The Gritty Truth

A criminal justice reform activist in Texas on overcrowded prisons, Tulia, the Texas Youth Commission, and the criminalization of mental illness.

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

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