Law­mak­ers might scrap or re­vamp state jail sys­tem

High re­cidi­vism rate prompts talk of mak­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Mike Ward

When Texas’ net­work of state jails was es­tab­lished by law­mak­ers in 1993, the goals were sim­ple: Non­vi­o­lent drug of­fend­ers, thieves and first-time of­fend­ers would be housed in sep­a­rate lock­ups with treat­ment and rehabilitation pro­grams to cut their risk of re­turn­ing to a life of crime.

Now some leg­isla­tive lead­ers are con­sid­er­ing a plan that might do away with the Lone Star idea that once at­tracted na­tional head­lines.

“I think there very well may be in­ter­est in chang­ing the cur­rent state jail sys­tem,” House Corrections Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, said Tues­day. “The re­cidi­vism rates for state jail in­mates are higher than for our reg­u­lar pris­ons. … We need to con­sider mod­i­fy­ing the orig­i­nal model. They may have out­lived their use­ful­ness.”

At the same time, two ar­chi­tects of the state jail sys­tem, which holds more than 12,000 of Texas’ 155,000 con­victs — those sen­tenced for fourth-de­gree felonies, the most mi­nor type — warn that do­ing away with the spe­cial breed of pris­ons would be a big mis­take.

“Tell (McReynolds) it ain’t gonna hap­pen,” said Se­nate Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Com­mit­tee

Con­tin­ued from A1 Chair­man John Whit­mire, a Hous­ton Demo­crat who au­thored the state jail law. “We cre­ated this sys­tem to take all the low-level drug of­fend­ers and prop­erty crim­i­nals out of state pris­ons so we’d have enough room to keep the vi­o­lent of­fend­ers be­hind bars longer. The sys­tem has worked well.

“It would be a dis­as­ter to do away with state jails.”

Wil­liamson County District At­tor­ney John Bradley, who served as a li­ai­son for pros­e­cu­tors and law en­force­ment groups when Texas’ crim­i­nal laws were rewrit­ten to cre­ate the state jail sys­tem, agreed.

“In­stead of con­sid­er­ing do­ing away with it, the state should be con­sid­er­ing re­new­ing its com­mit­ment to the state jail sys­tem.”

At a com­mit­tee hear­ing last week in Hous­ton, dis­cus­sion of per­haps mod­i­fy­ing or do­ing away with state jails sur­faced in pub­lic tes­ti­mony — a move that sur­prised many state corrections of­fi­cials.

McReynolds said Har­ris County pros­e­cu­tors, judges and oth­ers ten­ta­tively sup­ported the idea, un­der­scor­ing ques­tions about the sys­tem that he has heard for some time from other of­fi­cials and law­mak­ers.

McReynolds said he asked mem­bers of his com­mit­tee to poll lo­cal pros­e­cu­tors and of­fi­cials in their dis­tricts about per­haps chang­ing the state jail con­cept to be more like spe­cial lock­ups called In­ter­me­di­ate Sanc­tion Fa­cil­i­ties, which house mostly pa­role vi­o­la­tors.

He said state jail in­mates leave jail “with no su­per­vi­sion, no in­ten­sive treat­ment or pro­grams, and their re­cidi­vism rate is as high as 34 per­cent, com­pared with about 28 per­cent for the in­mates com­ing out of reg­u­lar pris­ons.”

“That doesn’t seem to make much sense on its face. I think we can do bet­ter,” he said.

McReynolds and oth­ers said they want to ex­am­ine whether fourth-de­gree felons should be el­i­gi­ble for pa­role and other treat­ment pro­grams, which they now are not.

Tony Fa­belo, a na­tional crim­i­nal-jus­tice con­sul­tant who was the head of Texas’ Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Pol­icy Coun­cil when state jails were es­tab­lished, said those statis­tics are mis­lead­ing.

“Those of­fend­ers who we put in state jails had re­cidi­vism rates in the 60-per­cent­ages, and they were fill­ing up prison beds that we needed for the vi­o­lent of­fend­ers,” he said. “State jails were sup­posed to be heavy on treat­ment and ed­u­ca­tion, and over the years the fund­ing for those pro­grams had been cut again and again.”

By the time the first state jail opened in 1995 in Hous­ton, the Leg­is­la­ture had be­gun mak­ing the first of sev­eral changes in state law that pro­po­nents of the sys­tem ar­gued at the time would im­pair its ef­fec­tive­ness.

State jails were set up to house only law­break­ers con­victed of state jail of­fenses. Within two years, they were also hold­ing other prison con­victs to save the state money.

While pro­ba­tion for state jail of­fenses was sup­posed to be au­to­matic, with vi­o­la­tors to be locked up for up to two years if they vi­o­lated the rules of their free­dom, Repub­li­can Ge­orge W. Bush lam­basted Demo­cratic in­cum­bent Gov. Ann Richards, in­sist­ing she had been soft on crime in sup­port­ing the state jail law. Law­mak­ers sub­se­quently changed it to mostly drop the au­to­matic pro­ba­tion.

Rehabilitation and treat­ment pro­grams were cut, one af­ter the other, as state fi­nances dipped into the red in 2003. Orange jump­suits that were sup­posed to sep­a­rate state jail in­mates from other pris­on­ers soon gave way to the reg­u­la­tion “prison whites.”

Even the des­ig­na­tion of state jail in­mates as “con­fi­nees” rather than “in­mates” was dropped. Sev­eral years ago, top prison of­fi­cials who never had been much en­am­ored with state jails merged the sep­a­rate Top of­fenses com­mit­ted by state jail con­fi­nees Prop­erty of­fenses Drug of­fenses Vi­o­lent of­fenses Other of­fenses Top five cities, by state jail pop­u­la­tion Hous­ton Dal­las Fort Worth San An­to­nio Austin 2,778 934 855 814 533 state jail di­vi­sion into the pris­ons di­vi­sion.

Whit­mire said state jails are worth keep­ing be­cause they’ve re­lieved a sys­tem that was clogged with low-level drug of­fend­ers.

“Say what you want, but state jails kept us from hav­ing to build 200,000 prison beds that we couldn’t pay for,” he said. “It al­lowed us to stop the re­volv­ing door that jus­tice was in Texas in the 1990s.”

Rather than scrap or change the con­cept of the state jail sys­tem, Bradley and other sup­port­ers sug­gest that law­mak­ers who are con­sid­er­ing changes might want to first re­new the state’s com­mit­ment to the orig­i­nal con­cept — at a time when prison treat­ment and rehabilitation pro­grams seem in great fa­vor at the state Capi­tol.

“The state jail sys­tem has a good, ba­sic core idea,” said Bradley, who has a rep­u­ta­tion as a tough-as-nails pros­e­cu­tor not given to any­thing soft on crime. “I still sup­port the con­cept.”

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