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February 14, 2017

Noting central place of Texas in (incomplete) consensus disfavoring increased use of incarceration

Today's New York Times has this extended commentary about incarceration authored by Tina Rosenberg running under the headline "Even in Texas, Mass Imprisonment Is Going Out of Style."  Here are excerpts:

It promises to be a bleak four years for liberals, who will spend it trying — and, most likely, failing — to defend health care, women’s rights, climate change action and other good things.  But on one serious problem, continued progress is not only possible, it’s probable. That is reducing incarceration.  In an era of what seems like unprecedented polarization and rancor, this idea has bipartisan support. The Koch brothers and Black Lives Matter agree.  The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union Foundation agree.  Bernie Sanders and Newt Gingrich agree.

Here’s what they agree on:

• The United States went overboard on mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.

• This has ruined a lot of lives — of those incarcerated, yes, but also others among their families and communities.

• The evidence says that harsher sentences don’t prevent crime and may even lead to more crime.

• Jailing people is really, really expensive.

• Prison brings no help and much harm to the 80 percent of prisoners who are addicted to drugs or mentally ill.

• There are alternatives to imprisonment that keep Americans safe.

(There are also crime and justice issues that these liberals and conservatives do not agree on, such as the death penalty, the merits of private prisons and, of course, guns.)

Even all this agreement is no guarantee of progress in Washington.  President Trump’s policies on crime are whatever slogans get the crowd roaring. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a D-plus record on this issue as a senator.  He supported reducing the disparity in sentencing for cocaine and crack possession. He did vote for the Prison Rape Elimination Act — kudos for that, I suppose.  But last year, Mr. Sessions, along with a few other Republican senators, blocked the major bill on this issue, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, from coming to a vote.  So the administration can be expected to be unhelpful, with Congress a question mark.

While Washington’s actions are important, however, federal prisons hold only one in eight imprisoned Americans.  So mass incarceration is really a state issue. And in the states, momentum is heartening. After quintupling between 1974 and 2007, the imprisonment rate is now dropping in a majority of states.  Overall, it fell by 8.4 percent from 2010 to 2015, while crime dropped by 14.6 percent, according to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

California slashed its incarceration rate by 27 percent between 2006 and 2014 after a court order. New York cut its rate by 18 percent, largely because of reform of the Rockefeller drug laws that mandated long sentences for possession. New Jersey’s rate dropped by 24 percent.

More remarkable — and probably more persuasive to other states and to Congress now — is the shift in red states, where incarceration rates have been the highest. In the last decade, they have dropped substantially in South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and, notably, in lock-’em-up Texas....

The cost of prisons was a huge issue.  In 2007, the Texas Legislative Budget Board projected that the state would need more than 17,000 new prison beds over five years, a building project that would cost $530 million, never mind the operating costs. That pushed the ultraconservative House speaker, Tom Craddick, to a breaking point. Jerry Madden, the Republican chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said in an interview that Craddick took him aside. “Don’t build new prisons,” Craddick told him. “They cost too much.”

Madden was an engineer and took that approach, asking: What is proven to work to keep people out of prison? How much of that do we need to buy in order to not build more of them? For ideas, he and his staff talked to research and advocacy groups, including the liberal coalition and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which gave birth to and houses Right on Crime.

That there was a conservative research group to consult was in itself remarkable. “No one in conservative think tanks worked on criminal justice, other than to advocate for more prisons and more incarceration,” said the foundation’s director, Brooke Rollins, who had been Gov. Rick Perry’s policy director. But in 2004, Rollins got a call from Tim Dunn, an oilman who helps fund the foundation and serves on its board. Dunn has put millions of his own money into pushing the Texas legislature further to the right. Texas Monthly called him “probably the most influential person many Texans have never heard of.”

“Conservatives are wrong on crime,” he told a startled Rollins. “Scripture would not call us to build prisons and forget people.” Dunn believes that crime victims want restitution and repentance, while the prison system merely incapacitates. On his personal website, he wrote that “nonviolent crimes should be recompensed in a way that gets people back into the work force and adding to communities as quickly as possible,” and that Texas should “focus on restoring victims and communities damaged by crime.”

At Dunn’s urging, Rollins hired Levin part time to work on a conservative approach to criminal justice reform. “We found the conservative and liberal think tanks agreed on 70, 80 percent of the stuff,” said Madden.  And it’s those areas of agreement that were put in the bill. The reforms passed nearly unanimously — and although Perry had previously vetoed narrower reforms, this time he signed them. (He now endorses the Right on Crime agenda.)  Reforms continue today: 16 bills passed in the last legislative session, including one allowing people to erase their criminal records in some circumstances....

The state now has drug courts, veterans’ courts and mental health courts. “They are there to provide help, but at the same time, structure,” said Madden, who is retired from the legislature.  “You have a problem and we’re going to help you with your problem.”  Many inmates were in prison for technical violations of their probation or parole. Now those violations often bring rapid sanctions and supervision instead of a return to prison.

The rate of incarceration in Texas state prisons fell by 17 percent from 2007 to 2015, according to the coalition, and the juvenile incarceration rate fell by nearly three-quarters. Recidivism is dropping steadily. At the same time, the crime rate has dropped by 27 percent.

Texas still has much to do. It ranks sixth or seventh in the nation in imprisonment rates. Some 8,900 people are in the state jail system for crimes that are neither violent nor sexual. Many are there for drug charges, but they often can’t get treatment in jail.  Thousands of people are sent back to prison each year for technical revocation of parole or probation.  As for juveniles, 22,000 are in the adult system, where they are at high risk of sexual assault and suicide....

The fall in crime rates — itself a reason incarceration has dropped — has made reform politically possible. Conservative leadership in states like Texas gives everybody cover. And Americans support criminal justice reform by large majorities.  One telling example: in his re-election campaign in 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Republican, highlighted his reforms that lowered the rate of incarceration among African-Americans by 20 percent.  Twenty years ago, a Republican in Georgia would have boasted about the opposite.

If crime rates begin rising again, could hard-line thinking once more prevail? Yañez-Correa doesn’t think so. “Many legislators want to work on these issues jointly because other issues are so polarized,” she said. “People on both sides are genuinely interested and devoted.”

This story is important and encouraging, but it fails I think it connect fully with the import and impact of Prez Trump campaigning on a "law and order" platform and his eagerness to make much of the uptick in murder and other violent crimes in some big cities in recent years.  The folks over at Crime & Consequences and many others are quick and keen to link any and every increase in crime to recent decreased use of incarceration, and that perspective is certainly some element of how Prez Trump and AG Sessions think about crime and punishment issues.

I remain hopeful that, especially at the state level, there is continued interest in, and bipartisan support for, an array of "smart on crime" alternatives to incarceration for a range of less serious and less dangerous offenders.  But I do not think that Prez Trump and AG Sessions, arguably the two most important criminal justice policy-makers for the next few years, subscribe to all or even most of what is listed above in the commentary as points of agreement.  And that is a very big deal that must always be front and center as one considers the future of criminal justice reform at both the federal and state level.

February 14, 2017 at 02:57 PM | Permalink

Comments

"One telling example: in his re-election campaign in 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Republican, highlighted his reforms that lowered the rate of incarceration among African-Americans by 20 percent. Twenty years ago, a Republican in Georgia would have boasted about the opposite."

Typical garbage from the NYTimes. A GOP governor would have bragged about locking up African-Americans? Really? Any thoughts on the Freudian slip, Doug?

Posted by: federalist | Feb 14, 2017 3:06:50 PM

What "Freudian slip" are you referencing, federalist?

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 14, 2017 5:16:56 PM

The Times piece said that a GOP governor would have celebrated a 20% increase in the incarceration rate of African-Americans 20 years ago. I know that's what the Times thinks of Republicans, which makes it a Freudian slip.

Doug, take that statement in. It's astounding.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 14, 2017 6:26:34 PM

All the people who agree with each other live on baronial estates, with crime rates lower than in Japan and in Switzerland.

This commentary forgot to sample the opinion of one group, crime victims.

Is this commentary also from the NY Times? Dismissed.

The NY Times is a left wing political hate speech propaganda outlet. It uses the same methods and has the same credibility as the David Duke web site. David Duke hates Jews and blacks. He does not lie about them. He selects stories that support his belief they are evil. The NY Times does the same and has the same credibility as David Duke. Both lie by selective stories.

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 14, 2017 7:12:24 PM

federalist, I do not think the statement is a slip or a Freudian one --- it is a statement that coarsely recalls the reality that many in the 1990s (both Rs and Ds) were calling for and bragging about enacting longer sentences for many crimes.

That said, you are astute to note the ugliness and inaccuracy of suggesting that anyone would actively in that period brag about increasing the incarceration rate of blacks or any other particular minority. But this is not a "Freudian slip" --- it is a revelation of how racialized and racially insensitive so much of our crime and punishment discourse can often be among folks on both the left and the right.

So, federalist, I agree you have noted here a misguided smear, but I would not call it a Freudian slip.

Posted by: Doug B | Feb 14, 2017 8:58:59 PM

Texas prides itself on its capacity for independent, non-federal, thought and action and is therefore often both the first to lead and the last to follow when it comes to law-making, judicial and penal change. A four-year Trump presidency will do little to dent that I fancy.

Posted by: peter | Feb 15, 2017 5:05:38 AM

Fair enough, Doug. The Times should be ashamed.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 15, 2017 9:59:17 AM

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