Enhancing Public Safety & Right-Sizing Florida’s Criminal Justice System

Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime asking the right questions:

Which criminal laws are overlapping, obsolete, overbroad or vague, or lacking a mens rea provision?

What percent of offenders in community corrections and prison are paying the restitution they owe?

Which treatment, education, and work programs most reduce re-offending for each type of offender?

How many low-risk offenders are going to prison?

How many probationers and parolees are revoked for rule violations who could be safely supervised and treated given sufficient resources?

Click here to view the Powerpoint on improving Florida’s Criminal Justice System


Newt Gingrich and Kelly McCutchen Op-Ed on Juvenile Justice

Check out this great op-ed by Newt Gingrich and Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Kelly McCutchen in today’s Marietta, GA newspaper. It’s about how Georgia can make some major reforms in their juvenile justice system. We expect a vote on proposed legislation this week. Here is an excerpt from the piece in the Marietta Daily Journal.

Now Georgia has the opportunity to apply those same conservative convictions to its juvenile justice system by adopting the recommendations of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. After months of research, the bipartisan council has produced a set of proposals that will stop wasteful government spending and help more of Georgia’s young offenders fulfill their promise to lead productive, law-abiding lives.

Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal – Georgia can lead again on juvenile justice reform


Brendan Steinhauser joins Right on Crime Team

Right on Crime has a new Communications Director.. Here is the official press release from the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

AUSTIN – The Texas Public Policy Foundation announced today that Brendan Steinhauser will join the Foundation as Director of Communications for the Foundation’s Right on Crime initiative, the leading source for conservative ideas on criminal justice.

“We are thrilled to have Brendan join the Foundation leading our communications program for our nationally-known Right on Crime initiative,” said Foundation President and CEO Brooke Rollins. “His broad experience at both the state and national level managing various campaigns, along with his extensive media network, will be an incredible asset to our team and help propel the Foundation to the next level.”

“Right on Crime is a key, national initiative for the Foundation,” said Chuck DeVore, Vice President of Communications. “Applying conservative principles to reform our criminal justice system to reduce crime and costs while restoring more victims and rehabilitating more criminals makes sense — and Brendan’s addition to our effort will greatly enhance our ability to see these reforms implemented in more states.”

Steinhauser most recently served as Federal and State Campaigns Director at FreedomWorks, a conservative non-profit, grassroots organization located in Washington, D.C. While at FreedomWorks, he was the lead organizer of the September 2009 Taxpayer March on Washington, D.C., which was the largest protest by limited government activists in U.S. history. In October 2010, Steinhauser was named on the TIME: 40 under 40 Rising Political Figures in America.


Discussing Juvenile Justice with “Pure Politics” in Kentucky

Last month, Right On Crime’s Jeanette Moll traveled to Kentucky to present research on juvenile justice to stakeholders involved in reforming several aspects of the state juvenile system — including how it handles status offenders. A task force in Kentucky is studying the issue, and it is looking for lessons from Texas’s experience. While in Louisville, Moll sat down with Ryan Alessi of Pure Politics to discuss cost-effective juvenile justice:


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.


A New Re-entry Program for Florida?

In a bill recently passed by both chambers of the state legislature, Florida may have hit upon an effective way to combat high recidivism rates. The bill, now awaiting the governor’s signature, creates a new system of re-entry which will divert non-violent drug offenders who have served at least half of their sentence into community-based substance abuse treatment and education programs.

The bill would make 337 inmates eligible this year alone and at a cost of $19,469 per prisoner per year in Florida, it could lead the state to save up to $6,561,053. These savings could be just the beginning, however, because properly-structured treatment programs have proved to reduce recidivism rates dramatically. A Maryland study, for example, found that low-risk substance abuse offenders that were directed into an evidence-based probation and treatment program were 22 percent less likely to re-offend than comparable offenders who were sent to prison.

Florida taxpayers should be delighted to see that their legislators and governor are looking so carefully at the state’s recidivism problem.


Suspensions, Expulsions Mask the True Issue

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released a study documenting disproportionality in rates of suspensions and expulsions in public schools across the United States.

The report, which covered 72,000 schools across the United States, states that African-Americans only make up 18 percent of youth at the studied schools, but 35 percent of students suspended once and 39 percent of those expelled.

These findings mirror one aspect of a Texas study released last year, which found that African-American students in Texas were 31 percent more likely to be disciplined in school, at least once, than otherwise identical Caucasian or Hispanic students.

Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board looked at these findings and deduced that this highlights the need for increased school choice. Just as importantly, it highlights another education reform priority – the overcriminalization of students of all races.

As zero tolerance policies have increased in both scope and consequences (now covering fish oil dietary supplements, asthma inhalers, oregano, and butter knives), more and more minor misbehavior spurs referrals to the justice system or triggers suspensions, when it previously would have been handled through parental involvement or traditional disciplinary methods, such as a visit to the principal’s office, after-school detention,  or requiring the student to perform school or community service.

However, too often schools simply kick students to the curb. For example, there were 22,080 in-school suspensions (ISS) and 22,530 out-of-school suspensions (OSS) in the Houston Independent School District in the 2009-2010 school year, while the Dallas Independent School District issued 11,485 ISS and 22,770 OSS in one year.

One must ask whether the 200,000 students in HISD and the 150,000 students in DISD committed behavior objectively deemed egregious enough to warrant suspension out of the classroom over 20,000 times in one year.

The issue is not who is being pushed out of school, but what they’re being pushed out of school for—and whether there is a better way to keep public schools safe while reducing unnecessary reliance on the justice system for discipline.

Schools and legislatures—such as in Maryland and Florida—are beginning to rethink discipline policies that have overcriminalized students and overburdened the justice system, and initial results are positive. In Clayton County, Georgia, for example, a tiered discipline system has replaced zero tolerance policies, and the result is an 87 percent decrease in reported fighting, a 64 percent decrease in disruptive behaviors, and 20 percent more students graduating from high school.

Moreover, the highly effective private and charter schools that Riley references rarely kick students out, and instead rely on innovative methods such as student behavior contracts and accounts, which involve a trivial amount of money added or deducted based on a student’s behavior which can then be redeemed for trinkets.

Concern over disproportionality in school discipline is an important issue, but it is separate from the truly compelling problem of ineffective discipline policies that are holding all students back.

This post can also be read at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Speaking Freely blog.


Harris County Keeping Prisoners In-House; Saving Millions

According to the Houston Chronicle, there has been a 31 percent decline in the Harris County jail population since 2008 that will allow for the County to house all of its own inmates in its own facilities for the first time in five years.

The sharp drop in the jail population is due, in large part, to Harris County’s efforts to stop jailing as many misdemeanants and offenders found with trace amounts of drugs. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos made the decision to stop handing down felony indictments to those caught with trace amounts of drugs or with paraphernalia. As a result, there has been a 56 percent decrease in case filings for drugs of less than one gram, or a decline of almost 5,000 cases.

Right-sizing jail populations in Harris County will save taxpayers millions. Over the last two years, the cost of sending prisoners to other states due to overpopulation in Harris County jails was $31 million dollars, but now the exportation of both prisoners and taxpayer dollars can be avoided.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has shown that jail time for low-level drug possession offenders does not give taxpayers the best bang for their buck. The price of housing and feeding low-risk offenders is much more expensive than probation or rehabilitation programs, which have proved to be more effective than jail time in these cases. A sensible approach to law enforcement when dealing with low-level drug possession and other minor offenses can provide significant savings for taxpayers and result in a more effective criminal justice system.


Florida Conservative Groups Announce the Results of a “Smart Justice” Poll

Earlier today, Florida TaxWatch and Associated Industries of Florida released a new poll under their “Smart Justice” initiative. The poll surveyed 800 registered Florida Republicans who self-identified as likely voters. Among the most interesting findings:

• More than 80% support changes to the Florida criminal justice system to utilize supervised work-release programs, mandatory drug testing, and mental health treatment programs for non-violent offenders
• 73% agree that fewer people convicted of non-violent crimes should be sent to prison, and the savings should be redirected to create a stronger probation and parole system
• 83% agree that offenders under the age of 18 should be handled by the juvenile justice system
• 81% support evidence-driven, community-based alternatives to juvenile prisons

The complete poll results are available here.


Have You Committed a Felony Today?

On November 1, the Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers partnered to host a training for Capitol Hill staffers titled “Have You Committed a Felony Today?”  The training was presented by criminal defense attorneys Ross Garber and Timothy O’Toole.