A Second Chance for Wisconsin Youngsters

The age at which a citizen should be treated as an adult is one that comes up in many contexts, from drinking alcohol to voting. A 17 year-old, of course, can neither legally consume alcohol or vote.

In most states, the default rule is that 17 year-olds are processed in the juvenile justice system, which typically focuses more on rehabilitation, works closely with schools and child welfare agencies, has lower probation caseloads, and of course places youths in facilities where they do not share cells with hardened adult career criminals. Also, juvenile records except in the most serious cases are usually sealed when a youth becomes an adult unless they have continued to engage in criminal activity.

Wisconsin is one state where all 17 year-olds charged with a crime automatically enter the adult criminal justice system, even if it stealing a candy bar or smoking pot. However, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is unveiling legislation that would change that. Under this proposal, 17 year-olds charged with a first-time, nonviolent offense would be processed through the juvenile justice system while other 17 year-olds would continue to be charged as adults.

The primary reason to keep more youngsters in the juvenile system is that it is more effective in reducing recidivism, leading to greater public safety. A Florida study considered 475 pairs of juveniles in Florida, matched for age, gender, race, offense history, offense severity, and other factors, with one of each pair transferred to criminal courts while the other was retained in juvenile courts. In 29 percent of pairs, only the transferred juvenile re-offended, while for less than 15 percent of pairs did only the retained juvenile re-offend. After age 18, 50 percent of those transferred to criminal courts re-offended while 35 percent of those adjudicated by a juvenile court re-offended. And in those cases where both members of a matched pair re-offended, the transferred juvenile was more likely to have committed a more serious felony. Studies in other states have found similar results.

There are also other important factors. Those 17 year-olds who commit a first-time, nonviolent offense will be better able find employment and housing later in life if they are not saddled with a permanent adult criminal record. Perhaps the most overlooked factor in the discussion, however, if the integrity of the family. Few parents would not want to know if their 17 year-old son or daughter is arrested and placed in jail. Yet, when these teens are processed in the adult system, they can be arrested, jailed, and released without notice to a parent or guardian. This is especially problematic given that 17 year-olds are covered by the Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law, meaning they are hopefully in school being supported by their parents.

Given these considerations, this is an important issue for Wisconsin policymakers to address. The proposal in Wisconsin to redirect nonvi nt, first-time 17 year-old offenders into the juvenile justice system is sponsored by Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay), Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), Senator Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), and Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood). The bill is expected to be heard in early October.


Holder Announcement Follows String of Conservative Criminal Justice Reforms

Texas and Other States have Reduced Crime AND Criminal Justice Spending

Austin, TX—In response to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement on corrections reform, the conservative criminal justice reform movement Right on Crime, led by the nation’s leading conservatives, highlighted several examples where reform has been underway for years in the states producing results that have improved public safety, reduced criminal justice spending, and empowered victims.

“It’s good to see the Administration following the lead of conservative states such as Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia that have proven it’s possible to reduce crime while also reducing criminal justice spending,” said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) on behalf of Right on Crime. A project of TPPF, Right on Crime is supported by leading conservatives such as Newt Gingrich, Richard Viguerie, David Keene, Grover Norquist, J.C. Watts, Tony Perkins, among many others.

“What’s most important in the proposal is that it puts more control in the hands of local and state officials to determine sentencing.  One size does not fit all crimes and a mandate from the federal government is not applicable to every case or situation. As conservatives who believe in limited government, we know that the federal government has too often overreached on criminal justice and that most criminal activity is best handled at the state and local level

“Over the years, political leaders have failed to hold the criminal justice system accountable for its alarming increase in spending and lack of results. The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion per year, up from $11 billion in the mid-1980s.  Over the last thirty years, corrections has been the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid.

Texas took the lead on this effort in 2007, saving a projected $2 billion of taxpayer money by implementing conservative criminal justice reforms. Since then, the Texas Legislature has been able to authorize the closure of three prisons, and the state crime rate is at its lowest point since 1968. Conservative governors in other states such as Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota have followed Texas’s lead by signing new laws that right-size corrections spending and break the cycle of crime.

Right On Crime is a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in partnership with Prison Fellowship Ministries. The Texas Public Policy Foundation is research institute in Austin, TX committed to limited government, free markets, private property rights, individual liberty and personal responsibility.



California Considers Parole Petitions for Lifers Tried as Juveniles

A bill currently sitting on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk would permit judicial reconsideration of juveniles previously sentenced to life without parole.

Senate Bill 9, passed by the California Senate and Assembly this summer, would allow an inmate who was tried as a juvenile, and currently serving a sentence of life without parole, to ask for judicial review of his or her time served after 15 years. The judge would need to find evidence of remorse as well as successful efforts toward rehabilitation. If the inmate exhibits both, the sentence could be reduced to 25 years to life—essentially permitting the option of parole.

This proposal would wisely not require the automatic release of any youths sentenced to life without parole, but it would at least provide judges and parole board members the discretion to review cases after 15 years to make a decision based on the evidence as to whether continued incarceration is necessary for public safety.

Earlier this summer, the United States Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be mandatorily sentenced to life without parole; instead, the judge must consider the particulars of each case and each juvenile. The most conservative judges on the Court dissented, not because they viewed juvenile life without parole as a good policy, but because they took the very legitimate originalist and textualist position that those policies not clearly understood to be prohibited at the time the Constitution was created should not now be subject to judicial declarations that they have come to amount to cruel and unusual punishment based on changing societal mores.

However, regardless of one’s constitutional theory, the decision is now the law of the land and must be followed. Even if California’s current policy was constitutionally permissible, it fails to recognize the reality that some who commit even heinous crimes as juveniles have the capacity for change and rehabilitation. Both moral and fiscal considerations are at play when a rehabilitated convict serves a life without parole sentence. Noted conservative commentator Cal Thomas authored a piece that eloquently explained why conservatives should take an approach to this issue that is rightfully tough on youths who commit serious crimes, but still leaves the door open for rehabilitation and redemption that in some cases can be achieved over time.

Now, Governor Brown has an opportunity to both prioritize prison space for those that remain a danger to public safety and embrace the possibility that human beings, especially those who make terrible mistakes as a minor, can eventually be redeemed in some cases.


Governor Chris Christie Answers Crime Victims’ Pleas

It is clear that Mitt Romney has a friend in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but so do those who have been victims of crime. On August 8, Gov. Christie signed groundbreaking legislation he championed that empowers New Jersey residents who have been victims of crime.

This legislation gives victims access to more information from prosecutors, assists victims of violent crime with medical expenses out of funds paid by offenders, and entitles victims to appear in court for all proceedings. Perhaps most importantly, the new law requires a judge to consider a victim’s statement before accepting a plea bargain. Moreover, the law gives victims a tool to enforce these protections, as it gives them legal standing to file motions to ensure that their interests are recognized.

The vast majority of criminal cases in the modern criminal justice system are resolved through plea bargaining. In most states, victims do not have a right to be informed about plea bargaining proceedings or provide input to the court concerning their opinion of the plea deal. This is particularly important, since research has shown victims may have somewhat different priorities than the prosecution, with restitution being the number one goal of victims in property crime cases.

This is not the first time Gov. Christie has provided strong leadership on criminal justice reform. In late July, as we documented on Right on Crime, he signed legislation that redirects low-level drug possession offenders to drug courts, which are proven to reduce recidivism. This measure will save taxpayers’ dollars and better prioritize prison space for violent and dangerous offenders.

Few doubt Gov. Christie’s toughness, but he is not just tough, he is also smart, when it comes to crime. Thanks to his leadership, there is now more hope for both victims of crime and those seeking to overcome a drug habit.


Right On Crime Statement on the End of the Gibson Guitar Case

Yesterday, I issued the following statement upon the conclusion of the year-long drama in which the Department of Justice used the Lacey Act to fine Gibson Guitar $350,000 for importing ebony from Madagascar that was legally harvested, but shipped unfinished:

“The Lacey Act was originally crafted to protect endangered plant and animal species from being illicitly harvested, but it has devolved into an enforcement vehicle that fails to separate legal acts that boost our free-market economy from illicit criminal conduct.  The Gibson Guitar investigation has highlighted the urgent and serious need to reform the Lacey Act.  Such reforms should include requirements for the prosecution to provide proof the defendant acted intentionally and assurance that any penalties it inflicts are civil, not criminal, unless there is direct physical or economic harm to humans.

“Gibson Guitar’s case has helped to bring public attention to the dangers of overcriminalization, but the legendary guitar manufacturer is far from the only victim.  There are countless other cases that also raise troubling questions concerning the over 4,500 federal criminal laws and the failure to require proof of intent before an individual or business can be convicted.  Right on Crime is committed to documenting examples of overcriminalization and working with policymakers to advance much-needed reforms.”

On August 24, 2011, Gibson Guitar factories were raided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agency ordered workers to go home and confiscated over 100 guitars and boxes of raw materials.

The federal government justified the raid under the Lacey Act-a law originally intended to curb the poaching of endangered species that allows the United States to interpret and enforce criminal laws of other countries.

Gibson imports wood to create fingerboards for their guitars. The wood seized during the raid was harvested legally and was from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier.  Moreover, U.S. Customs allowed the shipment to pass through America’s border to Gibson’s factory.

For more information from Right on Crime, please click here.


Education Reform as a Model for Texas Criminal Justice System

Last Wednesday, I published this piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram titled “Education Reform as a Model for Texas Criminal Justice System.”

In a new report on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice by the Sunset Commission that is the blueprint for must-pass legislation, the recommendations unconsciously, but wisely, take a page out of the education reform book.

Policymakers should go even further than the sunset report in bringing to the corrections system the principles of individualized intervention, accountability and performance-based funding that have guided successful education reforms.

The corrections system has too often eschewed individualized intervention in favor of cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all models such as mandatory minimum sentencing and large lockups where inmates are treated the same regardless of their treatment needs, behavior and other factors.

Meanwhile, education systems are moving toward individually tailored approaches such as digital learning and one-on-one tutoring.

Fortunately, the sunset report envisions a more individualized corrections system, calling for personalized re-entry plans for all offenders released from state prisons and the systemwide use of an individualized risk and needs assessment to guide supervision and treatment.

Individualized re-entry plans for the 70,000 Texas inmates released annually would identify what resources, such as family members and churches, are available to assist them in successfully re-entering society.

Also, the sunset report wisely recommends these personalized re-entry plans begin behind bars, before being handed off to parole officers and service providers. This coordinated and customized inside-out approach makes sense because an inmate’s decisions during incarceration, such as whether he learns a trade and maintains family contacts, significantly impact success upon re-entry.

The report also recommends a systemwide individualized risk and needs assessment, which is analogous to assessments of academic proficiency that school systems have long used to determine which students to place in gifted and remediation programs.

Such assessments help allocate resources and ensure the program being offered addresses people’s risks and needs. Correctional assessment instruments contain an inventory of questions covering factors such as attitudes, peers, substance abuse and mental health issues, employment and living status that have been retroactively verified to accurately predict the risk of re-offending and identify which needs must be met by a supervision or treatment program to reduce that risk.

This information enables probation and parole departments to ensure those most at risk of re-offending are on smaller caseloads and under closer supervision, while low-risk offenders are not pulled away from their jobs for unnecessary appointments.

Finally, the sunset report urges lawmakers to align probation funding formulas with outcomes and factor in the risk level of departments’ caseloads, just as school districts with more at-risk students receive a funding weight.

Currently, Texas funds the 121 probation departments based largely on the number of probationers. Similarly, Texas funds its prisons and the programs within them based on the number of inmates and participants. In contrast, states are increasingly tying part of education funding to student performance and, even in Texas, persistently failing schools and districts are subject to closure.

Corrections must move from a system that grows when it fails to one that rewards results. This requires rigorous performance measures to determine which programs are getting the best results and linking part of funding to desired outcomes, such as lower recidivism, reduced substance abuse and increased victim restitution.

Lawmakers must act to incorporate Senate Bill 1055, which passed unanimously last session, into the budget. This would enable counties to voluntarily receive a share of the state’s savings when they send fewer low-level offenders to prison and achieve lower recidivism, higher employment rates and higher rates of victim restitution among their probationers.

As the next session approaches, the sunset report has provided Texas lawmakers with a promising opportunity to apply lessons from education reform to improve Texas’ corrections system.


Texas Crime Tumbles in 2011 Along with Incarceration Rate

There’s more good news for public safety in Texas. Texas Department of Public Safety officials announced on Friday that the state’s index crime rate per 100,000 people fell 8.3 percent in 2011 compared with 2010. This included a 14.3 percent drop in murders, a 15.4 percent drop in robberies, and a 4.3 percent drop in rapes. The various types of property crimes fell between 8 and 9 percent. While any of these crimes is too many if you are the victim, this is a very significant decline in a one year period.

Indeed, Texas’ crime drop in 2011 far outpaced the national decline. Nationally, violent crime fell 4.0 percent in 2011 compared with 2010 while property crime dropped 0.8 percent.

Of course, innumerable factors, some of which involve public policy and some of which do not, can influence changes in crime rates, such as demographics, socioeconomic conditions, law enforcement effectiveness, and the recidivism rate of those who are on probation or parole.

One thing we do know is that there were 155,892 inmates in Texas prisons at the end of December 2010 and 156,197 at the end of December 2011. Texas added 423,200 legal residents over a 12 month period including parts of 2010 and 2012. Accordingly, Texas’ adult incarceration rate would have declined from approximately 620 per 100,000 people in 2010 to 611 in 2011, a 1.45 percent drop.

We also know that, from fiscal year 2010 to 2011, Texas achieved a drop in felony probation revocations to prison, which fell from 24,239 to 23,881. The drop was even steeper among probation departments participating in the state’s voluntary funding program whereby they receive funds for lowering caseloads and implementing evidence-based practices such as graduated sanctions in exchange for setting a goal of fewer technical revocations, which are revocations for conduct such as missing meetings that does not involve a new crime. The minority of departments that do not participate actually slightly increased their revocations from 2010 to 2011.

The bottom line is that, while many factors are likely responsible for Texas’ tumbling crime rate, we do know it has not been accomplished by increasing incarceration. Indeed, in August 2011 Texas’ closed a medium or high security prison for the first time in history, as the capacity was no longer needed. Moreover, this is a continuation of the trend, which has seen Texas’ index crime rate fall 12.8 percent from 2005 to 2010 while its incarceration rate has dropped 9.0 percent over this period. The latest data should encourage Texas lawmakers to continue moving in this direction in the next session and cause even more states to look at Texas as a model for strengthening alternatives to incarceration to more cost-effectively hold nonviolent offenders accountable and protect public safety.


Aging Inmates Take Texas Budget Toll

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire recently shared with a Houston news outlet the list of Texas prison inmates who are incurring the highest health care costs, 100 percent of which are borne by Texas taxpayers. It showed that last year the costliest inmate racked up more than $330,000 in health care costs. All of the top ten costliest inmates racked up well over $130,000 in costs.

There are over 4,200 inmates age 61 or older in Texas state lockups and 200 inmates are crippled, mostly paraplegics and multiple-limb amputees. According to the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee, although older inmates (defined as 55 or above) comprise only 6.4 percent of the prison population, they account for 27.2 percent of hospital costs

new national study documents the growing number of older inmates and the high costs of incarcerating them, as well as the wealth of empirical research showing that older offenders have much lower recidivism rates. Let’s be clear. Inmates should not automatically be released because they are geriatric. However, in prioritizing limited prison space to maximize public safety and making informed parole decisions, it only makes sense to consider age as one of the factors that affects the risk level an offender presents. National research has shown that inmates over 60 have a 3.8% recidivism rate and those over 55 have a recidivism rate of between 2%and 8%. The overall recidivism rate is exponentially higher. Moreover, by carefully reviewing each case in a discretionary parole process, many of the few elderly inmates who still pose a risk can be identified and kept behind bars.

Texas policymakers should study options such as a parole nursing home and house arrest with GPS that could offer less costly options and, at the same time, ensure public safety. Ultimately, Texas must be both tough and smart when it comes to achieving the greatest reduction in crime with every taxpayer dollar spent.

This blog post has also been published at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Speaking Freely blog.


Sobering Centers: Cutting Jail Populations, Costs, and Crime

Almost 19,000 arrests in Houston each year are for public intoxication alone. While certainly this offense is an important tool to keep streets clean and crime free, public intoxication is almost always a non-violent offense handled most appropriately with detoxification rather than secure confinement. Not only does jail time fail to address the underlying issues, it is also expensive–in Houston, the 19,000 public intoxication arrests require $4-$6 million each year in law enforcement and jail costs.

In search of more effective case management of public intoxication offenders, San Antonio, San Diego, Phoenix, Colorado Springs, and Portland have all adopted the use of a “sobering center” as a diversion alternative for these offenders.

A sobering center accepts public intoxication offenders—and only such offenders–from law enforcement custody rather than being sent to a jail cell. Then, after obtaining health information, the offender is required to sober up. When sober, the center counsels the offender on alcohol issues and social services available to help break the cycle of alcoholism. Unless there are active city warrants out on the offender, he or she is then discharged.

This approach is more effective because it addresses the underlying issue of alcohol abuse inherent in most public intoxication offenses. It diverts these non-violent offenders away from costly jail beds while ensuring they are not out on city streets putting themselves or others in harm. Police officers, meanwhile, are free to turn their attention to far more dangerous crimes and criminals.

In turn, Houston is now considering a sobering center of its own. The estimated cost of annual operation is about $1.5 million, far less than the $4-6 million currently spent jailing public intoxication offenders. Further, the size of the facility has been calibrated to optimally handle almost all public intoxication offenders.

Other cities adopting such sobering centers have seen reductions in arrests and jail time for these offenders, as well as fewer emergency room and hospital check-ins for this often indigent population, on top of the cost savings found in jail bed diversions. In San Antonio, in the first year alone, the sobering center led to $6 million in cost savings. After three years, total cost savings from reduced jail time, reduced hospitalizations, and other sources stretches over $25 million.

The successes and cost savings realized by other municipalities are currently being considered by Houston as it seeks its own sobering center. The city may also decide that there is a better way of handling public intoxication that can keep Houston streets safe while saving taxpayers millions.


Houston’s Success in Crime-Fighting and Cost-Cutting

My hometown of Houston, Texas has had a some exceptional successes in crime-fighting and cost-cutting over the last few years. These successes can be attributed in part to policy innovations from Pat Lykos, the district attorney. Moreover, exciting new initiatives that are based on solid research such as Judge Jan Krocker’s mental health court and a sobering center are just now getting underway. I wrote about several of these innovations — and the unfinished work that Houston still has left to do — in a piece for the Houston Chronicle this weekend. You can read it by clicking here.