Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Bizarre commentary from parole board chief on medical parole

Photo by Jaime Carrero, Tyler Morning Telegraph
In the Tyler Morning Telegraph today there's a pretty-much workaday story about healthcare costs in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that covers familiar ground for Grits readers. State Sen. John Whitmire is quoted decrying how much it costs to keep elderly inmates locked up and provide them constitutional levels of healthcare. And in the traditional "quote both sides" fashion of modern journalism (as though there are only two), the senator's comments are paired with Rusk County DA Michael Jimerson who told the paper, "What Whitmire should do is go to Washington and do something to change the laws so inmates don't get Cadillac health care." Jimerson "said costs shouldn't matter because the offenders are paying the price for their crimes." Same ol', same old. Money's always no object when you're spending the taxpayers' dime.

The data in the story on high geriatric health costs won't surprise Grits readers any more than the back-and-forth debate between prosecutors and budget-writers: "Records from the 2009-10 Correctional Managed Health Care report to the Texas Legislation showed offenders 55 and older averaged $4,853 in yearly medical costs, while the average for those below that age was $795." These are facts and debates most Grits readers have heard before and most of the data was accurate and well-presented, if not exactly "news." (More like "olds" - these are longstanding controversies.)

What caught my eye, though, were bizarre representations from parole board chair Rissie Owens that simply can't be justified:
Rissie Owens, presiding officer of Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, said there long has been a misconception that offenders are entering the Texas prison system young and staying until they are old. In reality, many enter prison late in life to begin serving their sentences for crimes they committed late in life, Ms. Owens said. 
"Forty-five percent of all prison and state jail inmates received have been 55 and older at the time they entered prison to serve their sentences," she said. "It also appears that these older inmates are serving sentences for violent offenses as almost 6 percent of those 55 and older have sentences for crimes ranging from homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, robbery and assault/terroristic threats." 
Ms. Owens said numerous factors are reviewed during parole decisions. 
"Age is one factor, but we do not just focus on the age of each offender," she said. "The numbers indicate that there have been more offenders received at TDCJ in the age group 55 to 60 than any other age group at the time of prison entry."
I don't know why Mrs. Owens would say such things or why any reporter would publish the quote when the error is so easily debunked, but this representation is about as far from accurate as you can get.  While I can't find an apples to-apples number for received inmates 55 or over, according to the agency's annual statistical report (pdf, p. 30), in FY 2010, 6,854 inmates 50 years old or more entered TDCJ, out of 72,315 who entered Texas prisons or state jails that year. That's 9.4%, not 45%, and really the comparable number is less since my stat includes inmates received age 50 and up. Just 1,010 inmates age 60 and up entered TDCJ that year, according to the annual statistical report. So about one out of every 72 new inmates is 60 years old or older.

One might think the reporters just misinterpreted Owens' use of data or the numbers were misquoted, but her other comments make clear she believes - or wants the public to believe - that older offenders make up a large proportion of new offenders. It's just a flat-out falsehood that "The numbers indicate that there have been more offenders received at TDCJ in the age group 55 to 60 than any other age group at the time of prison entry." That's not true. Here are the number of new receives for TDCJ in FY 2010 by age range:
14-16: 28
17: 364
18-19: 3,657
20-29: 27,654
30-39: 19,324
40-49: 14,434
50-59: 5,844
60 and older: 1,010
So the suggestion that "more offenders [are] received at TDCJ in the age group 55 to 60 than any other age group" beggars belief. It's just a fabrication.

Similarly odd to me is the comment that "It also appears that these older inmates are serving sentences for violent offenses as almost 6 percent of those 55 and older have sentences for crimes ranging from homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, robbery and assault/terroristic threats." That explains denying medical parole for those 6%, but that also means, if accurate, that the overwhelming majority (94%) of inmates older than 55 did not commit those types of awful crimes. Should we punish them extra for the crimes of the 6%? What a strange assertion!

According to the above-cited statistical report (p. 31), 20.5% of total "new receives" at TDCJ in 2010 committed violent offenses to get there, so if the figure for violent crimes among older offenders is 6%, that's substantially lower, not some grave, extra cause for concern. It's possible to manage those 6% without applying the same release criteria to the other 94%.

All the data and analyses attributed to Mrs. Owens in this story were either a) false or b) did not support her interpretation. But it just gets quoted and repeated and for the most part, reporters don't call officials on it when they make such screwball comments.

October 6 will be Grits for Breakfast's 7th blogiversary - the first post on this blog was seven years ago tomorrow. The reason I started Grits was precisely to counter - on criminal justice topics, anyway - this brand of modern journalism where reporters don't resolve factual disputes in their stories but merely "quote both sides" without vetting statements from public officials to make sure they're telling the truth. The majority of posts on this blog have the same structure: Quote mainstream media reports then correct factual errors from self-interested or self-justifying pols who're blowing smoke up some poor reporter's ass. Though many days I find that task somewhat boring and repetitive, stories like this one show the function is just as necessary today as it was when the blog began. It's one thing to "quote both sides." It's quite another to quote lies and truth and then portray them as equivalents.


A Texas PO said...

Maybe she meant that most of the offenders coming before her board are 55 or older. Any idiot with half a brain cell knows that the 20-29 year old age range makes up the majority of offenders in every part of the world, the "young and dumb" demographic. But we all know dumb isn't limited to that age range.

Texas Maverick said...

Ms Owens either replies "I don't know. I'll have my staff get the information to you," or she comes up with the incorrect information in this article. Unfortunately, the general public doesn't know Grits will hold her accountable.

I would guess there won't be another article to counter the incorrect statements, but she has very ably diverted the criticism of medical parole which is the purpose of her comments.

MaxM said...

I just emailed Senator Whitmire through his webpage in regards to Owen's inaccuracies and suggested that she should have to back up what she said or correct her statements in writing.

sunray's wench said...

Even if the 6% of over 55 year old inmates DID commit a violent crime, if the law says they are eligible for parole, then the BPP go against the spirit of the law in denying them on the grounds of "insufficient time served" or "nature of offence".

Plus, just because the crime is deemed "violent", it does not necessarily mean that the inmate is an habitually violent person.

If Whitmire is so upset about paying for elderly inmate medical care, perhaps he should propose a new bill in the next session to force the BPP to parole more inmates over 55. Simples.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

SW, the Lege can't tell the parole board what to do, which is an ongoing point of friction. It's a separation of powers issue and they're part of the executive branch, appointed by Perry.

Don said...

Texas PO: "But we all know dumb isn't limited to that age range". Right. Apparently dumb can be found abundantly in whatever Rissie Owens' age demographic is, as well.
Scott, congrats on 7 years, and thank you for doing all this holding of the feet to the fire that most of us are too lazy to do. And for your work and reporting on The Innocence Project, and the CJ gig that I can't at the moment remember the correct name for.

gravyrug said...

This is exactly why I'm glad I found Grits, and have kept reading over the years. Too many stories get ignored or mis-reported, and too many pols get away with outright lying to reporters who don't care enough to check the facts.

sunray's wench said...

Scott - could the Lege propose a new law that stops the Governor having so much power to appoint people like the BPP? Could it bring in a law that sets out clearer parole guidelines? I know that's probably pissing in the wind seeing as the BPP ignore everything they are told to do, but it would be a start.

Anonymous said...

Whether the inmate is in or out of prison, the taxpayer will foot the bill for medical care. Once an ex-con, it is hard for them to find jobs w/benefits. Whitmire has made a mess of TYC and is now preparing to do the same to TDC.

As for the bizzare comment, what else can one expect from governor appointees or for that matter elected officials. Sorry for painting with such a broad brush but it's really rare to find a person with integrity who is serving the people of Texas.

Sheldon tyc#47333 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheldon tyc#47333 said...

The season premier of House opens with House sitting before the parole board. In typical House fashion he quickly sends the head of the parole board into a very unprofessional fit of rage by criticizing the irony of their impotence. The scene portrayed how these morally depraved pampas ignoramus’s don’t like it when they have to talk to smart people let alone a really smart person who openly thinks there dumbass’s. Being a doctor show, House tries to help a young man with an out of the norm illness according to prison standards by challenging the younger female prison doctor professionally. Basically your smart, pretty, come from a wealthy family why waste your talents if you’re not going to do the right thing and heal people. At the same time accusing the older Affirmative Action prison doctor whose in charge of being to cowardly to actually practice medicine and simply collecting a substandard paycheck in the hopes of a state sponsored welfare plan in the form of a pension.
Anyway in a rare moment of TV watching, I have to say it was a cute show. I’m sure it’s nothing like our professionals who manage and care for the offenders in Texas.

Happy Birthday Grits, you are a great resource of the many faces of the issues we face in Texas criminal justice. And what a great outlet for my rants against state sponsored child abuse simply referred to by the acronym tyc. Very therapeutic.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

SW, especially on cases from the past, separation of powers prohibits the Lege from limiting the parole board's discretion, at least as I understand it. This has been an ongoing bone of contention between Whitmire and Rissie Owens. The Lege made them create guidelines but can't force them to follow them, and they don't.

Then, they don't follow federal court rulings or opinions from the Court of Criminal Appeals, either, on applying Condition X to people not convicted of a sex crime. So part of it is the legal impotence of the Lege to control them and part of it is that even if they tried, the BPP seems hell bent on willfully bucking anyone, anywhere who tries to constrain their absolute discretion.

ckikerintulia said...

Yeah Scott, thanks for 7 yrs of hard work.

Anonymous said...

I still don't understand something. Isn't failure to follow a court order a crime? How does an individual non-elected government official have the literal power of life and death. How does this same individual remain exempt from failure to follow a court order or at least contempt? Please don't tell me it is the same immunity a DA has.

Happy Birthday by the way! :)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

4:31, they've been benchslapped on the Condition X stuff a few times and the federal judges have said nasty things about them, but the BPP has interpreted all the rulings as applying only to one individual and won't change their policy overall.

I'm told it would take a class action suit - which is expensive, time consuming and difficult - to get them to apply the same criteria across the board, and nobody so far has been willing or able to put up the resources to do that. Plus, they have changed the rules somewhat, they're just slow-walking change for as long as they can. See here for the latest item I did on that.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To clarify, I said they "won't change their policy." That's not accurate because they have, somewhat. They just did so in a way that fails to address the due process concerns federal courts have raised.

rodsmith said...

first the reaon they can continual to VIOLATE the law is simple. The courts refuse to call them on it! Any one of these courts that has issued one of these orders could if they had the guts! at any time issue a bench warrent for "contempt of court" for each and every one of these individuals then ahve them picked up by fedeal marshals and dragged into court in chains and then tell them You have two choice. Follow my order...or these same marshalls will take you to the nearest federal prison to be locked up TILL your ready to issue the orders!

as for this dr! guess he proves that old saying

"how do you know a politican is lieing!"


Anonymous said...

I've often thought that the PPB uses the dart method to decide who they parole. Nothing in their own guidelines seems to be considered and any ruling by a sentencing judge is ignored. It's a lottery pure and simple and affected by the personal whim of the appointed board voters.

Thank you Grits for your dedication to the ideal of justice and your willingness to speak up for what should be changed.

Anonymous said...

rissie owens is merely one of a large number who need to be replaced. odds aren't good, tho are they?

congrats and thanks for the seven years of your blog. I stumbled upon it a few years ago desperately
trying to learn about a system we were caught up in (TDCJ) and while we have have had a happy ending to our story, I have developed a keen interest in staying abreast of all things justice related and making a difference where I can. Your blog is the BEST in Texas...Sunray's Wench might say the world!! Keep up the great work
keeping TDCJ honest.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Grits!!!! How did Owens get this job to begain with. Oh-that was silly we all know. I cannot believe the Governor cannot replace her with some one who can think though. The parole board in Texas is the most corrupted in the world.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday, Grits, and thank you so much for the work you to do. And Rissie Owens is clearly ignorant of one of the most basic facts of offender demographics - that crime is very much a young man's game - as the studies (for example the work of Dr. mark Cunningham)demonstrate, age and gender are the best predictors of future offending behavior, and "ageing out" of violent behavior is almost universal.

Anonymous said...

Send your readers Ms Owens' email so she can be taken to task for such silly lies and gibberish.