The Gritty Truth
A criminal justice reform activist in Texas on overcrowded prisons, Tulia, the Texas Youth Commission, and the criminalization of mental illness.
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Scott Henson, a former public policy analyst for the ACLU, has been an activist for criminal justice reform for years. He writes a well-renowned blog, “Grits for Breakfast,” which is dedicated to the problems facing the criminal justice system in Texas.
You’re a criminal justice activist in Texas. Tell me that isn’t a thankless job.
Sure, sometimes the glamour and overweening financial rewards become tiresome, not to mention the ambrosial young women casting flower petals in my path everywhere I go, but I try to muddle through. I’d say “it’s a living,” but it’s really not.
In any given day, you write about Texas’s overcrowded prison system, the efficacy of surveillance cameras, inmate healthcare (or lack thereof), drug cartels, and concealed weapons laws.
What do you see as the most pressing criminal justice needs facing Texas today?
The criminal justice system, including every single subsystem, is completely overloaded, with nearly one in twenty adult Texans either in prison, on probation, or on parole. State prisons and county jails are overcrowded and can’t find enough guards at current pay rates. The Legislature has created over 2,000 separate felonies for which it’s possible to receive a prison term (eleven of them involving oysters). Sentences are longer than ever, and the state can’t pay healthcare costs for the aging inmate population. The probation and parole systems have high caseloads that make it difficult to supervise offenders. Counties can’t afford to pay lawyers for indigent defendants. Crime labs don’t pass muster. The list goes on and on.
We’ve criminalized so many things and so many people—the system doesn’t focus enough resources on protecting people from the most serious threats.
With the U.S. Supreme Court issuing a moratorium on capital punishment, how will this impact Texas’s death penalty in the long run?
I expect the Supreme Court to rule in favor of current procedures, which would just let the state start back up again. But even if they move to a single drug cocktail, away from the three drug rendition they use now, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) could change its procedures without a new law. They may have a whole bunch of executions right in a row to make up the backlog.
There was a brief moratorium in Texas during the 1920s, when they shifted from hanging condemned inmates in the county jails to killing them in Huntsville. When they finally got the new electric chair system set up, they electrocuted five men on the same day in 1924 to make up the backlog. I don’t think we’ll see that many at once, but we might set a record for the number of executions in a single month as soon as the death penalty is reinstated.
What percentage of Texas prison inmates would be considered mentally ill? Do you think that mental health and psychiatric diagnoses will become more of a factor moving forward?
TDCJ found that 30 percent of adult prison inmates were previously clients of Texas’s indigent mental health system before they entered prison. That number is even higher in urban county jails.
I’d like to see mentally ill people diverted from the justice system long before trials and sentencing. One promising new trend has been the creation of special mental health courts or special dockets to handle the mentally ill, diverting them toward rehabilitation services instead of jail. Not only is it immoral to criminalize mental health problems, it’s an ineffective way of reducing crime.
You’re a proponent of treatment, as opposed to incarceration, for those suffering from drug and alcohol addictions. How feasible is it that we will see more dedicated drug courts to handle the caseload?
The Governor’s office gives grants to nearly forty drug courts around the state, and several more have been in operation for a number of years, so we’ve seen measurably positive results, particularly when compared to the regular court system. For the serious addict they make a lot of sense.
In the bigger picture, these types of courts basically represent a version of “stronger probation” that many in the Legislature would like to move to wholesale, supervising offenders with more rigor in the community instead of incarcerating low-level offenders. (Graffiti is now a felony, in some cases, as is possession of less than a gram of drugs.) From a fiscal standpoint, it’s a no-brainer—people in prison cost taxpayers money; people on probation can work and pay taxes.
In 2000, the Tulia scandal broke, exposing the wrongful imprisonment of over forty (mostly black) residents convicted on trumped-up drug charges. An overly zealous anti-drug task force and a lying police officer took the brunt of the blame.
State funding for regional drug forces was cut six years later. With your extensive background on these drug task forces, and on the Tulia case in general, how do you think this damaged the credibility of law enforcement in Texas?
Terry McEachern in the Tulia scandal was Texas’s version of Mike Nifong in the Duke lacrosse case —just an egregious, nationally publicized example of police and prosecutor misconduct that, in Texas, ultimately led to Governor Perry abolishing our drug task force system. When the Tulia scandal broke, Texas had more than fifty drug task forces employing nearly seven-hundred officers, so when he took away all their money and spent it on border security, it was about the harshest punishment imaginable for that misconduct.
Of course, Tulia wasn’t the only drug task force with a scandal-ridden background. More and more cases kept cropping up of innocent people set up or corrupt officers stealing from the till until the Governor finally just said, Enough!, and got rid of all of them.
Last year, the Texas Youth Commission was embroiled in a scandal of its own, where prison guards and staff were charged with physical and sexual abuse of the offenders, amidst allegations of a massive cover-up. How does the agency bounce back from that?
Bouncing back from the abuse scandals would have been a big task, but not insurmountable. A bill passed by the Legislature last year strengthened accountability mechanisms, and created a new Office of Inspector General that’s tasked with investigating those types of problems.
The biggest current problem at TYC is that the Governor appointed leaders at the agency with no juvenile justice experience, so they showed up after the scandal and began running the place like an adult prison. Dozens of long-time employees with no connection to the scandal were fired, and many more quit as the axe began to fall on their peers.
The Governor’s new appointees never seemed to understand that, both by statute and by good common sense, we don’t treat juvenile crime in Texas or in America the same way we do crimes by adults. There’s rightly a greater focus on rehabilitation for kids at TYC, because everyone understands (except, apparently, acting executive director Dimitria Pope) that these kids will re-enter society again in just a few years.
Considering the changing demographics of Texas, and the growing Hispanic majority, what role will race play within the criminal justice system?
According to the most recent numbers I’ve seen from TDCJ, 38.2 percent of inmates were black, compared to about 11% of the total population. As for demographics, an ironic twist is that illegal immigrants commit far fewer crimes than anybody else, which helps explain in part why Latino incarceration figures aren’t nearly as out of whack as African Americans.
The disparities in the criminal justice system derive from a combination of things—age, income, family structure, and a lot more. However, I do think that many historically black neighborhoods have reached a tipping point where so many people have been incarcerated and have felony records (and are thus denied job opportunities, housing, and public assistance), that the situation feeds on itself. We know that children of incarcerated parents are six to eight times more likely than their peers to be incarcerated when they grow up, so after a while I think there’s a snowball effect that takes hold, and that cycle is hard to break.