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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Texas Prison Population Declines; Probation Department Abuse

The Austin American Statesman reports some good news about a decline in the Texas prison population, in Texas prison population shrinks as rehabilitation programs take root "In July, Texas' prison system posted its lowest head count in five years, even as the state's overall population continued to grow at a fast clip. "Instead of 156,500 prisoners behind bars in Texas' 111 state prisons a year ago, the lockups now hold just over 154,000 — a drop of about 2,500, according to state statistics. Texas, which historically has had one of the highest incarceration rates per capita of the 50 states, is now in fourth place, down from second two years ago." Legislators are facing the reality that it cost less to put nonviolent offenders charged with low level drug offenses into community based supervision programs that provide treatment for addiction than to send them to prison, where it cost $18,000 a year per prisoner, plus medical expenses. "We're definitely going to be looking at what works and what doesn't — and we know that treatment and rehabilitation and community justice programs work," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, an architect of many of the reforms. "Prisons should be reserved for the worst of the worst, the violent criminals, murderers, child molesters we should definitely be afraid of. We have a lot of other inmates in there that could probably be housed someplace else, at less cost," Whitmire said. Whitmire is a rarity - a politician with common sense and the desire to do the right thing. The late Governor Ann Richards deserves credit too, for leading the movement to have alternatives to locking people up. Before the lock 'em up and throw away the key crowd starts carping about being "soft on crime," they need to consider that being on probation is not a bed of roses. A first time offender charged with possession of a small amount of a controlled substance - say cocaine, meth, or even a legitimate drug like xanex or clonazapem for which he has no prescription, will be pressured to plead guilty for a probated sentence. He will have to pay court costs of about $400, reimburse the county for the lab test, another $150, then pay the probation department $60 a month for a "supervision fee." Then there are the costs of regular hair follicle tests, and a drug abuse awareness class. Your liberty is at the mercy of the probation department, and if you get a hard assed probation officer, he can drag you into court to revoke your probation and send you to prison. I had a recent case where a young man pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 2003 and put on probation for five years. His term has been extended three times, and here we are, almost ten years later, and his officer is trying to send him to prison. In a future post we'll look at the financial incentives the county has to keep people on probation as long as possible. It's like the old county farm system.

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