Saturday, April 30, 2016

Texas released 52% more violent offenders in 2014 than 2005

Texas prisons released 52 percent more prisoners convicted of violent offenses in FY 2014 than in FY 2005, according to the TDCJ annual statistical reports from those years. Comparing the number of people released in those two years we find:
TDCJ Releases 2005-2014:
Violent: 5,521 up
Property: 632 up
Drug: 2,756 down
Other: 2,612 up
In fact, in 2012 Texas released 69.4 percent more violent offenders than in 2005, so this is not a new trend, and it has coincided with a decline in the state's violent crime rates over the same period. (Go here for an hypothesis why releasing so many more "violent offenders" didn't increase crime.)

Perhaps Texas' example provides evidence that the act of pursuing "low hanging fruit" in the political arena can help change the political culture surrounding crime and punishment in ways that indirectly affect debates and policies about violent offenders. (The same thing can happen, Grits would argue, with "innocence" and capital advocacy.)

For example, Texas' legislative reforms in 2007 focused almost exclusively on nonviolent drug and property offenses, with updating property-theft thresholds in 2015 the only other significant decarceration reform in recent memory. Yet the number of violent offenders released annually from TDCJ went up more than 50 percent.

The makeup of the parole board didn't change much over this period and nothing in the '07 bill would have caused that. (There were elements aimed at reducing parole revocations, but they wouldn't have affected releases.) Instead, the political culture changed around crime and punishment and the board reacted.

And, it must be said, even with that increase, release rates remain low. Though people convicted of violent offenses make up the majority of Texas prison inmates, they constituted only 22.6 percent of 2014 releases.

Still, when it comes to state-level decarceration reforms, Grits disagrees with Fordham law prof John Pfaff's tactical assessment about whether to prioritize reducing incarceration for nonviolent offenses. To me, the only practical place to start in the legislative arena, particularly in a red state like Texas, is on issues where it's possible to secure bipartisan support. One can't extract blood from stone.

But he's right to point out that real, long-term decarceration solutions necessarily must eventually extend to people deemed "violent" offenders. Otherwise, growth in that nebulous category can easily swallow up any decarceration gains from nonviolent offenders. For example, look at some top-line data from TDCJ Annual Statistical Reports for 2005 and 2014 (latest available), during which time the overall prison population decreased by 1,852. Within that total, though, there was wide variation.
TDCJ On-hand:
Violent: 10,396 up
Property: 4,643 down
Drug: 5,679 down
Other: 1,299 up
Reductions achieved in property and drug offender totals were nearly entirely offset by the increased number of violent offenders, who as of Aug. 31, 2014 made up 55.6 percent of TDCJ's population totals.

Now let's look at only the new, incoming offenders in 2005 and 2014. With the number of new prison entries for property offenses nearly the same, the increase in new violent commitments entering Texas prisons in 2014 almost entirely offset the reduced number of new drug-offenders:
TDCJ Receives:
Violent: 3,616 up
Property: 212 up
Drug: 3,808 down
Other: 2,821 up
The difference is, violent offenders tend to have longer sentences, so the new violent offenders will take up prison space for more bed-years over time. TDCJ essentially soaked up another placement for a violent offense for every drug and property offender diverted.

So I agree with Pfaff's central insight but sometimes think his commentary overstates how much the political process can do to reduce incarceration of violent felons, especially in states like Texas which already don't have mandatory minimums. The parole board (appointed to six year terms by the governor) and commissioners they hire make release decisions and there's not much outsiders can do to affect them.

Pfaff's focus on sentence length ignores areas where sentencing reform can make a difference. Any offense shifted from felony to misdemeanor status eliminates the possibility of imprisonment and keeps entire categories of offenders from ever entering TDCJ. Those low-level offenses are disproportionately drug and property crimes, so changing them won't affect the "violent" numbers. But they're something the Lege can actually affect that would reduce incarceration in the near term. They can't do much about parole rates.

Political tactics aren't just about plugging numbers into an equation or model to maximize marginal results. There are too many flawed humans with weird, self-interested agendas involved, and too many institutions with narrow jurisdictions that can only affect parts of the problem. I don't blame a New York City-based law prof for issuing theories which fail to take into account Texas' particular institutions and their realms of control.

It's hard to argue, though, with Pfaff's call for reassessing how offenders are judged along the violent-nonviolent axis:
Pfaff added that the division of inmates into non-violent and violent is itself confusing and misleading. “Not all violent offenders are really all that violent, and not all non-violent are necessarily non-violent; it’s tricky to figure out who is who,” he said.

For example, Pfaff said, in New York state, burglars who break into a house when no one is home are still considered violent offenders. On the other hand, when Pfaff examined records of non-violent drug offenders, he found that many had a record of violent crimes from the past, or had physically harmed someone during the commission of their crimes.

Focusing on non-violent crime, then, is actually a somewhat arbitrary way to separate the incarcerated into good prisoners and bad prisoners—and to avoid dealing with the most pernicious ideology behind the incarceration binge.

“As long as we focus on non-violent people in prison,” Pfaff told Quartz, “it has the collateral consequence of suggesting we should just give up on the violent people, and that the violent people deserve whatever we do. And I’m not sure that’s entirely the right way to think about it. Violent people change, violent people age out of crime.”
That's right, but it's a far cry from what either the public or the political class believe at this particular historical moment. In the scheme of things, it wasn't very long ago that even recommending leniency for "nonviolent" offenders was a political nonstarter in this state and many others. That's easy to forget in the wake of the post-Ferguson focus on criminal justice reform in the last however-many months. Maybe there will be things possible going forward that in the past would have fallen outside the bounds of mainstream political debate. But it would be wrong to critique strategic and tactical decisions before that time based on what's possible going forward. Those are different things.

I don't think Pfaff's analysis changes much of Texas reformers' strategy in the near term, but it's a caution to enthusiastic decarceration advocates to adjust expectations. For the foreseeable future, the much-ballyhooed national #Cut50 campaign remains a pipe dream, certainly in Texas. Without significantly slashing the numbers of violent offenders, it's not possible to get close to that number.

Grits can't say how we'll get there, if, or when. But I do know that politics is the art of the possible. And decarceration won't happen if advocates ignore the things which are possible to focus on things which are not.

In the meantime, the good news is that, in Texas, the parole board already is releasing more violent offenders, anyway, and with violent crime dropping and the economy booming, it turned out no one noticed, cared, nor complained.


Anonymous said...

Statistically, those convicted of murder/capital murder are the least likely to reoffend. We can always start by paroling more of them.

The Old Skool Preacher said...

We have the technology available to release violent offenders safely back into society, if it wasn't all about punishment. Technology allows the parole board to built a ‘’virtual wall’’ around any parolee via a monitor...and it is cheaper.

sunray's wench said...

@Anon 11.01 - 99% of the mass murderers in the USA are white men. Your point was?

This is good to see Grits, and also good that you make the distinction between a violent crime and 'violent criminals' because one does not always equate to the other. I absolutely agree with Old Skool Preacher that technology should be used a LOT more to enable offenders to be allowed to reintegrate with society and learn to be productive tax-paying citizens earlier than currently happens.

Wolf said...

It is time to stop using the term violent and/or non-violent criminals. As others noted, just because a person is convicted of a violent crime does not prove they are violent individuals. Same goes for the convicted "non-violent" person. Take, for example, a guy convicted under the law of parties....did not shoot anyone and had no interest in doing prior record but happened to be driving the car the killer had been in. Convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, this person has a violent label attached to him that affects everything in his life. Time for punishment to fit the individual, not the crime.

He's Innocent said...

The parole board can do more to help de-carceration, but they won't. The parole board can and should be directed to be more transparent. However, as things stand in Texas now, the public, the offender, the offenders family have zero transparency when it comes to parole. And the board wants to keep it that way.

Tell me, how does one get rejected for parole for "use of a weapon in commission of the crime" when the crime they committed was computer/internet based? What was the weapon? The mouse? When was the last time you heard on the news that someone had held up a bank by pointing a mouse at the teller?

In my personal experience with attempting to help folks with getting a favorable parole decision, it is clear that the board members did not read the package provided to them. It is also my experience that the board will deny parole based upon "failure to successfully complete prior supervision". How is it that one can serve 9.5 of 10 years on probation, get revoked, sent away for 25 years for snatching a purse and then they use this "failure" of 20 years ago to continue to deny parole? For cripes sake, that was 20 years ago, enough already!

Let's get real. In Texas, the parole process and parole boards are a black hole of information. They clearly want to be a part of the problem, not the solution. See: Grits' posts on Pamela Freeman, may she roast in hell. (I've unfortunately experienced her disinterest personally regarding my own spouse's parole decision. Surprise, denied!)

Parole could help a lot. But no, they have to engage in CYA lest anybody from the public think they may have let a violent person loose to prey upon their poor, innocent, privileged children! Boo hoo.

95% of these folks will be released from prison at some point. They should be rehabilitated while inside. It's foolish to think that dehumanizing someone for years and years prepares them for life outside. They'll never get a job, they'll never get housing, they'll never pay taxes because Texas is all about vengeful punishment. Let's just kick the can down the road on how to actually support these folks upon re-entry so that they can become the "tax paying citizen" again. All bullshit and lies to themselves. But, there is hope. Folks eyes open when they or their loved ones get caught up in the criminal justice system. We'll just wait until about 75% of the population is graced with that experience. THEN we'll get reform - if they bother to fight.

Anonymous said...

One can always have fun with numbers. The percentages do not tell the whole story. One has to also look at the specific sentences involved. In some instances, the first vote is the ONLY time that the Board could vote to approve someone and ensure that there is a period of supervision or perhaps have a pre-release program be completed.

The reality is that there are LOTS of short sentences for offenses classified as violent or aggravated. A denial can mean a serve-all being imposed, which then means that the individual comes out with ZERO supervision and with ZERO in-prison programming having been done as a pre-condition of the release.

The reality is that the community is better served with some of those sorts of cases being supervised for some period of time than to simply be dumped with their hundred dollars and told 'fare thee well...'