Monday, April 02, 2012

What impact of Texas legislative turnover on criminal justice reform?

The Austin Statesman's Tim Eaton has a political analysis of the likely makeup of the Texas House next year, projecting that Republicans will lose seats in the lower chamber but still hold onto 60% or more and ideologically are likely to become more conservative. Further, between unusually large turnover in 2010 and a large number of retirements, there will be more relatively inexperienced legislators in the Texas House, D and R, than any time probably since the aftermath of the Sharpstown bank scandal. Reports Eaton:
Inexperience will also contribute to molding the House's personality.

With 38 freshmen in 2011 and maybe 30 newbies in 2013, the 2013 session could have the most inexperienced collection of members in more than 30 years, Jillson said.

Rep. John Smithee, a Republican from Amarillo with 27 years of experience in the state House, said he can imagine a situation in which there will be more first-term and second-term lawmakers in the House than he has ever seen.

Smithee said it will be difficult to replace some of influential members, who will be leaving for a variety of reasons — personal, professional and political considerations.

"The biggest impact will come from the loss of lots of institutional knowledge," he said. "It's a big loss."
Some Republican legislative leaders who will depart include: Reps. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, and chairman of the Redistricting Committee; Will Hartnett, R-Dallas; Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, chairman of the Corrections Committee; Beverly Woolley, R-Houston; Warren Chisum, R-Pampa; and Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, chairman of Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee.

The Democrats are losing relatively few important members, such as the soft-spoken Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who chaired the House Criminal Jurisprudence committee, and Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, an expert on school finance. The result of the Democrats remaining largely intact could be greater influence for the party, Acuña said.

But the exodus of long-serving and powerful members also represents opportunity for younger members to fill important committee chairmanships.
On the criminal justice front, of special concern is who fills the chairmanships at the Corrections and Criminal Jurisprudence Committees. On Corrections, Jerry Madden earned a national reputation as a co-author with Sen. John Whitmire of Texas' 2007 probation reforms, while as chair of Criminal Jurisprudence, Pete Gallego was the House sponsor/author of several key innocence reforms including Texas' new eyewitness ID statute. Who replaces those men will tell us a lot about the direction those committees might take, and by extension what might be possible in 2013.

There's a pretty impressive record of criminal justice reform since Texas has been under Republican control, so there's not inherently anything to fear for reformers from the Legislature's continued partisan tilt. More concerning, arguably, may be legislators' relative inexperience. As a general principle, a legislative body awash with inexperienced members bodes poorly for criminal justice because every politician knows as a default  it's safe to run as "tuff" on crime. It takes time to learn the byzantine, interconnected reality of the justice system involving a vast alphabet soup of different local, state and federal actors. There are also many other issues much higher on voters' priority lists, so these subjects mostly aren't coming up in campaigns. Thus, once  at the capitol, inexperienced legislators can become paralyzed, willing to vote for enhancements and new crimes because it looks "tuff," but fearing to reform a system they don't understand yet. By the time a legislator has spent several sessions on the Corrections Committee, for example - hearing testimony, having been lobbied by prosecutors, police unions, chiefs, Sheriffs, not to mention judges, cities, counties, and reformers, delving into the details of recurring, longstanding political squabbles - it becomes (a little) easier to apply one's own principles to specific, real-world problems. That's impossible to do when folks don't even understand what the institutions are and how they work together, plus our short, biennial sessions mean there's not much time for learning on the job.

OTOH, depending on the issue, it's also possible a wave of new, ideologically committed conservatives could take on criminal justice issues that haven't received much focus. At the end of the 2011 session, freshman Rep. David Simpson made Fourth Amendment rights at TSA searches in airports an issue and used grassroots conservative clout to muscle the provision further through the process than anyone thought possible. In my experience, Fourth Amendment issues are ripe for attention by conservatives who really do want government out of our private lives. Much of the grass-roots base supports it, even if the establishment types in the GOP continue to kowtow to the tuff-on-crime crowd.

Moreover, the 2013 Texas Legislature faces a yawning budget gap that will have every pol in the building, freshmen and sophomores included, scratching for budget savings in ways that, on criminal justice, potentially benefit reformers looking to scale back mass incarceration. Unlike education and healthcare, prison spending is one of the few areas the public won't howl like scalded cats in the face of large spending reductions. Indeed, the Lege was mostly praised last year when Texas closed its first prison unit ever since the founding of the Republic. There aren't many other parts of the budget you can point to where cuts earn praise from the public instead of disapprobation. So if the type of draconian cuts threatened at the beginning of last session actually came to fruition, ironically prisons may be one of the politically safest places to cut

Of course, in the real world the Lege can't reduce prison spending significantly without changing incarceration policies. The Lege on paper reduced the budget for prison healthcare last year by around $100 million over the biennium, then TDCJ almost immediately began paying $5 million per month extra while they renegotiated healthcare services, an amount greater than the Lege had cut. Real savings must come from actually reducing the burden on government - bolstering less expensive community supervision while reducing high-cost incarceration to the greatest extent possible. There are an array of possible policy mechanisms to achieve that goal, but with so many new members and so much of the leadership in flux, it's difficult to say whether the Lege will embrace reform or, as happened on so many issues last session, just kick the can further down the road with band-aids and accounting gimmicks.

Bottom line, oversimplifying only a tad: If Small-Government Conservatives act on their principles on criminal justice, generally reformers win. When Big-Government Conservatives side with Big-Government Liberals - which historically has happened much more often - we get penalty enhancements and tuff-on-crime demagoguery. With so much in flux, my crystal ball is hazy regarding which outcome to expect. Texas government finds itself, both politically and financially, in an extraordinarily uneasy transition moment, with such questions largely held hostage by dynamics which are utterly unrelated to public safety and effective criminal justice policy.


Anonymous said...

To answer your question, the newer legislators will rely more on lobbyists, legislative staff, interest groups, etc. Thereby increasing those groups influence.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Perhaps, but how will they use it? What are the likely policy outcomes as a result? There's a lobbyist for everything, after all, and they can't all get what they want.

Phillip Baker said...

Amid all the scary things thrown out in this day's blog was a big shiny present for this one guy. Warren Chisum is leaving?? That alone raises the level of the legislature. Not a fan. Could you tell? I will forever despise this man for trafficking in viatical settlements (buy life insurance policies from AIDS patients at a big discount, then cashing in when they died) while simultaneously fighting against funding for HIV/AIDS treatment. I can only hope he got left holding a large bag when new drugs slashed the death rates. (Is that unkind?)