Washington Looks Into Conservative Criminal Justice Reforms

Winds of change in criminal justice aren’t completely leaving liberal states behind. Washington is also showing interest in Justice Reinvestment. This movement was begun by the Council of State Governments and was predominately adopted by conservative states.

This strategy will help overcrowding – currently a problem for Washington – by using inexpensive evidence-based programs that divert low-risk offenders from burdensome and damaging prisons. It will also address the increase that Washington has seen in offenses, particularly worrisome as most other states are experiencing lower crime rates.

Read more here.


Using Harris Jails Less and Seeing Public Safety Improve More

In Texas, everything is big—but that’s not always something to boast about. For example, the Harris County Jail, which houses about 9,000 inmates daily, is the third-largest jail system in the nation.

Prisons and jails are different. Prisons are state-level facilities for felony offenders who have been convicted. Jails are county-level facilities that hold sentenced misdemeanor offenders, and also—importantly—people who are awaiting trial after an arrest (or some other disposition of their case). This second group of individuals generally consists of those who have not been convicted of a crime.

Indeed jails house many people who may never be convicted of a crime. They also house many people who will be convicted, but who will ultimately receive probation or some other form of community supervision, such as mandatory drug court because it is determined that the underlying crime does not require incapacitation.

In Harris County, there are about 6,000 offenders of this sort, and an average Harris County inmate spends nearly one month in jail.

The cost of housing each one of these jail inmates for one day is $59.00. Thus, each day, around half a million dollars is being spent to jail such individuals in Harris County.

The pretrial incarceration of those who do not pose a high risk of committing a serious crime is counterproductive for public safety. A person who spends nearly a month in jail is likely to be out of a job upon release—and unemployment is a major risk factor for re-offending (or offending for the first time, if the individual was not guilty in the first place).

Harris County, therefore, needs to find a way to use jails less.

Fundamentally, this is a matter of distinguishing between those individuals who pose a high risk of committing a serious crime if released prior to trial from those who pose a low risk.

In the past, drawing such distinctions was difficult because counties had no actual method other than the “gut feeling” of law enforcement authorities.

Increasingly, however, that is changing.

Some states, like Kentucky, are developing pretrial risk assessment instruments that can be used to make sound determinations about who needs to be in jail and who does not.

The Kentucky instrument, which was implemented in July of 2013, has shown promising results. Fewer Kentuckians are in jail, taxpayers have saved $30-$40 million, and crime rates—which had been falling for years—are continuing their decline. All counties in Texas—including Harris—should be studying Kentucky’s success closely.

Another way to reduce the jail population and produce better public safety results is to identify those individuals who are mentally ill and to place them in treatment settings rather than behind bars.

Harris County’s jail is the biggest mental health facility in the state. It treats more psychiatric patients than all the public mental health hospitals in Texas put together.

A jail, however, is not suited to provide such care. Most people in law enforcement realize this, and would welcome the legal authority to take an offender straight to a hospital or crisis center rather than to a jail for booking and confinement.

On this score, Harris County is enviably ahead of most counties in Texas. In 2013, the legislature, under the leadership of Senators Joan Huffman and John Whitmire, authorized a jail diversion program in Harris County that—along with the highly successful 24-hour crisis center and case management system in Bexar County—could become a model for other jurisdictions.

Additionally, mental health courts are a proven model for holding these offenders accountable for complying with their treatment and probation conditions. Creating an additional mental health court in Harris County would expand on the success of this collaborative, problem-solving model.

Finally, it is sensible to use more citations, rather than arrests, when dealing with certain law-breakers. Ignoring citations would result in an arrest warrant, just like ignoring traffic tickets. The Texas Legislature actually authorized this procedure for certain misdemeanors in 2007, but it is underutilized.

Florida is achieving great success with civil citations in cases such as low-level shoplifting where the individual must pay restitution and perform community service to avoid ultimately being convicted and jailed.

In the last three years, crime in Texas has declined at the same time that the state has closed three prisons. Texas has earned national plaudits for these policies that improve the back door of the criminal justice system, but we must also fix the front door. The biggest county in the state, Harris, is the place to start.


Originally published in the Houston Chronicle.


ROC Signatory JC Watts leads Colson Task Force to Tackle Federal Prison Reforms

In yesterday’s Roll Call, former Virginia Congressman Alan Mollohan and Oklahoma Congressman and Right on Crime signatory JC Watts announced the formation of the Charles Colson Task Force to tackle federal prison reform. They write:

It is imperative that public safety remain the focal point of this conversation. When we talk about reducing federal spending on incarceration, we’re not advocating for the release of persons who pose a danger to society. But we also know that there are smarter and more cost-effective ways to deal with criminals using programs like drug courts and enhanced supervision. Moreover, federal prisoners should receive programming that helps improve their reentry chances and likelihood of success once they leave incarceration. [Continue reading at Roll Call…]

The new bipartisan Task Force is named after the late Chuck Colson, a former aide to President Nixon who, after serving time for Watergate-related offenses, founded the Justice Fellowship and became the leading figure in conservative criminal justice reform.

Below is the press release for the Colson Task Force. Find out more about the project at colsontaskforce.org

Former US Reps. J.C. Watts, Jr. and Alan Mollohan Announce Federal Corrections Task Force
Blue ribbon panel named for Charles Colson will take on federal prison overcrowding

Washington, DC- Today, former US Representatives J.C. Watts, Jr. and Alan Mollohan announced the establishment of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections: a nine-person, bipartisan blue-ribbon panel mandated by Congress to examine challenges in the federal corrections system and develop practical, data-driven policy responses. Watts will serve as the Colson Task Force’s chair and Mollohan will serve as its vice-chair.

“The time is ripe for federal prison reform,” said Colson Task Force chair J.C. Watts, Jr. “Our blue-ribbon panel harnesses the expertise of some of the brightest justice policy minds in the country, including criminal justice leaders who have been working to safely reduce corrections populations in their home states. Together we will build on current momentum for improving efficiencies in the federal prison system and reducing its social and financial costs in a way that’s grounded in data and consistent with public safety.”

“I’ve long argued that instead of throwing good money after bad, Congress should follow the example of the states and take steps to curb federal prison population growth,” said Colson Task Force vice-chair Alan Mollohan. “I’m encouraged that there have been bills introduced that aim to do that, and I firmly believe that the Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections will be an excellent vehicle to help transform many of those ideas, and others yet to be developed, into law.”

The federal prison population has grown by a factor of eight since 1980, with 214,000 prisoners at the close of fiscal year 2014. While this population recently experienced its first drop in three decades, facilities continue to operate over capacity, endangering staff and prisoners and costing taxpayers nearly $7 billion—a quarter of the Justice Department’s budget. Continued prison overcrowding also jeopardizes critical efforts to provide prison rehabilitation, employment, and reentry programs that promote public safety and reduce recidivism.

The Colson Task Force is named for former Nixon aide Charles “Chuck” Colson who, after serving time in a federal prison camp for his role in Watergate, made a commitment to support prisoners and their families through the establishment of the world’s largest family of prison ministries. Task Force members include state criminal justice reform champions; a former federal prosecutor, judge, and defender; and others with critical perspectives.

Members of the Charles Colson Task Force:

  • J.C. Watts, Jr., Chair: Chairman, J.C. Watts Companies; Congressman (R-OK) (1995-2003)
  • Alan B. Mollohan, Vice-Chair: Congressman (D-WV) (1983-2011)
  • David C. Iglesias:  Director, J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy, Wheaton College; United States Attorney for the District of New Mexico (2001-07)
  • Jim Liske: President and CEO, Prison Fellowship Ministries
  • Jay Neal: Executive Director, Georgia Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry; Representative, Georgia General Assembly (R-Lafayette) (2005-13)
  • Laurie O. Robinson: Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University; Assistant Attorney General, US Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs (1993-2000; 2009-12)
  • Cynthia W. Roseberry: Project Manager, Clemency Project 2014; Executive Director, Federal Defenders of the Middle District of Georgia (2009-14)
  • Judge Ricardo M. Urbina: Arbitrator and Mediator, JAMS; Judge, US District Court for the District of Columbia (1994-2012)
  • John E. Wetzel: Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

The Task Force will convene in January 2015 and hold five meetings throughout the year. Its members will identify the drivers of federal prison population growth and increasing corrections costs; evaluate policy options to address the drivers and identify recommendations; and prepare and submit a final report in December 2015 with findings, conclusions, policy recommendations, and legislative changes for consideration by Congress, the Attorney General, and the President.

The Urban Institute and its partner, the Center for Effective Public Policy, is providing research, analysis, strategic guidance, and logistical support to the Charles Colson Task Force through a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice.

Today’s event was hosted on Capitol Hill by US Representatives Frank Wolf (VA-10) and Chaka Fattah (PA-2), the chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, which led the effort to create the Task Force.

With today’s announcement also comes the launch of the Colson Task Force website, http://www.colsontaskforce.org, which will house the latest news and information on the Task Force’s meetings and other activities.


BBC Radio: Why Texas is Closing Prisons in Favor of Rehab

A few weeks ago, the BBC sent former David Cameron speechwriter Danny Kruger to Texas to look into the successes of that state’s criminal justice reforms. The first stop on his tour was our Right on Crime office at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin. Kruger spoke to Right on Crime policy director Marc Levin as well as senior fellow Jerry Madden. In an article accompanying the half-hour broadcast (embedded below), Kruger described the evolution of of the conservative criminal justice reform movement, correctly identifying that it “goes way beyond the desire to save money”:

Consistent with the straightforward Texan manner, [in 2007,] the Congressional Republicans did not attempt to tackle what in Britain are known as “the causes of crime” – the socio-economic factors that make people more disposed to offend. Instead, they focused on the individual criminal, and his or her personal choices. Here, they believe, moral clarity and generosity are what’s needed.

Though fiscal conservatism may have got the ball rolling, what I saw in Texas – spending time in court and speaking to offenders, prison guards, non-profit staff and volunteers – goes way beyond the desire to save money.

Continue reading at the BBC, and listen to the whole show below.


Cutting Costs and Crime: Levin Quoted in New York Times

People across the country are beginning to wonder whether or not we are incarcerating ourselves out of an economy. After massive crackdowns on crime in the 90’s created hosts of stringent crimes and punishments, now millions of individuals find it almost impossible to get work. Criminal records, even for low-level non-violent offenses, can mean a life-time of rejection letters and welfare. But both sides of the table are beginning to realize this and are taking steps to mitigate it in the future. Right on Crime policy director Marc Levin was quoted in a New York Times article about the growth of conservatives’ awareness of the subject:

“There’s been a shift in people away from wanting to get even,” said Marc A. Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a conservative anti-crime group in Texas. “People are focused now on getting results. It really is a great benefit to public safety if ex-offenders are able to get jobs, find places to live and get occupational licenses — whether it’s from the perspective of the ex-offender or those of us who are going to live next to them.”

Read the article at the New York Times.