August 27, 2018
A notable (and curious?) call for criminal justice reform that serves as another sign of new political times
The passing of John McCain this weekend led me to review some of my long ago postings in the blog topic archive labelled Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues. The main theme I kept returning to is how little discussion there was of criminal justice issues during that election cycle. Here are links to a few of the 2008 posts on that theme:
- Is ignorance bliss as Campaign 2008 ignores crime and punishment issues?
- Will the 2008 Prez candidates ever seriously discuss modern incarceration realities?
- Boston Globe noticing crime dogs not barking in 2008 campaign
- Another reminder of the crime dog that did not bark in the 2008 election season
Other posts in that archive that might still be considered notable a decade later include Rudy Giuliani doing robocalls accusing Senator Obama of being soft on crime and Is Senator Clinton to the right of Justice Scalia on sentencing issues?. (This last post has me thinking again about the fact that Hillary Clinton's criminal justice history makes her seem much more like a member of the "tough and tougher" crowd than many (most?) members of the current GOP. Hillary Clinton in 2007 (in)famously opposed making retroactive the first small crack guideline amendments passed by the US Sentencing Commission, most of the GOP seemingly now supports making the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act fully retroactive.)
Of course, circa 2018, there is a heck of a lot more talk about criminal justice reform from an array of political candidates in all parties. And I noticed this morning this interesting (and somewhat curious) commentary by Beto O'Rourke, a Texas congressman taking on Ted Cruz for election to the US Senate, under the headline "O’Rourke: Texas should lead the way on true criminal justice reform." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:
On Wednesday, I toured the Harris County Jail with Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and met men from this community who have made a mistake from which they may or may not recover. Men who don’t have the resources to post bail. Some of whom got arrested on purpose to get the treatment and care they need, care they won’t be able to afford or access on the outside. In fact, the Harris County Jail is the largest provider of mental health services in our state, a state that is the least insured in the nation. Of the 10,000 inmates in the Harris County Jail, one quarter of them are being prescribed at least one psychotropic medication. The jail has more people receiving psychiatric treatment every day than the nine state mental hospitals in Texas combined.
But beyond those who need health care, there are many more languishing behind bars for nonviolent crimes — sixty percent yet to even be convicted. Unable to work, to pay taxes, to raise their kids, to contribute to our society, to realize their full potential. And it’s happening at the average cost of $87 per person, per day, and more than $400 per person, per day for prisoners requiring medication or medical treatment. That tab is ultimately picked up by the taxpayers of Harris County.
The jail I visited is not an outlier. Rather, it is part of the world’s largest prison population. One that is disproportionately comprised of people of color, though we know that people of all races use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate. Many have called this the New Jim Crow, and for good reason. One in four black children have had a parent in the criminal justice system, compared to just four percent of white children. That rate is nearly two times what it was in the 1980s. And it begins with a school-to-prison pipeline that starts as early as kindergarten, where a black child is four to five times as likely to be suspended or expelled as a white child.
Following my visit, I am more convinced than ever that Texas can and must take the lead in building a criminal justice system that is more fair and that urgently puts our country closer to the words written above the highest court in our land: equal justice under law. This is how I propose we do it.
First, we should eliminate private, for-profit prisons from our justice system. Locking someone up is a power that should be reserved for our government, not outsourced to corporations that have the perverse incentive of getting more people behind bars so that there are more profits for their shareholders.
Second, we need to end the failed war on drugs that has long been a war on people, waged on some people over other people. Who is going to be the last man — more likely than not a black man — to languish behind bars for possessing or using marijuana when it is legal in more than half of the states in this country? We should end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it, ensuring that they can get work, finish their education, contribute to their full potential and to the greatness of this country.
Third, we must stop using mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses — a practice that costs taxpayers dearly and destroys lives in the process by locking up people who could safely re-enter society. And we replace this practice with policies that begin treating addiction like the public health concern it is.
Fourth, we can end the current use of bail bonds that punish people for being poor. This is a tactic that wastes resources on incarcerating those who are not a threat to anyone, not a flight risk, not likely to be repeat offenders. In the Harris County Jail, it’s estimated that 500 to 600 of the inmates at any given time fit this description — in for misdemeanors but without the resources to post bail as I did more than twenty years ago.
Finally, we should provide meaningful reentry to help cut down on recidivism for those who committed non-violent crimes. That starts with strong rehabilitation services, counseling and access to preventative health care. It continues by banning the box on job applications so those formerly incarcerated can work and pay taxes, returning drivers licenses so they can get to that place of employment, allowing them to apply for loans that can unlock skills trainings, and ensuring their constitutional right to participate in civic life by voting is protected....
Giving low-level offenders a second chance no matter the color of their skin or the economic status they hold can create opportunity for all of us. It will help build a future that is more just, more fair, and more prosperous for every single person in this state and this country. It is time for Texas to lead the way.
I call this commentary "curious: because O'Rourke is talking about his experience touring a local jail while running for federal office, and he makes no mention of current federal proposals like the FIRST STEP Act. Senator Ted Cruz has been resistant to some federal sentencing reforms proposed even by the GOP, and I would think candidate O'Rourke could and should seek to clearly distinguish his position from that of his opponent. Moveover, as students of modern criminal justice know, it is a bit curious to call for "Texas to lead the way" in criminal justice reform because, to a large extent, Texas already has starting the the mid 2000s when the state turned away from building more prisons and invested in more alternatives to incarceration.
Curious particulars notwithstanding, it is still heartening that our modern political times have evolved to the point that prominent candidates in the Lone Star State are eager to talk at length about improving Texas justice (even when a candidate is seeking a federal office).
August 27, 2018 at 12:23 PM | Permalink