Thursday, July 07, 2011

'The GOP's Born-Again Prison Reformers'

At the Daily Beast, Eve Conant writes of "The GOP's Born-Again Prison Reformers," and as has become common in stories such as these, Texas plays a prominent role. Here's a notable excerpt:
Just don’t say they’ve gone soft. With $52 billion a year spent on state corrections, prison costs have become the fastest growing budget category behind Medicaid. According to the Pew Center on the States, one in 31 Americans is somehow under the thumb of the criminal justice system. One in eight state workers and seven percent of most state general funds are dedicated to running prisons. With just about every state facing budget woes, prison reform–once untouchable—is hot, with the GOP uniquely positioned for the fight. “The Democrats are still afraid of a Willie Horton moment,” says Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform. “Everyone’s been terrified of being the person to legalize crack.” For reform to succeed politically, he says, it needs to be led by Republicans—“the Nixon in China phenomenon.”

It’s also a Texas phenomenon. The Lone Star State has adopted some of the most sweeping reforms of all, with its incarceration rate falling 9.2 percent and its serious crime rate down more than 10 percent between 2004-2008, according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Parole revocations are down 25 percent, and Texas is now seeing its lowest crime rate since 1973. If a rough-and-tumble cowboy state like Texas can pull it off, say reformers, others can as well.

Texas’s reforms didn’t come fast or easy. “I know what it feels like to beg for my life,” says state Senator John Whitmire, a conservative Democrat who in 1992 was robbed at gunpoint in his garage along with his wife and then 9-year-old daughter. He was the author of Texas’s famously tough penal code, which helped double the state’s prison population between 1993 and 2007. But he began to realize the system—his system—was broken. His grim personal experience gave him the bona fides not to look soft on crime. But in the effort to roll back his own policies he was missing a key ingredient: a Republican.  Enter state Rep. Jerry Madden, a conservative and an engineer by training. He looked at the over-packed prisons as he would a pipe about to burst. “There seemed to be two answers to this from an engineering standpoint,” says Madden. “Let ’em out the door faster, or slow ’em down coming in.” Texas culture, he explains, “doesn’t allow us to let ’em go” so he, along with Whitmire, chose the latter path.
The story also includes an appeal to conservative moral values supporting de-incarceration as well as my favorite example of over-criinalization - the wide ranging number of oyster related crimes. :)
Many conservatives balk at the notion that fixing prisons is all about the bottom line.  “This is a moral issue,” says Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, which ministers to prisoners using God, as explained on its website, “to overcome evil with good.” He describes watching conservatives like Norquist and Keene testify against mandatory minimums or for last year’s Fair Sentencing Act, which corrected harsh disparities in penalties between crack and powder cocaine, as “electrifying.” “It emboldened Republicans who were concerned about speaking out that they wouldn’t be alone.”
Keeping non-violent offenders out of prisons serves of other conservative interests: keeping families together (the more than 2 million Americans are currently in prison don’t pay child support or income tax payments, and mothers are increasingly incarcerated), getting more assets back to victims (prisoners pay almost nothing compared to those on probation), and keeping the streets safe by preventing non-violent offenders from hardening into real criminals while in prison. There are the Christian principles of forgiveness and redemption, and—of course—limiting government overreach (there are more than 4,000 federal criminal laws currently on the books) and what Norquist calls “creeping centralization.” Marc Levin, of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, likes to say “there are 11 felonies in Texas just related to oysters. A woman in Texas was arrested for an overdue library book. We like arresting people but it’s getting kind of expensive.”
Not much new here for Grits readers, of course, but it's fun to watch these memes reaching the national stage.


Hook Em Horns said...

Ditto's Grits! (I just choked LOL)

Prison Doc said...

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step". We have a long way to go but I believe the FISCAL reasons for reform may play better in our state than other reasons....folks might come to see that locking people up isn't so much fun when the bills have to be paid.

Anonymous said...

Grits, I have a son in TYC/TJJD whatever. Every week I add between 15-20 dollars to his phone account to keep daily communication. Some weeks it is stressfull for the fact I also travel every weekend for visits. Today as usual I called Consolidated Telecom to add money to our phone account to be told there is now a 6.95 charge to already add money over the phone to a 3.95 charge to use there web accounts.I'm still feeling the Wow factor of this. There is just so many wrongs to this. (Family involvment) They close three facilitys of youth to move them farther from home. Just to trump up the charges for phone communication. But we won't more family to get involved yeah right. Then they wont to take state taxes out of our pay, to charge us 25 cents a minute 2.50 a call. To now if you can only afford 5 dollars 2 calls for the week you need to come up with 3.95 are 6.95. What it comes down to the Parents of the youth are paying for mismanaged funds.If I'm wrong about this and where the funds are going will welcome any imput. But if I'm right I don't feel I should have to pay by less communication with my son. Are I should be cleaning up anyone else's finanial mess.

Lee said...

When one looks at Texas politicians it is difficult to tell if poiticians spend money or if the money is spending them.

Consider all of those exonerated of felony rape andmurder convictions. The state has to pay for the costs of arrest, prosecution (attorneys fees are not cheap), costs of incarceration (which for one person for one day is about $70.00) and then the money for compensation (a puny $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration is pittance for a year of hell). Add all that up and you can see that the Texas cowboy tuff on crime approach is a complete failure.

ABC 13 Houston aired a story last night where because of budget problems Spring ISD is being forced to raise homeowner taxes. Imagine for a moment what a school district could do with just a fraction of that money already wasted by the State of Texas.

It is of relief to me that I was born in Lake Charles so can proudly say that I an NOT from Texas.

Anonymous said...

Very good Piece!

The general assumption regarding expansion of the criminal justice system is that corrections expansion is born out of crime rate necessity. In actuality, some of the same folks demanding a reduction in cost of prisons simultaneously promote bills that make corrections a private market place. Private service companies in turn lobby to expand corrections in order to drive their profits up. So in essence, the larger prisons and corrections grow, the more these private companies stand to gain. DO YOU HONESTLY THINK THEY WANT TO SEE CRIME AND PRISON POPULATION DECREASE?

Anonymous said...

Willie Horton, Kenneth McDuff, etc.. We've been through this revolving door system in the name of "budget concerns" before. We'll go through it again. The difference is that these Republican Legislators have to run for re-election in the Republican Primary. "Fiscal responsibility" has a really nice ring to it--for the time being. But the first time so "poster boy" for Madden's reforms rapes and murders a six year old child, or becomes a serial killer, or commits a mass murder; you know the media will jump all over it. There will be a tremendous public hue and cry over why the suspect was not in prison. There will be Republican Primary challengers who will get a ton of mileage over the tragedy in campaign ads; and the pendelum will swing back. We've seen this movie before, haven't we, Grits?

BarkGrowlBite said...

Just a couple of points, Grits old buddy.

First, all those rosy statistics about a lower crime rate and fewer parole violations cannot be taken too seriously.

There have been several New York Times articles about police agencies all over the country manipulating crime stats to make themselves look good. Houston PD even classified some murders as 'suicide" where the victim had been shot numerous times.

As for those reduced parole violations, I can speak as a former California state parole agent and as a retired professor of criminal justice. Nationwide between 40 and 50 percent of parolees were busted for committing new crimes within three or four years of their release. If there are fewer returns for parole violations it is because parole officers are under pressure to keep from returning parolees to prison. Thus they remain on t he street until they get caught for committing a new crime.

In order to empty California's prisons, dangerous inmates have been reclassified as non-serious and released to 'non-revocable' parole. Every day you can read where these parolees are being arrested for murders, aggravated assaults, armed robberies and other serious felonies.

Unfortunately money, or the lack of it, trumps common sense. But in the end the cost of releasing deliberately misclassifed inmates and non-revocable paroles may well exceed the cost of keeping them in prison or returning them for parole violations.

Prison Doc said...

On this site I think most of us are just talking along the lines of decriminalizing pot and other minor possession crimes, making treatment available for real druggies, using ignition interlocks for longer periods of time for non-injury DWIs, etc.

I could have the wrong impression but I don't think most Grits readers want to release violent offenders to community supervision alone.

Anonymous said...


Think that the push in Texas is to 1.) make sure to incarcertate the dangerous hardened criminals
2) Quit incarcerting so many low level, low risk offenders without trying cheaper alternative first
3) put pressure on sheriffs, counties, and state to quit filling up the jails due to bad policy rather than based on need.

Look at all the articles in the last few years where sheriff's have gone on record saying " I ain't lettn' no one out the jail, I don't care if it's for not wearing a seatbelt..." These kinds of policy are not to get tough on crime but to get rich off crime at the taxpayers expense. The more people we can incarcerate, the more private medical $$, the more private commissary $$, the more private construction $$, the more private service $$ to be dolled out.

Hook Em Horns said...

BarkBiteGrowl, surely you are not suggesting law enforcement would LIE to make themselves look good...or maybe get a cheesy conviction?

Anonymous said...

There is a great artice that everyone should read before considering any proposed reforms of the corrections system.

Go to

JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE and read the article "GAMING THE SYSTEM: How the political stratagies of private prison companies promote innefective incarceration policies.

BarkGrowlBite said...

Hook Em Horns

And the assholes that you defend as their lawyer would never commit the crimes they are accused of. Yeah right.

PirateFriedman said...

It is an interesting question, what is the cost of incarceration vs. cost of crime? Since there is no way to calculate it, we should err on the side of freedom and support the release of 75% of all inmates on this reasoning alone.

Anonymous said...

Lee from Lake Charles: You are so funny! Where have you been for the last 50 years? Louisiana's criminal justice system has been so incredibly backward and corrupt. I remember the juvenile system being under federal control a few years back. I am glad you are not from Texas too. We have problems, but Lordee, nothing compared to yours. Not even close!

sunray's wench said...

BarkGrowlBite "dangerous hardened criminals"

So your definition of that would be? Is it the criminal that's dangerous, or the crime an inmate is convicted of?

PAPA said...

How about sending the numerous illegal aliens back to their own countries removing them off the Texas Citizens Payroll, that will cut cost quickly, just document them at the border, send them back over.No one mentioned that Chair of the Texas Board of Crimnal Justice,Rissie Owens, was appointed to another term by Perry and she said in the News media she does not believe in what is the problem in TDCJ?The Private Prison organizations require a contract which requires so many Inmates to be held in their units per year, don't make the quota, they close the door and towns like Levelland TX are left paying the cost which to them is $65,000 per month for the loan to build the prison and the private prison company walked due to lack of Inmates.Then no one mentions the fact that all these low level, non violent, Inmates now have a prison record, they can't hardly find a job if at all, they can't rent a place to live so are on the streets if they don't have friends or relatives to live with,so they end up committing crimes due to the background checks that go on.These low level released Inmates if they didn't have a felony charge would be working, most of them, paying payroll taxes, sales taxes, buying house paying property taxes, gasoline taxes, the taxes charged on things like utilities, etc...what boost to an economy if you suddenly put a couple of million back on the streets working and paying into their communities, government, getting their families off welfare and on and on it goes.I think there must be signs in the Legislators parking spaces that say, Reserved-Park your Brain here...there is a problem with the thinking process, the reality check of what is happening here.Reform or out the Door

Anonymous said...

Three Cheers for PAPA. If Madden and Whitmire are showing good sense,which I doubt. Parole those who are elgible and when they finish their term through the "parole system?" remove the felony from their records. Give them a chance.

If you had not been given a second chance by out Lord, you would not be free to make the same mistakes you make every session.

This story especially from Madden is going around for at least the third session now. If you are going to do something, make that something be for the good and not just make yourself more electable.

PAPA said...

Way to go anonymous, they need some strong slam dunks to wake them up as to the destruction of human beings happening behind the razor wire fences in Texas that does nothing but create Harden Criminals. Time for Reform and not what has been attempted before. Come up with some new changes that make a difference, do some creative thinking instead of the same ole same ole. TEXAS need some fresh young thinking blood sitting in those seats in legislation sessions that have some new creative ideas with a progressive nerve to put them in to try them. Isn't there something in THE CONSTITUTION of The UNITED STATES of AMERICA, Bills of Rights, Amendments that speaks of double jeopardy...isn't this what is going on when a person has to continue to pay and repay for a debt that has been paid to society, isn't that what background checks are about, can't get a job, can't rent a place to live and all the other restrictions happening to Felons.The same type of thing as to the GOOD TIME earned while in prison, isn't that a joke, have to end up serving your full time, give what you earned by being good back to the STATE then come out to finish serving your sentence on Parole. What is that? Oh, I forget, it is about dollars because parole is a BIG DOLLARS making deal in Texas."WE THE PEOPLE" demand change and how do we get that? VOTE for changing in the guards more less to say.

Anonymous said...

How can someone be the chair person of the Parole Board and not believe in Parole? She got that job by being a croney. I think the good people of the ENTIRE country will soon see this junk under ole Perry boy and she will be just one of many embarrassments if her decides to run for President. I will make sure I write all the major media outlets just encase.

Anonymous said...

I hope these "smart on crime" types are watching tonight's special on the Jaycee Dugard case and the failures of the parole system as to Philip Garrido.

Anonymous said...

9:32 PM. must be past your bedtime, you are talking out of your head.

No one said there are not evil people in the world, there are. But not everyone in prison deserves to be there. MJ should be legalized like alcohol and tobacco. These can be bought with identification OTC and MJ should be the same. Don't send everyone to prison who only has enough MJ for their personal use. Don't condemn everyone; the man and his wife who kidnaped Jessica Dugard were caught and will spend the majority of the rest of their lives in prison. They deserve this!!

Anonymous said...


how interesting you bring up something so totally off the path of conversation. Sure, Attorneys defend guilty people all day long. That is their job. And they are tasked to ensure that the 'justice' system give their client the proper fair trial that all deserve.

The offensive part of your comment though, is that you state elude that attorneys are part of the problem due to their work for defendants. What is your take on the 23 innocent people that have been released after DNA evidence alone? How many of your former parolee's might have been in this same boat, as you called them assholes when you were watching over them?

When Dugard's parole officers were letting him skate, did they have the same attitude as you? One can only wonder. Your biggest issue is that you look at an entire canvass, and see shit stains. Instead of noticing that there are some red/blue/white in there.

Attorneys represent murderers, rapists, DWI defendants, jaywalkers, 1 toke smokers, felony level drug dealers.. so all are assholes? If that is your ideal, then I must suggest you are well entrenched as part of the problem and definitely outside of solution status.