Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ideology, interest and Texas probation reforms

Congrats to our friends at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) on a glowing front-page Wall Street Journal article yesterday crediting them with Texas' 2007 de-incarceration reforms and authoring a national wave of mimicry by conservatives in other states. The article is behind their paywall but Doug Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy excerpted a substantial chunk. The article perhaps credits TPPF too sweepingly with prompting Texas' reforms - other organizations and Republican committee chairmen were already promoting probation reform before the group ever created its Center for Effective Justice. But their role in metastasizing the idea that small-government conservatism should also apply to corrections spending among the conservative movement and its network of state-level think tanks around the country cannot be overstated.

Berman suggests that the Right on Crime movement can't be successful unless it becomes something on which politicians can actively campaign in Republican primaries. I disagree. GOP pols don't have to campaign on these topics to enact them. Rather, the Right on Crime philosophy and backing from prominent conservatives provides an ideological basis for responding when they're attacked. It creates the political cover necessary to govern, the lack of which is one of the things that stifles all action in D.C..

What's often lost in ideological discussions about Texas' probation reforms is that, on the front-lines, Texas' was a reform effort prompted more by managers than movements, and more by the expense of incarceration than a distaste for it. Also, the push for probation reform began prior to the 78th session in 2003, more than two years before TPPF jumped into the criminal-justice fray.

In 2003, after years of comfortably lobbing Molotov cocktails from the back bench of the Legislature, Texas Republicans found themselves in firm control of all three branches of government and both chambers of the Lege for the first time since Reconstruction, just in time to confront a crippling budget crunch. Former House Corrections Committee Chairmen Ray Allen and Jerry Madden both tell the same story of then-Speaker Tom Craddick coming to them prior to their first session as chairs, issuing an eight-word demand that would change their lives: "Don't build new prisons. They cost too much." From a partisan political perspective, then, Texas' probation reforms were a Republican solution to the pragmatic demands of governance.

Meanwhile, especially in larger and mid-sized counties, probation directors around the state were paying attention to a growing body of evidence about the benefits of strengthening probation (or in Texas' parlance, "community supervision") but applying it for shorter stints, a field of research referred to by practitioners simply as "what works." And since probation directors work for judges, once those professionals began to think and talk about changing their own systems to align with evidence-based practices, quite a few long-time judges began championing reform based purely on self-interest and pragmatism. Perhaps the best-known example is Judge Michael McSpadden, a Republican jurist in Harris County who for the past few sessions has gotten most of his Harris County judicial colleagues from both parties to sign onto a letter asking the Legislature to take less-than-a-gram cases off their dockets by reducing the charge to a misdemeanor. But many judges over the years have supported reform and for the most part, their positions do not vary much according to party. In the case of specialty courts, in particular, dozens of local diversion efforts were launched with grant support from the Governor's office.

Finally, county commissioners courts of all stripes over the last decade struggled with jail overcrowding and/or the costs of massive, overbuilt jails that were constantly being launched. Today those pressures have mostly abated, but just a few years ago they were sometimes severe. Typically, jails are the largest line item in county budgets and their costs have driven local property tax increases across the state. Voters in Smith and Harris County rejected new jails and that seemed to free up county commissioners elsewhere to begin openly talking about alternatives to incarceration without seeming "soft on crime."

So Texas' now-famous probation reforms - which consisted primarily of substantial new funding for stronger community supervision, though far less than new prisons would have cost - represented a confluence of interests among state and local actors throughout the system all facing budget constraints. After leading reform efforts, both Chairmen Allen and Madden faced challengers in the following election cycle who tried to paint them as soft on crime. But both won re-election anyway, taking some of the steam out of the issue politically. Then the wave of national praise, copycats from other conservative states, and of course Rick Perry's presidential run caused Texas Republicans to own the reform agenda to a greater degree than ever before.

None of this is intended to diminish TPPF's role so much as to place it in context. They're doing important work but their role complements several institutional interests - particularly local courts, probation departments, and state and county budget writers - whose priorities for the most part drive the train whenever reform actually occurs. (The reduction in prosecutors' clout during this period also played a role.) For other states to replicate what happened in Texas - or for that matter, for Texas to travel further down the path to reform; after all we still by far have the largest prison population in the country - at least some of those institutional players must be on board.

There's a subtle interplay of ideology and interest underlying the achievements of criminal-justice reformers. And, as one of my long-ago college profs Peter Trubowitz first taught me, lasting public-policy reforms in general only happen when the two become aligned.


Anonymous said...

Apparently the the bulk of District Attorney Offices were on a sabbatical when all this reform took place. They are still pushing and driving "lock em all up" approach.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yes, but the elections of Watkins and Lykos in Dallas and Harris and Duty in Williamson at least temporarily reduced the clout of the biggest demagogues.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see how the juvenile side pushed for intervention before juveniles could come into the legal system and with everyone doing such a great job overall referrals are down. THEN the LBB used that against the fiels and cut money to probation departments. What is wrong wqith that picture. Shoulda have added more money to keep more out of the system which in turn could reduce the number growing up and getting into the adult system

Gritsforbreakfast said...

OTOH, the juvie side is a good example of where the adult system could eventually go. They cut their prison population by more than half in a very short span of time and juvenile crime continued to drop. Even if funding for probation is expanded, and I couldn't agree more it should be (haven't looked at the details of what you're talking about - I thought it was), it's a remarkable achievement to have that level of short-term de-incarceration. And for all the sky-is-falling predictions from the tuff-on-crime crowd, juvenile crime continued to fall during this period, undercutting the ability of political opponents to make hay with the issue.

At least they covered the healthcare deficit for probation departments, that oughtta help some.

Anonymous said...

Grits, regarding probation reforms.

Does the TAB get any credit for their part or did they actually do anything to deserve credit?

Anonymous said...

While we are on the subject of reforming probation, in Texas.
I'd like to thank all of those that took time to heed the calls to contact the long list of public servants asking them to consider reforming the probation related fiasco and its direct correlation to the 97% plea bargain rate, from the top down. *Some of us even did it in person & vowed to return.

Sadly, they all seemed to ignore the part where we asked them (for months & months) to put aside gang affiliations and reduce the 97% plea bargain rate with a bill aimed at forcing CDLs to lists any & all reason(s) for advising client(s) on Probation (at time of arrest) to stop jury trial(s) in order to Plea Bargain. Basically, this form of transparency would have provided an official record regarding 'all' Reason(s) as they become part of the defendant's case file & filed with the District clerk’s office.

Therefore, when a lawyer takes or is appointed a felony case that ends up in a jury trial, he / she can no longer fake their way to this crucial point only to extract a guilty plea from their very own client(s) based on the following lie. Btw, a verifiable lie that: the Judge, the ADA, the Defense & the Defendant’s Probation Officer all must be in on in order to result in – incarceration via an erroneous / false confession.

"Stop the jury trial. Take the plea, Guilty or Not, you are going to prison just for being arrested on a new unrelated charge while on probation."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

TAB wasn't around on these topics in 2007, 11:54, but they helped on several good bills this year, see here.

Anonymous said...

Apri8it Grits.

Regarding probation reforms, any idea as to where I'd locate a list of actual Texas reforms?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

There were several bills in 2003, 05 and 07, but the biggest changes were in the budget in '07 when they financed treatment and diversion programs that were on the books but unused because of no funds. There's not really a one stop shopping list of the reforms that I know of, but the folks at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the Texas Public Policy Foundation could probably help you nail it down.