Thursday, May 03, 2018

Remembering how truly terrible Ann Richards was on criminal justice

On Twitter, Texas Observer editor Forrest Wilder came up with this blast from the past: An old Ann Richards tuff-on-crime commercial from 1994 in which she touts plans to expand prisons by 75,000 beds and brags of reducing parole rates by 2/3. Go watch it.

These policies weren't just a bad idea with 20/20 hindsight; you could tell they were a bad idea at the time. Less than two years after that commercial ran, Robert Draper had a feature in Texas Monthly in which the lede featured Ann Richards' prison chief, Andy Collins, declaring the prison expansion was "the stupidest thing the state of Texas has ever done." To be clear, that's a pretty high bar!

"I mean, look who was behind it all," Collins told him. "Prosecutors, cops, politicians—all of them with a self-serving agenda."

Draper blamed "The media and the politicians," declaring, "So eager were they to sate the public’s bloodlust for locking up criminals and throwing away the key that they helped create a climate of hysteria in which corruption could flourish."

It's almost impossible to overstate how deep, at the time, the bipartisan consensus was surrounding exactly the message Richards is touting. Not only was it the zeitgeist of the moment, there was also a political calculation. Dems naively saw prison construction as a rural jobs program in the WPA mode. In addition, Dem strategists viewed Sheriffs and District Attorneys as their bulwark against a complete GOP takeover in small-town Texas and so deferred to them completely on policy. (Of course, the GOP takeover happened anyway.)

It's not that there were no critics back in the mid-'90s, but they were disempowered and disorganized: A few Ron Paul libertarians on the right and a few black Democrats on the fringes of the party. Mainstream black Dems mostly supported Richards' initiative at the time, just as they supported Clinton's 1994 crime bill.

The debates in 2018 surrounding police accountability, prosecutors elections, or mass incarceration could not have and did not occur back then. By contrast, a candidate producing that ad today would be openly mocked. And rightly so.


gravyrug said...

I remember a spoof segment from one of the SNL knockoff shows at the time that showed the TX governor's race as an arms race as to who would be tougher on criminals, including the Richards-clone hunting down criminals personally with a high-powered rifle.

Harry Hamid said...

It seems like a lot of people have forgotten how hard a lot of Democrats worked to convince people they weren't Democrats back in the day. Back when Hillary Clinton was running for President in 2016, things were occasionally mentioned about it, but in general, the whole Democratic Leadership Council - as well as the holdover power of the old Southern Democrats at the time - are sort of written out of history.


I enjoy the irony of Andy Collins complaining about it, prior to his "retiring" and taking a $1000.00 a day job promoting "Vita-Pro". Anybody else remember this?
I also remember Ann Richards pandering to special interest groups regarding executions, using her limited powers to grant one stay. She pleased the Pope by staying the Johnny Frank Garrett execution, and various people such as Danny Glover and Bianca Jagger by staying the Gary Graham execution. It wasn't done for morality or integrity, but purely for political appeasement. This was verified by her daughter in a recent biography.
The only possible justification for the Richards-era expansion of the prison-industrial complex was the ballistic crime rate of the 80's and early 90's, due in part to the baby boomers coming of age, as well as the crack issues. Combining this with the "McDuff" hysteria led to public acceptance and approval of the expansion.
Jury is still out on the effectiveness, but at the time, with the exception of using stays of execution for political purposes, these actions passed public muster.

Anonymous said...

Prosecutors, cops, judges-they are the problem!

Anonymous said...

We should acknowledge that at the time Richards was in office the average time spent in a Texas prison for murder was just 7-years. The media hyped the "revolving door" of the prison system too, which made criminal justice a hot political issue. I am in no way agreeing with her policies, just pointing out the facts such as they were during her tenure.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@7:57, as I write this TDCJ releases about 70,000 people per year, or nearly TWICE the entire prison population when Richards took office. The prison expansion did NOT stop the need to release prisoners, and in fact Texas is now releasing more prisoners than ever. That justification doesn't really fly.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree! I'm waiting with great anticipation for the day that we start seeing Prosecutors, Judges and Cops going to prison by the boat load! I consider 95% of them to be more criminal that the alleged criminals they are locking away for ungodly numbers of years! Its sickening what the powers-that-be get away with!