Is Texas Incarceration Policy Really Different Now, Or Is That Cowboy Just A Journalist Riding His Hobbyhorse?

With a flick of public relations rhetoric, Texas has suddenly become a media darling to criminal justice journalists who previously viewed the state as mean and bloodthirsty.  The sudden transformation of the Lone Star State into the South Massachusetts of empathetic corrections was accomplished entirely in the media, of course, where gaining good PR is as easy as clicking your heels and saying: “I think it’s time we considered alternatives to incarceration, Joe.  This puttin’ people in jail just ain’t working.”

You don’t have to do it, you just have to say it.  Then you hand out lollypops and watch the great reviews (oops, I mean newspaper stories) roll in.

Articles of this stripe all read the same, which is unsurprising, as they start with pure opinion (incarceration is mean and us reporters believe it doesn’t work), proceed to cherrypick other opinions (some judges are looking at drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration, as if they didn’t already), beat in vague inference (drug treatment works, sometimes), add two cups of accusing the public of inventing the problem of crime in their own overactive imaginations (that’s just a “perception” your car got stolen, Ms. Hysteric), all topped with a dollop of political grandstanding (let’s get us some of that drug treatment and stop being mean, like Bob over there, who says he’s “tough” on crime just to get re-elected . . . hey, you gonna quote me, right?).

The Texas Miracle version of this story has been making the rounds for weeks.  Now it’s surfaced in the Atlanta Journal Constitution in an “analysis” of the “difference” between Georgia and Texas sentencing practices, one that feigns objectivity while ignoring real sentencing practices and hammering away at the notion that crime actually exists and is the — you know — reason we have criminal sentencing.

Note the not-very-objective lead, beneath the not-very-objective headline, beneath the not-very-objective series heading:

Government Waste in Georgia

A billion-dollar burden or justice?

Hmmm, which do you think it’s going to be?

AJC investigation: Georgia leads nation in criminal punishment

By Carrie Teegardin and Bill Rankin

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia taxpayers spend $1 billion a year locking up so many criminal offenders that the state has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. When it comes to overall criminal punishment, no state outdoes Georgia.

Well, except for those three other states.  Also, don’t crime rates matter, as in: ‘Georgia also has a higher rate of criminal activity than these states it is being compared to here?’ No?  OK.  Just asking.

Hard-nosed measures approved with wide public support forced a five-fold increase in corrections spending since 1985.  A monumental prison construction campaign that quadrupled space over the last four decades seemed like money well spent as record crime rates in the 1990s left Georgians fearful of becoming the next victims of violence.

Wow.  That’s a lot of vague, condemnatory prose squeezed into a few brief lines.  “Hard-nosed” measures?  “Seemed like money well-spent?”  And you know, “wide public support” is code for “what a bunch of deluded buffoons.”

What was that support for?  For not being victimized by violent repeat offenders, the impetus for Georgia’s excellent two-strike law?  How much did violent crime rise?  What percentage of serious and recidivist crimes resulted in prison sentences, before and after those new prisons were built?  Was that money well spent, looking at the decline in crime rates after two-strikes for violent crime was passed, for example?  Anyone?

One might also ask what the alternative response to those “record crime rates” might have been.  Rolling over and letting criminals destroy even more lives?  Kill more of their peers, who were on the front line of the carnage?  But you can’t talk about the number of lives saved by raising incarceration rates.  Not in the Atlanta Journal Constitution or any other big-city paper.

Reporters simply believe incarceration doesn’t work.  End of story.

The rest of this purported “study” consists largely of quotes from politicians positioning themselves against spending money on incarceration for a variety of vague reasons: you might call it more of a study of politicians’ habits in exploiting the subject of crime than a look at crime itself.  Revelations include the startling fact that some conservatives don’t like paying for new prisons because they don’t like taxes, or “big government.”  Wow, that’s really illuminating:

Mark Earley, a Republican former attorney general in Virginia who is chief executive of the nonprofit Prison Fellowship, agreed.  “When you have in Georgia 1 in every 70 adults [incarcerated] and 1 in every 13 is in some form of correctional control, that’s big government with a big big G, ” he said.

The big “G.”  Usually, reporters mock such language.  But when it’s in the service of advancing their hobbyhorse of empathizing with violent offenders, I guess anti-guvmint claptrap gets a pass.

How unsurprising that Early is also “chief executive of the nonprofit Prison Fellowship.”  Just like Mike Huckabee, who made a very destructive public hobby of sharing Bible passages with rapists and killers before cutting them loose?  Well, that’s a viewpoint you can take to the bank.

Unlike, say, actual recourse to actual crime statistics, which are nowhere to be found.

Shake the bushes and it’s not actually hard to find someone with an -R after their name who gets off on hanging out with prisoners while posturing for the cameras.  Of course politicians will always say they like alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.  That’s why there are and always have been alternatives, including the much-abused alternative of simply letting the vast majority of offenders plead their sentences down.  Everyone’s always happy to talk about alternative sentencing, but has it worked?  In which cases?  Are violent offenders being permitted to slip through the cracks?

Oh, never mind.

Extraordinarily, the AJC article, which purports to analyze Georgia’s incarceration policy from 1990 to 2010, contains just one mention of an actual crime: stealing baby formula.  Yes, that’s right: stealing baby formula.  Of course, we all remember the bad old days of the baby formula wars, back in old 1-triple9.  Lost a lot of good men that day.

Goodness.  The reporters were obviously so deep in serious analyzing mode that they managed to overlook the 13,000 murders that happened in Georgia over the same time.  Not to mention the 50,000 forcible rapes.  500,000 aggravated assaults . . . and so on.  Nope.  Not a one.  One case of stealing baby formula stands in for all those horrific human losses, just so the reporters can smugly point fingers at the public and scream: Hysterics!  Passing all those hateful laws just to incarcerate poor baby formula thieves!

How intellectually dishonest.

Of course, this type of reporting isn’t really about analyzing the efficacy of incarceration policies.  But when reporters actually go so far as to fluff up some fake Jean Valjean moment (more likely a baby formula theft to procure drugs, not feed babies) instead of actually addressing the tidal wave of violent crimes that took the lives 13,000 Georgia residents, why does nobody call them on it?

Meanwhile, back in reality, there is no simple way to compare Texas’ current shifts in sentencing policy with those in any other state: journalists who feign to do so are mainly extrapolating political speeches and vast budget line-items that bear no conclusive relationship to the actual working of a diverse (in the old fashioned sense of the term) landscape of courts.  At least they don’t need to worry about the vast cheerleading squad we call academia actually pointing out their errors: evaluating sentencing outcomes is a court-by-court task that virtually nobody, including academicians, ever bothers to attempt.  Those who do end up with book-length descriptions of justice systems that fail to address most crimes, out of despair and lack of funding: one illuminating example is Edward Hume’s year-long observation of the Los Angeles juvenile court system: No Matter How Loud I Shout.

For, when there is no such thing as a judicial precinct where every charge is brought against every defendant, and when a large, if not the largest, percentage of charges get abandoned or pled down outside the courtroom, how can any policymaker or academician or reporter or pundit make sweeping claims about statistical outcomes with a straight face?  Judges know this.  Prosecutors know this.  Yet they are never asked by most journalists (who also know this) to simply quantify all decisions, to produce their complete records for the public to scrutinize, a task that would be as easy as hitting a button in the computer age and would tell us a great many thing the public does not know but deserves to know.  We are, after all, footing the bills as well as dealing with the consequences of every decision made in every court.

Actual facts are never demanded, or provided, to support all this nonsense about “finally” offering alternatives to sentencing (there are always alternatives — there always have been alternatives, including just not bothering to act on most crimes).

No, this is all merely grandstanding.  Smoke and mirrors.  But it has passed for public debate about crime for fifty years, and journalists are hardly going to change their game now.

3 Responses to Is Texas Incarceration Policy Really Different Now, Or Is That Cowboy Just A Journalist Riding His Hobbyhorse?

  1. NoVaMa says:

    Well wait a minute … I read the article and didn’t see where violent offenders (those of the 13,000, 50,000 rapes, and 500,000 aggravated assaults) were being discussed to get a pass. The article says Texas “concluded they can spend less and keep the public safer by sentencing SOME offenders to proven treatment and supervision programs outside of prison” (caps mine) and that Texas “spends a fraction of that (the $150 billion to run 3 new prisons) on new probation and parole programs, halfway houses and specialty courts for drug offenders, veterans, drunk drivers and the mentally ill.”

    Another quote: “There are some in the prison system who are costing you a lot of money who are probably no longer a threat and no longer someone you’d be afraid of,” said Jerry Madden, a Republican Texas legislator who headed the state’s corrections committee. “You’re far better off with having them be taxpayers, not tax burdens.”

    As a Republican myself, I want to live in a law-and-order society. As a Christian, I want people who can be rehabilitated to be rehabilitated … and then forgiven if they are repentant. I think it’s okay and even preferable if states seek methods for non-violent offenders. But frankly, I would not include drug offenders and drunk drivers in that category.

    We definitely shouldn’t release violent offenders in my humble opinion, but those who do their time and repent? They should be rewarded. Those who shouldn’t have been given a one-year sentence to begin with? Let’s revisit the policies if they are in fact too “hard-nosed.”

    Anyway, thanks for the article – you write well and are passionate and gave good feedback!

  2. Tina says:

    Thanks for the kind words, NoVoMa. Yes, the article wasn’t talking about violent offenders getting a pass — that was my point, because it is precisely the cohort that is still getting a pass, and the only cohort that is really going to (state) prison, and the authors totally misrepresented or denied the reality of that in a rather staggering number of ways.

    The laws they were taking about (actually criticizing, though they pretended to be reporting facts) were passed precisely because violent offenders weren’t getting state (more than 1 year, and certain crimes) time twenty years ago. And today, no matter how much the media misrepresents the issue, our state prisons aren’t full of non-violent offenders — only the worst and most recidivist offenders get sent up to state, and plenty are still slipping through the cracks, as this blog painfully documents.

    For example, plenty of child molesters still get probation, in Georgia and elsewhere. Virtually every sentencing law in Georgia has a default to judicial discretion, and that is a problem, because so many judges have none.

    They try to fudge this fact by saying, quite carefully: ‘40% of offenders are serving time for non-violent crimes, like drugs.’ What they leave out is that the only people doing time for drugs at the state level either: a) had other serious crimes that triggered Georgia’s two-strikes or seven deadly, which are very limited and considered a model law — everywhere but in reporters’ minds and the ACLU offices; b) were dealing drugs or had multiple offenses; or c) agreed to a plea deal that only listed drugs, and this is VERY common, when they had other charges on the table, and that explains their sentence and hides their crimes.

    There are a dozen other things in that article that wildly misrepresented the case. But Georgia’s laws are actually still so lax that someone (and there are cases of this referenced in this blog) with ten home burglaries can get off on probation, if a judge chooses. And judges were, until recently, routinely making that choice. Some still are.

    Take a look, also, at this purported dramatic rise in average sentence length. Considering the list of crimes that get you state time, is an average of less than five years really staggering? The real reason why state sentences went up is because that 60% of (acknowledged) violent offenders stopped getting off after a fraction of their sentences were served. if there was more honesty and less advocacy among criminologists and crime reporters in the state, then this type of fact would be a prominent part of the public discussion.

    I wholeheartedly endorse drug treatment and alternative sentencing (for some) that actually holds people accountable and forces them to change — and if they can’t there should be a non-alternative alternative waiting for them. But that’s not reality. Violent criminals are getting off with just unenforced therapy, especially minors, even minors with serious gun offenses. Georgia isn’t Chicago, where it’s much, much worse and many lives are still being lost, but hundreds if not thousands of young people have died in Georgia over the last 21 years precisely because their killer wasn’t incarcerated after a previous crime. And addicts are still getting away with all sorts of crimes — because they’re addicts — and then not held to completing the programs they’re assigned to. That doesn’t help them. I’ve known more than one addict who only changed his life only when faced with ten years, AND served it, or took the threat seriously because it was serious.

  3. Mary Grabar says:

    This is great stuff. I hope someone from the AJC reads this; they should be ashamed. And keep shaming them, Tina! No one can pull apart a story the way you can. Put in a Facebook link so I can share it.

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