By admin | On September 7, 2012 In Smart Justice Elsewhere
San Antonio (TX) Express-News – 9-5-12
AUSTIN — Despite nationally noticed criminal justice reforms, Texas still has a fragmented system for releasing offenders into communities with thousands returning to prison after their release, according to an oversight report.
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission — composed of state lawmakers and public members who periodically review state agencies — recommended changes Wednesday to better coordinate and focus on programs for offenders’ re-entry into society.
The first step toward a plan: Write it down.
Sunset commission staff reported that “no written plan exists” nearly three years after lawmakers approved legislation requiring a re-entry plan.
A steering committee convened by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which also includes parole and prison education officials, hasn’t yet established clear timelines to create such a plan, staff wrote.
There also is no comprehensive assessment of offender risks and needs, according to the report.
It said case management is fragmented and information sharing is limited among the criminal justice agency, the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Windham School District, which serves the criminal justice system.
Besides calling for a written plan, the commission recommended requiring a system-wide risk and needs assessment for offenders and an individual treatment plan. The recommendations will go to the Legislature, which convenes in regular session in January.
“Re-entry is a key component of running a successful criminal justice system,” said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, a Sunset member. “When you release somebody out of prison and we don’t have a re-entry plan for them, you’re greatly increasing the chance that they’ll fail.”
Whitmire emphasized strides made in what he calls a good criminal justice system.
The last time that criminal justice agencies were under sunset review in 2007, lawmakers invested in alternatives to prison including treatment programs and changes in probation and parole.
Whitmire said there have been efforts to help inmates be “street ready” with such things as a high-school equivalency diploma and jobs skills before they are released.
He said there’s room to improve, and that the first challenge in another fiscally challenging legislative session will be protecting programs that are in place.
Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, a Sunset member and vice chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said it’s important that the re-entry plan be completed and that inmate risk assessments be done. She said to properly monitor the reforms’ effects all the pieces should be in place.
“There’s a lot of piecemeal action going on,” said Huffman, a former prosecutor.
Sunset staff found the reforms improved the system, with fewer people entering prison due to probation or parole revocation and a decrease in offenders being re-incarcerated.
The report said, however, that of about 75,000 offenders released from prison each year, about 24 percent will be incarcerated again within three years. It said about 32 percent of those released from state jails will be locked up again in three years.
“Recidivism has significant human costs to victims and communities, as well as to offenders and their families. All taxpayers bear the burden when offenders are reincarcerated at an average cost of $50.79 per day for prison inmates,” according to the report.
Ana Yáñez-Correa of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition called the commission recommendations “a very good, positive step in the right direction that will not only increase public safety but will eventually save taxpayers’ dollars.
Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who helped form the Bexar County Re-Entry Council, said programs to re-integrate offenders successfully into society benefit the whole community.
Otherwise, Adkisson said, “We stuff them in these jails so they can go to crime school, then we have no plan for them when they get out. So they get out, and go right back in. That is a prescription for insanity and fiscal irresponsibility as well as repeated criminality and danger to society.”