November 01, 2004
Winning the war on drugs

Scott explains why he's representing a Republican client for the first time in his professional life.

Yesterday, I drove to the Metroplex for a well-attended town hall meeting held by the League of United Latin American Citizens, in Grand Prairie, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. There I listened to Ray Allen, the Republican chairman of the Texas House Corrections committee -- which oversees the Texas prison system -- refer to the Drug War with comments like, "Let's put people that we are afraid of in jail, not the ones that we are only mad at."

A life-long pro-life and gun-rights activist, Chairman Allen endorsed with few qualifications the findings of fine, recent study by LULAC, which lays out the case against overincarceation based on pragmatic realism, compassion and human rights. Allen called for increasing the parole-release rate, even after his opponent had called for lowering it, hoping to run to his right as tougher on crime.

My friends Ana Correa of LULAC and ACLU's Ann del Llano opened the event tag-teaming to describe eight "myths" about the criminal justice system -- a critique that basically calls for substantially reducing sentences for non-violent crimes and overhauling the probation and parole systems. The crowd issued audible gasps and cries of "no way" when Ann revealed that Texas has identified 1,941 separate acts we've labeled as felonies, including 'electrocuting fish,' and in some cases, prostitution, graffiti, and stealing cable. One in 11 Texans is a felon, and one in 20 is currently in prison, on probation, or on parole. The Fort Worth Startlegram coverage said the audience appeared "stunned" by the statistics. They were almost equally stunned when their Republican state representative stood up and told the crowd, to closely paraphrase, since I didn't take notes, 'everything these extraordinary women just told you was true.'

Allen said the agenda ACLU and LULAC were proposing had historically been considered "liberal," but that the groups brought him only the best of facts and analysis. He'd come to be convinced of the positions in the report because of his conservative principles, he said, not in spite of them. The cost to the state, the harm to inmates' future prospects and their families, and evidence that incarceration doesn't stop recidivism, but other methods do, were the main reasons he cited.

This isn't just a man bites dog story, Chairman Allen in 2003 actually proposed a bill lowering the lowest level drug possession crimes to a misdemeanor. In the waning days of the session, a nationally touted compromise bill passed that kept the charge at a felony, but required judges to sentence defendants to probation and treatment instead of incarceration on the first offense, a provision that affected 4,000 people this year. Allen told Governing magazine he was able to do it for the same reasons Nixon could go to China -- his hard right positions on other issues make him immune to attacks as soft.

As a matter of full disclosure, I worked on Chairman Allen's re-election campaign professionally this cycle -- my first Republican client ever in more than 60 campaigns -- and I'm also listed as a reader on LULAC's report; in other words, I'm conflicted out the wazoo so take it as you will -- I make no pretense at objectivity.

Still, the admission requires some small explanation for my Democrat friends. In this partisan era, crossing party lines inevitably makes some people mad, plus he and I disagree on a lot of important stuff, starting with choice, not just abortions but schools. I chose to work for Allen precisely because of his leadership on the criminal justice issues described above. His district was targeted by pro-choice groups and Democrats as one of the few competitive seats in North Texas, and he's presently in quite a nasty race. To my way of thinking, though, if Allen loses, the Texas Legislature will still be pro-life, but criminal justice reformers would lose an important Republican friend, and a committee chair to boot. That made it a no-brainer. Yesterday I was proud of Chairman Allen, and it made me feel completely comfortable, perhaps for the first time, about the decision to help his campaign.

Scott's blog is a great resource on crime-related topics, and I take what he says here seriously even though Ray Allen's opponent is someone I support. The main quibble I have with him is that by accepting the "only Nixon could go to China" logic, you essentially concede the crime issue to Republicans. This is something I'm unwilling to do, just as Greg refuses to concede the national defense issue.

There are two ways to run against Republicans on the crime issue without staking out the farther-right position. One is to note that if our criminal justice system is screwed up through the felonization of increasingly minor crimes, wildly out-of-whack sentencing guidelines, unscalable barriers to exonerating the innocent, and so forth, it got that way after thirty years of Republican demagogery and the legislation that resulted from it, which leads to a question: Why should we trust the people who broke the system to fix it?

Second is the notion that our longterm tuff-on-crime mentality has been (among other things) a huge drain on state and county budgets, which is something I've harped on before. Given the budget crunches at all levels of government, it makes sense to me to tie criminal justice reform to fiscal responsibility. Locking up the right people has certainly made a dent in crime, but locking up people indiscriminately is unaffordably expensive in addition to being just plain dumb.

I recognize, as you can see in that last link above, that there are Republicans, even in this state, who are coming around to the idea that there's a point at which being tuff-on-crime is counterproductive. I'm glad to see it, but I'm not convinced that the Ray Allens will ever be the majority in their party. I think wholesale change is going to be necessary to deal with these problems. (Assuming, of course, that the Democrats abandon their me-tooism and figure out a coherent message that makes sense, both of the common and political varieties.) In the meantime, I can't blame Scott for making a pragmatic decision. I just hope that in the near future, he won't be faced with that kind of choice again.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 01, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Thanks for the kind words; I know others may not be so forgiving.

The bottom line for me came in the graph after where your quote left off:

"Saturday, Allen came with the exact message LULACers wanted to hear -- shift money away from incarcerating non-violent offenders and toward schools and healthcare." What Dems can do to keep from putting me in this position again is to stop this tough on crime crap. Enough is enough.

It's a mistake to think it's just the Rs. In fact, increasing criminal penalties has been a primary way Dems ran to the right trying to stave off the Repubican takeover, at least since Ann Richards led the way with her prison building boom. Since then, dozens or hundreds of Ds have mimicked the strategy, boosting the number of prisoners to now-atmospheric levels, and it has NEVER worked, either to reduce crime or to keep Democrats in office. Now we're in a crisis.

At this point, the need is so urgent, I really don't care who does it, and like it or not, barring an act of God the Republicans will still be in charge in January. I'm looking for help.

After the election, as we roll on toward the legislative session, check out the substance of the cited LULAC report in more detail.

BTW, on the E-voting, check out what's happening in Austin. Adina Levin here works real closely with your friend Dan.

Posted by: Scott on November 1, 2004 5:53 PM

Let me add before I get in trouble that there are some great Ds on these issues -- in Houston, John Whitmire and Rodney Ellis in the Senate come to mind, and Senfronia Thompson and Rick Noriega (if he makes it home safe) in the House, among many others. It's just that, when often-rural D seats have been threatened, too often tough on crime has been the means to tack to the right. But I don't know where we'd be without the leadership of those I mentioned and many other Democrats.

Posted by: Scott on November 1, 2004 6:17 PM