Thursday, July 16, 2020

On the folly of using prisons for drug treatment in the coronavirus era

The Texas Tribune's Jolie McCullough had a story a week or so ago that to me will be emblematic of how I recall this period: "He was supposed to be in prison less than a year. Instead he died after catching the coronavirus." 

According to the latest data, as of 7/16 there were 2,043 Texas county jail inmates and 572 staff who're currently diagnosed with COVID. In Texas prisons there are currently more than 2,200 inmates who've tested positive, along with 9,000+ more who acquired the virus and recovered. Five inmates have died in county jails; the list of the prison dead is much longer. See Jolie's latest coverage.

When all the important lessons have been learned and America's coronavirus episode is viewed in its totality with 20/20 hindsight, prisons will be seen as one of the big viral epicenters and the failure to depopulate them more thoroughly will be viewed as morally repugnant. Jails too, but prisons seem especially vulnerable to rather extreme outbreaks.

Prisons aren't like nursing homes, if you let people out they can mostly take care of themselves. They also aren't like county jails because prisoners can't leave. Even judges and prosecutors can't intervene to let high-risk people out. Family members can't bail them out. So they are just stuck there.

Setting COVID aside, when it comes to drug addiction, incarcerating someone to treat them for a medical condition makes no sense, anyway. On a personal note, I imagine having to be incarcerated for a crime to receive radiation therapy for cancer this spring. That can't be the right approach.

The man featured in the article died because of COVID, but also because society treats addiction as a criminal rather than a medical problem. He was incarcerated in order to secure drug treatment and died instead of being helped.

What should happen instead?
  1. Governor Greg Abbott and the Board of Pardons and Paroles should use their commutation powers to rid the prisons of these short-time inmates as long as the coronavirus rages.
  2. The Texas Legislature next year should finally change the law to reduce low-level drug penalties from a felony to a misdemeanor, as Oklahoma, Utah, and several other states have recently done. 
  3. We must find a way to make drug and mental-health treatment available in Texas outside the justice system. Medicaid expansion remains the easiest near-term way to achieve that goal. The state should stop fighting federal health-care dollars and use Medicaid to provide mental-health and drug treatment outside of the criminal courts. (Oklahoma also recently expanded Medicaid, fwiw.)
Gov. Abbott's decision not to use his commutation powers probably underestimated the problem and overestimated the scope of the public backlash against anti-viral measures. (Turned out, the anti-mask folks weren't a great constituency to be courting.) I don't expect him to admit mistakes; none of them seem to ever do that. But I do expect to hear experts telling us at some future legislative hearing that, if the governor had commuted sentences for elderly prisoners and most of the short-timers, it probably would have saved lives.


Anonymous said...

Nah. Every state that's let felons out "to protect them from the virus" has experienced a sharp uptick in violent crime.

If masks work for the rest of us, then just have all the prisoners wear masks. Problem solved, problem staying solved.

As for drug addiction, I say there's no better place than a prison cell for thieving tweeker trash. An increased risk of exposure to communicable disease is one of the risks they assumed when they robbed that liquor store, shot the proprietor and his wife, and resisted arrest.

More to the point, citizens have rights. Rights, by definition, are the enumerated obligations of the state to the citizen under the social contract. Felons are individuals whose crimes are so heinous that they amount to waging war on society and renunciation of citizenship. Non-citizens, of whom felons are a subset, have zero rights, by definition. They have whatever privileges society allows them, which can be withdrawn at any time, with or without cause. And I am fine with this. Some people make bad choices and get to be bad examples. They should stop whining and be glad they were born in an era where committing one of the nine common-law felonies isn't an automatic date with the hangman at high noon the day after the jury hands down the verdict.

Premise #1: there is an implicit contract between the Citizen and the State, in which the Citizen yields up a certain degree of autonomy and agrees to the legitimacy of the State's authority, in exchange for which the State maintains public safety and order, protects the Citizen and works to advance his interests.

Premise #2: society gets more of what it rewards and less of what it punishes.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:45, most of what you say is not just wrong but silly, particularly regarding immigrants. Also, give your source on violent crime, I'm pretty sure that's a fabrication. Finally, people in prison for drug possession probably weren't the ones who "robbed that liquor store, shot the proprietor and his wife, and resisted arrest," or they'd been charged with that instead.

Steven Michael Seys said...

The primary difference between the American experiment and the monarchies from which it was split off is that the American idea is that while all people are not automatically good, we can become better as we learn. In the monarchies, it was thought that God chose a person based upon his or her actions and then makes all the descendants of that person as good as the ancestor. Divine right was obviously a flawed concept because experience showed that the children of good leaders are seldom good leaders. Now we make the same mistakes in choosing to prop up dynasties while never forgiving a person for past sins or even sins of the ancestors. Prison is not what it was sold to us as in the beginning. And even worse, most people don't want it to be so. Prison was intended to be a place where a malefactor would correct him/her self and return to society as a whole and productive citizen. Now it's merely a place of retribution where people languish because the society at large wants to hurt someone, anyone, for perceived pain.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting if someone could show us what percentage of regular TDCJ-ID inmates are there for drug crimes (not talking about state jail sentences which are only 2 year sentences at the most and in most cases much, much less). Also, what percentage of drug sentences are for addiction crimes, namely Possession of a Controlled Substance, as opposed to selling or manufacturing drugs (which may or may not have an addiction aspect). There seems to be this "urban myth" of the 18 year old kid serving Life for possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana which is trotted out every time the legislature meets as evidence of over incarceration. I have yet to see this case. My guess is that if the actual data regarding the types of people currently serving TDCJ-ID sentences were to be actually included in these discussions, a large majority of the public would agree that these incarcerated offenders are violent and dangerous and deserve to be in prison.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@anon, all told it's about 18% in for drug crimes, mostly low level possession.

That' said, if you read Jolie's referenced article, short sentences are the ones we're talking about. Why send someone to state jail for 9 months, have them catch the coronavirus, and either die or get back out and spread it? This contributes to prisons being incubators for the virus.

Anonymous said...

it depends on who you release. How is someone driving without a drivers license or unable to pay a traffic fines or caught smoking dope going cause an increase in crime? There are those who lost their jobs and homes that are more likely to start doing crimes. But the biggest national product the USA has is the judicial system. The government is not going to give up its cash cow, not even CIA agent (there is no such thing as former CIA) Abbott. Those with victimless crimes should be released or put on house arrest.

Anonymous said...

What portion of that 18% are there on state jail sentences? You are aware that first time state jail level drug offenders are by law required to receive probation? Therefore, we can logically assume that many of those 9 month sentences are there on probation revocations. Others are likely second or third time offenders. In my experience, there are two types of drug offenders incarcerated in the state jail. First, are the offenders who went onto probation and were, in fact, afforded every treatment option available to the probation departments--group therapy, outpatient treatment, ISF's and SAFPF. Their probation ultimately gets revoked because they either can't, or won't, beat the addiction. In either event, they run out of options and get sentenced to the state jail (usually by agreement). The second type of offender going to the state jail is the repeat offender. He's on his second, third, fourth, etc. drug possession charge and just doesn't want treatment. In many cases (especially metro counties) these offenders just plead to county jail time (under 12.44 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) or in some instances go to the state jail for 6 months, 9 months, or maybe a year on a plea deal. Whatever the case, these repeat offenders have no interest in treatment and just want the best deal they can get so they can get "off paper" and go back to their lifestyle. What do you propose we do with those offenders who have no desire to change? I suppose we can engage in a libertarian discussion at this point about the decriminalization of drugs in general but that will inevitably lead to a discussion of the societal consequences of drug use. That's more than I care to get into today except I would add that with children unable to go to school for the foreseeable future, I'm not sure returning druggies back into homes where young children might be staying 24/7 is the best idea. I realize I've strayed off topic a little, but my point is that I don't think drug offenders are indiscriminately being sent to TDCJ to be exposed to COVID. They are either being sent as a last resort or because they asked to be sent there rather than being placed on probation.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget a group who never gets put up for early release, that is the Sex Offenders [SO]

Unlike the repeat offenders of 10:02. These [SO] individuals have ultra low recidivism rates; rates are from 3-5%, which means that 97%-95% will not re-offend within a 5 year window. This means most made a mistake, often years ago and will not repeat the mistake again.

Remember that in TX, an 18yo dating his 16yo girlfriend and reported to the police by the girl's parents, may be accused, tried and convicted as a SO. So too, could an old man, racked by diabetics and prostrate problems who steps behind a building to urgently urinate. If seen and arrested, he,too,could end up on the lifetime TX Registry. So could a young girl, sexting pictures of herself to her BF. Ditto a young man who hooks up with a girl who says she is 18. Under the current laws: All SO.

My point is that the title SO, currently is a 1-size-fits-all label. Not all SO are Sexual Predators. In view of this fact, non-violent SO should not be excluded from early release programs. Their "crimes" should not carry a death sentence.

I acknowledge that some SO are predators and should be considered dangerous, but most SO are not. They should not be considered predators.

Another and my last point, is that their presence in TDC[no Justice found there] does not necessarily mean they are tried and convicted. Like many others in the system, many enter a plea which guarantees they will not face a 20-40 sentence for a crime they did not commit. A plea may be your only choice,especially if you don't have the money to hire a good lawyer.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@10:02, people can't change if they're dead, and drug possession doesn't merit a death sentence, even for people who've rejected treatment in the past. The calculus you identify only works if there's no significant societal cost to incarcerating drug users. That was always a dubious claim, in the COVID era it's no longer a viable one.

Anonymous said...

"An increased risk of exposure to communicable disease is one of the risks they assumed when they robbed that liquor store, shot the proprietor and his wife, and resisted arrest."

Right... Because of all the crimes in that fantasy of yours they were certainly in prison for the drug charge. The capital murder (homicide during an armed robbery) was probably dismisses by the judge, after all, drugs was the problem!

We're talking about sending home people with possession charges, and you're feverishly masturbating to murder fantasies with a hint of plague.

Thankfully people like you only get policy jobs in countries us real Americans can't find on a map.

Sunshine said...

I will not even go into it you sound so ridiculous that I know you are completely ignorant. I just wanted to be sure you know how absolutely ignorant you are.