Sunday, March 20, 2011

Roundup: Assorted facts and heresies

Here are a few disparate items that merit Grits readers attention before I turn mine for the day to college hoops:

Constable pursues truancy make-work to justify staff increase
Usually it's a mistake when the criminal-justice system seeks to solve social problems unrelated to traditional "crime," and that certainly applies to using constables to enforce truancy laws instead of investing in schools until the product they offer is valuable enough to students to make them want to go. Here in Austin, a local constable wants to hire four full-time deputies to enforce truancy laws. This is make-work and another example why I'd prefer constables were simply eliminated or radically scaled back instead of giving them leeway to seek out new missions to justify their anachronistic existence. State Sen. John Whitmire is right that ticketing under criminal laws will never be a true solution for what ails Texas' school system.

DWI supervision on a budget more difficult in age of media hype
The death of a police officer killed by a drunk driver in San Antonio has spawned absurdist commentary in the Alamo City that somehow Texas doesn't "take DWI seriously," when really the situation bemoaned may be attributed to the shortcomings of two decades of unrealistic, media-driven git-tuff efforts that prioritized rhetoric over reality. The driver was already on probation with an ignition interlock mandated for his motorcycle, but he was driving another vehicle he owned. The fact is, so-called "technocorrections" like ignition interlocks or GPS monitoring are not cure-alls. They require substantial investment in human resources to monitor the data generated by the electronics, and cuts to investments in supervision - e.g., proposed elimination of state funding for misdemeanor probation - exacerbate that already serious shortcoming. It doesn't make sense, for example, to expand ignition interlocks to first-time offenders when cases like this one show local departments can't effectively supervise those with interlocks now. Talk is cheap, but rhetoric doesn't pay to supervise high-risk probationers. For that you need probation officers with manageable caseloads. Meanwhile, such rhetorical broadsides fail to address the biggest problem with DWI enforcement in Texas: Declining conviction rates attributable to the so-called Driver Responsibility surcharge. We're arresting more people than ever for DWI, but securing fewer convictions. The House Public Safety Committee has a chance next week to address that problem when it considers legislation by Rep. Leo Berman to abolish the surcharge, but unraveling that public policy mess isn't nearly as sexy, it seems, as shaking one's fist at the devil over the most recent tragedy of the day.

Fewer than 300 graff convictions statewide in 2010
How many graffiti crimes do you suspect are committed in Texas each year? Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, right? Most of it is never reported to police as a crime, just cleaned up by property owners (or not). But Texas cities spend millions collectively cleaning graffiti at thousands of sites across the state. So how many people do you suppose are convicted of graffiti crimes each year? The answer comes from the Criminal Justice Impact Statement for a recent graffiti enhancement bill (discussed in this Grits post): "In fiscal year 2010, 212 offenders were placed on misdemeanor community supervision, 56 offenders were placed on felony community supervision, and 21 offenders were admitted to prison or state jail." So that's 289 people total convicted and sentenced for graffiti crimes in FY 2010 statewide! And most of them received probation. Two recurring themes on this blog are that criminal penalties can't solve every social problem and that criminal penalty enhancements have little effect on crimes with low clearance rates. Both observations apply in spades to graffiti crimes.

A brief (passing) moment of economic realism on closing the border
People who say the want to "close" or "shut down" the border over immigration, drug smuggling, etc., simply have no clue about the interconnectedness of Texas border economies with Mexico or the astonishing volume of goods and people that travel each direction through the checkpoints. This story from the El Paso Times provides a glimpse of that hidden but critical relationship which a) is growing at a vast rate and b) benefits the United States at least as much as our southern neighbor. The more ideologically driven and detached from business interests calls for immigration enforcement grow, the more explicit this tension will become, but do not doubt that Texas' economy will be harmed if the search for solutions to black markets cause our legal markets to become less competitive or generate fewer jobs. You could never hire enough Border Patrol agents to make up for the economic and employment growth along Texas' southern border over the last decade. Bottom line: One may become frustrated with a goose laying golden eggs, but that won't make it wise to cook it for supper.

Prisoners can pay more if allowed to earn
Here in Texas, legislators have proposed increased prisoner copays for healthcare. In Ohio, the Governor wants prisoners to pay part of their electricity bill. But in Canada, I learned, prisoners are paid minimal wages and charged part of their rent if the take exceeds a certain amount during a pay period. Prisoners in Canada are paid as an "incentive to invite them to actively take part in their rehabilitation." In Canada, prisoners "generally make, before deductions, $35 to $40, every two weeks and that’s for 12 hours a day, generally six days a week," and their advocates are pushing for their first raise in 25 years. Ten percent of their earnings is put in a savings account, but the amounts aren't large enough to be significant upon reentry. The Canadian example struck me as interesting because, whenever prisoner pays ideas are proposed as in Texas and Ohio, I often think they're either trying to get blood from a stone or will wind up mulcting families instead of the person who committed the crime. But if prisoners can earn, it's less problematic to require them to pay. Henry Ford wanted to pay his employees enough where they could buy one of his cars from him, and similarly if states want inmates to help solve their budget crises, it might behoove them to allow inmates to earn more money so they can pay more of the freight.

Army rocked by crime lab scandal
Read about another ugly crime lab scandal, this time from the military courts.

Jury out on effectiveness of faith based prisons
A comprehensive meta-analysis of research regarding the benefits from faith based prisons found, unsurprisingly if unhelpfully, that "based on current research, there’s no strong reason to believe that faith-based prisons work. However, there’s also no strong reason to believe that they don’t work." The author concludes "with thoughts on how faith-based prison programs might be improved, and ... a strategy that would allow such experimentation to proceed consistent with the Constitution." Via Sentencing Law & Policy.


Anonymous said...

Grits said "State Sen. John Whitmire is right that ticketing under criminal laws will never be a true solution for what ails Texas' school system."

Just what ails the system senator?

Whitmire's right on this point but he offers no reasonable solutions. How can he say schools, law enforcement and the courts need to be part of finding the solution when ultimately it begins in the home?

Whitmire said "If ticketing is not outlawed altogether in Texas schools, at a very minimum the Texas Penal Code should be amended this Session to eliminate Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as Class C misdemeanors."

It's not in the penal code, it's in the education code. Who writes these codes? The Legislature. Is Whitmire in the Legislature? Yes.

Yes the same education code written by the Legislature that has local ISD's so rule bound that they are choking.

Mr. Whitmire...if you don't want the police writing tickets at schools, change the law that the Legislature imposed. And while your at it, just consider getting out of education period.

Anonymous said...

Faith-based punishment? Are you kidding? Message: Believe, or I'll kick your ass again!!!

Anonymous said...

In the 50', 60's and 70's, being sent to the principal's office was nothing compared to the fate awaiting us at home.
Basically, we were in fear of lives but not from gangs and drive-by shootings. Our parents and grandparents were a much bigger threat! But we all survived because their love was greater than the threat!

Who screwed all that up?

Anonymous said...

Faith based programs work because of the "self selection" process. It is called "free will" and it is the first component in changed criminal thinking.

The fellow who wrote this paper would have the reader believe that "selecting self" in some way negates the success of faith based initiatives. In fact it proves up the the 'ol Texas penitentiary truth of... "hope is often born out of a dark place, and with Jesus Christ a complete life transformation takes place."

All one has to do is "self select" say "yes" to the One who has defeated recidivism

Jim Stott said...

Supervision of DWI Offenders will dramatically decrease if state funding dries up. I can only imagine that most counties are in no financial position to take on the added task of funding those caseloads. Education and treatment programs for those offenders will also decline. In many counties, misdemeanor offenders will be placed on a mail in reporting schedule or a very minimum level of supervision. I can't see anything good coming out of that. Until the state can find a way to financially support misdemeanor offenders, not to mention the wish lists coming out of the woodwork this session, like ignition interlock on all DWI Offenders, unfunded mandates like this should be put on hold.

Anonymous said...

"In fact it proves up the the 'ol Texas penitentiary truth of... "hope is often born out of a dark place, and with Jesus Christ a complete life transformation takes place.""

I always felt that after Jesus ascended into Heaven he decided to go to prison. Everyone seems to find him there! However, I'm not so sure that Jesus has much to do with "life transformations" in prison.

Why God Is Often Found Behind Bars:
Prison Conversions and the Crisis
of Self-Narrative

austex1151 said...

On inmate pay: When I worked in the federal prison system, inmates could earn money in the industries of the prison- enough to help with personal necessities and sometimes to send a little back home (esp for the Mexican inmates). The alternative is the barter system in Tx prisons, with all the seamy underbelly that goes with it.

As for "faith based" prisons, face it- this is Christian based, and the brand of Christianity is far right. We used to call this "law and order Christianity". It seemed to become very attractive just about the time a guy approached parole eligibility. Waste of time and resources!

As to making misbehavior of kids from time immemorial into crimes...Yes, who is at fault? We must return to an insistence upon basic standards of behavior in schools and find ways to make missing in action parents get involved and handle their business. A child so unable to manage his behavior as to commit an assault in class, is not ready for school. But he/she learned that behavior somewhere.

A Texas PO said...

On the DWI issue, I have heard many misdemeanor prosecutors mention that they made a deal to reduce the DWI down to Reckless Driving or Obstruction of Heighway due to lack of evidence (Really? Obstructing a highway? By driving drunk? Really?). My concern is that there was enough evidence to indict the case, so where did that evidence go? As a PO, sometimes the DWI cases are the toughest to crack. Unlike the drug addicts, it is often difficult for an alcoholic or someone with majoy alcohol abuse issues to see that a problem exists, particularly since they can leave the CSCD and go straight to a bar or liquor store and legally obtain an alcoholic beverage (legally, although in violation of a court order). I, for one, am pissed that the police officer in San Antonio died because a probationer decided to drive drunk (allegedly) the wrong way down the interstate without headlights. But you are right: an unmanageable caseload may have played a role in this incident since the probation officer only knew of the motorcycle with the interlock, not about this other vehicle. I would hate for us to move towards a New York-style law that requires first-time DWI offenders to install interlock devices on every vehicle in the household (how embarassing for the family members), but unless funding is appropriated to adequately supervise these folks, we're going to see more of the same. As a PO, I love the technology that assists me in doing my job, but you're right: it's not a permanent fix.