Saturday, July 10, 2010

State Jails Redux

I have been following with interest the suggestion by House Corrections Committee Chairman McReynolds that the state jail concept be reconsidered, as reported in Grits and the Statesman. If Chairman Whitmire and District Attorney Bradley were the architects of the system, I was the contractor, as the director of the Punishment Standards Commission, which identified the 4th degree felonies that became state jail felonies and proposed a more community-focused system for those offenders; and then as the general counsel for the Board of Criminal Justice when the state jails were implemented. (And by the way, in the 1993 session John Bradley had been hired by me as the prosecutor consultant to the commission, my recall is it was later that he became a consultant to Sen. Whitmire's committee directly.)  Not to say that I scooped everyone, because these issues are not new, but this is from 2007 in the newsletter version of CourTex:
[A] correctional agency has an inherent interest in maintaining some otherwise unpopular features in state sentencing laws - good conduct time and parole - that provide "back end discretion," and therefore some behavioral incentive during incarceration.  This is the enduring lesson of the state jail sentencing scheme, which does not provide any such incentive, and has proved challenging to implement as a result.  Other problems with the state jail innovation were (and remain): inadequate funding for rehabilitation of the low-level offenders targeted; prison-like state jails rather than smaller, community based facilities; and minimal judicial use of the ability to review an offender's progress in custody. 
So I think this is a healthy debate to have, and I basically agree with today's Statesman editorial, "fine tune and fund, don't scrap."  The key commitment that was made in 1993 was to achieve dramatically more "truth in sentencing" for violent offenders, enabled by facility construction and the diversion of the state jail population to state jails.  The other key component that was at least partially achieved was the location of some of the state jails in greater proximity to the communities of origin.  It may be significant to note that the two large jurisdictions that utilize state jails to a greater extent than their population or prison admissions would suggest (see bar chart below), are Harris County and Travis County.   Harris has Kegans and Lychner state jails, and Travis has the Travis state jail.  (It is ironic that Harris County testimony about the limitations of the state jail system triggered this debate, with their very high utilization.)

If the debate is to continue, I suggest the legislature focus on the problems to be addressed and not on whether the system should be abandoned.  Certainly the identification of the state jail category of felonies was significant and should not be undone, but must the punishment scheme be set in stone?  Perhaps some form of incentive for behavior can be built in, to replace the judicial option that no judges use, and allow a state jail felon some ability to accelerate his release.  Perhaps there should be a short period of supervision at the end of the state jail term.  Perhaps we should revisit the idea of isolating all state jail felons in their own facilities, as though they will be infected by felons convicted of higher degree offenses. Perhaps we should revisit the state governance of facilities that were originally conceived as "community corrections." And undoubtedly, there should be additional resources to support successful reintegration. 

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