Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Advocates on right, left, say reform state jail statutes, close more prison units

A pair of stories from the Texas Tribune related to de-incarceration merit Grits readers' attention. First up, yesterday Maurice Chammah had an article on a new report (pdf) from the Texas Public Policy Foundation advocating diversion/probation for most state jail felons. The article opened:
A new report argues that state jails aren't meeting their goal of helping to reduce crime by intensively treating short-term, nonviolent inmates, and it recommends that judges no longer be able to sentence felons to state jails without a rehabilitation plan

The report, published Monday by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, says that those convicted of nonviolent felonies and normally sentenced to months in a state-operated jail should instead be released with community supervision. That can include treatment programs, community service, strictly enforced probation conditions and the threat of incarceration if certain conditions are violated. The report's suggestions were based on recent data concerning the number of felons who commit crimes after being released from state jails.
Report author Jeannette Moll wrote that, "state jails are universally failing in their objective." costing nearly as much as full-blown prison cells with higher recidivism rates and little opportunity for rehabilitative programming. A key legislator, though, wasn't willing to go quite so far.
[Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John] Whitmire says that the proposal echoes much of what he and other lawmakers envisioned in 1993 and that he's open to legislation to address the high levels of reincarceration. “Something between what we do now and what they propose would make sense,” he said.

But he cautions that there are many practical implications on the rest of the criminal justice system to consider before changes can be made. Increasing the number of people on probation will increase the workload for judges and community supervision departments.
For Grits' part, IMO the "practical implications" of Moll's suggestions run the other direction: If Texas reduced state jail incarceration rates enough to close one or two of them,  that money could be much more effectively spent on community corrections programs and to beef up local probation departments (or at least stem the bleeding). It's much cheaper to supervise offenders on probation than in prison, so much so that supervision could be significantly boosted and programming expanded to handle the additional caseload and likely still have money left over. The only way the proposals would harm local probation departments and courts would be if the Lege cut the state jail budget but failed to shift any of the savings to community supervision. (Prison guards would like that money to go to staff raises and prison health care was dramatically underfunded last session, so there will be competition for that money.)

It's worth mentioning that the Lege has adjusted state jail sentences in the past without undue harm to probation departments or courts: In 2003, the Lege passed HB 2668 which mandated probation instead of incarceration on the first offense for less-than-a-gram state jail felony drug crimes. First filed by then-Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen, a religious conservative, the legislation successfully diverted thousands of offenders from state jails annually, significantly relieving pressure on the system. Grits has long favored doubling down on that probation-first strategy - not just for drug offenses but other state jail felons - and it's gratifying to see a prominent conservative think tank endorse the suggestion.

Meanwhile, the Trib also has a story by Brandi Grissom echoing a report on Grits last month about the prison guard union's push to close two private facilities - the Dawson State Jail in Dallas and a pre-parole facility in Mineral Wells. The former has been accused of providing inadequate health care while the latter has among the worst contraband problems of any Texas prison unit. The main, new information in the story was Sen. Whitmire's supportive comment regarding additional prison closures.

Grits has written previously that, while private prison units might be the simplest to shutter (and I've long agreed those two should make the list), there are several criteria by which the state could select which prison units to close.
  • Private facilities which can be decommissioned more rapidly and with less expense than state facilities.
  • Older facilities, especially those built prior to 1920, which can cost more than twice as much per inmate to operate than newer units.
  • Rural units with staffing levels habitually below 70%. (I'd start with the Connally Unit in Kenedy County and the facilities in Lamesa and Dalhart.)
  • Units with the worst records on interdicting contraband.
  • Units with the most heat-related deaths and/or hospitalizations.
  • Units located in areas with water shortages.
  • Units previously built in rural areas which are now in suburban growth corridors with higher property values so that operating a prison is no longer the highest, best use of the property. (The Central Unit, which the Lege closed last session, fell into this group.)
There is some overlap among these categories, and where that's true the arguments for closure become even stronger. Taken together, those criteria suggest a pool of perhaps 15-20 units from which the Lege could reasonably contemplate closure. Closing just 2-3 more units this session would be quite a big deal; IMO, with a few key policy adjustments, the state could close 5 or 6 without harming public safety. (Florida recently closed seven.) The union has suggested prioritizing closure of privately run facilities, and there are good reasons to suggesting closing those two units. But they aren't the only viable options if legislators decide to seriously confront these questions.

Normally one thinks of conservatives and public employee unions as inherently at loggerheads, but it's fascinating to see how these proposals dovetail: Implementing Moll's suggestions would reduce incarceration pressures and make the union's goal of closing units and consolidating staff far more palatable.

RELATED: See a fact sheet (pdf) from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition related to Texas' state jail system.


Anonymous said...

Grits, I don't know what alternate universe you're living in but I've got news for you. As a practical matter, the only people going to state jails today without getting probation first are either repeat felony offenders or those who simply don't want to do probation and would rather "just do their time."

When the state jails originally came online in 1993, there were procedures in place for continuing jurisdiction by the district courts (if memory serves, for up to at least a year) and the judges had the ability to give the state jail defendants a little "up front time" and then suspend the balance of the sentence with placement on community supervision. The state jails also had the "modified therapeutic communities" with intensive drug treatment programs for up to 180 days. Upon completion of that program, the defendants got to come back and be placed on community supervision.

The problem is that the Legislature has defunded these treatment programs and pretty much just made the state jails the same as county jail "on steroids" for up to 2 years. They also started co-mingling state jail and Institutional Division inmates so there's not a whole lot of distinction between the two anymore.

Bottom line, the counties, judges and DA's were pretty much using the state jails exactly as intended throughout most of the 90's. Whether they were effective from a rehabilitative standpoint is open to discussion. In any event, I just wish the criminal justice policy wonks and legislators would make up their damn minds as to how they want state jails to be utilized. This is becoming just a little bit ridiculous.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"those who simply don't want to do probation and would rather 'just do their time.'"

So your suggestion is to allow criminals to dictate punishment instead of the justice system? Interesting. If you'd read the report instead of reacting based on your own preconceptions you'd have found one of the reasons Ms. Moll suggests imposing strong probation with quick consequences for non-compliance is exactly that defendants choose state jail because it's easier. She thinks the state should choose the punishment, and it should be one that maximizes the chances of rehabilitation. Further, much of the report focuses on expanding the programming you fault the Lege for defunding.

Next time, try reading and (Heaven forbid!) thinking before commenting - it'll make the experience more productive for everyone, you included.

Anonymous said...

Going from one extreme to the other is not a solution. Mandatory community supervision/probation was and would be a horrible idea. If elected officials are not exercising their discretion wisely, then the solution is at the ballot box.

John C. Key MD said...

Nobody more than me hopes to see a lot of diversion into community programs but at the risk of being a Cassandra I would like to point out that if a lot of money isn't diverted into probation and parole, we will only have succeeded in transferring the failures of the prison system into the community.

I hope some communities have excellent probation districts, but the ones I am most familiar with are populated by frustrated cops and "hangin' judges".There is a strong bias for failure and violation rather than an impetus to foster success by the probationer. And the costs to the miscreant can be astronomical if you add up fees, drug testing, required courses, ankle monitors, interlock devices, etc. These low level felons may choose prison over probation not because they are lazy or wish to continue in crime, but simply because years of withering expenses cannot be met. On top of that, add drivers' license suspension and SR-22 insurance, and the whole thing is just a setup for failure.

Prisons are good for one thing only: locking up dangerous offenders. Prison is a failure at everything else.

Unless there are concomitant modifications of the community corrections system, I fear that the de-incarceration movement will be "set up" for failure.

We will need good, quality, committed P.O.'s who have a bias for success rather than a desire to "play cop", make home visits dressed like a SWAT Team member, and can be stern encouragers rather than frustrated jailers.

Hook Em Horns said...

Prisons are good for one thing only: locking up dangerous offenders. Prison is a failure at everything else.

BRAVO! Simple and absolutely true!

Anonymous said...

Twelve years of high school didn't rehabilitate them--they came out of there reading at the fourth grade level. Why? Because what was taught in school didn't interest them. It was completely alien to their frame of reference.

Were they interested in complying with their (many) chances at probation? Don't think so. Are they interested in reforming themselves while in jail? Who are we trying to kid? Some say, "They are just not responsible for what they do. We need to blame someone else--anyone or anything else, but not them." Now that's an idea that would interest them.

Anonymous said...

How did state jail felonies come about in the first place? Did the legislature increase the penalty for Class A misdemeanors or did they decrease 3rd degree felonies that were already on the books?

Anonymous said...

Close units and send em to where? County lockups and probation in a majority of counties cannot even support what offenders they have now! Most counties are maxed out already, in all fields! So, yes grand idea, it's nice to hope, but we cannot even send assaultive youth in TJJD to counties cause most cannot even pay for meds for em! I hear great ideas, I see the brilliant blogs, but if Texas can't pay the bills then we can't do it! Big Counties like Harris, Terrent, and Travis maybe? What about the rest? Come on people, get real! Non Violent or Violent offenders, counties can't support Community programs right now, much less treatment programs!

North Texas Cop said...

"...strictly enforced probation conditions and the threat of incarceration if certain conditions are violated."

Wow. This kind of blather can only be written by someone who has never actually dealt with real criminals who were letting their true colors show. This is pure academic-fantasy crap and America has been down this road before with dismal results. There's one thing I've learned in two decades of law-enforcement that was never covered in my undergrad (CJ & sociology) or graduate (public policy) courses: Unless you've actually responded to crime scenes, chased, fought, arrested, supervised, processed, and monitored criminals, then the truth is you probably don't know what the hell you're talking about when it comes to crime and criminality; it's academic and policy-making masturbation. Strangely, there's some significant peer-reviwed research which tends to support this. Grits, you may want to read some Stanton Samenow and then think about the idiocy if the quoted statement above.

John C. Key MD said...

NT Cop demonstrates that blather can come from both sides. I don't recall any instances of readers of this blog calling for the release of violent criminals...only nonviolent ones and those who arguably shouldn't be imprisoned at all....and I would put "evading arrest" and "assault of a public servant" in that latter category--after all, isn't evading arrest a normal human response?

"Two decades of law-enforcement" seems to make one blacken everyone with the same brush regardless of their offense. Maybe criminal justice reform should include mandatory retirement for police after five-to-ten on the force.

Anonymous said...

N Tex Cop, actually made the best statement yet! I think he is right on! Good Blog sir! I work at TJJD, and have multiple restraints a day, plus I deal with OC Spray every week! I've been sprayed, had overspray, or spray rub off from restraints 3 times this week! I'm sore, but I can't say I don't love it! I'm an odd TJJD Employee, trust me!! I'm all for getting youth treatment and have a heart to see the Youth of Texas succeed! You work on the floor everyday and deal with the worst youth in Texas, you better have a heart for it! My point earlier in this discussion, is County lockups do not have the treatment programs and tools to take on any extra offenders! My family is all DPS, County Jailers, and then me; TJJD employee! I'm like the reject (lol)!! But, I think if you live law enforcement (public servant), like N Tex Cop stated then you know how it is! Counties in Texas are not even ready for non-violent offenders, much less violent ones! They just cannot support much more, unless taxes are highly raised and Leg can see it! Bot to mention the Comptroller! Money is the name of the game in this business! It's quite simple! So keep up the hope, I wish they could take just a few, of the Yourh we have that knock out our Staff in one punch! I'm a dreamer, I'll read and hope, but in reality; Texas cannot do it in 80% of it's County set-ups! So, sorry to ruin the hopeful bloggers pipe dreams, but I'm a realist!

Anonymous said...

I think I'll throw 2 things in: status and non violent criminals don't for the most part need prison. Treatment and probation can and does work. For the violent gang bangers well they need to be be kept were they will not hurt anyone but them selves and the unfortunet ones working in treatment programs like TJJD. North Texas Cop your painting everyone with the same brush, and may agree with Soylent Green.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

NT cop, it seems like you enjoy cherrypicking peer reviewed research that agrees with you while ignoring or disreespecting the much larger body of work that disagrees with your views.

As for "close units and send them to where?" - according to Sen. Whitmire there are currently 10,000 empty beds. Even so, a handful of relatively small policy changes (described many times on this blog) could free up even more beds. These questions are less about ideology than math - the state has refused to adequately fund prisons, especially healthcare and guard salaries - and either must pay more for those or boost community supervision, where it's cheaper to supervise folks.

Despite the naysaying on this string, there are so many successful evidence-based approaches out there that to me the complaints come off as self-interested people in denial, afraid to acknowledge plain reality because their careers depend on maintaining widely-held fictions. The same complaints were made about the 2007 probation reforms, and reform to less than a gram drug laws in 2003. In those cases, as in this, the Chicken Little rhetoric like that of NTC turned out to be wrong, whether or not its proponents knew it was BS at the time they were spouting it. Same thing applies here.

Anonymous said...

Scott, there hasn't been enough time or data points to support your view of the 2003 & 2007 reforms and you know it. You're one of the worst offenders I know when it comes to cherry picking reports & research. My point here is that anyone who thinks some kind of strict probation is going to solve our problems is either ignorant about the realities of probation & criminality or they're pushing a sociopolitical agenda upon which their own career is based. I have a pretty good idea of which camp you're in.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

There hasn't been enough time to analyze data for laws that have been in effect five and ten years respectively? Really? That's just foolishness, NTC.

I understand your point. My point is that you suffer from a street cop's myopia and that the system is more complex and nuanced than it appears from that limited perspective. I respect your view, but it's not supported by the increasingly large body of research about "what works" vis a vis probation and community corrections.

Anonymous said...

We have got soft on offenders. Put them back in the fields to do manual labor. They will think on returning. Look most units do not even turn out anymore. The short manpower units put nonviolant offenders that are going home soon. Until guards are hurt, then the state will open their eyes. They never pick the crops that could save the state money on food. The TDCJ system is broke.

Anonymous said...

"...one of the reasons Ms. Moll suggests imposing strong probation with quick consequences for non-compliance is exactly that defendants choose state jail because it's easier."

Let me get this straight: Rather than rely on incarceration, we're going to force criminals to go on a strict form of probation with meaningful threats to violate them if they don't comply. These criminals, who currently prefer incarceration to probation (because it's easier), will somehow be motivated to comply with the terms of this tough probation. They would never simply violate those terms in order to be sent to the state jail where they wanted to go in the first place. They will not take the easy way out. Right. You have just admitted that state jails are too soft and that probation doesn't really work. But hey, what do I know? I'm just a myopic street cop who watches criminals routinely exploit paths of least resistance that even the craftiest policy makers couldn't foresee.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, you're closer to getting it, NTC, though your myopia is still showing, not to mention your lack of understanding of parts of the system outside your immediate purview.

Of course, I never said that "state jails are too soft and that probation doesn't really work," but if it helps you justify your views in your own mind to argue against straw men, nobody can stop you from wasting your time.

axp said...

I have 110 signatures of female imates complaining about the extreme heat and no cold water in the summer and no hot water in the winter. Warden Black from Henley state jail seems to find a way to not have any cold water in the hot summers so imates will not use water for showers. In the winter there seems to be no hot water for some reason. The humane society treats dogs way better! I understand they are paying for their crimes but keeping humans in 100+ tempertures is criminal itself. They document contains signatures and TDC numbers.

Anonymous said...

The Crain Unit is just as bad as Henley/Plane state. The officers will retaliate against offenders for any reason. Any excuse to use force where 5 officers will beat an offender up. Officers will even start fights with offenders at visitation in front of their kids. If an offender files a grievance, they will be retaliated against.

rodsmith said...

Well 10:18 and 10:48 there are solutions for those problems.

Once the little shits are NO on state property are they are then is hate filled little shits in a costume!

Catch them off the property and teach them some respect and if that doesn't work...FEAR does!