Monday, October 07, 2019

Parole policies the key to substantial prisoner reductions in Texas

The goal of cutting prison populations by 50 percent has been poo pooed by some as a pipe dream, but for Texas it seems conceivable.

As Grits has previously pointed out, the overall footprint of Texas' criminal justice system has declined significantly in recent years, with the proportion of people in prison, jail, on probation and on parole declining by a whopping 46 percent. In 2008, one in 22 Texas adults were in prison, jail, on probation or on parole; by 2018, that had declined to one in 41.

However, the number of people incarcerated in prison has remained stubbornly high, even though TDCJ releases about 45 percent of inmates every year.

Releases declining in tandem with number of new inmates
State officials vociferously deny it, but from the outside it appears as though parole decisions are made based less on individuals' risk to society, but as a means to keep TDCJ full enough to justify existing prisons without becoming overcrowded.

Here's the data. Before 2012, more prisoners entered TDCJ each year than were released, though not by many. In 2012, releases increased for just that one year (see this analysis for why), afterward marching down in tandem with the number of new "receives."

That's why this blog and allies pushed for prison closures as soon as new receives dipped in 2009 and 2010 (the first Texas prisons were closed in 2011). If prisons can't hold more people, the theory went, parole rates would have to keep up with "receives" to keep from violating the longstanding terms of the Ruiz settlement, the dictates of which have dominated TDCJ policy and culture for nearly four decades.

When new receives bumped back up in 2011 and 2012 (see here for an analysis of why), the parole board boosted parole rates significantly to keep numbers low enough to come in under prison capacity.

Even though the parole board doesn't admit its release decisions are dictated by prison capacity, preferring to pretend they're assessing individuals' cases on the merits, it appears to be true on its face. Since 2012, the numbers of new inmates and releases have been so close every year that it's difficult to imagine it's a coincidence.

The potential for large-scale prison population reductions
As of the end of FY 2018, 79,552 Texas prison inmates were eligible to be paroled, out of about 145,000 total incarcerated at that time, or about 55 percent. (Source, p. 17) So most offenders could be released right now if the parole board decided to do so.

The average age of prisoners incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is 35. However, at the end of FY 2018, 9,900 prisoners were more than 60 years old, and another 18,564 were between 51-60. (p. 4) These prisoners are the fastest growing age group at TDCJ, and a big cost driver, particularly because their health costs are 100 percent paid by state government, even for prisoners who would otherwise be eligible for Medicare.

Since being in prison significantly shortens life expectancy, for many of these prisoners, TDCJ must pay for nursing-home like accommodations and eventually, end-of-life costs, as well. This is not just an issue in Texas, but a significant problem nationally. In Texas, however, the cost issue is exacerbated by the recent federal court ruling that vulnerable inmates like the sick and elderly must be housed in units with air conditioning. (Yes, I know, technically, A/C is not required, but how else can the agency keep units below 88 degrees during Texas summers?)

These rising healthcare costs for seniors are a big reason why TDCJ's budget has continued to increase even after eight prison units have been closed: A growing number of the prisoners who remain cost much more to incarcerate than the "average" 35 year old.

How to do it
The governor appoints parole board members, and the Legislature cannot directly force them to increase parole rates. (The 2007 prison reforms successfully encouraged them to decrease revocation rates for technical violations, but those gains have maxxed out.) But they can indirectly do so by changing the criteria on which parole decisions are made.

A good start would be to look to the so-called "objective parole" law passed in Michigan in 2018. That legislation mandated that parole decisions be based on forward looking risk factors instead of unchangeable criteria like "nature of the crime." The Texas Public Policy Foundation endorsed such a measure earlier this year; see my Reasonably Suspicious podcast interview with TPPF's Marc Levin on the topic from July.

Grits has recommended other, additional methods for reducing incarceration levels, but none would have the impact of boosting parole rates.

Texas has successfully reduced the footprint of the justice system more than most people - even most policy makers - understand. But significantly reducing prison populations has been the toughest nut to crack. Even so, given that most Texas prisoners are eligible to be paroled today, it's not impossible to imagine that right sizing the prison system could be accomplished sooner than later.


Anonymous said...

TDCJ Parole Board continues to us""Nature of Crime"" as an excuse not to parole inmates that have been model inmates, which keeps the prisons full. This is a disgrace for Texas. The Parole Board should do a better job, or resign!!!!!

Anonymous said...

You mean parole policies like the one that allowed Robert Solis to be at large for years prior to his cold blooded killing of Harris County Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal? Oh sure, he had committed two new crimes while on parole with one eventually drawing a revocation warrant which was rather unenthusiastically pursued. What role might prison closures and reduced bed space play in these decisions to hold or not hold parolees accountable for parole violations? I mean, if you have no place to send them when they commit new offenses or engage in other behaviors that threaten public safety I suppose that's another way to keep the prison population down. I feel almost like Grits' (and TPPF's) advocacy of increased parole rates while the Texas population continues to grow exponentially, is one of these Alice in Wonderland through the looking glass moments. What truly motivates these policy wonks to advocate criminal justice policies that we all know will ultimately result in more innocent victims? Are they really that naive or is there some other agenda at play motivating them to jeopardize public safety?

Anonymous said...

Thats a pretty ham fisted redirection. TDCJ clearly has a broken parole system that uses improper metrics to determine eligibility for early release. Parole today is not working. The wrong people, like Solis, are getting let go whereas many nonviolent inmates and inmates who could be eligible for release under an "objective parole" scheme are sitting in prison. Grits and those "policy wonks" are advocating a more thorough, evidence based, process that keeps people in prison that are least likely to be sucessful and to parole those inmates that have the most potential for success so that reentry programs (like the ones Solis wasn't participating in) can do their work which actually reduces recidivism and improves public safety by restoring our communities.

It's clear that parole isn't working correctly. We're incarcerating too many of the wrong people for too long and releasing too many of the wrong people too often. If you don't want to do something about that then I guess that's your prerogative.

Or it's some new world order plot to bring about the tribulation time... Your pick.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well said, 6:36. You're right. The system over-incarcerates low-risk people and thus doesn't have sufficient resources to focus on the high-risk ones. That's a recipe for disaster and we see the results.

@5:54, taking the Solis tragedy and claiming that's a reason to deny parole to tens of thousands of folks who aren't mentally ill and hearing voices telling them to kill people is pretty disingenuous. Moreover, if Houston PD had prioritized executing the warrant that was out for him for TWO YEARS before the incident, that tragedy wouldn't have occurred. The parole agency did its job, but they can't control other actors in the system.

At the end of the day, what happened to Deputy Dhaliwal was a tragedy that, at root, stemmed from the use of the justice system as a mental-health backstop instead of funding the mental-health system. Solis was paroled because, in prison, it was easy to make him take his meds and he got "better." Once outside, he eventually went off his meds and we see the terrible result. We don't have systems to support at-risk mentally ill folks - either those who commit crimes or those who don't - and instead wait until some worst-case scenario happens then begin the finger pointing. It's high time the system took responsibility for its sometimes-tragic failures, funded mental health services sufficiently, and stopped pretending people can simply be thrown away and forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Oh this discussion is priceless. The system over incarcerates low risk people? Like who? Probationers who are given five, six, seven chances to demonstrate that they can follow the rules before the are finally revoked? Or are you talking about murderers? Statistically most people who intentionally take another person's life are not likely to commit another. Is this what you mean by low risk? Let's get real here. If the whole Cut 50 proposal gets traction, a lot of sex offenders and violent offenders are going to have to be paroled. In that number, you're going to have a certain percentage of Robert Solis's who are going to eventually get lost in the system and reoffend. Because we're all caught up in this overincarceration fantasy, there is now a disincentive for parole authorities to aggressively pursue revocations or arrests--even when parolees commit new crimes like Solis did. Whether Solis' new crimes were attributable to mental health issues (you seem to be very quick to excuse his criminal culpability, by the way) or an antisocial personality disorder, the fact of the matter is that he was dangerous. One way or the other, he needed to be locked up and he wasn't. You can harp all day about the mental health system but the fact of the matter is that we don't have the available bed space or legal remedies available to protect society from that that percentage of mentally ill persons who may become violent. The days of warehousing the mentally ill because we are afraid of them passed decades ago. Are you advocating that we go back to those days? Thousands upon thousands of new people are pouring into Texas by the day. Many from other states, and many from south of the border. But rest assured, included among these thousands are criminals, druggies, child molesters and, yes, the mentally ill. To advocate closing more prisons and increasing parole rates when there is neither the political willpower or the resources to protect society from dangerous parolees borders upon being criminal itself. Oh wait, when your decisions are driven solely by compassionate analytics and biased data, a few innocent victims like Sandeep Dhaliwal are just part of the data driven statistical calculation, right?

Anonymous said...

Does it make you feel better to put a turban on your straw man?

Objective Parole would get away from "violent" determinations set by the legislature and use a forward looking approach to determine how robust and offenders support system is outside of prison combined with a battery of assessments conducted inside the prison. Ideally Solis wouldn't have been paroled not because he was mentally ill but because there was apparently no one to help him properly reintegrate. He didn't murder a policeman at a traffic stop the day he left prison, he murdered that policeman after falling off where no one was able to stop him. Solis doesn't lose his culpability for murder, but you can't ignore our culpability for sending him home with no one to help him.

Prison is just a due process pause on someone's life. At some point everyone is going to leave and go home. Objective parole will send home the ones that hopefully have the strongest support to reintegrate. Being alone, broke, and without any prospects are what the risk assessment Pareto says are significant. This is already the system we're using to treat sex offenders in the community, who coincidentally have the second lowest recidivism rate below murderers. The process already works.

Anonymous said...

@10:26, whether Dhaliwal wore a turban or a Canadian Mountie hat is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned. At the end of the day, I suspect he was more than a "straw man" to his family and friends. But your snarky comment exemplifies to me how little concern you and your ilk have for innocent victims who you seem all to willing to sacrifice in your social experiments trusting dangerous criminals. Solis apparently had a support system--that he ultimately terrorized. And when they tried to alert parole and law enforcement authorities about his whereabouts and the dangers he posed, it apparently fell on deaf ears. This was a systemic failure and forgive me if this whole ordeal doesn't inspire confidence in me when it comes to proposals to open the prison doors and pour thousands of more criminals back onto the streets.

Anonymous said...

Almost all of them are going to get out at some point, and the way we're letting them out is clearly not working. Many can benefit from thoughtful community supervision, and that's what this is about. Better screening inmates for eligible release and better supervision and support when they're out. Community supervision of sex offenders is fantastically sucessful, but it is also fantastically more involved than for any other kind of supervised release. Years of research shows that returning these offenders to a supportive family is a primary driver for their success, unless you know something about the restorative powers of sitting on a bunk that ATSA doesn't.

No one wants to throw the doors open. The point is that what's happening on both sides of those doors is broken. 10:26 may be snarky but I don't think you know what a straw man is either. You seem awfully proud to parade around Sandeeps body to protest some fever dream of an open door prison that no one is advocating for.

Anonymous said...

Are you aware of how many innocent people are in prison because of immature relationships and false accusations?

Why is a former inmate that refused parole (forced to admit to guilt) given probation for longer then the sentence imposed upon the former inmate?

Why does the DA ignore his/her Oath of Office and the Texas Constitution?

Why does a Grand Jury hear only the Prosecutors side?

Why in over 20 years of corruption in this court has there been no investigation by the Attorney General? Even though there was a sex scandal at the jail involving the upper administration, sheriff replaced with incompetent parade leader that would take orders from the DA and not do his duty, County Judge supposedly committed suicide, "investigator" forced to resign, attorney's unable to work before this Court. I could go on and on but I am sure this is going on everywhere for profit.

PD said...

Beware of posters who claim to be the only ones truly concerned with victims.

Anonymous said...

Solis is a result of the 2007 "Reforms", as Kenneth Mcduff was a result of the PMA [ prison management act].
The biggest problem has been in place for almost 30 years: the hostile takeover of the parole system by the newly created TDCJ in 1990. Where you have career prison guards dictating parole policies in order to comply with the sanctions caused by RUIZ, it was a recipe for disaster that cost many Texan lives.
Now the "Reforms" where violent convicted criminals are no longer sanctioned for violating the terms of their parole have resulted in the murder by Solis and in all likelihood a myriad of less sensational crimes.
Also, it is myopically cruel to minimize the "Unchangeable criteria" which always resulted in leaving a victim. Prison isn't solely a system of rehabilitation and restoration, it is also and primarily punitive. It needs to remain that way.

Anonymous said...


It would be interesting to overlay the chart you created with one from OCA, specifically charting the increase of felony cases pending end of year. The number is increasing yearly and has for quite a while.

Anonymous said...

TDCJ prefers to release repeat offenders because they know there is more money to be made from these people. They keep the 1st time nonviolent offenders. These offenders do not have any write ups or cases and still are turned down each time they come up for parole. They repeatedly parole the 2 or 3 time offenders with 5G claƟsification.

BarkGrowlBite said...

Scott, you are absolutely wrong! The parole agency did not - I repeat, did not - do its job. Once the Blue warrant was issued, all the parole officer had to do was locate Solis and notify HPD. Instead he sat on his ass in his office conducting those monthly interviews. Had he notified HPD where Solis was located, they would have gone after him in a NY minute.

There are thousands of outstanding felony, misdemeanor and Blue warrants, piled up in Harris County. You cannot expect the cops to drop everything when notification of a blue warrant appears on their computers in order to search for the subject of that warrant.

Furthermore, Solis' common-law wife and his adult son called the parole officer 10 times telling him he needed to check Solis out. What did the parole officer do? He kept sitting on his ass conducting those office interviews. So don't give us this crap about the parole agency doing its job.

You appear to be making Solis the victim in the murder of Deputy Dhaliwal because he was alleged to have been mentally ill. Get this through your thick police-hating skull. Solis deserves absolutely no sympathy. What he deserves is a lethal injection in Huntsville's death chamber.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone is trying to excuse Solis, but the root cause analysis points to a breakdown on the law enforcement side.

I don't know what the parole officer did during all that time, and I don't know what was required of him by the parole department, or what he's allowed to do. But the only person who can make an arrest in that system is a policeman, if it took two years for Solis to cross paths with HCSO (or HPD or DPS, or any other agency who's jurisdiction he drove through).

Somebody with a badge should have been looking for him, but either Solis spent two years binge watching Netflix at home on the couch or nobody was looking particularly hard.

The court is going to decide what happens to Solis, but in the meantime the police and parole need to have a serious discussion about communication and priorities.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe all the officers watching the 46,000 something RSO's in Harris county who aren't reoffending would be better used rounding up all those outstanding warrants...

But that's none of my business

Anonymous said...

Bark has a one track mind..and that is anyone who doesn't worship the all fucking mighty police is at heart a cop hater. He won't listen to reason, won't look at statistics..he just sits in his basement ranting and raving on this site anytime anyone shines a light on bad police practices. Shame on you act like a child