State to Review Criminal Justice System
The Texas Legislature begins its evaluation of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in January. Lawmakers will use results from this so-called Sunset review to recommend major agency changes in the 2013 legislative session.
Advocacy and policy groups have already begun lobbying the commission in charge, approaching the state’s criminal justice system with many different interests in mind.
“As a human rights organization, our perspective is that these conditions are cruel and unusual. They violate the constitution and it’s illegal to house prisoners in these conditions,” said Scott Medlock with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
The TCRP sent a letter to the Sunset Advisory Commission pointing out what it considers inadequate health care for prisoners. Arguing for prisoner rights doesn’t always get results, Medlock said, so he’s also proposing measures to improve prisoner conditions while cutting costs for the state. For example, Medlock said the state should review policies that keep geriatric inmates behind bars as they will require a disproportionate amount of the state prison system’s healthcare dollars.
“So that results in old and frail prisoners who have already served an extremely long time in prison that then become very expensive to care for as they reach their later years,” Medlock said.
Marc Levin with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative state policy think tank, agreed there should be a review of sentencing and the prison population. The state must prioritize its prison space to keep those who are threats to society behind bars, Levin said, but steer lower level offenders out of jail.
“We have about 17,000 low level drug possession offenders in our Texas prisons right now. Not all of them would be eligible under this, because it excludes those with prior significant felony convictions and so forth, but it certainly would save several hundreds of millions of dollars,” Levin said.
Even with the savings incentive, it can be tough to convince officials to change sentencing policies in the “tough on crime” state of Texas. Levin countered that state incarceration rates and crime rates have declined over the last six years. Prisoners who don’t pose a threat should be put in a strict probation program with monitoring and treatment instead, Levin said, which will lower costs and recidivism rates.
The Sunset Advisory Commission holds its first meeting in January to go over the 24 agencies under review in 2012.