Texas Juvenile Agencies Merge into a Single Juvenile Justice Commission

According to a recent report from the Houston Chronicle, Texas lawmakers took a significant step in the right direction when Governor Rick Perry signed the Texas Youth Commission reform bill.  It passed unanimously in the state senate, and with only two dissenting votes in the house, showing a unified sentiment by both parties that criminal justice reform is a priority.  (Right On Crime previously discussed the legislation here.)

The legislation will reorganize several commissions into a single Texas Juvenile Justice Commission, shift available funds to rehabilitation programs, and close 30% of the state’s youth prisons.  Current estimates place the expected savings from the bill at $150 million.  Moreover, the advocates emphasized the societal benefits of such reforms.  Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), the bill’s sponsor, said “If you lock up kids and don’t deal with the root causes, they are going to re-offend.”  Texas Public Policy Foundation Board Member Tim Dunn similarly said “It is not in our best interest to take someone who is a productive member of society and train them to be a hardened criminal. It’s morally stupid.”

Texas has seen fiscal and substantive improvements with similar initiatives.  In 2007, Whitmire helped to save the state $300 million by advocating better probation and rehabilitation programs instead of building new prisons.  Since 2007, parole revocations have dropped 40%.  In 2006, Texas held 5,000 juveniles in custody, while today that number is down to 1,400, and the youth crime rate has fallen.

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Recession? Lower Incarceration Rates? No Problem for Texas.

According the most recent annual report from the Department of Public Safety, Texas experienced a drop in both violent and non-violent crime rates across the board last year.  This is newsworthy on its own, but it is particularly notable that the drop in crime coincides with a statewide drop in incarceration, and an increase in unemployment.

Statewide, violent crime fell 8.3% and non-violent crime fell 5.7%.  Specifically, robbery fell a stunning 14.9% and rape fell by 9.2%.  Adult arrests dropped 4.6% and juvenile arrests dropped a huge 9.3%.

Dallas is an especially interesting case study.  In 2005, Dallas was given the FBI’s “most unsafe city in America” distinction, but it responded by abandoning its tough-on-crime approach.  Now, in the DPS report, Dallas led the state with a 10.2% drop in crime – and Big D is currently #52 on the FBI’s list.  Grits for Breakfast, a website that follows criminal justice developments in Texas, observes that numbers like this are “calling into question quite a few assumptions about incarceration and crime.”

Houston, San Antonio, Forth Worth, Austin, and El Paso all saw declines in crime rate as well, all coupled with lower incarceration rates than previous years.  Meanwhile Round Rock, which stubbornly adheres to the antiquated “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach, saw an 8% increase in crime.

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Criminal Citations for Students Who Chew Gum?

Since 1995, Texas has been issuing criminal citations to students who misbehave at school and more than 275,000 such citations are now issued. While some are certainly appropriate, we have also seen Class C misdemeanors to ten-year-olds for chewing gum, sleeping in class, or cursing.

Texas Senate Bill 1116 by Representative Jerry Madden and Senator John Whitmire, which is on the House Calendar today, would address this absurdity by eliminating the practice of schools issuing Class C misdemeanors to students below the age of 12 for minor misbehavior that traditionally would have been dealt with in the school system. Evidence shows that there are more effective disciplinary practices than sending these kids to a municipal court, which can only fine their parents. Students this young are not appropriately held responsible for signing a citation saying that they will appear in court. Under this bill, officers could still arrest such youngsters for any offense for which any person can be arrested, ensuring that school safety will not be compromised.

Finally the proposed bill carries no fiscal note.  This is a problem that is solved with a little common sense, not tax dollars.  Texas should enhance discipline in schools instead of passing the paddle to municipal courts and putting 4th, 5th, and 6th graders on a path to the juvenile justice system for routine school misbehavior.

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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Order Releasing Thousands of Inmates

This morning, the Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in Brown v. Plata. Justice Kennedy, as usual, was the swing vote, and in this case he joined the liberal wing of the court in holding that a court order forcing California to reduce its prison population did not violate the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act. The releases were ordered to alleviate prison overcrowding that had been deemed violative of the Eighth Amendment.  In effect, the Court’s decision results in the release of tens of thousands of incarcerated persons. The full opinion is here.

The decision is a case study in why state legislators must take initiative on prison reform. When legislators ignore prison overcrowding – as California’s legislators have done for years – federal courts will step in and do the job for them via “structural injunctions” – and the results aren’t pretty.  Economist Steven Levitt’s research suggests that in the three years following court decisions ordering inmate releases, violent crime rises by ten percent and property crime rises by five percent. As Justice Scalia explained in his scathing dissent today:

Structural injunctions…[turn] judges into long-term administrators of complex social institutions such as schools, prisons, and police departments. Indeed, they require judges to play a role essentially indistinguishable from the role ordinarily played by executive officials….[Structural injunctions] force judges to engage in a form of factfinding-as-policymaking that is outside the traditional judicial role. The factfinding judges traditionally engage in involves the determination of past or present facts based…exclusively upon a closed trial record….When a judge manages a structural injunction, however, he will inevitably be required to make very broad empirical predictions necessarily based in large part upon policy views—the sort of predictions regularly made by legislators and executive officials, but inappropriate for the Third Branch.”

Justice Scalia went on to describe the release order as “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history,” and he read his dissent (joined by Justice Thomas) from the bench.

This case, of course, never should have come this far. There was an alternative solution. Texas, for example, faced a looming overcrowding crisis in 2007, but state legislators confronted the crisis directly, made targeted changes that focused on diversion programs for nonviolent offenders, and ultimately prevented a “California-type” catastrophe.  Texas, in fact, was actually able to close a prison this year. The state also enjoys the lowest crime rate it has had since 1973.

Under today’s order, California now has three years to comply. A good place to start might be improved treatment programs for the 28,736 California inmates currently incarcerated for drug offenses, including 10,358 for possession. The state should also take a look at the 32,677 property offenders in its prison system.  California should follow Texas’s lead and use diversion programs to make sure that prisoners are not released carte blanche with no reentry services. California now has to get serious about reforming its criminal justice system – whether it wants to or not.

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George Will on Prison Costs

George Will’s new column is about public sector employee unions in California, and it begins with this note about the state’s infamous prison guard union:

Pausing in his struggle to solve, or to get others to solve, today’s iteration of California’s recurring fiscal crisis, Jerry Brown, the recurring governor, recently approved a new contract for the prison guards union. Henceforth, guards can cash out at retirement an unlimited number of unused vacation days. Most California employees can monetize only 80 accrued days. Many guards will receive lump sums exceeding $100,000. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that guards possess time worth $600 million. The union contributed almost $2 million to Brown’s 2010 campaign.

In 1980, according to former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, 10 percent of the state’s general fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons; in 2010, almost 11 percent went to prisons and 7.5 percent to higher education. The national average incarceration cost is $29,000 per inmate per year. California’s cost is $49,000, about $7,000 more than a year’s tuition at Dartmouth.

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