« In praise (I think) of Georgia's efforts to put prisoners to work on farms | Main | "Feds target Calif. pot dispensaries for closure" »

October 6, 2011

Getting it just right on Governor Perry's full criminal justice record

I am pleased to see that NPR put together this piece discussing Texas Governor Rick Perry's record on criminal justice issues beyond the death penalty.  Here are excerpts:

As the longest-serving governor of Texas, Rick Perry has overseen the application of the death penalty more than any other U.S. governor — 236 executions, and counting.  While Perry is unquestionably a steadfast supporter of capital punishment, his overall record on criminal justice is more complicated than that....

There are criminal justice reformers in Texas who insist that Perry is anything but a hang-'em-high governor.  "I think Rick Perry is really getting a bum rap if and when he's being portrayed as some sort of bloodthirsty tyrant that just likes to kill people," says Jeff Blackburn, chief legal counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, which works to overturn wrongful convictions.

"What we're accustomed to, frankly, is the governor's office being the primary obstructer of reform and progress, and that has not been the case with Rick Perry," he says.  "He's done some real good, and I think more good than any other governor we've had."...

Criminal justice advocates won't go so far as to call Perry a reformer, and indeed, the governor has done little to exercise clemency in death penalty cases in which there are clear procedural flaws.

But to judge him solely on the 236 executions on his watch is unfair, says Scott Henson, who writes the respected criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast.  "Capital punishment is a media fetish," he says.  "It's not really something that stands out as a remarkable part of Rick Perry's criminal justice record."

This lengthy and effective post by Henson at Grits effectively captures the reality of the Perry criminal justice record, and here is a concluding excerpt:

IMO, Perry has latched onto the death-penalty issue so vehemently because it's virtually the only item in his portfolio that crosses partisan lines to grab independents and conservative Democrats (since the death penalty is widely supported across all those demographics).  Indeed, polls show that even those who believe the state has already executed an innocent person still support the death penalty by roughly a 60-40 margin. From a purely Machiavellian political standpoint, there's simply no downside for politicians in Texas (or in the GOP primary) from being seen as an eager executioner.

Indeed, arguably death-penalty demagoguery has played an important strategic role in Texas' criminal justice reforms, diverting media focus from more workaday criminal justice issues to an area where pols can look "tuff," even as they enact more moderate or even progressive reforms in other areas.  Perry has signed legislation diverting tens of thousands of criminals from prison, but because of the "most-ever executions" tag, it'd be impossible in the political arena to successfully label him "soft on crime."

All that said, ... [c]riminal justice reform has never been a Perry priority, but as support for reforms grew among Texas Republicans, quite a few good bills passed on his watch and with a few notable exceptions he usually signed them.  Governors in Texas wield relatively little power save for vetoes and appointments, so not vetoing things gets him credit, in my book, but it doesn't mean he'd make criminal-justice reform any sort of priority if he were President.  Indeed, I seriously doubt he would do so.

Rick Perry doesn't deserve demonization for his criminal-justice record; he's not the one-dimensional, execution-crazed nutjob that death-penalty abolitionists have portrayed. But... [t]olerating reform is different from championing it.

Some recent related posts:  

October 6, 2011 at 07:34 PM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e2014e8c13407a970d

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Getting it just right on Governor Perry's full criminal justice record:

Comments

what about Cameron Todd Willingham ?

Posted by: Dott. claudio giusti, italia | Oct 7, 2011 4:10:59 AM

Thanks for the link, Doug.

claudio, IMO the Willingham case is perhaps the best example of Perry engaging in demagoguery on the death penalty to associate himself as strongly as possible with the issue. When criticized for perceived errors, Perry doesn't backtrak, he doubles down. (Look at his handling of the TX DREAM Act, for example.) Since nothing he can do will bring Willingham back, he's got no political incentive to apologize or second guess it. His pollsters know that executing an innocent person doesn't repel voters and in a GOP primary (probably in a general election, too) may even attract them, so there is little political cost and much to gain from going over the top on death-penalty related issues.

Would GOP voters think differently about him if they knew that 49 people were sent to death row in the last year of Ann Richards' administration and the number has declined to 10-12 per year thanks to various legislation Perry signed? Possibly. It often seems like framing matters more than facts. My point is that from a strategic political perspective, his over-the-top grandstanding on the death penalty, with the Willingham case being the most prominent example, provides cover on his right flank for what in reality is a more moderate record than portrayed by DP abolitionists.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 7, 2011 7:52:46 AM

I think Perry should get credit where credit is due, but unless Perry was the driving force behind the "various legislation," the credit is restrained somewhat. And, if he is going to grandstand on the death penalty, which legitimizes it, he should be called for it, even if he is doing so partially for CYA reasons.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 7, 2011 10:16:13 AM

Grits,

Your overall take that Perry has a moderate CJ record may be right, but your charge of demagoguery is dubious, and your claim that Republicans may be attracted by executing an innocent is asinine.

I don't know if you have lived in TX as have I, but from having resided in 4 regions in the U.S., I can safely relate the following about GOP voters--including Texans--regarding Perry:

1) they support the DP as do Independs & Dems;
2) they don't like Perry's advocacy of the DREAM Act;
3) they do not view Perry as having engaged in "grandstand[ing]" on the DP.


Posted by: adamakis | Oct 7, 2011 12:04:25 PM

Adamkis, I've lived in Texas my whole life and I'm pretty sure I know this state and Perry's criminal justice record better than you.

Maybe you should ask Texas' US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison whether "Republicans may be attracted by executing an innocent." That's the conclusion her campaign came to when they considered using the Todd Willingham case to attack Rick Perry. Politico reported that "Multiple former [Kay Bailey] Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man — Cameron Todd Willingham — and got this response from a primary voter: 'It takes balls to execute an innocent man.'”

Spin it however you want, but political professionals who actually track opinion polling on the subject know better.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 7, 2011 2:09:05 PM

You gotta love the bulldog True Belief that Willingham was innocent. At the very most, and making all the assumptions in favor of the defense, what you get is that the government had no legitimate evidence that it was arson. But Willingham's own expert admitted that he could not rule OUT arson. In other words, what we have here -- again, making all the assumptions favorable to Willingham -- is that no one can say definitively whether it was arson or not.

Does anyone realize how far that is from proof that Willingham didn't do it?

Yikes. One might be able to say, given these assumptions, that Willingham ought not to have been convicted. But for assessing the MORALITY of the execution, which is what the public thinks about, the question is not about law, it's about fact. Did he do it or not?

Factual innocence is presumed prior to verdict. But when the verdict is guilty, the presumption of innocence disappears and the presumption of guilt takes it place. That presumption can be upset, but the defendant, at that point, has the burden of doing the upsetting. Willingham's people have not met that burden, and given their expert's admission that he cannot rule out arson, they can't meet it.

It actually doesn't matter how loud the shouting is. The Willingham camp's failure to meet its post-verdict burden is the way it is, and shouting -- and calling Kent, federalist, me and whomever else Nazis -- doesn't change it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 7, 2011 4:55:09 PM

Bill, who here expressed a "True Belief that Willingham was innocent" besides the quote attributed to a questioner in a Kay Bailey Hutchison focus group? And who is it on this string "calling Kent, federalist, me and whomever else Nazis"? Why must you always toss out red herrings instead of debating the issue at hand?

The point made was that, even if it were definitively proven an innocent were executed under Perry, that would not just fail to harm him, it would probably help him in the GOP primary and arguably even in a general election. As I wrote in the post Doug quoted, Perry's self-forged reputation as an eager executioner is "virtually the only item in his portfolio that crosses partisan lines to grab independents and conservative Democrats (since the death penalty is widely supported across all those demographics). Indeed, polls show that even those who believe the state has already executed an innocent person still support the death penalty by roughly a 60-40 margin."

Nobody called you names or made the claim you're critiquing. It's really not just all about you.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 7, 2011 5:15:39 PM

well bill no offense but last time i looked the constution says the berden of poof is ON THE STATE! i also have NEVER seen anything in that document that says that standard changes AFTER CONVICTION so in my book in any procdure between the state and any individual that same requirement remains. BURDEN IS ON THE STATE!

plus since ANY conviction is to be BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT! considering all the doubt we keep getting on it. well...guess what! state LOSES!

Posted by: rodsmith | Oct 7, 2011 5:57:57 PM

Grits --

"Bill, who here expressed a 'True Belief that Willingham was innocent' besides the quote attributed to a questioner in a Kay Bailey Hutchison focus group?"

I didn't know I was restricted to "here." There are websites all over the place furiously claiming that Willingham was innocent, as you couldn't help knowing.

"And who is it on this string 'calling Kent, federalist, [you] and whomever else Nazis'"?

I didn't know I was restricted to "this string" either. I don't believe for one minute that you haven't seen "Nazi" thrown at the three of us time and again, including quite recently -- sparked, of all things, by a picture of Kent in a business suit.

Now some liberal regulars here objected to that, to their credit. You were not among them, nor have you ever been when that kind of language gets used.

"Why must you always toss out red herrings instead of debating the issue at hand?"

Only it's not a red herring if one is willing to look beyond "this string" to numerous insults, including by you, on other strings.

The most notorious I can remember from you is your saying that SC, Dudley Sharp and I all approve of all state killing in all circumstances. I've asked to you retract that any number of times.

You have refused, and instead, leave that preposterous smear sitting out there while attempting to velcro to Perry generally this beauty: "It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”

Wonderful.

You also incessantly use the locution "tuff on crime" to attempt to paint those who disagree with you as a bunch of wahoos who're "tuff." Not once have I seen you say or even suggest that thoughtful and intelligent people of good faith disagree with you.

You can start now, though. Will you?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 7, 2011 7:34:34 PM

Bill, if you're not responding to anything written here, I don't know why you bother commenting. If only as a courtesy to your host you should try to stay on topic , not just issue a running stream of consciousness commentary that has nothing to do with the subject of the post.

You asked me once to name a death sentence I supported and I did so. I've asked you before to name a single death sentence you opposed, and you have never done so. As such, until you can name a single situation where you opposed state killing, I'll have to go on what we read from you in these comment strings, where you endorse without caveat every death sentence that comes down the pike.

If you think I reflexively "paint those who disagree with you as a bunch of wahoos," then you've never read my blog, or even the posts on Perry linked above. The smear tactic is clearly your go to move, but SL&P readers are used to it by now.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 7, 2011 10:37:00 PM

Grits --

"You asked me once to name a death sentence I supported and I did so. I've asked you before to name a single death sentence you opposed, and you have never done so. As such, until you can name a single situation where you opposed state killing, I'll have to go on what we read from you in these comment strings, where you endorse without caveat every death sentence that comes down the pike."

But it was not endorsing "every death sentence" that you accused me of (nice try at switching to a different accusation, though). What you said was this: "Bill, Dudley and SC are just bloodthirsty, believing that all killing by the state is inherently, morally good in all instances."

Are you really incapable of seeing the yawning difference between believing that "all killing by the state is inherently, morally good" and supporting the tiny fraction of state killing that comes from the death penalty?

No, of course you see the difference. But if you don't, how 'bout this: I believe that the My Lai Massacre was not only not "inherently, morally good," I believe it was a crime. I believe that the Soviet pogroms -- one of the true and ghastly models of "state killing" -- were, not only not good, but appallingly evil. But if you're still not satisfied, I oppose the death penalty where it was imposed for crimes other than murder, aggravated child rape, terrorism intended to create mass casuaties, and espionage and treason in time of war.

"The smear tactic is clearly your go to move, but SL&P readers are used to it by now."

Is it YOU who is writing this??? The same person who calls me (and Dudley Sharp) "bloodthirsty?" That's not a smear? The same person who falsely claims that we support all state killing in all circumstances? And then won't either retract or apologize for it? Is that you?

Is it you who still refuses to admit that those who think differently are not the wahoos you imply by your inveterate use of snarky phrase, "tuff on crime crowd?" Is it you who won't acknowledge that those who disagree can be -- and many are -- thoughtful and intelligent people? Is that you, Scott?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 8, 2011 10:56:21 AM

Bill, if you're looking for compliments, ask your wife how handsome you are. It's not my job to soothe your angst by telling you you're "thoughtful and intelligent." You either are or you aren't and my opinion won't change it.

As for My Lai?! The Soviets? Geez! Look who's accusing others of changing the subject. Fine, I'll readily grant you're not in favor of war crimes committed more than 40 years ago. Happy now? You still haven't answered my standing request to name any specific US death sentence (Soviets, Nazis, etc., are ancient history) you've ever opposed for any reason - not in theory but an actual one, in the real world. I suspect you never will.

In the meantime, if you can't or won't do that, why not discuss the topic of the post instead of dredging up years-old blog comments to drive the string further and further off topic? Like I said, despite your self-absorbed commentary, it's just not all about you.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 8, 2011 12:26:54 PM

Bill stated: "Is it you who still refuses to admit that those who think differently are not the wahoos you imply by your inveterate use of snarky phrase, "tuff on crime crowd?" Is it you who won't acknowledge that those who disagree can be -- and many are -- thoughtful and intelligent people? Is that you, Scott?"

Grits stated: "Bill, if you're looking for compliments, ask your wife how handsome you are. It's not my job to soothe your angst by telling you you're "thoughtful and intelligent." You either are or you aren't and my opinion won't change it."

Of course Bill never requested a personal compliment that HE is "thoughful and intelligent", just an admission that "MANY are."

Now the real problem is that Grits knows this. Unfortunately, he is far too dishonest to engage the point that Bill made, deciding to substitute a personal plea when none exists.

Grits stated: "As for My Lai?! The Soviets? Geez! Look who's accusing others of changing the subject. Fine, I'll readily grant you're not in favor of war crimes committed more than 40 years ago. Happy now? You still haven't answered my standing request to name any specific US death sentence (Soviets, Nazis, etc., are ancient history) you've ever opposed for any reason - not in theory but an actual one, in the real world. I suspect you never will."

Of course, you have to go back to the same era to find a proven case of an innocent being executed but I expect you have no problem with that.

Grits stated: "In the meantime, if you can't or won't do that, why not discuss the topic of the post instead of dredging up years-old blog comments to drive the string further and further off topic? Like I said, despite your self-absorbed commentary, it's just not all about you."

Definition of self-absorbed: Believing that Professor Berman requires or desires you to be the "on topic" police, especially since you have contributed to this thread going "off topic" as much as anyone.

A little self-awareness would do you a world of good.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 10, 2011 1:56:43 PM

'A little self-awareness would do you a world of good.'

TarlsQtr, what's up, is this the tag team approach? I'm sure Bill's quite capable of defending his position if he feels the need to.

Posted by: comment | Oct 10, 2011 5:55:40 PM

And isn't Grits capable of defending himself? Yet you decided to comment.

It is not about a "tag team." It is about Grits consistently setting up straw men to beat down regardless of who he debates (including me). He is dishonest and if he were a woman could be described as a shrew. No one is more capable than Bill, but I reserve the right to comment whenever I see fit.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 10, 2011 7:56:55 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB