hit with LWOP. IMHO certifying a juvenile as an adult is too easy.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I suspect that might not be a big factor, Mike, though there may be some cases where that happens. They replaced juvie LWOP in capital cases with a 40-year mandatory minimum. That's still a pretty stiff sentence for somebody under 17.

I've heard other lawyers say the same thing about how easy it is to get adult certifications, but you mostly hear the issue raised as a Harris County problem.

Anonymous said...

Well said Grits.


Anonymous said...

Some Texans worship the Massachusetts liberal orthodoxy.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Really, 12:52? I don't believe I've ever met one.

Anonymous said...

Try Austin and the Democrat party.

Unknown said...

50 years in Mass,12 years in Texas.(got here as soon as I could).Please don't let Texas become Liberal.Where will I go than.Yes Austin is polluted with liberals,seen the nasty ones in action during the 08 election.Unfortionatly Juvies commit most all of the crime in America.Bring the draft back.or lock them up.