Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Texas Republicans Say "Give Prison a Chance"

Robert Perkinson. Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire. New York: Metropolitan Books. Henry Holt and Co,m 2010.

The philosophy of criminal justice in many Northern states focuses on rehabilitation. The philosophy of criminal justice in many Southern states focuses on retribution. Further, profit is more apt to be a motivation for operating prisons in Southern states than in Northern states.

The largest state prison system is in Texas. The author observes racial disparity in Texas prisons has increased over the past four decades.

1% of U.S. adults are incarcerated, making the U.S. the world’s largest prison system. As the author notes, “just as slavery once stood as a glaring exception to the American promise”, incarceration is today’s exception.

The American criminal justice system has 2.4 million employees and costs $212 billion annually. For comparison, this ls largest than our two biggest private sector employees (Wal-Mart and McDonald’s) combined,

Despite the prevalence of people under incarceration, the author notes “many Americans still don’t know anyone who has been to prison”. This is because incarceration has a strong racial component. 1 in 6 African American males, 1 in 13 Hispanic males, and 1 in 39 white males have been incarcerated. This disparity is about twice as much as before the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling. The author notes that, in 1965, it would have been impossible to gain approval for a policy that would increase prison spending 44 times while increasing prison racial disparity, yet this was the result.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate followed by Texas. Texas increases 691 per 100,000 residents. Texas leads the nation in adults in the criminal justice system, people in for profit imprisonment, supermax lockdowns, and executions.

The author notes “rehabilitative prison has failed, in part, because it was never allowed to succeed.” In Texas, prison reforms since the 1880s have always fallen to budget cutbacks.

There are about 170,000 people incarcerated in Texas. 90,000 of these are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. 81% of new Texas inmates are imprisoned for nonviolent property crimes or for drug use.

Violent criminals include those who were convicted of possessing pepper spray, resisting arrest, and fighting. Criminologists observed violent criminals are often in the early twenties and that violent tendencies usually decline after their twenties. Thus, long prison sentences hold these criminals past their age when they tend towards violence.

Historically, prisons were primarily workhouses until the U.S. created penitentiaries for long confinement. The theory was the incarcerated would use this time to feel penitent from their crimes.

The 13th Amendment ended slavery, yet allowed slavery as criminal punishment. Slavery thus became a common punishment, with convicts sold by bid. Salve prisoners were often abused, treated poorly, and literally worked to death.

Rail companies hired prisoners. Joseph Brown, Georgia’s Governor, U.S. Senator, and Supreme Court Justice, was a leading employer of prisoners for his coal company.

Prison reform movements were mostly unsuccessful with many Texas Governs and political leaders working to undermine reform efforts.

Tales from ex-convicts and convicts informed others of prison conditions. Leadbelly’s songs of prison torments was part of a movement from the 1940s on, of convicts alerting the public about prison life through song and books. Some convicts starting filing court challenges on prison conditions.

The U.S. Supreme Court intervened. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 allowed for suit in Federal court if Constitutional rights were violated. The NAACP and ACLU began representing inmates. In 1966, there were 218 civil rights violations filed by inmates, in 1972 there were 3,000, and in 1984 there were 18,000. Prisoners were primary beneficiaries of the civil rights movement.

White prisoners received better and easier jobs while in prison, such as bookkeeping. They were also abused far less than were African American prisoners.

Court cases, bad press, and legislative queries into prison operations in the 1970s and 1980s led to changes in the prison system. Politicians such as Alabama Governor George Wallace fought back. Wallace claimed the reformers were coddling prisoners and that criminals had more rights than citizens and police officers. This rhetoric received much popular support in Texas and elsewhere, which slowed or halted many prison reform efforts.

President Nixon declared drugs a major problem, even though more people died from choking on food (2,313 in 1971) than from drugs (2,227 in 1971). Spending on Federal drug enforcement under Nixon rose from $65 million to $791 million. More people began being incarcerated for drugs.

The American Friends Service of the Quakers noted in 1971 that it was Quakers who led the movement to create penitentiaries. They then called for abolishing penitentiaries, noting “this 200 year old experiment has failed.”

Bill Clements was helped in part in being elected Governor of Texas by running ads against incumbent Gov. Mark White for White’s paroling prisoners. Texan George H.W. Bush would be elected President in part by running similar ads against his opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Governor Clements won approval for $530 million for building 12,500 new prison beds in 1987. These beds were quickly filled. Private prison lobbyists descended upon Texas. Soon, Texas had the largest private prison system in the nation.

Governor Ann Richards favored drug and alcohol (D&A) treatment and guided construction of the largest D&A system on Earth. Still, more prisons were built to house 22,000 more prisoners while Richards was Governor. Richards reduced first time approval rates for parole applications from 79% when Clements was Governor in 1989 to 29% in 1994. Discretionary sentencing was replaced with fixed sentences established by a commission under Governor Richards in 1991. Texas voters approved $1 billion for new prisons while also voting to defeat $750 million for new schools.

Under President Clinton in 1994, Federal assistance for more prison construction and for police was approved, yet it was provided only to state that reduced parole. Also passed during the Clinton Presidency was the Prison Litigation Reform Act that vastly reduced prisoner lawsuits by increasing filing fees and placing low caps on attorney rewards.

George W. Bush defeated Richards for Governor in 1993. Governor Bush changed most D&A beds into prison beds. Stronger drug sentences were passed. There were soon over 90,000 nonviolent inmates in Texas.

Bush reduced D&A funding, increased justice funding, increased longer juvenile sentences, lowered the age for incarceration as an adult to 15, and increased incarcerated juveniles by 150%. Under Governor Bush, prison spending went from $1.4 billion for 119,195 prison beds to $2.4 billion for 166,719 prison beds. Bush also vetoed a bill for statewide public defenders. Texas is one of the few states without public defenders. Texas, with 7% of the nation’s population, has 12% of the nation’s prisoners.

In 2007, Texas had 2,324 crimes that were felonies.


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