Sunday, November 05, 2017

Texas should now look to other states for justice-reform solutions

Texas Sen. John Cornyn keeps touting the "Texas model" for reducing incarceration, and has signed onto federal reform proposals. But Texas' big probation/parole reforms were more than a decade ago now and - aside from raising the property-theft thresholds in 2015 to keep up with inflation - the state hasn't done much since.

Thankfully, the models for what state-level criminal-justice reform might look like are proliferating, and becoming more interesting.
  • Oklahoma voters last year approved reclassifying low-level drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.
  • Massachusetts' reforms included raising the age of adult culpability to 19 years old and repealing mandatory minimums, including for drug sales in school zones. (In Texas, 17-year olds are charged as adults, and drug-sales in school zones trigger major enhancements.)
  • Louisiana's reforms included reducing the harshest sentences for some violent offenders, as well as good-time policies which have spurred early releases.
  • Illinois' reforms centered on addressing untreated trauma, improving reentry prospects (including record expungement), giving judges more control over sentencing, and requiring defense attorneys be present at bail hearings.
  • Georgia reduced probation lengths and focused most community supervision resources on the earliest period people are on probation, creating incentives for probationers to earn early release through good behavior.
  • In California, a federal judge ordered the state to release inmates if it couldn't solve severe overcrowding problems, spurring voters to reduce penalties for certain drug possession cases and to begin housing some state prisoners in county jails. (Texas may need to rent county jail space if too many more of its inmates fall under the federal court order mandating air conditioning for prisoners with "heat-sensitive" conditions.)
Ten years ago, it wasn't a boast to say Texas was on the vanguard of legislative-driven decarceration reform, since elsewhere in the country it hadn't happened at all. (Really, 14 years ago was the first big sentence-reduction bill - HB 2668 mandating probation on the first offense for low-level drug offenders.) Since 2007, though, we've without question fallen behind the curve.

That said, Texas' past actions are still having a residual effect of helping spur change in other states. In Massachusetts, blue-state officials were in part shamed into action because so many red states had taken the lead. “When states like Texas, Alabama and Georgia are leading criminal justice reform, something is wrong with the picture,” [a leading Democrat] said. “Many of these policies have not been reviewed or revised in generations. We need to sweep out the cobwebs.”

But as a Texan, my concern is what goes on within our borders, not becoming a symbol that encourages other states to change. And Texas' reforms have stalled.

Last session, a Republican committee chairman who's now a Speaker candidate (Phil King) filed legislation to reduce the lowest-level drug penalties and use the savings for treatment. But the probation directors killed that pretty easily because they don't want to lose more-lucrative felons from their probation rolls (they're paid less for misdemeanor probationers, who also stay on supervision a shorter period of time). Since money from penalty-reduction savings would be available, there should be ways to resolve that. But the probation directors refused to budge, and the Lege was too focused on bathrooms and immigration to interrogate that self-interested and counterproductive opposition.

Advocates have been beating our heads against that particular door for a few sessions now, so maybe it's time to consider reforms happening elsewhere and retool our approach. Texas has become known nationally for its 2007 decarceration push. But that was a long time ago now. Among reformers nationally, Texas is also becoming known for talking a big reform game without really delivering results to match. (After all, we do have the largest prison population of any American state!) After a decade of telling other states they should model themselves on Texas, it's probably time we began looking at other jurisdictions more closely to crib a few good ideas from them.


Anonymous said...

I agree. Texas Parole Officers should start looking at how much an inmate has made better changes in their life as an inmate Things such as getting an education, holding a job for over 15 years. No major cases in 15 years and the way the officers and the inmate relate to one another. I think the Parole Officers should look more closely at how the inmate get along with others and see how they try to help each other. Before Parole, each inmate should be taught a trade, so upon release, they will be better equipped to make a decent living.
But I doubt anyone in charge of the Parole Board has their head on straight, or all the above would already be in place.

Anonymous said...

If felony substance offenses are re-classified as misdemeanor offenses the likelihood of an offender accepting or receiving sufficient substance abuse treatment diminishes... significantly.

SAFPF treatment, (ISF) intermediate sanctions facilities, residential treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, will not be options realistically available to consider at the misdemeanor level. It would appear that probation funding is structured primarily to reduce prison costs, which is felony probation. Program access and funding availability for misdemeanor probation to address addiction/substance abuse is very limited. Due to the limited availability of program options if offenses were reclassified, revocations and incarceration would occur at a much higher rate at the county jail level. Not sure that the proposed changes would produce the best outcomes in terms of reducing recidivism. It could be a way to shift the cost of funding substance abuse programs and incarceration back to the county. Is that what is intended?

Point being, whether moderate/high risk substance abusing offenders are misdemeanants or felons, funding will be required to provide program and treatment options instead incarceration.