SB 316 Tackles Asset Forfeiture Abuse in Texas

The Texas bill filed by State Senator John Whitmire to address the continuing abuse of asset forfeiture has progressed through both the House and Senate, and it is inching closer to becoming law.  In April, Right on Crime profiled a report by the Institute of Justice dealing with asset forfeiture abuse in Georgia.  Texas has similar problems with confiscated property and funds being used for non-law enforcement purposes – including the purchasing of alcohol for office parties.

Current Texas law allows a district attorney to appear at a roadside search and obtain a waiver for property seized before any court case or criminal charges have been filed.  SB 316, however, would prohibit these waivers until notice of a civil suit has been appropriately filed. Additionally, the bill establishes a list of unauthorized uses for appropriately seized assets, enabling law enforcement agencies to better avoid mishandling these assets.

Widespread Use of Criminal Background Checks in the Information Age

In March, the National Employment Law Project released a report entitled 65 Million “Need Not Apply”: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment. According to the report, almost 65 million Americans (about one in five) have some type of criminal record, whether for an arrest or a conviction. And, for many of those 65 million Americans who are seeking employment, the hiring process can be very difficult as employers are often leery of candidates with a criminal history.

A recent New York Times article tells the story of Ayanna Spikes, a 38-year old University of California-Berkeley graduate who was arrested in 1997 for robbing a video store.  While Ms. Spikes has not had any further brushes with the law in the last 14 years, she reports that she has been turned down for more than a dozen jobs since finishing college after employers ran a criminal background check.  The Times reports that like Ms. Spikes, others are turned away after having been “convicted of minor offenses, or of crimes that appear to have little relevance to the jobs they are seeking.”

The Internet has made performing these criminal background checks a lot easier, as potential employers no longer have to perform a physical search of court records. And according to this survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, almost 90% of the companies surveyed claim to run checks on employees. Yet, as Adam Klein, an attorney with Outten & Golden argues, “we’re spending a tremendous amount of money incarcerating people and then creating a system where it’s almost impossible for them to find gainful employment.”

Understandably, many employers believe that hiring someone with a criminal record may not be in their best interest. However, while recidivism studies show that nearly a third of offenders return to jail within three years, a number of “redemption” studies have demonstrated that recidivism declines steadily with time clean. Because the “risk that an ex-offender will be re-arrested decreases substantially over time,” eventually those offenders become indistinguishable from someone of the same age with no record. Thus, for people like Ms. Spikes, criminal background checks often serve as an unnecessary barrier to entry.

Criminal background checks serve an important purpose, and it is important to remember that employers can be liable if they fail to screen an employee who later harms someone. Yet, in light of available redemption statistics, reforming the way in which criminal background checks are used may be in order.

Texas Rehabilitation Programs Reduce Recidivism Rates

In May, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) released an evaluation of released offenders who had completed rehabilitation programs, many of which were expanded in the 2007 budget package. This package allocated $241 million to increasing the capacity of treatment slots and beds in lieu of spending $2 billion to build and operate the 17,332 new prison beds that the Legislative Budget Board projected in January 2007 that the state would need by 2012 .

These evaluations are routinely performed to examine the extent to which rehabilitation programs reduce offender re-incarceration and parole revocations. And, for offenders released in 2007, the report found that recidivism rates were significantly lower for those who participated in the programs.

Included among the studied programs were the faith-based InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment (SAFP) Program and the Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI), as well as other programs aimed at the successful reintegration of offenders.  And with the exception of the Pre-Release Substance Abuse Program (PRSAP), one of the smaller programs, all of these programs evaluated reduced the three-year recidivism for program completers. Significantly, the SAFP Program reduced recidivism by almost 14%.

The In-Prison Therapeutic Community (IPTC) reduced recidivism for program completers two and three years after release. Additionally, the Sex Offender Education Program (SOEP) and The Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) reduced recidivism for program completers two and three years after release.

The expanded capacity of these programs has also reduced costs since many inmates approved for parole cannot be released until they go through one of these six-month programs. As Texas House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden argued, “these new statistics show these programs are cost effective and are working”. Agreeing with Chairman Madden, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire added, “To cut these programs would be an invitation to build more prisons.”

Smart-On-Crime Legislatures

This panel from the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2010 States and Nation Policy Summit features four national experts on overcriminalization: U.S. Congressman Louie Gohmert, James Dunlop of Jones Day, Timothy O’Toole of Miller Chevalier, and Shana-Tara Regon of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The panel is moderated by Texas Representative Jerry Madden.

Smart-on-Crime Legislatures: Fighting Overcriminalization and Restoring the Proper Federal-State Equilibrium on Criminal Law and from American Legislative Exchange Co on Vimeo.

Cutting Crime and Budgets: The National Movement

This panel discussion from the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2010 States and Nation Policy Summit features three national experts on criminal justice reform: Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States, Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship, and Marc Levin of Right on Crime.

Cutting Crime and Budgets: The National Movement from American Legislative Exchange Co on Vimeo.

New Report Examines How to Improve Restitution Collection

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC), “policymakers, criminal justice officials, and victim advocates are becoming increasingly attuned to the problem of uncollected victim restitution.” While data for all states does not exist, reports that are available show discouraging levels of collected restitution in states and localities. In Texas, for instance, a 2008 examination found that more than 90 percent of offenders discharged from parole between 2003 and 2008 still owed their victims restitution.

In response to this growing problem, the NCVC released a report, Making Restitution Real, which includes five case studies examining local efforts to improve the collection and payment of victim restitution. Three of the five studies reflect statewide efforts in California, Michigan, and Vermont, while the remaining two focus on local programs in Arizona and Florida. While most programs focused on increased collections efforts, Vermont, for example, introduced a centralized system where victims are paid up-front, leaving the burden of collecting restitution from offenders to the state.

Altogether, these five studies represent important and wide-ranging efforts by states and localities to address the challenges inherent in collecting restitution. Though the numbers are staggering—the most recent statistics show uncollected criminal debt at the federal level to be over $50 billion—the report does not marginalize the fact that “behind these numbers are real crime victims in need.” And as courts have recognized, restitution is also important for offenders, as it “forces the defendant to confront, in concrete terms, the harm his or her actions have caused.”

“Allowing court-ordered fines and penalties to be ignored diminishes public respect for rule of law”, the report correctly notes, and establishing performance measures and benchmarks in order to facilitate the collection of victim restitution is an important challenge facing the states today. These case studies do a good job introducing some of the ways that states are beginning to address the problem.