Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Partisan Paradox: Why No "Texas Correctional Crisis"

It's always refreshing to take a look at our correctional mess from the outside. Yesterday, Scott Hanson, over at Grits for Breakfast, commented on our crisis, explaining "why Texas didn't go there".

Ironically, California may be suffering because it's trying to confront this problem with a Democratic majority. The turning point for Texas' prison system came in 2003, when Republicans found themselves in charge of both chambers of the Texas Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. That year, Speaker Tom Craddick named Ray Allen from Grand Prairie House Corrections chair, and Allen was immediately confronted with projections that Texas' already full prisons would require billions in new construction to keep up their astronomical growth rate.

[R]educing incarceration by diverting offenders to probation and keeping more of them there until they're off supervision - became the central strategy Texas employed to reduce incarceration growth. In 2005, Jerry Madden became House Corrections chair and - along with the Democratic Criminal Justice Chairman in the Senate, John Whitmire - sponsored legislation to revamp probation in order to provide more meaningful supervision (especially through reduced caseloads) and alternatives to incarceration, but leaving sentence lengths, at least on the books, alone.

I wonder whether a Republican majority in the CA legislature would be the ticket to resolve this; that is, whether such a majority would have a sense of responsibility for responding to the crisis and therefore come up with good solutions. We have seen quite a few examples of nonpartisan initiatives to save system costs by avoiding death row expansion, legalizing marijuana, and the like. The thing to remember is that the big architects of large-scale historical decarceration efforts have been, traditionally, conservative politicians. I strongly recommend reading Kathlyn Taylor Gaubatz's interesting book Crime in the Public Mind, which mentions, among many other interesting things:

Few may remember, however, that Ronald Reagan was not always the standard bearer of the get-tough movement. In an account of changes in California's criminal justice system, Caleb Foote writes that "during Ronald Reagan's tenure as governor, his administration first ordered the [Adult] Authority, as an economy measure, to reduce prison population by increasing parole release rates, a policy which enabled the state to close one prison and underpopulate San Quentin and some other prisons. Then the Reagan administration, attacked from the southland for being soft on crime . . ., reversed course and ordered the Authority to tighten ship." We know that the tides of public opinion began their harsh upswing during the years of Reagan's first governorship, and here is a revelation that his actions as a political leader were not always oriented to a crackdown on crime.

Good morning, and good luck.

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