Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Harris County DA Pat Lykos: Revamp state jails

I called Harris County DA Pat Lykos today, seeking answers to four questions that seemed to have been left tantalizingly open after last week's House Corrections Committee hearing: 1) Her view on the proper role of state jails, 2) what she meant by her call to fundamentally overhaul how mental illness is treated in the justice system, 3) a more detailed description of her view of what a "detox center" that's an alternative to jail would look like in practice, and 4) whether "contracts" such as her office uses with juveniles might be effective as a tool for getting intoxicated people into detox center?

To her credit, Lykos said these questions were too big to answer with mere "sound bites" on a phone call, declaring that would be "disrespectful" to the gravity of the topics, and asked permission to craft written response and get them to me "in a week or so." No problem, I said. I'll need blog content then, too! She also asked if there were any other minor questions I'd like her to resolve - perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? :) Admittedly, these are not easy or inconsequential matters, but she's the one who initially raised them!

Lykos did say she would prefer if state jails were merged with probation system along the lines of how the new Intermediate Sanctions Facilities operate for for parole, focusing on treatment, and preparing offenders for reentry. She admires "split sentencing" in federal court where offenders can be required to serve part of the end of their sentence on probation. To me, virtually the same thing could be accomplished through Chairman Jim McReynolds' suggestion that state jails merge with ISFs. Though we'll see when I get back her written responses, what Judge Lykos is advocating doesn't sound that different from McReynolds' inspired suggestion.

On mental health issues in particular, Lykos preferred to elaborate her views in writing. She said her office had recently been visiting with behavioral health specialists, psychiatrists, and ER doctors to develop new approaches. Of particular concern, she said: 1/3 of people who are homeless are unable to take care of themselves - another argument, I thought to myself as she spoke, for investment in "supportive housing" as an alternative to more isolation beds for the mentally ill in the jail.

She thinks there may need to be residential centers for high-risk probationers who don't have stable home environments that provide housing, transportation, a job, and incentives to work their way to lower levels of supervision. At the end of the process, the system would help find them somewhere else to live. They'd leave with a job, some savings, and with any luck a real start on life, said the DA.

I asked about her suggested "detox facilities" which she'd proposed to the House Corrections Committee as alternatives to jail. Lykos thinks "People who are intoxicated are vulnerable" and frequently need to be taken off the street for their own protection and the protection of others. She envisioned a non-jail detox center as a secure location with medical staff who would assess or "triage" people and direct high-risk offenders to services. She also offered the caveat that she hadn't thought through every detail, and promised more in a written response.

Lykos said she considered substance abuse and mental health "public safety issues, public health issues, and a moral imperative that we address these problems." "We always look at these problems [mental illness and substance abuse] and say, 'somebody ought to do something,'" declared Lykos. "Well right now, I'm the somebody."

Lykos regrets that there's little "personal responsibility" taught in prison, in part because of the "regimented environment" where offenders make few meaningful decisions for themselves. Then they get bus ticket and $50, she said, and since nobody's taught them to stand on their own two feet, they inevitably go back to the friends and family they knew before who steer them toward the same bad influences who got them in trouble..

These are mostly paraphrases and if I misstated any of the DA's positions I hope she'll correct me in her promised written responses to Grits' questions. Lykos reiterated how excited she was that the House Corrections Committee appeared to be engaged in fresh thinking on these seemingly intractable topics, and while we don't see eye to eye on every question, her views so far represent a welcome departure from her predecessor's public policy positions.


Anonymous said...

These are all interesting ideas on ways to reform a system that desperately needs new ideas (working in probation I often get the sense that the people making most of the decisions don't live in the real world and think Texas today is the same as it was in 1985). Particularly the residential settings for high-risk probationers made me wonder: although Houston will likely be able to initiate such facilities, what about the rest of the state? Crosspoint in San Antonio faced an angry community when they initially made public their intentions of opening a new facility (the San Antonio City Council approved a zoning change in their favor, but the community is still angry). Several Texas cities have the same attitude as San Antonio: Not in my back yard! It will definitely be interesting to see how this all turns out, but something must be done.

Thomas Hobbes said...

Interesting. I can appreciate Lykos' take on personal responsibility. To the extent that the goal is rehabilitation, our system has not acknowledged the illogic of placing offenders in an artificial environment as a means of helping them learn how society wants them to act and react in a real environment.

Gee . . . I wonder whether focusing on reentry would be a good idea?

Anonymous said...

Prison isn't about rehabilitation in the minds of da's, judges, etc. It's about punishment. And until that basic mindset changes, I just don't see any meaningful reform being possible. It's just easier to succumb to the black and white philosophy of 'they did the crime, now they must do the time', instead of 'why did they do it, and how can we help them change so they won't do it again'. It's also a matter of convenience. Using the existing structure is easier, no messy thinking/feeling involved. Pretty sick, really.

Anonymous said...

Prison isn't about rehabilitation in the minds of the vast majority of the voting public either. Nor is rehabilitation a big priority for victims. Punishment, on the other had, does have a certain rehabilitative component, or at least it can if it's harsh enough.

I'm not entirely sure when and where this "touchy feely" desire to coddle criminals and "better understand" why evil people do evil things first manifested itself. Probably within the last 40 or 50 years with the advent of hippies and "free love." Come to think of it, this silly line of thought parallels the notion that corporal punishment in schools is ineffective--And just look where that notion has gotten us. In any event, it was a sad day in America when the concepts of justice and personal accountability became hijacked by the likes of many posters on this blog.

Mark # 1 said...

Back when "crimes" were for the most part limited to mala in se actions, I could lend credence to the concept that those who commit crimes are "evil" as proposed by our troll. However, that train has long ago left the station, and if anyone here thinks they can go through a day without violating one of the thousands of municipal, state or federal offense now on the books, you are sadly mistaken. With that understanding, it's impossible for a rational human to dehumanize those who are considered criminals and dismiss them as "evil." Thanks for participating, anyway, JB.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:36: As to when the idea arose that prisons were for rehabilitation? Why it was when they were first proposed as "penitentiaries," with the same root as "penance," as propagated by the touchy feely liberals of the Founders day like Benjamin Franklin and William Penn. Your views have more in common with Franco than Franklin.

Anonymous said...

Whether it is the conservative view on the war on drugs that only serves the continued proliferation of the black market, or the liberal view of Government Pretrial Release designed to help the indigent that has turned into criminal welfare for all (but the indigent) and actually assists in their incarceration; the problems that exist today within the criminal justice system are self inflicted.

Ironically the spending sprees of both democrats and republicans have finally caught up to them and their constituents are gathering toward the middle in hopes of finding reason.

The criminal justice system is a huge drain on the economy but for the most part average citizens just assume that their elected officials are doing what’s needed to keep crime off the streets and have given them a pass, they are a lot more concerned now about how they propose to spend money on anything and the criminal justice system falls under the microscope in a much larger way.

The checks and balances must be put back into the system first for things to work. The (double whammy) of spending and creating more bureaucracy and at the same time eliminating valuable income resources has put a stranglehold on finances that could and should be put to use for treatment regardless of success, the idea is to rehabilitate if possible, not to coddle, we can blame the liberals for this ridiculous mess.

The one thing we know for certain is that incarceration has poor results and offers nothing in return to society but crime; we can blame the republicans for their short sightedness, their spending spree for more jail space, and hard line attitudes that scoff at rehabilitation methods.

We need and can get the money back that the liberals have taken out of the system, and then we need to and should spend the money in ways that actually have the ideals of rehabilitation at heart that the republicans have all but ignored as a positive solution.

I have no idea what Pat Lykos has up her sleeve, but I do know that contrary to what others here have said, she is a very smart cookie and I like her politics. She is very well aware that any push toward decriminalization of drug and alcohol abuse in the way of detox centers will lose momentum the very next time someone is killed by someone else who is driving while intoxicated. I’m not saying that is her thinking, I have no clue what her thinking is, but I would imagine her response may take a little longer than she claims.

PAPA said...

The first issue is cleaning up the corrupt guru law enforcers from the Police, Sheriffs, Attorneys, and Judges. Many things that destroy people's lives are in the department of CORRUPTION and one wrong is one too many. Then when the rightfully convicted get to prison, the corrupt guru prison staff needs to get the same punishments as any other criminal for breaking the law, rules, policies, procedures. The same punished needs to be for all law enforcers.For those that RAPE Inmates, automatic LIFE SENTENCE plus Ad.SEG. for rest of their lives without any privileges and all gang members go to Administrative Seg. This will eliminate the destruction of many lives that pass through the criminal system. The majority of the criminal justice system is out of control and it is going to take more than one person to fix the wrongs. Once Inmates are released from prison/detention there needs to be means for food, housing, transportation, work. Without these basic human needs fulfilled no one is going to make it out on the streets begging from corner to corner. Once an Inmate has completed their sentence then that information can no longer be made public knowledge accept for the DPS (need to know only basis). USA has over 16million people that have some type of criminal issues in their lives who are out there trying to get jobs,housing,food, take care of their families without any hope.The next part of the institution that needs to be cleared and cleaned up from the corrupt guru practices of Probation Officers and Parole Officers.These offices operate on a M-F, 8-5, closed all state holiday schedule, well guess what human lives do not have only a M-F, 8-5 program, many times things happens that the person needs help with but there is no one to help which they are left to make a decision and end up in trouble (like a death in the family and need to go out of town no one to give them permission). Then they need a 90 to 120 detox program that includes life skills (that is really taught, not someone just there for a paycheck) Prior Crimes should not play a part of the sentencing phase as the Feds do and some States ...these should be considered closed issues (accept for violent crimes).Yes, DRUG on WAR, was lost many years ago,the jails,detention centers, prisons are just housing the Walking Wounded left over from the DRUG WAR, the battle has been lost, but has left many wounded and dead. Until the USA can stop the massive smuggling of drugs into this country which it appears they are not willing to shut it down, then no one should be going to prison for drugs use when it is being allowed to be brought into this country.The majority of the Alcoholics and Druggies are biopolar, this requires proper medical care not torture, abuse, rape, beaten, left to suffer when medical is needed.This is inhumane,then they are expected to act like humans when they have been treated and less protected than animals.Give them some hope,incentive to create a better life. They need to have positive input not someone cursing them out,calling them names like scumbags,beaten,laughing because they are sick and refusing them medical care,and how hopeless they are as to what current goes on in most facilities.What I have observed and learned the last 25 years dealing with the Walking Wounded.The State Hospitals had a 90 to 120 day detox program that really helped a lot of people, why not put this back in use.The non-vilent criminals should not go to prison instead rehab problems. Flo, PAPA

Thomas Hobbes said...

Gee, thanks Anon 4:46. I was wondering who we should blame for the system we have. Apparently, we should blame everyone.

If I can get you to step down from your soapbox for just a moment, you can join those of us who are facing forward. It's okay to remember clearly how we got to where we are, but blame takes no effort and little real thought. The real heavy lifting is in creating ways to resolve the problems, and there is no room for Ds or Rs, or liberals or conservatives.

The word rehabilitate keeps popping up, but few people bother to note that it refers to restoration of ability or capacity and implies that the subject was habilitated to begin with. Unfortunately, we base our judgments, and our system, on the notion of a "shared" set of values that one reasonably could assume persons who break the law do not share. I think that's why a lot of efforts at punishment and rehabilitation don't work; we're assuming the person we're dealing with is starting from a particular value set . . . and we're wrong. Clearly they are working from a different playbook.

You can take a swipe at the war on drugs, and I'd say your stance has some merit. You can take a swipe at Pretrial Services and I'd tell you you're stumbling; they cannot legally serve only the indigent (for we all deserve the same treatment) and the federal courts have very specifically pointed that out. And only a fool would agree with the position that we should offer treatment, regardless of success. To the contrary, we should explore avenues that offer demonstrated effectiveness and we should develop programs with strong evaluative components that allow us to assess the effectiveness of what we're doing and pull the plug on programs that are ineffective and waste resources.

Grits - Thanks for what you're doing to advance the dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that looking at how we got here holds quite a bit more merit than a passing thought and so therefore let’s continue blindly forward.
And, rather than giving advice to me to stand down from my soapbox, I would also suggest that you try to think outside of the box you’re in.
Treatment, I would think refers to all areas, unfortunately the lack of treatment in all areas is common place within the prison system.
Whether or not the convicted share your privilege in life and so therefore, are, I assume from your statements, flawed to begin with and so therefore are also either incapable of change, or simply not worthy of the effort shows a great deal about how much heavy lifting you are willing to put forth.
If the ideals of rehabilitation are so far from your game plan then I would say your playbook could use a great deal of rearranging.
You seem amenable to the thought that the war on drugs, enormous in its expense, and incredibly failed in its implementation (might) deserve some kind of re-evaluation. The only difference that I see in regulation and criminalization is a black market enterprise that thrives on one and withers away when the other is applied, not much difference with the possible exception of putting an immediate end to the practice of filling 50 percent of our prisons with non-violent offenders. The arguments that make claim to the violence and theft that also surrounds drug abuse exist because of the money that changes hands and the fact that unregulated drugs flow freely through our society. I would much rather have a drug emporium placed next to Joes Bar and Grill, at least I know where they can be found. The crime then becomes the same as those associated with the legal consumption of alcohol.
As for your thoughts that pretrial release should be afforded to all, again I must take exception and ask why would you put taxpayers to the task of doing (all) the heavy lifting. Since when did taking responsibility for one’s own actions, (an incredibly useful tool and a wonderful form of good ol fashion rehabilitation, especially when mom and dad must come to the rescue with their checkbook), become a bad thing. Here’s a news flash, people are not going to sit in jail if they can get out, and they will do so at no cost whatsoever to the taxpayer. And long before the indigent ever see the outside world again, I would suggest that after a couple of days in jail we lower their bail to see if we can meet their standards and see if anyone wants to hock their rims or their fantastic stereo with incredibly earth shaking bass, or their 52” TV. Then after all efforts have been made to accommodate their secured release, if someone is still in jail after the third or forth bond reduction hearing, let the judge do their own investigation to find out if they feel comfortable releasing the defendant based on prior performance and culpability.
As it is the cost to arrest someone charged with something as simple as a class c misdemeanor, book them into the Harris County Jail, take them before a 24 hour magistrate along with all the other county employees needed to do everything from preparing the paperwork to sweeping up each night is nothing but a cost, these defendants who at one time readily posted a bond, then appeared in court and then paid into the criminal justice system no longer pay a dime, they are released for time served, all in the name of reducing jail overcrowding, and the coup de grace, it takes them hours longer to be released this way!
So yeah, I pretty much disagree with everything you claim to be prepared to do with all your heavy lifting and blaze new trails to demonstrative effectiveness. I just hope the rest of the taxpayers don’t fall for your okeydoke and write the check for your research.

Anonymous said...

Is it more cost effective to rehabilitate 20% more of the people in prison so they never go back, or lock that 20% up over and over again? It's just simple mathematics, really. If you look at it from a money perspective, it's just cheaper to re-educate everyone you can so they don't come back time and time again. Not to mention it's the morally correct thing to do. Sadly, the IQ of the mob is the same as the IQ of the mob's dumbest person, divided by the number of mobsters, and I have met some truly ignorant people. So I reckon we're going to be stuck with this backassward dinosaur for years to come.