Sunday, July 11, 2010

Media discussion on eliminating state jails lacks nuance

Coupla more stories on the possibility of revamping state jails to become more like intermediate sanctions facilities for probationers instead of little min-prisons:
The second piece is an unsigned staff editorial from the Statesman that somewhat confusedly advocates against something no one has suggested. It's fine to review state jails for ways to improve them, they say, but "We can't, however, imagine that any such review would show cause to shut [state jails] down." Though it's unstated, the editorial seems to be expressing a vague fear that perhaps the Travis State Jail could be closed, arguing for nothing specific except to say that state jails shouldn't be "scrapped."

Probably the reason they can't imagine that outcome, of course, is that no one has suggested such a thing. Instead the idea expressed was to re-purpose the facilities - or rather, return them to their original purpose - as sanctions against misbehaving probationers instead of strictly focused on punishment with no support or supervision during reentry.

What might be usefully eliminated (and what was actually being discussed at the Corrections Committee hearing in Houston) is the "state jail felony": The offense category created in 1993 that's Texas' equivalent of a 4th degree felony. Its original purpose - to create an offense category with less stigma and more opportunities to prevent future criminality - was long ago lost to "tuff on crime" demagoguery. Today they're just little mini-prisons with shorter sentences where time is served day for day without the possibility of parole or supervision after release.

If state jail felonies were eliminated as an offense category, some offenses might be lowered to Class A misdemeanors - most obviously penny ante drug possession offenses - and others would just be re-labeled third-degree felonies, with penalties of 2-10 years. (Perhaps while they're performing such reclassifications, theft categories could finally be adjusted for inflation. Thresholds for state jail felony theft were set at $1,500 in 1993, but adjusted for inflation, $1,500 today is the equivalent of $1,027 at the time the statute was written.)

I don't know whether eliminating that offense category is a good idea or not, but discussing it has merit. It might be the shortest distance to adjusting petty drug possession penalties, removing the stigma of the "felon" label for people whose only crimes relate to small-time drug possession. That would also reduce mounting pressure on state-jail populations, possibly allowing closure of the Dawson State Jail facility in Dallas to make way for a city-backed development (which is about as close as anybody's come to calling for closing state jails per se).

On the flip side, such a change would also adjust penalties upward for certain petty offenders and at a minimum, as Sen. Whitmire points out, ensure they're housed with more serious criminals. What's more, making sure those penalties don't become excessive would require relying on the parole board, which has a track record of failing to follow release guidelines for TDCJs lowest risk prisoners. So the devil, as they say, is in the details. There are pros and cons to both approaches, but the debate would be assisted more by careful analysis in the media than vague expressions of fear.

UPDATE: From the SA Express-News editorial board, see "Time to revise the state jail system."


Anonymous said...

The phrase "penny ante drug possession offenses" needs to be examined. It is one thing if a person, for the first time, is caught with a small amount of drugs.

It's another thing if someone is a repeat offender who is so blatant with drug selling that he continues to get caught. If this blatant repeat violator happens to be running low on drugs one day and is caught with a small amount then it would be foolish to assume that he is a "penny ante" offender.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Okay, let's examine that phrase. State jail felons with drug convictions have been convicted of possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance - less than the amount in a sweet n low packet. If these folks were so "blatant with drug selling" they'd probably have been caught with more than a fraction of a gram, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

You're right 10:29. He's not an penny ante offender 10:29, more like a nickle and dime street dealer which is what is prevalent on the street. There ain't no "Miami Vice" episodes at this level.

Anonymous said...

The RAND Corporation

High-powered marijuana that now costs $300 an ounce could drop in price by as much as 80 percent if Californians legalize recreational use by passing Prop. 19 in November, meaning Golden Staters could purchase the recreational drug for as little as $1.50 per joint.

That finding by the RAND Corporation, a California think-tank, is likely to perk up the ears of some 15 million Americans estimated to be regular marijuana users, 13 percent of whom live in California.

This would lead to a spike in consumption.

Anonymous said...

State jail is pretty rough in and of itself, the cons I've talked to who've been there say it's like being in the pen with fewer perks and no hope or reason to behave. I always thought that state jail felonies were stupid, because it was always pretty apparent that the system wouldn't be used the way it was meant to be used. But if they're shut down, I guarantee you it will be because crimes are enhanced to enable judges to send petty crims to the big house, not treatment. Texas judges simply don't believe in treatment instead of jail.