Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Tarrant DA told pro-#cjreform Tea Party meeting there's no mass incarceration in Texas

Your correspondent spent yesterday evening at a meeting of the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party on criminal-justice reform, featuring state Sen. Konni Burton and Rep. Matt Krause as the principle speakers.

The idea that a Tea Party group was focused on #cjreform after Labor Day in an election year really says a lot about the changing terms of debate surrounding crime and punishment in the Lone Star State, so I was pleased and gratified to join them.

Anyway, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson was there seeking votes, along with a clutch of other candidates. During the question and answer session, she stood up to make a statement that deserves correction.

After mentioning that her Democratic opponent is running, in part, on a platform of "ending mass incarceration," Wilson declared that, in Texas, mass incarceration is "not a problem" because the state has closed seven prison units (really it's eight) and legislators like Burton and Krause are pro-reform. She also told the crowd that Texas' prison population has declined by 20 percent.

That's simply uninformed. In reality, along with our neighbors, Louisiana and Oklahoma, Texas remains the global epicenter for mass incarceration. The Bayou State has surpassed Texas with the nation's highest incarceration rate, with the Okies coming in second. (We still rank near the top.) But Texas still has by far the largest state-prison system. In fact, Texas even has more state prisoners than California, but with 30 percent less population than the Golden Bear.

Heck, the Harris County Jail is larger than 19 state prison systems! (Source.) The idea that Texas has no mass-incarceration problem borders on ludicrous.

Nor has our prison population declined by 20 percent from its peak. If it had, Texas' prison population would now be lower than California's. Rather, it's declined by about six percent, from a high of about 155k to around 146k today.

It's true we've closed eight prison units, but we started with 112, so there's still a long way to go!

That said, Texas' justice system has definitely shrunk. The proportion of Texans in prison, jail, on probation and on parole - what Grits has called the "subjugation rate" - has plummeted over the last decade from one in 22 people under control of the government to one in 41, putting us just below the national average. That's a 46 percent reduction!

But almost all of that decline came from the sliding number of probationers, with state-prisoner reductions coming in a distant second. Looking solely at those incarcerated, leaving aside community supervision, Texas' incarceration rates remain quite high and, in real numbers, our system is the biggest.

To give credit where it's due, by the way, Sen. Burton is largely responsible for that reduction in the subjugation rate. Her 2015 amendment increasing property-theft thresholds to track inflation began to depopulate the state jails and shed thousands from the probation rolls over just a few years. That resulted in substantially increased freedom across the state, in a fundamental sense. She has been a true and consistent ally of #cjreform efforts at the capitol.

Grits was excited to witness one of the state's largest Tea Party groups so ardently embracing justice reform. Both Burton and Krause seemed genuinely enthusiastic about a "limited government" approach to the justice system, and Krause, in particular, proved effective at burnishing the tenets of conservative ideology in support of the cause. I was also glad so many candidates, including Wilson, attended to seek the group's support at the same time they're discussing #cjreform issues. It helps to set a certain tone among the political class, which I appreciate.

Grits appreciated less the Tarrant County District Attorney pretending Texas has no need to confront mass incarceration. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.


Harry Homeless said...

Sharen Wilson is also the monster who sentenced a Hispanic woman to eight years in prison for being confused on her voting rights. Everything she does is a political calculation, not a human calculation. The right thing done for the wrong reason still ends in disaster (see the Iraq War). There's nothing more myopic than a transactional relationship (see current President). This will be borne out in time.

James S. said...

Well, it's not just the voting cases that contradict her (apparent) views on mass incarceration. The high-fives are super-encouraged in that office if someone gets fifty year or more sentence.

On the other hand, if there's a not guilty verdict, let the whining begin: "The jury sucks, the judge sucks" etc. See https://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/crime/article218321495.html

Anonymous said...

How does one define mass incarceration. When my relative was at Stevenson prison inmates that tried to turn their collars up to avoid sunburn were given disciplinary cases. This is turn caused setoffs which meant the offender seeking to avoid cancer would be denied parole for three or four years before being reconsidered.

WMW---White Man's Welfare for the legal guild.