Texas Criminal Justice Advocates Focused on Continuing Reform Efforts

Texas Criminal Justice Advocates Focused on Continuing Reform Efforts

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas has made great progress in the area of criminal justice reform, but there is still a long way to go. That was the consensus message from a panel discussion earlier last month at the University of Texas at Austin, as reform advocates from the left and right, a state representative, and a man incarcerated for nearly twenty five years for a crime he did not commit, shared their thoughts with an audience of journalists, professors, students, and activists interested in criminal justice reform at the Texas Tribune’s annual Texas Tribune Festival.

The panel, titled “What’s Next for Criminal Justice Reform?” was moderated by Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, a non-profit news website that focuses on criminal justice issues. Panelists included  Vikrant Reddy, senior policy analyst with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife and spent nearly 25 years in prison before being exonerated in 2011, State Representative James White (R-Woodville), Vice-Chairman of the House Corrections Committee, and Ana Yáñez-Correa, Executive Director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Keller kicked off the panel mentioning the United States’ high incarceration rate, the highest in the world. Research by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project has shown that one out of every 100 American adults are incarcerated, and one out of every 31 are in the corrections system — including those incarcerated or under the supervision of a probation or parole program

Keller asked the panel, “What is the aim of reform? To make the system more fair, more humane, save money?”

Reddy responded that “the main thing is public safety, everything else is secondary,” noting that he and other reform advocates cared about issues like offender outcomes, saving taxpayer money, and so on, but the top concern was always public safety. Reddy also commented that this was why the old model of “lock ’em up throw away the key” was counterproductive: it ended up detrimental to public safety, because people were eventually released back into the community. Reddy’s work has long championed reentry programs and other rehabilitation efforts that work to reduce recidivism, or repeat criminal behavior, after an offender is released. 

Yáñez-Correa agreed with Reddy, and mentioned how their organizations had recently helped launch the Texas Smart On Crime Coalition (TSCC), which Breitbart Texas reported on previously. “Every day, we are getting calls from people wanting to join [this coalition],” she said, including judges, sheriffs, business leaders, showing broad support for their work. ez-Correa also stressed the importance of being mindful of the impact actions within the criminal justice system have on the next generation, the many children whose parents are incarcerated or otherwise under correctional control.

Keller asked the panel for specific goals for reform. Correa mentioned the three prongs of TSCC’s legislative agenda, and she and Representative White both mentioned the “Raise the Age” debate, a proposal currently under consideration to raise the age at which offenders are tried as adults to 18, allowing 17 year old offenders to stay under the juvenile justice system

“The overcriminalization of our youth is definitely something we need to look at,” said White. “I don’t know that it’s good policy to round up parents and kids for skipping school,” adding that instead of picking up a student and taking him to jail, the police could — and should — just take him to school.

Keller then turned to Morton, who made national headlines when he was exonerated of his wife’s murder after spending nearly 25 years in prison. Morton has been praised for what many view as a remarkably positive attitude, considering what he experienced. In a recent “Ask Me Anything” forum on Reddit, Morton commented, “Revenge doesn’t work too well on a personal level. Forgiveness, having a purpose, and accountability do just fine,” and part of Morton’s purpose since his release has been advocating for criminal justice reform. Keller asked Morton whether he believed his case was a fluke, or systemic problem, and what changes he would like to see. 

“Statistically…it’s a bit of a fluke,” Morton replied, “but it does point to some flaws [in the system].” Morton mentioned the steep challenges faced by prison officials as they sought to rehabilitate offenders. He had witnessed how prisoners sought to game the system, and signed up for any program that offered a chance at an earlier release, even though many of those programs only address surface issues,” and not the underlying reasons someone may have committed a crime. In Morton’s view, the only programs that had a chance at being successful in rehabilitating prisoners “focused on the inside” of the person, like the many religious programs largely staffed by volunteers.

>Keller commented on the new “overlap of right and left” seen in recent years in the criminal justice reform world — Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker co-sponsoring legislation, conservatives Newt Gingrich publicly advocating for sentencing reform, etc. — but noted that there were still major areas where consensus may not be so simple to achieve. “Everyone can agree on the non-violent drug offender, that’s low hanging fruit,” said Keller, but to get a 50% or other significant level of reduction in prison population, that will likely include some people who committed more serious crimes.

Reddy replied that Right on Crime, TPPF’s campaign that advocates for conservative criminal justice reform nationally, does not define their goals as including a target percentage reduction of the incarceration rate. They do, however, want to continue to see a reduction in the crime rate. Reddy mentioned if you lock up a low-level offender with a hardened criminal, they will be more likely to commit crimes again when they are released, and that this was an area where the organizations involved in the TSCC had found easy agreement, regardless of political philosophy. “You have two sides that have not had to compromise their core principles at all,” said Reddy.

Keller praised the work of the TSCC, saying there were so few areas of modern politics where such consensus was possible, so “this is heartening to see.”

The debate over the legalization of drugs was mentioned and Reddy noted that Right on Crime does not advocate for legalization, but does believe that incarceration is the wrong way to approach drug issues, with treatment being much cheaper and much more effective at preventing both future drug use and future crimes. “I don’t want to end the War on Drugs, but I do want to change the battle tactics,” said Reddy.

Representative White brought up another issue related to drug use: his East Texas district has a lot of workers who drive trucks, work on machinery, etc. — jobs that require workers to be sober, for safety reasons. White also mentioned the positive effect of community efforts and charitable organizations on reducing crime.  “If you have a lot of churches, you may not need a whole lot of police,” said White. “It’s not [just] about getting people out, it’s about stopping people from getting in.”

Morton agreed with White, mentioning again his favorable view of faith-based prison programs and the volunteers who work with them. Yáñez-Correa commented that really effective change requires “a cultural shift.” “Texas has come a long way,” she said, to be the “smart on crime” state, and it has been an incremental, transitioning process. She praised Governor Perry for becoming a strong supporter of reform.

Keller then asked the panel, isn’t it worth it for the state to invest in reentry? “Absolutely,” answered White, we need need to work to “make sure that integration is effective” and that reintegration programs are tailored to the specific offenders.

What about the racial component of our prison population, asked Keller, noting that about 60% of the U.S. prison population is black or Hispanic. “Is this a civil rights issue?” he asked.

White replied that “the individual liberty of those who are not committing crimes, and public safety” were more important, noting the effect of poverty on communities and other economic factors as driving crime rates. “I think it’s an issue of expanding the American promise of prosperity.”

Reddy said that Right on Crime does not focus on racial issues, but admitted there was a “troubling racial element” to our country’s crime rates, education system, etc. However, in Reddy’s view, focusing on racial issues risked “missing the big picture:” if it is wrong for someone to be incarcerated for a length of time, if an offender would benefit from alternatives to incarceration, that is true, regardless of their race.

Yáñez-Correa added that. in her organization’s experience, hammering on racial issues, accusations of police bias, and related issues are not effective at getting the important legislation passed. She acknowledged that it was still needed to have this dialogue, heal communities, but they have their eye on the end goal: enacting real reform, not just talking about the problems. “Do we lead with the race issue? No, it doesn’t poll well,” she said, saying they prefer to use the arguments that will reach people, convince policymakers, and effect change.

Reddy also noted that past efforts to legislate based on race issues have “backfired spectacularly,” specifically with the crack cocaine sentencing disparity, which was meant to combat the bad affects crack was having on black society, but ended up sending blacks to prison with far longer sentences than whites who had been charged with similar amounts of drugs. Mandatory minimums presented a similar problem, explained Reddy, where the goal was to prevent racial profiling, but the result was prosecutors running for office on imposing tougher than the mandatory minimum sentence, and poor and minority offenders getting disproportionately longer sentences.

Morton agreed with his fellow panelists in advocating for a color blind approach to criminal justice reform. “Criminal justice effects everybody…so trying to balkanize us doesn’t help.” 

Keller then asked why Texas is the national leader in capital punishment. 

White commented that “the death penalty is a tool on the table for our local county governments…that we give local DAs and juries for serious crimes” in limited circumstances allow government to use this discretion to protect public safety. “We have laws, and we have a procedure…a process that involved appeals,” noting that as vice chair of the Corrections Committee, he has studied the execution process, from beginning to end, including visiting the facility in Huntsville where executions are carried out.

Keller pressed White for an answer if he thought there could be an innocent person on Texas death row. White demurred, saying that he didn’t think it was appropriate for him to comment on that, but said he has strongly supported efforts to add transparency to the process and protect constitutional rights of the accused.

In one of the few areas of disagreement on the panel, Yáñez-Correa dissented from White’s position. “I don’t trust government enough [to support] killing someone in the name of government,” she said, rejecting the argument that the death penalty is an effective deterrent. She did note that critics were unable to say that Texas is soft on crime when you look at the final outcome.

Keller asked about how the system should deal with offenders who have mental health issues, including juveniles and those who have committed violent offenses.

Reddy said that Texas has the largest mental health facility in the country: the Harris County Jail. “[But that’s] not something we want to brag about,” he said. On a positive note, Reddy was seeing an “emerging left-right consensus on these issues,” including TSCC members like the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Dallas, and given the “incredibly prominent Texans involved in that group, I’m optimistic.”

The panel was asked about private prison systems, and if there was a conflict between their drive for profit and reformers’ efforts to reduce recidivism.

Yáñez-Correa replied that her organization had opposed against privatization, because the lobbyists for private prisons do often fight reform. Most privatization efforts are focused on federal prisons and immigration detention facilities, so there is less pressure from this direction on state reformers, but they still need to keep an eye out. One big concern she noted is that the contracts often demand high occupancy rate, quipping that Marriott hotels would like a 90% guaranteed rate like some private prison contracts include.

Reddy characterized the issue as something of a red herring, because over 90% of prisoners are in public facilities, and regardless of if a prison system is publicly or privately operated, it will push to expand. Public unions want higher employment, bureaucrats seek expanded power, just like private prisons want profit. In Reddy’s view, the key is to make sure you have good oversight and transparency over all prisons, regardless of who operates them. White added that the reforms in Texas over the past several years had resulted in closing both public prisons and ending contracts with some private facilities.

The next topic was Administrative Segregation, or solitary confinement, and White noted that it was a topic that concerned many of his legislative colleagues. “It’s an issue that we’re very much concerned with…[especially] the idea that the vast majority of these men and women will be in our society one day, and we’re concerned with their reintegration,” he said, adding that he expected it to be a topic of discussion during committee hearings over the next few months.

Morton observed that many of the prisoners in Administrative Segregation are there for a reason — “it’s not a bad thing all the time” — but that it was important to work to find ways to integrate them back into the general population before release.

Regarding providing IDs, housing assistance, and other ways to help released offenders with successful reentry, TCJC was supporting several bills on this issue, expanding halfway housing, encouraging landlords to give tenants a chance, etc., but that more work was needed to provide feasible housing options. She noted that the justice system is already a huge chunk of the state budget — almost seven billion dollars — so continued efforts to find savings from reduced crime and recidivism rates would allow programs like this to be expanded.

Reddy specifically praised the legislature for using offender outcomes to judge the success of their programs, instead of solely looking at budget savings. Improvements in recidivism rates, restitution to victims, education advancements by offenders, and successful completion of drug and behavioral treatment all factored into improved public safety beyond any budget line.

[Disclosure: the author of this article was previously employed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.]

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.