TX PAROLE NEWS:


2014:

    More Inmates Up For Parole, Fewer Returning To Jail


    Texas Board of Pardons and Parole Lynn Ruzicka
    speaks to chamber members.

    July 1, 2014
    By Crystal Simmons

    With more alternative programs in place for inmates, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole is pardoning more inmates and seeing fewer return to jail, according to Commissioner with the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole Lynn Ruzicka. Ruzicka, one of 14 commissioners with the board, gave an update on the parole system during the last Houston Northwest Chamber public safety forum.

    Out of the inmates up for parole, 27-28 percent were released in 2001 while the current release rate hovers around 35 percent, said Ruzicka. A 2 percent increase in approvals translates into approximately 1,500 additional parole releases per year and an annual savings of almost $26 million, a 2010 report by the Center for Effective Justice showed.

    “We’ve gotten more options so revocations are going down,” she said. “The release rate is going up because of the programs we have.”

    In 2007, the department of criminal justice began reforming the system, expanding substance abuse treatment programs, re-entry initiatives and programs for the mentally ill. Violating parole also became less serious with intermediate sanction facilities, which allowed parolees who violated the terms of their release to serve temporary sentences instead of having their parole revoked.

    While Ruzicka always looks at the crime first, she said releasing inmates into the appropriate program can increase their chance of parole or get them less time between parole deferrals if they aren’t ready for parole yet, she said. Some of those programs may include Alcoholics Anonymous, anger management, parenting classes, counseling or drug treatment programs.

    Inmates can also be considered for release depending on compliance with court ordered programs and participation in additional programs. Programs offered through the Windham School District, which covers the entire state jail system, include vocational training and classes that follow the Texas state curriculum, she said.

    “It really hits home for these guys,” she said. “If I see someone trying and really participating in these programs that’s going to affect my vote.”

    At the same time, parole revocation rates for parolees with active cases fell from 12.2 percent in 2001 to 8.2 percent in 2010, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

    A report by the Council of State Governments' Justice showed Texas' recidivism rate, the number of felons who return to prison within three years, dropped 22 percent between 2000 and 2007, the year of reform.

    In addition, a 2013 Legislative Budget Board report showed the re-incarceration rate for intermediate sanction facility releases decreased from 47.1 percent for the 2005 cohort to 36.8 percent for the 2009 cohort.

    Still, Ruzicka said that rate could be lower if the state department of criminal justice would open up the programs to more inmates. Currently, only inmates with specific charges and sentence lengths may qualify for some programs.

    “That ties our hands a lot,” said Ruzicka. “The court tells us if they don’t have a sexual conviction that makes them register then we cannot put them into a sex offender program without having them evaluated.”

    More Inmates Up For Parole, Fewer Returning To Jail


    June 25

    LBB Brief: 'Adult Parole In Texas'

    The Legislative Budget Board today published a two-page issue brief titled "Adult Parole in Texas" (pdf) - a pretty general overview that is perhaps most useful to those already familiar with the system for the list of budget line items affecting parole in the current biennium at the end of page two.


    June 7

    Despite Demand, Halfway Houses Struggle to Provide Care

    When Terry Pelz, a former warden with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, testified against a prison gang leader, Mark Fronckiewicz, in the 1993 capital murder trial of a fellow inmate, he had choice words for him.

    At his best, Pelz said, Fronckiewicz was a "true convict." At his worst, he was a "little turd."

    Decades later, after an appeals court overturned Fronckiewicz's death sentence and he was paroled, the men became friends. The former inmate, who had found work as a paralegal and become a fierce advocate for prisoner rehabilitation, had started the Hand Up, a for-profit halfway house for former convicts. "It was really a turnaround," Pelz said.

    Fronckiewicz died last month at a time when the transition program in southeast Houston is facing eviction after missing a rent payment.

    While demand for transitional housing is high, few former offenders can afford the $550 a month they must pay for rent, meals and utilities, said Sheila Jarboe-Lickteig, who co-founded the program last year with Fronckiewicz, her husband. Advocates for prisoner rights say the conundrum is typical. Few of the thousands of offenders released by the Texas prison system each year are able to find steady jobs or stable housing, both of which help prevent recidivism. Roughly a quarter of them are back in prison within 3 years, according to criminal justice department data.

    The state has contracts with 7 halfway houses to offer subsidized housing to about 1,800 former inmates upon their release. Last year alone, about 72,000 people were released from state prisons.

    "It's a problem," said Jorge Renaud, a policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "There is nowhere near the amount of transitional housing that we need."

    Jason Clark, a spokesman with the criminal justice department, said the agency "is working to secure additional halfway house beds, but demand remains higher than the beds that are available." Priority is given to those who "need closer supervision and special services or who lack family and community resources," he said.

    For many inmates, the private market is not an easy option.

    At the Hand Up, roughly half of the 32 available beds are empty despite dozens of applicants, because "you've got to be able to pay the rent," Jarboe-Lickteig said. "You've got the people that are coming out of prison that can pay," she added, "and you've got those that cannot pay. There are a lot more who cannot pay."

    Even with the high vacancy rate, she said, the house is full of success stories.

    The atmosphere is in some ways reminiscent of a college dormitory. On a recent visit, pairs of roommates traded gossip and smoked cigarettes in front of a television in the dining room. Others trickled in after work at maintenance or construction jobs. Several praised the skills of the man on cooking duty that week, a convicted murderer who identified himself as "Wild Bill."

    Residents at the Hand Up are afforded more freedom of movement than at state facilities, which they say makes it easier for them to find work and transition into life outside prison.

    Monitoring parolees can be thorny. After reports in April that hundreds of residents had fled the state's largest contracted halfway house, State Senator John Whitmire, Democrat of Houston and chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee, called for more security there.

    Jason Gehm, a 32-year-old at the Hand Up who spent 18 months in prison on a burglary charge, was discharged to a state-chartered halfway house in Fort Worth, but he said restrictions there made it "basically impossible" to find a job. When he came to the Hand Up, Fronckiewicz helped him prepare a resume that landed him a construction job.

    Friends of Fronckiewicz said he viewed his work at the Hand Up as a way to make a case against the death penalty.

    "These are compelling examples of people who really try to change their lives around and do good for society," said David Atwood, founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

    Jarboe-Lickteig said the work was emotionally transformative, if financially uncertain.

    "I've found a lot more compassion for people that I thought I didn't have," she said.

    (source for both: Texas Tribune)


    NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH


    By Cornelius Dupree, Dallas, Texas

    How does it feel to be out of prison after 30 years for a crime you didn’t commit? Or to know you could have been out sooner if you’d only admitted to it?

    Please check out Dallas Exoneree Cornelius Dupree's account in Guideposts of what it was like to be denied parole because he wouldn't admit to a crime he did not commit as part of a sex-offender treatment program.

    The entire piece is compelling and well-written, it is 4 pages long but worth taking the time to read.

    Click HERE to read the article, it is titled "Nothing but the Truth," but it's hard to read it without recalling Jack Nicholson's line from A Few Good Men:


2013:

    State’s Mistakes May Have Affected Thousands Of Texas Families

    By Scott Noll/KHOU 11 News I-Team
    khou.com
    Posted on November 27, 2013

    SPRING, Texas – It’s a problem that cost Texas taxpayers nearly $200,000 to fix.

    But the KHOU 11 News I-Team discovered that the damage caused by a Texas
    Department of Criminal Justice mistake may run even deeper for thousands of families.

    “He’s the other half of me,” explained Faith Smith. “He’s my soul mate.”

    But Smith’s relationship with her husband, Kris, is no typical love story.

    Theirs is a love-affair centered around telephone calls and weekly visits.

    That’s because Kris Smith is serving a 20 year prison sentence for robbery.

    Faith Smith says her husband has taken responsibility for his actions, and doesn’t claim to be an innocent man.

    For the last year and a half, Smith has been assigned to a “trusty” camp and allowed to work away from the prison.

    So when her husband came up for parole review last fall, Faith Smith was hopeful.

    She spent months arranging to get letters of support from friends, family members, and even a potential employer for Kris.

    But last fall, Smith learned her husband’s parole was denied.

    Even worse, there are now serious questions as to whether anything she sent actually made it to parole voters.

    “I’m very disappointed,” explained Smith. “That’s my life they’re playing with.”

    The 11 News I-Team discovered her husband’s denial could be the result of a giant mix-up by TDCJ.

    “We believe about 86,000 files (were affected),” explained TDCJ Spokesman Jason Clark.

    “Different inmates, somewhere in the correctional system?” The I-Team asked Clark.

    “Yes,” he responded.

    Those 86,000 files are parole files that may not have included support letters urging voters to approve an inmate’s release.

    As the I-Team first reported, for months those letters were part of “general correspondence” that was electronically stored, but not put into inmates’ parole files.

    Instead, those documents were shredded as part of a policy change inside TDCJ.

    But Clark admits no one from TDCJ ever told the Board of Pardons and Paroles about the policy change.

    So for months parole voters had no idea they were potentially reviewing incomplete files when deciding cases.

    “Is it possible people are sitting in prison right now who legitimately would have had a chance to be paroled had this information been in there?” the I-Team asked Clark.

    “You know, how this general correspondence would have influenced the parole decision, I can't speculate,” Clark said. “Those decisions come down to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.”

    So the I-Team took the question to the parole board.

    A spokesman for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles said the Board doesn’t know how many reviews relied on an incomplete file and admitted that a year after the Board learned of the mistake, it had not initiated any process to re-examine any cases to see if they were affected.

    However, that spokesman, Harry Battson, wrote in a statement that the Board, “closely monitored approval rates since December 2012 and identified no discernible differences with previous months.”

    Battson declined to answer our questions on camera, so the I-Team tracked down Board Chairwoman Rissie Owens.

    But when the I-Team asked her why files were not re-reviewed after the parole board realized there was a problem, Owens said nothing.

    She also refused to answer when the I-Team asked her whether voters should have all the information in front of them before making a parole decision.

    But Terri Burke, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas did have something to say.

    “This is stunning,” said Burke after the I-Team told her about the mistake. “Just stunning to me. They (the parole board) need to correct this. If all the materials weren’t there in someone’s file, then they didn’t get a fair parole review.”

    Meanwhile, as Faith Smith counts down the days until her husband’s next shot at parole in 2014, she can’t help but wonder if the state’s mistake cost Kris and thousands of others, a chance at freedom.

    “Even if it wasn't me or my husband, there are families out there that are going through the same thing that I go through,” said Smith. “For those files and those packets to not end up so they could see them and know the information that’s within them, there’s no way they can stand by any of their decisions,” Parole files are confidential under Texas law and so the I-Team could not review them and determine how many were missing paperwork during a parole hearing.

    Aside from inmates and their families, the I-Team discovered there’s another potential impact on taxpayers.

    That’s because TDCJ spends about $50 a day to keep inmates in prison.

    The Department says the cost of supervising an offender on parole is less than $4 a day.

    State’s mistakes may have affected thousands of Texas families


    September 09, 2013

    State To Audit Dallas County's Probation Department

    Monday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will begin an examination of the probation department’s policies and sample some of its 50,000 cases

    By Jennifer Emily
    The Dallas Morning News

    DALLAS — Bryan Sexton showed up drunk after driving to meet his Dallas County probation officer.

    Tests showed his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit to drive.

    The probation officer reprimanded Sexton and allowed him to walk home.

    Nine months later, on Aug. 20, probation officers and supervisors wrote that they “probably” should inform the judge who handled his case.

    Sexton, on probation for attacking his girlfriend, drove to another probation meeting that same day. Again, he was drunk.

    Cases like Sexton’s — in which the probation department failed to cite egregious violations promptly — have caused the county’s judges to order a sweeping audit of the probation department.

    Monday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will begin an examination of the probation department’s policies and sample some of its 50,000 cases.

    Auditors will propose fixes if they find paperwork holes that could leave criminals free rather than behind bars for violating probation.

    State District Judge Tracy Holmes, who handled Sexton’s case, helped push for the audit. She was upset after discovering at least 34 cases in which serious repeated probation violations were not reported to her.

    “What is infuriating to me is that even after the probation department knows I’m zero tolerance … they were ‘probably’ going to tell me about the case,” Holmes said. “It’s still business as usual.”

    Although their standards differ from court to court, most judges require probation officers to report serious violations of a criminal’s terms of probation, such as repeated drinking or use of drugs.

    Substance Abuse

    The violations never reported to Holmes were by probationers convicted of crimes such as aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault and drunken driving.

    They tested positive for alcohol use and drug use, including cocaine, PCP and amphetamines. But probation officers never told the judge.

    Judges need to know about violations so they can revoke probations or add restrictions. Holmes said probationers face no real consequences unless judges reprimand them for breaches.

    Holmes revoked one man’s probation in July and sentenced him to 10 years in prison for his third DWI. He tested positive for alcohol more than 30 times. He saw at least eight probation officers in 18 months. They also allowed him to use hydrocodone with a prescription in violation of Holmes’ orders. They never told the judge.

    The head of the county’s probation department, Michael Noyes, has called the failure of supervision by his probation officers and supervisors “unacceptable.”

    State District Judge Susan Hawk, who arranged for the audit as head of the probation oversight committee, said the state agency will sample probation cases and recommend improvements.

    “We have definitely had some big problems that need taken care of,” she said.

    Noyes said he expects the audit will show that changes he’s already made will prevent similar lapses. His staffers received more training, and some supervisors now only manage officers who handle DWI cases. One employee was fired.

    Noyes said he is waiting on the audit results before making additional changes.

    He said he hopes the audit will provide suggestions for the judges. The probation department does not now have written guidelines from each court about its probationer policies.

    The felony court judges will consider a single policy based on the audit results. But all 17 judges would have to agree.

    Showing Up Drunk

    Sexton, 49, was serving 10 years probation after pleading guilty in May 2012 to assaulting his girlfriend. He struck her and cut her with a pocketknife.

    Earlier, in 2007, he was convicted of a third DWI and sentenced to three years in prison. He also has convictions for marijuana possession and unlawfully carrying a knife.

    After driving to the probation office in November, Sexton was tested and his blood alcohol level was 0.209, according to probation records. He sat in the probation office drinking water until it dropped to 0.169.

    Sexton walked home, leaving his car in the parking lot.

    Holmes was not told about the case. And Sexton was not charged then with violating his probation or with any other crime.

    Probation department notes from Aug. 20 show officers and supervisors intended to “probably” inform Holmes about Sexton’s first sobriety test.

    Later that day, he drove to the probation office for another meeting. He again was tested and had an alcohol level of 0.225.

    Sexton was arrested for violating his probation and is being held without bail at the Dallas County Jail. His attorney, public defender Erin Norby, could not be reached.

    Court records show that while on probation, he failed to take required classes, didn’t complete 240 hours of community service and didn’t pay fees or make donations to Crime Stoppers and a family violence shelter.

    Hawk, the other judge, found cases in her court in which a probation officer did not follow policies. Most judges, though, are waiting for the audit to determine the extent of repeated, serious violations that went unreported to them.

    Hawk said nine probationers who went through her court’s program for mentally ill offenders were not drug tested in a year and a half, although they should have been.

    A probationer and former prostitute who sufferers from schizophrenia came to Hawk because she feared her probation might be revoked for lack of a drug test, the judge said.

    “She was scared she would use again,” Hawk said.

    Noyes said the policy violations were isolated because of a single probation officer who has since been reassigned and received more training.

    He said the Sexton case was discovered because of his office’s internal audit of Holmes’ cases after she questioned department practices. He acknowledged it being part of “system failures” that he’s been trying to fix. He noted that Sexton’s probation terms did not prohibit him from consuming alcohol. But, he said, driving drunk is a probation violation and a judge should be told.

    McClatchy-Tribune News Service

    State To Audit Dallas County's Probation Department


    SEPTEMBER 02, 2013

    One In 27 Texas Adults In Prison, Jail, On Probation Or Parole

    3.4% of Texas adults were in prison, on probation and on parole as of Aug. 31 2012 based on data from a recent Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Report (pdf).

    To complete the picture 67,000 people were locked up in Texas county jails.

    Adjusting the calculation, around 3.7% of Texas adults were under control of the Texas justice system in 2012, not including those caught up in the federal system. That's about one in 27 adult Texans; still a large number, but down from one in 22 just a few years ago, when the state justice system supervised some 4.6% of Texas adults.

    By that measure, the proportion of Texas' adults under control of the justice system has dropped around 20% [(4.6-3.7)/4.6] in the last five years, with incarceration levels plateauing, then dropping slightly, as the overall state population continued to rise. We still imprison more people than any other state, even California, whose population is much larger than Texas', but the ever-upward trend witnessed over the last two decades has been at least momentarily checked.

    The next challenge: Texas needs to direct more funding to diversion programming and adjust sentencing categories downward for certain low-level nonviolent offenses. The 2007 investments worked but aren't enough by themselves to reduce incarceration further without additional reforms.

    (Source: Grits for Breakfast)


    August 16, 2013

    News Flash: Parole Board Must Follow Laws

    This story from ABC's Good Morning America about Texas parole laws is possibly the most ignorant thing I've seen written by a professional reporter in 2013, which is saying something. The writer complains of a "loophole" requiring murderers (or anyone else) convicted between 1977 and 1987 to be released via a since-eliminated "mandatory supervision" law, under which they're let go when time served plus good time equals their sentence. What a crock! Since when is it a "loophole" to apply the law as written? Anyway, that hasn't been the case for years but it would be unconstitutional (in spades) to apply ex post facto rules to sentences issued under the old regime. This story was a) 26 years old, so not "news," b) utterly ignorant of the law and reality, and c) blatant demagoguery. Pathetic that this garbage passes for journalism at a major national news outlet.


    July 1, 2013

    Parole Officers, Youth-Prison Workers Busted In Separate Crackdowns

    By Mike Ward
    American-Statesman Staff

    Four Texas parole officers were jailed in Houston on Monday as authorities began the first arrests in a continuing, year-long federal and state investigation into allegations that the officers took payoffs to ignore drug-trafficking and other illegal activity by recently freed convicts.

    The news came as officials with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department announced that three employees at its troubled South Texas lockup, the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, on charges of official oppression and tampering with records over allegations that youths were abused by guards.

    In Houston, U.S. Attorney Ken Magidson said the indictments allege that the four arrested parole officers took took bribes averaging $1,000 to allow them to continue dealing drugs. On one occasion, the payoff was $3,000.

    The arrested officers — identified as April L. Carson, 35, of Missouri City, and Crystal M. Washington, 52; Darlene J. Muhammad, 42, and Ernie Rogers, 56, all of Houston — were to be arraigned on federal charges, according to authorities.

    They said bond was not immediately set.

    Officials said the investigation is continuing, hinting that other arrests are likely.

    Federal authorities said the four officers worked at two Houston parole offices, where allegations of bribery and exchange of sexual favors had been under investigation for some time.

    If convicted, Magidson said each defendant faces up to 20 years imprisonment and a possible $250,000 fine.

    Bruce Toney, inspector general of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said is agency worked with four other agencies on the case, including the FBI, Houston Police and the Texas Rangers.

    “The allegation is the officers accepted money for not doing their jobs, and that’s against the law,” he said, noting that the investigation began with a tip from the office of state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who heads the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that oversees the state prisons and parole programs.

    “We are committed to rooting out this type of corruption.”

    Brad Livingston, executive director of the criminal justice agency that supervises parolees, said his agency “fully support (authorities’) efforts to investigate, arrest and ultimately prosecute employees that are suspected of breaking the law.”

    Whitmire said Monday evening his office “was tipped by an inmate who said he was being shaken down for money and sex … They should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Zero tolerance.”

    In a separate case, juvenile-justice system director Mike Griffiths today announced the arrests of three employees at the Evins lockup, including security director Pete Martinez. The other two employees were identified as Juan Tamez and Julian Fuentes, both correctional officers.

    The Evins lockup has been plagued by gang violence and assaults by youths on staff and other youths for nearly two years.

    Griffiths said Tamez and Fuentes, both alleged to have used excessive force on teen-aged lawbreakers incarcerated at the lockup, face official oppression charges, and Martinez is accused of falsifying records concerning the abuse.

    He said that three youths who were identified as victims did not sustain serious injuries.

    In addition to the three employees who face criminal charges, seven other Evins staff members have been suspended for having knowledge of the alleged abuse but failing to report it, according to Griffiths.

    Griffiths said one of the abuse cases was reported to his agency by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

    “These allegations are abhorrent and we will pursue all criminal and administrative remedies to the fullest extent,” Griffiths said.

    Parole Officers, Youth-Prison Workers Busted In Separate Crackdowns


    Feb. 13, 2013

    CONTINUING COVERAGE: PAROLE SYSTEM

    Senators Propose Removing Parole Duties From Prison Agency
    Move would put parole functions under parole board, undo 23-year-old merger of criminal justice agencies

    By Mike Ward
    American-Statesman Staff

    In a surprise move to reverse a 23-year-old merger of Texas’ criminal justice agencies, a key legislative committee moved Wednesday to shift all parole operations and programs from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the Board of Pardons and Parole that now just votes on releases.

    In addition, a Senate working group writing the first draft of the 2014-15 state budget proposed closing two private prisons that house state convicts to save $97 million over two years, and hinted it might push to close or mothball even more lockups in a system that now has thousands of empty bunks because of a declining convict population.

    “It’s time to move ahead with doing what needs to be done,” said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, who a day earlier had castigated prison officials for what he said were almost 11,000 empty prison beds.

    “The parole board should oversee parole operations, instead of having that managed by the prison system. I know we merged it in 1989, but that was then and this is now,” Whitmire said. “The system has changed.”

    Wednesday’s move is the first in more than two decades to downsize or to split off parts of the corrections agency — one of the state’s largest, with a $3-billion-a-year budget — in any significant way. It also marked the latest bad news for the corrections agency, which in recent weeks has faced increasing criticism from Whitmire, a powerful lawmaker whose committee oversees corrections programs in Texas and who sits on the budget-writing finance committee.

    The parole board — which now has seven board members, 12 parole commissioners and just over 550 employees — has a $25-million-a-year budget. The parole division of the corrections agency has more than 2,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $156 million to supervise more than 87,000 parolees. Both entities are headquartered in Austin.

    Without a vote, Sens. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the vice chair of the committee, and Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, seemed to agree with Whitmire’s proposal that will now go to the full Senate Finance Committee for review and discussion — and a likely spot, in some form, in the Senate version of the budget.

    Brad Livingston, executive director of corrections agency, appeared stunned by the proposals. He said after the meeting that he had heard the shift of parole supervision had been looked at earlier, but he did not expect it to be proposed. “We look forward to working with the leadership as we move ahead,” he said.

    Several weeks ago, Whitmire proposed breaking up the independent school district that operates inside prisons, in favor of cheaper adult education programs that do not require as much bureaucracy, and he has suggested that additional prisons could be closed.

    But removing parole supervision from the justice agency would be the biggest proposed shift in state corrections policy in decades. In 1989, to correct years of turf battles between the parole board and prison system that were blamed in part for overcrowding prisons, the Legislature merged prison, parole and probation agencies into a new criminal-justice department.

    Only the parole board itself stayed separate, after a change in 1999, mostly because it was created as a separate agency under the Texas Constitution. Its new job was just to approve paroles and clemency cases, while supervision of parolees was given to the justice agency.

    Friction has occasionally surfaced between the parole board and the parole division of the criminal justice department — over the conditions under which convicts are supervised, over who sets and enforces the rules, over legal matters, over who has the most authority and who answers to whom.

    Parole Board chairman Rissie Owens, who earlier Wednesday began quietly shopping the transfer plan to Whitmire and other legislative leaders, said she thinks giving the parole board control over the entire parole system “makes sense.”

    “Prisons and parole each have their distinct and separate operating correctional strategies,” Owens said in talking points distributed to lawmakers. “While the original purpose of the consolidation may have worked, Texas can go beyond just working, and strive for a more cohesive, efficient, streamlined, research-driven and present-day parole system.”

    One agency, she said, would provide authority over all parole matters, a “seamless system” that could enhance responsiveness and “consistent legal guidance,” and perhaps even savings for taxpayers.

    CORRECTION: This story reflects it was John Whitmire, D-Houston, who proposed breaking up the independent school district that operates inside prisons.


    PAROLE SYSTEM IN TEXAS: At a glance
    Board of Pardons and Paroles
    Votes on parole, pardons and clemency cases
    $25 million annual budget
    550 employees
    Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Parole Division
    Supervises 87,000 parolees
    $156 million annual budget
    2,000 employees
    Source: Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

    Senators propose removing parole duties from prison agency


2012:

    Parole hearings rise, but revocations drop, state says

    By Allan Turner
    October 2, 2012

    AUSTIN - Parole revocation proceedings for Texas offenders have reached a 10-year high, even though actual revocations continue to drop as officials employ alternate strategies to keep ex-convicts on the straight and narrow.

    Preliminary figures for the just-completed fiscal year show 21,642 paroled offenders either had hearings to determine whether they violated parole by breaking the law or went through formal revocation hearings. That was up from 18,391 in the previous fiscal year.

    Michael Billings, hearings operation director for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, briefed parole officials on the latest totals Tuesday at the agency's quarterly meeting in Austin. Board members also heard updates on the expansion of rehabilitation programs for sex offenders, a group that makes up more than a fifth of the state prison population.

    Although unable to provide numbers of actual parole revocations in the past fiscal year, Billings said the totals likely continue a decade-long downward trend.

    Revocation proceedings have increased due to a lawsuit ruling that mandated increased preliminary hearings - queries designed to determine whether a parolee violated a law.

    Actual revocations have decreased, agency spokesman Harry Battson said, as officials sentenced violators to short-term stays in intermediate facilities or ordered them to attend substance abuse sessions.

    Agency officials also heard promising reports concerning expansion of a program for parole-eligible sex offenders. As many as 27,000 of the state's approximately 152,000 inmates are serving time for sex offenses, and even more are imprisoned for crimes that had a sexual component.

    Board member Corinth Davis reported that 2,795 of 2,830 inmates enrolled in a new nine-month program for medium-risk offenders had successfully completed the program. The medium-risk program, which augments similar efforts for low- and high-risk offenders, was created two years ago. Davis said 2,744 of 3,107 inmates successfully completed the program, which consists of individual and group counseling, in its first year.

    Inmates must successfully finish the program in order to be paroled.

    allan.turner@chron.com

    Parole hearings rise, but revocations drop, state says


    Inmate's Case Highlights Medical Parole Issues

    • By Maurice Chammah
    • October 2, 2012

    Donald Rash is 62 and an inmate at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Powledge Unit in Palestine, serving 23 years for a 1999 robbery. He suffers from severe spinal disorders, diabetes, chronic chest pain, hypertension, post-traumatic stress disorder and hepatitis C.

    He can’t stand without crutches, and his lawyer said he regularly misses meals because he can't walk to the prison cafeteria.

    “He can barely hold up his head,” said attorney Michelle Smith of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who has visited Rash. “He’s a shell of a man.”

    Despite his afflictions, Rash's advocates said the Navy veteran is not considered sufficiently infirm to be referred for medical parole. He has been eligible since 2002. “I don’t know if it’s incompetence or malice,” said attorney Brian McGiverin.

    Rash’s lawyers argued at a press conference on Tuesday that his case is a “graphic illustration” of the budgetary crisis TDCJ faces. The department is paying for the medical care of inmates like Rash with state dollars. But if he were freed, the federal government, in the form of Medicaid or the Veterans Administration, would pay for his expensive treatments. Rash's attorneys estimated that the 10 inmates with the highest medical costs account for $1.9 million in TDCJ spending every year.

    Inmates can be granted a form of parole called Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision if they are cleared by the University of Texas Medical Branch, the Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments, housed within TDCJ, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles. As their cases go through each of these gatekeepers, the number of eligible inmates narrows. According to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, as few as one in four of the inmates recommended by doctors for medical parole are granted it.

    TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said the Board of Pardons and Paroles must agree that an inmate “is no longer a threat to public safety.” Clark could not confirm whether Rash is being considered for medical parole, and Harry Battson, spokesman for the Board of Pardons and Paroles, declined to discuss the case, citing medical privacy. The parole board, he said, doesn’t need to provide reasons for its decisions. In 2011, the board released about 100 inmates under medical supervision. The board, Battson said, primarily determines whether a prisoner will be a threat to society, and it is not aware of a prisoner's medical costs.

    McGiverin said that granting medical parole to inmates like Rash would save the state millions of dollars each year.

    Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, agreed that the process is creating needless costs. In a recent report, he noted that granting parole to “infirm” inmates would save the state $42.6 million in 2013, while only adding $1.57 million in parole costs.

    Levin said his organization is planning to propose legislation to simplify the process for medical parole. Levin said time and money are wasted when doctors spend write recommendations for inmates who won’t be considered eligible for medical parole anyway. And, he said, the parole board members don’t likely have the medical knowledge to understand the language in the recommendations.

    A single commission with doctors and parole officials “in the same room” discussing cases “would really streamline the process,” Levin said.

    Lawmakers considered releasing more infirm inmates during the 2011 legislative session, but those proposals failed. At the time, parole board chairwoman Rissie Owens warned legislators about "miraculous recovery," or cases in which dying inmates have been paroled, then recovered and committed new crimes.

    If there is any chance for a change in Rash’s status ahead of his next parole evaluation, it will likely either come from a lawsuit — his attorneys declined to comment on whether one would be filed — or from policy changes in the 2013 legislative session. "We take our direction pretty much from the Legislature," said Battson, the parole board spokesman.

    "Donald knows he made terrible decisions," Rash's lawyers wrote in his parole prospectus. "He takes full responsibility for his crimes and intends to be a law-abiding citizen on his release."

    His niece, Samantha Peyton, has been writing Rash letters for years. She was in middle school when her uncle went to prison. Now, she hopes he is granted parole so he can meet her daughter.

    "I would love for him to get out so we could visit," she said.

    Inmate's Case Highlights Medical Parole Issues


    Texas says rise in Paroles gives State bragging Rights
    Officials say reforms are 'smart on crime' and save money

    By Cindy Horswell
    Updated August 15, 2012

    Read More Here


    Parole Board Releases Stats on its Votes, but Members won't talk about Decisions

    By Mike Ward
    Published: Aug. 14, 2012

    A new state report pulls back the veil of secrecy that normally shrouds most of Texas' parole process just a tad.

    In its annual statistical summary made public earlier this week, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles shows the rate at which convicts are freed early under supervision has continued a 10-year upswing — creeping up to 31 percent in 2011.

    At the same time, the number of felons who are having their paroles revoked and being sent back to prison has dropped to just 6,381 in 2011, or 22.7 percent, compared with 10,666 in 2002.

    Parole Board Chairwoman Rissie Owens attributed the trends to new treatment and rehabilitation programs that are available for parole-bound convicts, and enhanced supervision and screening programs.

    But perhaps the most revealing detail comes in the summaries of how each of the seven board members and 12 parole commissioners votes on approving or denying the release of convicts from prison.

    Fifteen of the 22 officials listed have a higher approval rate than the board's overall average, according to the report.

    The highest percentage of approvals: San Antonio board member Juanita Gonzales, a longtime board member and former probation officer, who approved 46.5 percent of the 10,397 cases she reviewed during 2011.

    The lowest? Amarillo Parole Commissioner Charles Shipman, a former parole officer and policeman, who approved just 20.8 percent, according to the report.

    Harry Battson, the board's spokesman, said the voting records can be deceiving, because 40 different combinations of three-member panels votes on cases that involve different types of convicts.

    "There's different panels for different cases, so it's hard to draw any type of conclusions," he said.

    Case in point: Statistically, Owens is the most liberal at awarding paroles, granting early release in 96.7 percent of the 1,816 cases she reviewed during 2011.

    But Owens votes only on certain cases involving serious crimes, those that require five votes for approval, instead of just two required in other cases. And she votes last, officials said.

    Even so, at an agency that is one of the most secretive by state law — its files are secret and its deliberations are secret, with only the outcomes eventually made public — the voting numbers provide a rare glimpse of the inner workings of a government board whose decisions can affect public safety.

    In other states, parole board records, meeting, even deliberations, are handled in public.

    So how do Texas parole board members and commissioners decide their votes?

    No comment, Battson said.

    Longtime Huntsville parole attorney Bill Habern said that attitude is typical.

    "It's another example of the secrecy that covers the entire happenings of the parole board," he said.

    Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791
    Twitter: @mikestatesman

    Parole Board Releases Stats on its Votes, but Members won't talk about Decisions


    June 12th

    Grits Response to "Ward: Sunset May Shift Parolee Supervision Back To Parole Board"

    Grits can see the potential wisdom on both sides of the merger suggestion, but Ward took away from last week's hearing a much stronger sense than I did that the Sunset process might undertake a merger to resolve the "communications" issues identified by Rep. Bonnen and other legislators.

    To Read More on Grits Response, Click Here

    See Article Listed Below From Mike Ward


    Lawmakers Study Consolidation of Texas Parole System

    By Mike Ward
    Published: June 11, 2012

    More than 20 years after Texas limited the responsibilities of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to approving or denying cases not supervising parole officers or parolees a new state report is sparking debate about whether to expand the agency's duties again.

    Such a change, if approved, would be the biggest shift in Texas' corrections system in decades — and the idea has sparked a turf war between the parole board and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs state prisons and currently supervises parole officers.

    Texas has more than 75,000 men and women on parole, one of the largest such systems in the United States. Although parole decisions and cases generally are not public, several examples have surfaced in the past year in which the parole board voted to impose restrictions on convicts as a condition of their release, and then a parole officer later modified or removed that condition without the parole board ever knowing about it.

    In other cases, restrictions were imposed on parolees by the parole division without the parole board approving.

    "This has been going on for some time," said Bill Habern, a prominent Huntsville parole attorney. "It causes confusion, both for the parolees and the officers. The solution is to unify the roles of the two agencies and have one captain in charge of the ship."

    A study released early this month by the Sunset Advisory Commission examined continuing complaints about conflicting decisions by the parole board and the parole division that have landed both agencies in court and drawn criticism from legislative leaders.

    The Sunset Commission — which periodically reviews agencies to determine if they should be reauthorized, reconfigured or discontinued — recommended that no changes be made.

    The "analysis did not find significant problems, certainly none large enough to recommend dismantling the functions, nor were there significant cost savings related to an alternative structure," according to the commission's report.

    The report found that most of the problems stemmed from poor communication between the agencies and urged the agencies' managers to resolve those problems.

    Before 1989, the parole board was totally in charge of the state's parole process — supervising parole officers who supervised the parolees, as a separate agency with a separate budget and mission from the prison system, then known as the Texas Department of Corrections.

    That year, to create what was then termed a "seamless" system of criminal justice, the Legislature put parole officers under the new Texas Department of Criminal Justice and left the parole board — a separate agency created by the Texas Constitution — as a scaled-down entity that voted on paroles and clemency requests.

    Continuing issues between parole and prison officials have played out several times in courtrooms, where judges have criticized the two agencies for making overlapping and sometimes contradictory decisions about the conditions of parole for a convict.

    The agencies have also been blasted for taking conflicting legal positions on convicts' rights to a parole hearings.

    The Sunset Commission's governing board, made up of 10 lawmakers and two citizen members, is expected to vote on the staff report in September.

    "It looks to me to be a communication issue," said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who chairs the Sunset Commission. "They need a plan that says, ‘Here's how we're going to communicate.' "

    Other legislative leaders said that while the idea of re-forming a separate parole agency is intriguing, they are far from ready to endorse it.

    "In some respects, we have a strange setup: The parole board makes the tough decisions, and the parole division of another agency monitors and supervises those decisions," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, a member of the Sunset Commission.

    "I know there's people who think all parole functions should under the parole board. I'm listening, but I haven't been convinced that we should undo the consolidation we did in 1989."

    Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791

    Lawmakers Study Consolidation of Texas Parole System


    Storied Texas Prisoner Approved For Parole

    By Mike Ward
    AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
    Published: May 31, 2012


    Eroy Brown, whose acquittal on murder charges involving the deaths of a prison warden and a farm manager in the 1980s shook Texas' corrections system to its roots, has been approved for parole after nearly three decades behind bars.

    Officials confirmed Thursday that Brown, 61, who has served 27 years for robbing a Waco convenience store of $12 and some candy bars, will be sent to a supervised pre-release rehabilitation program in California.

    No date for the release has been set.

    In 1985, Brown was sentenced to 90 years as a habitual criminal; he had two previous felonies — a burglary and a robbery dating back to the 1970s.

    In recent years, Brown has been serving his time in a South Carolina prison because a federal judge thought his safety could not be guaranteed in a Texas lockup.

    "This has been a long time coming," said Bill Habern, a Huntsville attorney who represented Brown in both the murder and parole cases. "Twenty-seven years for a $12 robbery is a lot of time. ... This way, he'll be under supervision when he gets out.

    "The board deserves credit. The right thing to do was to grant this parole, and they did that."

    Had Brown been denied parole again, as he had seven times since he went to prison, he would have been released within five years anyway without any supervision under controversial early release policies enacted in the 1970s to ease prison crowding in Texas.

    The vote for parole was 2-0, said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Thomas Leeper, an attorney, and Pamela Freeman, a former prison guard, voted in the case, he said.

    Once before, several years ago, Brown was approved for parole, but officials changed their vote, and he was never released.

    Brown's case highlights a longstanding issue with Texas' parole system: a reluctance to parole longtime offenders with high-profile cases, even those who soon will be freed anyway, and those with serious and costly health problems.

    Brown is earning liberal credits for good behavior on his sentence, which he would finish by 2017. At that time, he would be released free and clear, with no supervision.

    Brown is among just 4,208 of Texas' 156,000 convicts who are still accruing such credits under old laws, a number that dwindles each year as more are paroled or released.

    Within the prison system, he is most noteworthy for what happened during a deadly struggle on April 4, 1981, alongside a drainage ditch called Turkey Creek in the farm fields at the Ellis Unit near Huntsville. When it was over, the farm manager, Billy Moore, lay dead from a gunshot from the warden's pistol, and the warden, Wallace Pack, was drowned.

    Brown claimed self-defense, saying that Moore had been stealing tires from the prison and was afraid Brown was about to snitch on him.

    Brown went to trial three times. Each time, he was acquitted after testimony about Moore's and Pack's past conduct and convicts' accounts of the shooting as well as how the prisons were run helped corraborate Brown's story, Habern said. The forensic evidence the state cited also was disputed, he said.

    The acquittal of a black convict in the deaths of two white prison officials never went over well in the hidebound world of Texas prisons, where prison farms once were run like plantations and inmates often called their guard supervisors "boss."

    Habern credited a 2011 book by Houston journalist Michael Berryhill — "The Trials of Eroy Brown: The Case That Shook the Texas Prison System" — with raising awareness of the details of the case and Brown's long term of incarceration.

    Prison officials continued to insist the deaths were murders, and prisons were later named for both Moore and Pack.

    Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791

    Storied Texas Prisoner Approved For Parole


    Judge: Parole Officials Can Be Held Liable Over Sex Offender Restrictions

    By Mike Ward
    AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
    Published: May 21, 2012

    In the latest rebuke of state policies for classifying parolees as sex offenders, an Austin federal judge has ruled that top state parole officials can be held personally liable for continuing missteps.

    U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin, in an order issued late Friday, blasted the state's continuing refusal to provide due process hearings before imposing restrictive sex-offender conditions on felons never convicted of a sex crime.

    Yeakel for the first time ruled that the seven-member state Board of Pardons and Paroles, 12 parole commissioners, state parole director Stuart Jenkins and other parole officials can face monetary damages for their actions.

    It's a significant determination that, if not reversed on appeal, could prove costly for both the officials and taxpayers, if several pending inmate lawsuits are successful.

    A jury verdict in another case two years ago cost the state approximately $80,000, officials involved in that case said earlier.

    "The state has not reached the end of their rope. They're way past the end of it. They're in free fall," said Denton attorney Richard Gladden, who hailed the order as significant in curtailing a long-standing state policy of classifying as sex offenders convicts who have no sex crime conviction without a full hearing in which they can challenge the designation.

    "There's nothing to stop another trial now except a settlement," Gladden said. "It's just a question of how much in damages will be awarded."

    Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, and other parole officials were not available to comment Monday. A spokesman said the ruling was under review.

    The order was the latest setback for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and state corrections officials, who have insisted for years that, to ensure public safety, they could impose the stringent conditions on parolees without a due process hearing.

    Although previous court rulings have required the hearings, the state has not routinely offered them until recently — and only then under certain circumstances.

    Yeakel's order — the latest ruling to indicate that federal courts have lost their patience with the state — came in a suit filed by parolee Buddy Jene Yeary.

    Last fall, the judge blocked the state from enforcing the sex offender restrictions — officially known as Special Condition X — on Yeary, an unusual step for a judge to take.

    According to state records, Yeary pleaded guilty to drug charges in 2003 in Johnson County, south of Fort Worth, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Though he was initially indicted on charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child, his sentence order states that "the sex offender registration requirements (in state law) do not apply to the defendant," according to the suit.

    Despite that, state records show that when Yeary was paroled in the summer of 2007, parole officials required him to register as a sex offender, placed him under the restrictive sex-offender conditions of release and ordered him to participate in a sex offender treatment program.

    In his order Friday, Yeakel ruled that the state has for six years been aware that it must provide hearings to parolees in such cases and that officials' continuing failure to do so leaves them open to liability.

    "In light of the resistance of the state of Texas to providing parolees with the procedural due process guaranteed them by the Constitution, even after receiving repeated mandates from federal and state courts, the court is unconvinced that Texas will not return to its unconstitutional policies and practices," the 31-page order states.

    "Any stigmatic injury suffered by Yeary due to the imposition and continued enforcement of Special Condition X may entitle Yeary to compensatory damages."

    Yeakel refused to dismiss Yeary's lawsuit, as state officials had asked. Instead, he said it would head to a trial.

    He did dismiss as a defendant in the case parole board general counsel Bettie Wells, who advises the board but does not vote on cases or set policies.

    The ruling comes after years of legal decisions requiring state parole officials to provide hearings before they impose sex offender restrictions on felons never convicted of a sex crime.

    In addition to federal courts, the state Court of Criminal Appeals last fall ordered the restrictions removed from the parole conditions for a Houston kidnapper because he was not afforded a due process hearing before they were imposed and because he had not been convicted of a sex crime.

    Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791

    Judge: Parole officials can be held liable over sex offender restrictions


    Parole rates surge to avoid unsupervised releases

    By Mike Ward
    AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
    May 15, 2012

    Texas' parole rate for convicted felons has reached new highs in recent months, with the approval rate topping 40 percent this spring after hovering in the high 20s for several years.

    The parole rate for violent sex offenders reached nearly 60 percent in March.

    Officials say the higher parole rate is partly due to larger numbers of felons imprisoned in the past 20 years who are now reaching the end of their sentences, some meted out during the three-strikes-and-you're-out era of tough-on-crime laws enacted during the 1990s.

    Officials are putting more of these convicts on parole to keep them under supervision and in treatment after they get out of prison, rather than have them walk out unsupervised.

    The new numbers, obtained Tuesday by the American-Statesman, showed Texas' overall parole approval rates are the highest since September 2001, topping 40 percent in both February and March. The approval rate for April was just under 39 percent, the statistics show.

    Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, did not return a phone call Tuesday. Parole board members do not generally discuss their decisions, partly because of a state law that keeps most of the process secret.

    But others familiar with the parole system said the gradual increase in rates in recent months highlights a trend: More convicts — especially those serving time for aggravated sex crimes — are being voted into supervised treatment programs to ensure that they are not a threat to public safety after they get out.

    Parole rates in Texas are a tricky subject. They historically drop at times when a governor is running for office — the governor appoints the parole board members — and they rise at other times when more convicts are eligible or, in the past, when prisons have been crowded.

    Texas' overall parole rate has been inching upward from a low of 27 percent in October 2010 to almost 42 percent in March, statistics show.

    "Do you really want Uncle Creepy coming out after 20 years in prison with no supervision? No," said Michele Belanger, a former state parole official who works as a legal assistant in parole law in Huntsville.

    "If inmates discharge (complete) their sentence without any supervision, you cross your fingers; whereas, if they're released on supervision, you can keep track of them after they get out."

    Other officials suggest that more convicts who are getting close to completing half of their sentences of about five years are being seriously considered for parole because if they are not released into supervision now, they might complete their sentences before they can be reviewed again for parole. Current state law requires parole reviews every three years.

    House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, suggested another reason for the rise in parole rates: In the past five years, Texas has increasingly stressed treatment and rehabilitation programs, "and those programs appear to be working."

    Recent studies have shown a decline in recidivism rates as treatment programs have come on line.

    "If the parole board sees that, they will probably be more likely to vote someone into a program," Madden said.

    Marc Levin, director of the Austin-based Center for Effective Justice, which tracks criminal justice issues, agreed.

    "Having an effective treatment program for parolees that can make a difference and pay for itself is good corrections policy," Levin said.

    With the increase in parole approvals, the number of felons on supervised release has been climbing, as well. In February, 83,778 people were on active parole supervision in Texas, compared with 80,694 in March 2011.

    "There are a lot of sex offenders through their age and the length of the sentence who are coming up to get out, and I think it's good policy to release them under supervision," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who, with Madden, wrote legislation for more rehabilitation and treatment for drug addicts, drunken drivers, sex offenders and other convicts.

    The long waiting lists for several treatment programs have shortened; however, more than 500 convicted sex offenders face waits from six to 13 months for a slot in several programs that could be a key to their parole.

    "Our tough policies on crime are reflected in the increased parole rates, because after people are completing long and tough sentences, we have the programs to parole them into to ensure public safety is protected," Whitmire said.

    Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees parole supervision, said the additional caseload on parole is not a problem because additional parole officers are being hired to ensure that required officer-parolee ratios of 1-to-15 for violent crimes and 1-to-75 for nonviolent crimes are maintained.

    Although the state faced a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall last year, funding for that growth was included in the criminal justice budget, he said.

    Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791

    Texas Parole Figures:
    27% - Overall parole rate in October 2010
    39% - Overall parole rate in April
    80,694 - People on active parole supervision in March 2011
    83,778 - People on active parole supervision in February

    Parole rates surge to avoid unsupervised releases


    Freed Texas Sex Offenders Aren't Really Free

    By Anita Hassan
    April 16, 2012


    Michael Elbert Young escaped from an
    Houston halfway house and is being
    sought by authorities. Photo: File/HC

    As police search for a violent sex offender who fled a Houston halfway house two weeks ago, a state senator is calling for a review of the civil commitment program that keeps those sex offenders under tight supervision after their prison sentences are complete.

    Michael Elbert Young served 20 years in prison for an attempted aggravated sexual offense, the fourth violent sexual crime on his record. But when his sentence was over, the state decided he wasn't ready to live unsupervised. They placed him among 243 other sex offenders across Texas under round-the-clock supervision. No one has been released from supervision since the program began in 2000.

    Just one week into his halfway house stay, Young managed to remove his ankle monitor and escape from the facility on Houston's northeast side.

    "We have to ask where did something go wrong?" state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told the Houston Chronicle. "This guy was being held under civil commitment and walked out the door."

    Whitmire, who heads the Senate's criminal justice committee, called sex offenders the state's No. 1 challenge. While the civil commitment program has succeeded, he said a review is needed to pinpoint needed improvements.

    As of now, offenders placed in civil commitment are under the strict supervision of a case manager, their activities are restricted to work and treatment, and they are all required to wear GPS ankle monitor systems for 24-hour tracking.

    "It is much more intensive than being on parole," said Allison Taylor, executive director of the Office of Violent Sexual offender Management, the agency that oversees the civil commitment program.

    Ankle Monitor Severed

    Any violation of the commitment, including absconding, is a third-degree felony that sends offenders back to prison, Taylor said. Since the program began, 12 offenders have escaped, Taylor said, adding that Young is the only one that hasn't been caught.

    Young and at least one other offender severed their ankle monitors to escape supervision.

    "There is no foolproof method" to ensure offenders do not abscond, Taylor said. "Even in incarceration, inmates will still escape."

    Both men were being held at the Southeast Texas Transitional Center, a private facility on Beaumont Highway run by The GEO Group. It is one of a handful of facilities contracted by the state to house parolees and offenders under civil commitments.

    In a prepared statement, GEO officials stated that authorities are notified immediately when individuals abscond and declined any further comment on the facility or its procedures. Taylor said the halfway houses only provide shelter and not security, which is a matter for her agency.

    Out of about 20 states with civil commitment programs for sex offenders, Texas is the only one with a strictly outpatient program, a decision made partly to keep down costs, Taylor said.

    "We felt we could still protect the public with an outpatient program," Taylor said.

    The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the laws which hold offenders under civil commitments are constitutional. However, critics argue that the fact that no one has been released from the program is further proof that the program is a way to extend prison sentences for sex offenders without due process.

    "It is a disingenuous way to get around double jeopardy," said Philip Taylor, a licensed sex offender treatment provider based in Dallas.

    In order to be placed under civil commitment, 16 months prior to their release, prison inmates are reviewed by a multidisciplinary team that must determine whether they are repeat sexually violent offenders, and if they are likely to commit another sexually violent offense, Allison Taylor said. If the inmate meets the criteria, a clinical expert conducts a behavior abnormality assessment.

    Reviews Every 2 Years

    If a behavior abnormality is identified, the case is referred to the state's special prosecution unit to seek a civil commitment, which places the burden on the state to prove that the offender is a sexually violent predator. Offenders can request a trial by judge, jury or come to an agreement with the state.

    Due to an increase in funding from the Legislature in 2007, the state can now file up to about 50 petitions for civil commitment per year, said Gina DeBottis, head of Texas' special prosecution unit.

    "I don't really anticipate that it will go beyond 50 because this program really is targeting the worst of the worst, so it's not for every single person," DeBottis said.

    Civilly committed offenders are given reviews every two years. A judge determines whether the individual's behavior abnormality has been changed and they are safe to return to society.

    While none of the civilly committed offenders have ever been discharged, Allison Taylor noted that none of the offenders in the program have ever been charged for committing another sexually violent act, showing that treatment is working.

    "That to me is success," Taylor said.

    However, Philip Taylor argued that if treatment is needed to ensure that a sex offender would never again commit a sexually violent act, the state should start offering it to sex offenders in prison.

    "It's a golden opportunity to provide treatment, but they don't," he said.

    It remains unclear how long an offender must undergo treatment to be released from a civil commitment since no one in Texas has ever been freed, Philip Taylor said.

    "If it's good treatment, then release somebody," he said. "If not, then let's go back to the Supreme Court and look at this again."

    anita.hassan@chron.com

    Freed Texas sex offenders aren't really free


    Feb. 4th

    Stop the Addiction to Incarceration

    Texas’ addiction to incarceration costs taxpayers millions of dollars. The ten most expensive inmates in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) have estimated average annual medical costs of $600,000 each! That's a huge price tag for a small number of inmates who are no longer threats to society.

    The medical parole program is designed to allow for the early release of offenders who are terminally ill, physically handicapped, elderly, or in need of long-term care. Yet, in 2011, only 100 of the 1,125 cases eligible for parole through the medical parole program were approved.

    Tell the Sunset Commission to increase the use of medical parole.

    TDCJ has noted that medical expenses for the elderly and terminally ill "significantly exceed those for the typical offender," and yet the state continues to accrue health costs for this population instead of releasing eligible offenders on medical parole.

    During the 2011 fiscal year, 78 inmates died while waiting for their medical parole recommendation to be processed. Failure to process medical parole recommendations in a timely manner costs taxpayers too much.

    Take action: Tell the Sunset Commission that releasing more sick and dying inmates would save millions.

    ACLU of Texas

    Medical Parole is Good for Texas!

    "One study says as much as $76 million could be saved in health care and security costs over two years if an estimated backlog of 1,000 terminally ill or infirm inmates were released."
    -The Dallas Morning News

    TAKE ACTION NOW!


    Parole Chief Denies Request To Remove Panelists

    By Mike Ward
    January 24, 2012

    The chairwoman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has rejected a request to remove two former prison-system employees from voting on whether to parole Eroy Brown, a convict who was acquitted of murdering a prison warden and farm manager in a headline-grabbing case during the 1980s.

    In a one-page letter dated last Wednesday, Rissie Owens informed Brown’s attorney, Bill Habern, that she would not reassign the case from a Huntsville-based panel of three parole officials that includes a retired Texas warden and a former corrections officer.

    Statesman.com obtained a copy of the letter this afternoon.

    “These individuals have and continue to perform their duties and responsibilities with the utmost respect and appreciation for each individual case they are charged with reviewing to make a release decision determination,” Owens wrote.

    “Their backgrounds have never been called into question to date and I do not anticipate such in the future.”

    Brown, whose acquittal on murder charges involving the deaths of a Huntsville prison warden and a farm manager in the 1980s shook the Lone Star corrections system to its roots, remains in prison serving time for robbing a Waco convenience store of $12 and some candy bars.

    He is eligible now for parole on the robbery charge, and will be freed from prison during the next five years in any event because his time credits for good behavior will mean he will have served his sentence.

    Habern and other supporters have argued that by paroling Brown now, he will remain under supervision— in a Los Angeles pre-release program for lifers — but if he is freed later, he will not be under any form of supervision whatsoever.

    Two of the three members of the Huntsville panel must approve the case for Brown to be paroled. One member of that panel, Parole Commissioner Tony Garcia, is a retired Texas prison warden and a second, Pamela Freeman, is a former corrections officer.

    Habern last week had requested that Owens reassign the case to another three-member panel. Owens’ rejection is dated the same day as Habern’s letter.

    “Please assure your client that the pending parole review will be conducted fairly and without any voter bias being involved,” Owens said.

    Habern said he now expects Brown will be denied parole.

    “How can you be a disinterested voting parole panel member if you’re an ex-warden or an ex-corrections officer in the same system, at a prison in the same town where the incident took place?” Habern said.

    “How that can that not affect your consideration of this case?”

    Parole chief denies request to remove panelists


    2011:

      AP Exclusive: Texas inmate paroled after 60 years

      MICHAEL GRACZYK
      Associated Press
      December 17, 2011

      TENNESSEE COLONY, Texas — When Harvey Stewart first went to prison 60 years ago, gasoline was 20 cents a gallon, a postage stamp cost three pennies and Harry Truman was president.

      Now, as perhaps one of the longest-serving inmates in US history, the convicted killer is looking forward to the perks of freedom when he is released on parole in the coming weeks or months.

      An IPod or cell phone perhaps? Not for this 83-year-old. Stewart simply wants a root beer and a good meal.

      "Imagine that! Sixty years being down in this damn hole," Stewart recently told The Associated Press from the Beto Unit in East Texas, one of his many stops in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "I wouldn't recommend it. Man's a damn fool to even stick his foot in here."

      Stewart, awaiting his release to a halfway house or nursing home after being granted parole earlier this year, recalled his youthful days of robbing brothels in Southeast Texas for quick $3,000 pay days, of getting shot in the back while holding up a junk yard and murdering a man in what he insists was a self-defense killing.

      But the six decades in prison haven't been nearly as eventful. He counts among his highlights his brief escape in 1965 and a recurring headache from a prison van wreck a couple years ago. Besides those short-lived respites from monotony, Stewart has served his time isolated from the outside world. He doesn't recall receiving a single visitor in more than a decade. He's outlived most or all his immediate family.

      His parole was approved in April, with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles considering his recent history of good behavior, his age and declining health.

      "I'm too damn old to do any robbing," said Stewart, his blond hair now a balding gray brush cut. "I think I am anyway. My old ticker might kick out on me."

      Stewart is the longest-serving inmate among the 155,000 prisoners in the Texas system, though it's unclear if he is the nation's longest-serving inmate now or ever. Prison officials and historians say they're unaware of any agency or organization that keeps track of all inmates' jail time.

      Among other states with significant prison populations, convicted murderer James Moore, 78, has been locked up in New York since 1963. In California, 80-year-old Booker Hillery first went to prison in 1955 for rape and was returned in 1962 for a murder earlier that year while on parole. Norman Parker is Florida's longest-serving inmate, arriving in 1967.

      Stewart was first sent to prison in spring 1951 after a junk yard heist in Houston got him a 10-year sentence. He was paroled after serving six years but was convicted in 1958 of murdering a man in Beaumont and received a life sentence. Seven years later he broke out of prison for several days, then waited another two decades before being paroled a second time to a halfway house and worked as a dishwasher.

      He used his freedom in 1984 to eat a Big Mac for the first time, but by summer 1986 he was back behind bars, busted for a robbery plot.

      State corrections officials say he won't be released until a parole plan is completed, and will receive proper supervision in either a halfway house or nursing home. Officials would not estimate how much longer that could take or what kind of restrictions he'd continue to have.

      Even under halfway house restrictions or in a nursing home, corrections experts say he could be in for some challenges, noting that even short-time prisoners get indoctrinated to the rigid rules of prison.

      Meanwhile, Stewart says he's unfazed by how the world has changed during his confinement.

      "It really is cognitively and emotionally taxing, even though it is simple decisions you and I do every day without thinking," said Gaylene Armstrong, research director of the Correctional Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University. "These folks are not used to making those decisions.

      ... If you think of just in the last five years what's changed for us: smart phones, not being pay phones, self-checkouts at grocery stores, ATMs, how to do things online. Even folks who have been off the streets for just a few years, that's all new to them."

      Stewart, whose last car was a 1958 Ford, maintains he's unfazed by how the world has changed during his confinement.

      "I've functioned in a lot of places," he said. "I know what's there and what ain't there."

      Stewart was born in Corpus Christi, one of five children whose father worked in the South Texas oil fields. A search for Stewart's relatives was unsuccessful, with records showing most of them deceased.

      Having outlived so many he knew, Stewart says it's been probably a decade since he had a visitor.

      "Looks like nobody wants something to do with me," said Stewart, who never married.

      His days are spent quietly and simply. Among his joys now is interaction with female corrections officers. He called their presence "the only thing that lightens the whole atmosphere."

      Then there's the occasional "pitty-pat" in his head, the result of being inside a prison van that rolled over in a wreck. His knees hurt but he's still able to walk, although "I'm not real fast anymore."

      Asked how he spends his days, he responds: "Well, I fart every once in a while."

      His cellmate these days is "only 70-something. In fact, I think he's 60-something. There ain't nobody my age down here."

      Asked what he hoped to do when he does get out, he gets defensive.

      "You think I want to get involved in some sex and get drunk," he said.

      Told that many inmates talk about feeling the grass on their bare feet and looking up at the sky without fences topped by razor wire, he said sarcastically: "Well, that's poetic."

      Instead, he looks forward to "a good easy-going meal and a root beer. I said a ROOT beer," he emphasized.

      And the things he'll miss about prison?

      "You ever run into a fence post or light post or something?" he asked. "You miss it?"

      Texas inmate paroled after 60 years


      NOVEMBER 07, 2011

      You can't go Home again

      We've spent quite a bit of time recently discussing the Board of Pardons and Paroles' "Special Condition X," which applies sex offender status to parolees never convicted of a sex crime. But I wasn't aware of "Special Condition Z" until reading Mike Hall's report in a Texas Monthly web extra:
      Wayne East was supposed to be paroled on Thursday. The convicted murderer of prominent Abilene resident Mary Eula Sears had, at least in the eyes of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, paid his debt to society. He had also behaved himself while in prison. It was time to go home.

      That is, until the good people in Taylor County began complaining; in particular the people who enforce the laws. Police Chief Stan Standridge, District Attorney James Eidson, and Sheriff Les Bruce all wrote letters to the board asking that it not let East come back to Abilene. ...

      So on Thursday the board voted to add “Special Condition Z” to East’s parole, which restricts which counties he can go to. He can’t even enter Taylor, Jones, Runnels, Coleman, and Callahan counties. And since he was, by law, required to be initially paroled to Taylor County, now he can’t go anywhere at all.

      According to Jason Clark at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, “East’s current parole plan has been canceled. The next step is to look at any alternate plans already submitted. If that’s not successful, an institutional parole officer will go and meet with the inmate to try and determine if there is another suitable location for him to reside.

      The parole division will investigate any parole plans submitted. If a residence can not be found, the offender will be placed on a list for possible placement in a halfway house.”

      Hall calls East "a man without a county," which about sums it up.

      POSTED BY GRITSFORBREAKFAST

      LABELS: PAROLE


      OCTOBER 30, 2011

      Texas media waits till last minute for annual Halloween sex offender hype

      Grits had been somewhat surprised this year that fewer Texas media outlets had succumbed to the annual Halloween hype over monitoring registered sex offenders out of fear they may give out candy. But on the weekend before Halloween, such stories appeared with a vengeance, especially on local TV news, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

      In politics, Halloween is when demagogues take their latest fear mongering tactics out for a spin to see if a gullible public will bite, and how hard. As the National Post put it, “A one-night festival of ghoulish subject matter, unhealthy food and talking to strangers, it is no surprise that Halloween is an annual magnet for moral criticism. Halloween is when parental paranoia is 'market-tested,' American columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote in a 2010 blog post.

      'If a new fear flies on Halloween, it’s probably going to catch on the rest of the year, too.'”

      Which is how we get this annual flurry of sex-offender-related stories on Halloween. Forget for a moment that there are only two instances that anyone has identified in the history of the nation of kids being sexually assaulted on Halloween, and in neither instance did the offender have a criminal record that would place them on the sex-offender registry.

      Reality isn't as important as the opportunity for hyping fear.

      When Grits first noticed this annual phenomenon several years ago I blamed the media. But tracking it closely, one discovers that nearly all local stories on the subject stem from a press release from the local Sheriff, probation department, or some other official, local source, so really it's law enforcement hyping the issue that drives coverage. Since it's not actually news but really just self-interested spin, I doubt the media would bother to produce these stories on their own without explicit prodding from officialdom.

      Bottom line: Your kids are in FAR greater risk from traffic accidents, drunk drivers, or even being struck by lightning (not to mention obesity and tooth decay) on Halloween than from sex offenders luring them with sweets.

      Indeed, in terms of sex crimes against children, Halloween may actually be the 'safest day of the year'. If you're lecturing your kids on the risks from sex offenders before they go out instead of making sure they can safely see through their Halloween mask and reminding them to watch for traffic, you're probably diverting their attention - and yours - from the most serious public safety issues surrounding the holiday.

      MORE: James Alan Fox 'makes the excellent point' that there is indeed a crime spike on Halloween, but that it's not sex offenses against children but workaday street crime that routinely increases on that day and should be the main policing focus.

      AND MORE: See related items from Diane Dimond, Karen Franklin, and at Slate.

      See related Grits posts:
      ^Ignorance, paranoia over phony Halloween sex-offender threat more frightening than ghosts or goblins
      ^Annual Halloween scare tactic on sex offenders doesn't improve public safety
      ^More on Halloween sex offender hype
      ^Pushback beginning on Halloween sex offender hype
      ^Time for annual Halloween sex offender hype

      POSTED BY GRITSFORBREAKFAST

      LABELS: HALLOWEEN, SEX CRIMES, SEX OFFENDER REGISTRATION, TEXAS PAROLE BOARD


      OCTOBER 26, 2011

      TDCJ, parole board publish self-evaluations for Sunset process
      From the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's latest newsletter:
      TDCJ's Sunset Review is Beginning - We Want Your Input!

      If you care about criminal justice reform, now is the time for you to speak up and voice your concerns.

      TCJC is very excited to tell you about a unique opportunity to offer input and suggestions that will help improve Texas' criminal justice system. Presently, the Sunset Advisory Commission has begun its review of TDCJ and other criminal justice-related agencies, including the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Windham School District, and the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee.

      Based on its evaluation, the Commission will make recommendations on how each agency can be improved or whether the agency should be abolished.

      You can take part in this opportunity for improvement by letting us know what should be done to improve Texas' criminal justice agencies. TCJC has created a comprehensive guide to the Sunset process to help individuals understand the process, how they can get involved, and what resources are available.

      Please click the link below to download a PDF version of our guide to Sunset:
      Policy Guide to the Sunset Review Process

      To download a 1-page flyer on how to participate in the Sunset process, please click below:
      Share Your Story - Participate in TDCJ's Sunset Review Process!

      Again, the Sunset process is in its beginning stages, and most agencies under review have already submitted Self-Evaluation Reports (SERs), which are available on the Sunset Advisory Commission's website. To view each agency's SER, visit the Sunset SER webpage Here!

      To view individual agency SERs, please click on the links below:
      Texas Department of Criminal Justice
      Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles
      Windham School District

      Note: The Correctional Managed Health Care Committee's SER is not yet published.

      An agency's Sunset review typically only occurs every 12 years, so we must seize upon this rare opportunity to improve the criminal justice system. Through the Sunset process, and with your help, we can achieve the necessary reforms that can make Texas' criminal justice system a model for others.

      They're right. The Sunset process is a unique opportunity to suggest improvements at the agency at a deeper-in-the-weeds level than is often possible. Check out those self-evaluations, as will I, and I'm sure Grits readers will be hearing more on these subjects sooner than later.

      POSTED BY GRITSFORBREAKFAST

      LABELS: PAROLE, SUNSET, TDCJ


      OCTOBER 05, 2011

      Bizarre commentary from parole board chief on medical parole

      Photo by Jaime Carrero, Tyler Morning Telegraph

      In the Tyler Morning Telegraph today there's a pretty-much workaday story about healthcare costs in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that covers familiar ground for Grits readers. State Sen. John Whitmire is quoted decrying how much it costs to keep elderly inmates locked up and provide them constitutional levels of healthcare. And in the traditional "quote both sides" fashion of modern journalism (as though there are only two), the senator's comments are paired with Rusk County DA Michael Jimerson who told the paper, "What Whitmire should do is go to Washington and do something to change the laws so inmates don't get Cadillac health care." Jimerson "said costs shouldn't matter because the offenders are paying the price for their crimes." Same ol', same old. Money's always no object when you're spending the taxpayers' dime.

      The data in the story on high geriatric health costs won't surprise Grits readers any more than the back-and-forth debate between prosecutors and budget-writers: "Records from the 2009-10 Correctional Managed Health Care report to the Texas Legislation showed offenders 55 and older averaged $4,853 in yearly medical costs, while the average for those below that age was $795." These are facts and debates most Grits readers have heard before and most of the data was accurate and well-presented, if not exactly "news." (More like "olds" - these are longstanding controversies.)

      What caught my eye, though, were bizarre representations from parole board chair Rissie Owens that simply can't be justified:
      Rissie Owens, presiding officer of Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, said there long has been a misconception that offenders are entering the Texas prison system young and staying until they are old. In reality, many enter prison late in life to begin serving their sentences for crimes they committed late in life, Ms. Owens said.

      "Forty-five percent of all prison and state jail inmates received have been 55 and older at the time they entered prison to serve their sentences," she said. "It also appears that these older inmates are serving sentences for violent offenses as almost 6 percent of those 55 and older have sentences for crimes ranging from homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, robbery and assault/terroristic threats."

      Ms. Owens said numerous factors are reviewed during parole decisions.

      "Age is one factor, but we do not just focus on the age of each offender," she said. "The numbers indicate that there have been more offenders received at TDCJ in the age group 55 to 60 than any other age group at the time of prison entry."

      I don't know why Mrs. Owens would say such things or why any reporter would publish the quote when the error is so easily debunked, but this representation is about as far from accurate as you can get. While I can't find an apples to-apples number for received inmates 55 or over, according to the agency's annual statistical report (pdf, p. 30), in FY 2010, 6,854 inmates 50 years old or more entered TDCJ, out of 72,315 who entered Texas prisons or state jails that year.

      That's 9.4%, not 45%, and really the comparable number is less since my stat includes inmates received age 50 and up. Just 1,010 inmates age 60 and up entered TDCJ that year, according to the annual statistical report. So about one out of every 72 new inmates is 60 years old or older.

      One might think the reporters just misinterpreted Owens' use of data or the numbers were misquoted, but her other comments make clear she believes - or wants the public to believe - that older offenders make up a large proportion of new offenders. It's just a flat-out falsehood that "The numbers indicate that there have been more offenders received at TDCJ in the age group 55 to 60 than any other age group at the time of prison entry." That's not true. Here are the number of new receives for TDCJ in FY 2010 by age range:
      14-16: 28
      17: 364
      18-19: 3,657
      20-29: 27,654
      30-39: 19,324
      40-49: 14,434
      50-59: 5,844
      60 and older: 1,010

      So the suggestion that "more offenders [are] received at TDCJ in the age group 55 to 60 than any other age group" beggars belief. It's just a fabrication.

      Similarly odd to me is the comment that "It also appears that these older inmates are serving sentences for violent offenses as almost 6 percent of those 55 and older have sentences for crimes ranging from homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, robbery and assault/terroristic threats." That explains denying medical parole for those 6%, but that also means, if accurate, that the overwhelming majority (94%) of inmates older than 55 did not commit those types of awful crimes. Should we punish them extra for the crimes of the 6%? What a strange assertion!

      According to the above-cited statistical report (p. 31), 20.5% of total "new receives" at TDCJ in 2010 committed violent offenses to get there, so if the figure for violent crimes among older offenders is 6%, that's substantially lower, not some grave, extra cause for concern. It's possible to manage those 6% without applying the same release criteria to the other 94%.

      All the data and analyses attributed to Mrs. Owens in this story were either a) false or b) did not support her interpretation. But it just gets quoted and repeated and for the most part, reporters don't call officials on it when they make such screwball comments.

      October 6 will be Grits for Breakfast's 7th blogiversary - the first post on this blog was seven years ago tomorrow. The reason I started Grits was precisely to counter - on criminal justice topics, anyway - this brand of modern journalism where reporters don't resolve factual disputes in their stories but merely "quote both sides" without vetting statements from public officials to make sure they're telling the truth. The majority of posts on this blog have the same structure: Quote mainstream media reports then correct factual errors from self-interested or self-justifying pols who're blowing smoke up some poor reporter's ass. Though many days I find that task somewhat boring and repetitive, stories like this one show the function is just as necessary today as it was when the blog began. It's one thing to "quote both sides." It's quite another to quote lies and truth and then portray them as equivalents.

      POSTED BY GRITSFORBREAKFAST

      LABELS: HEALTH, MEDIA, PAROLE


      April 01, 2011

      Tinkering with parole release could result in nine-figure budget savings

      For the first time this week, legislators began publicly considering legislation that would actually, signficantly reduce the prison population, though by tinkering with parole mechanisms on the back end instead of tackling the overall sentencing structure.

      The House Corrections Committee on Monday heard legislation from state Rep. Alma Allen, HB 2352, that along with legislation proposed by state Sen. John Whitmire, would significantly reduce Texas' prison population and reduce caseloads for the parole board by removing one of the grounds for setting off offenders for release on "mandatory supervision."

      The bill doesn't apply to so-called "3G" or serious, violent offenses, and the parole board could still deny release if they determine that "the inmate's release would endanger the public." According to the Criminal Justice Impact Statement, requiring the automatic release of offenders is expected to result in decreased demands upon the correctional resources of the State due to shorter terms of confinement in prison.

      In fiscal year 2010, 8,594 offenders were discharged from prison and after removing from that group those ineligible for release to mandatory supervision, 5,506 of those offenders would be subject to the provisions of the bill.

      Of the 5,506 offenders subject to the provisions of the bill, 805 offenders accrued no good time and would still be subject to discharge release leaving 4,701 offenders released to mandatory supervision and serving shorter terms of incarceration (approximately 3.21 years).

      It is likely a substantial number of currently incarcerated offenders would be released as a result of the bill but the number would be contingent on the amount of good time accrued and time served by these offenders on the effective date of the bill, and the ability of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to process offenders for release.

      Keep in mind, of course, that even if they're "set off" another time or two, most of these folks will be getting out soon, anyway. In fact, if they serve 100% of their time, when they leave there is no state supervision at all upon reentry. About 72,000+ prisoners leave TDCJ each year, about half of them with no community supervision by parole officers at all.

      Marc Levin from the Texas Public Policy Foundation pointed out that changing this policy would allow TDCJ to better use its pre-parole programming because it would provide more certainty regarding who would be released when, at least for a certain class of offenders. And since parole board members currently spend about 90 seconds per file before making a decision, Levin said, anything that can reduce their caseload and let them focus on more serious cases makes a lot of sense. Also, he pointed out, the parole board would still set release conditions in all these cases, and suggested using risk-assessment instruments to identify those who may need additional scrutiny by the parole board.

      Since the law still requires the parole board to consider whether "the inmate's release would endanger the public," perhaps such a risk assessment would be exactly the ticket.

      In any event, going forward this legislation would decrease demand for prison capacity by thousands of prisoners each year (10,000+ annually by the 4th and 5th year) who have not been determined to "endanger the public." Chairman Jerry Madden laid out the legislation in Rep. Allen's absence, declaring that, if the state must reduce its prison population as a result of cuts in HB 1, this is one of the safest ways to do it.

      The fiscal note says Allen's bill would save $124 million over the next biennium, and much more in the out-years. Combined with Sen. Whitmire's legislation, the two bills would save more than $270 million over the next biennium - much more in the out years. Still not as much as needed to make all the budget numbers work, but a good start, if they'll do it.

      Posted by Gritsforbreakfast


      March 3, 2011

      Fabelo predicts prison bed shortages without policy changes

      At the beginning of the hearing, the committee heard testimony from Dr. Tony Fabelo who described prison population trends and projected the number of increased prisoners faced by the state if diversion programs are cut as anticipated in the House and Senate budgets. By 2013, he said, under the House budget as filed the state would be 12,857 beds short; under SB 1 on the Senate side, TDCJ would be 9,634 beds short. In other words, under either budget Texas will need to build or lease several new prisons over the next two years.

      Boiling it down, Fabelo said Texas has only two real options: "Reduce the size of cuts" or "Change policies to reduce demand for prison space." That's it, pick your poison. Building or leasing new prisons isn't an option if you want to cut $786 million from TDCJ's requested biennial budget, as Gov. Perry and the House have proposed. The only remaining path is to "Change policies to reduce demand for prison space."

      He offered three policy suggestions at the end of his presentation to reduce prison numbers. Option 1 involves implementation of LBB Performance Report recommendations, including a "supervised reentry program for those presently released after completing their [full] sentences." In other words, when someone has completed, say, 90% of their time or have one year to go, they'd be paroled so that their initial reentry period would occur under supervision. That would reduce the prison population by 1,800 over the next two years and up to 9,000 inmates over the next five, says Fabelo.

      The second option suggested: "Reintroduce SB 1909 from 2007 and passed by the Senate that requires mandatory probation and treatment for low level drug possession." The five year fiscal benefit to the state would total $500 million. Sen. Rodney Ellis is carrying the bill again this session.

      A third option might free up 6,000 additional beds, said Fabelo: Shock probation on technical revocations, capping the time in prison for property and drug offenders revoked on technical violations to no longer than 12 months. That idea is not dissimilar from Grits recent suggestion that judges be required to more frequently utilize Intermediate Sanctions Facilities for technical violators. However you decide to skin that cat, the state can find large cost reductions by changing how they deal with that category of offenders.

      Fabelo also suggested taking measures to edge up parole rates toward levels anticipated by the Board of Pardons and Paroles' official guidelines, noting that a 1% increase in the parole rate would reduce the inmate population by 1,500, while a 1% decline would increase the prison population by a like amount. Presently the overall parole approval rate is just above 30%; increasing it to 35%, which is the rate suggested by the board's official guidelines, would free up thousands of beds. There are seven risk categories to which potential parolees are assigned, and it's the lowest risk parolees who are being released at below-guideline rates, i.e., the lowest-risk offenders are the ones the parole board is holding onto longer than the guidelines suggest, a situation that's been happening as long as I've paid attention to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The BPP could singlehandedly solve this conundrum of their own accord, but they appear to have little interest in doing so unless somebody (read: the Legislature) makes them.

      These aren't the only policy changes that would do the trick; indeed, they're really rather modest proposals compared to more aggressive approaches advocated on this blog, and IMO the Lege should go farther. But at least we've finally reached a point - for the first time, to my knowledge, publicly - where legislators have acknowledged that policy changes affecting sentence length must accompany cuts at TDCJ. That's been obvious for more than a year, but at least they're beginning the conversation in earnest now.

      Posted by Gritsforbreakfast


      March 01, 2011

      TDCJ closure of 'Intermediate Sanction Facilities' exactly the wrong budget cutting strategy

      Regular readers know TDCJ recently released its finally approved cuts to be implemented the current fiscal year (i.e., immediately, in the current budget cycle; see this pdf summary). And yesterday I linked to a story quoting the probation chief in Beaumont, who argued that cuts to diversion programming will boost much more expensive prison costs. Especially troubling in that regard is the agency's decising to close one Intermediate Sanction Facility (ISF), put off opening another one, and eliminating Project RIO, the main employment assistance for ex-felons in Texas.

      It's hard to overstate how precisely back-assward these cuts really are, literally the exact opposite of the approach the agency should be taking. And they bode ill regarding what priorities will be applied as TDCJ makes much larger cuts in its budget for the next biennium.

      It's easy to see why cutting employment and reentry services is a bad idea because every offender when they leave prison has a choice to make whether to resume a life of crime. Having a job and a stable income make the right choices a lot easier to make. That first year to 18 months is pivotal in determining whether an offender will recidivate, with getting a job and staying off drugs among the most predictive factors. Given that, cutting job assistance for ex-offenders quite arguably could increase crime.

      Texas has loads of prison capacity (155,000 beds, mas o menos), most of it full, but in many ways we have the wrong kind of facilities. In the '90s, Gov. Ann Richards and the Democrats pushed to triple Texas' prison capacity, building large warehouses designed to incapacitate offenders, but mostly (despite stated good intentions to the contrary, the type with which the road to hell is paved), they never provided treatment, rehabilitation or reentry services, much less an effective means for judges to apply short-term consequences for probation or parole violators. The result: Even technical violators were revoked for a full prison term.

      Intermediate Sanction Facilities are new units created as part of the 2007 probation reforms to give judges somewhere to send probation and parole violators for short-term punishment without revoking them for their full prison for their full stint. That way, somebody with a string of technical violations but no new crimes, in theory, could be punished for their noncompliance with short-term incarceration without TDCJ and Texas taxpayers having to foot the bill for their full prison sentence. The problem has been that judges have been slow to use ISFs and continue to revoke offenders for technical violations at higher-than-reasonable rates. According to the latest data, "In FY2010, there were 24,239 felony revocations to TDCJ, of which 48.8% were a result of technical violations community supervision conditions."

      Texas' 2007 probation reforms were permissive, giving judges new tools and options, but if so many judges refuse to utilize those tools, that amounts to an "unfunded mandate" in the other direction, from the county to the state, and it's in the state's interest to limit how much extra cost counties can inflict on the state coffers when cheaper options are available.

      This is what Grits means when I've argued for "finishing" the 2007 probation reforms: We've created mechanisms that could help solve the problem, but the reforms' effectiveness appears to have hit a wall after achieving initial reductions, in part because of noncompliance by key counties and nonparticipation by others. But the strategy is still sound: Reduce the number of offenders revoked for their full sentences on technical violations by, say, an additional 30%, and that's more than 3,500 fewer prisoners entering TDCJ to serve long-term sentences every year. It's not a silver-bullet solution, but it's a piece of the puzzle that would go a long way toward allowing the agency to close more units and stave off predicted, short-term prison population increases.

      To make that happen, IMO the law should be strengthened to require judges to use ISFs for technical-only violations (with defined exceptions for special circumstances) instead of merely creating the facilities and giving judges discretion to do so. Too many - especially in Collin and Bexar Counties, but also elsewhere - just won't use that discretion and still revoke lots of technical-only offenders to TDCJ. If somebody's committed a new crime, fine, then revoke them. But if a probationer had dirty UAs, missed meetings, didn't pay fees, or even absconded, short-term incarceration in ISFs is often the better option. It's both cheaper for the state and gives the offender a chance to change their behavior instead of punishing them for years at the taxpayers' expense.

      Regrettably, TDCJ's 2011 budget cuts go in the opposite direction, closing the North Texas ISF (whose contract expired yesterday) because, "Based on utilization trends and available beds, this facility is currently not required in order to meet program demand." Same goes for an ISF facility in Jones County which was slated to open last fall, but "Due to the slower than anticipated growth in SAFP/ISF utilization, this facility has not been opened and is not needed at this time."

      The solution here isn't to close ISF capacity but to force the system to use them where appropriate, overruling recalcitrant judges by statute for certain classes of technical-only violators, even absconders when there is no other criminal charge (again, with exceptions for special circumstances, which I'm sure our friends the DAs and probation directors would immediately point out for us). Don't eliminate diversion resources because they're underutilized, force judges to use them before revoking people to prison. That would let the agency reduce reliance on long-term facilities in order to shut down older, more expensive units, as well as those with chronic understaffing.

      I'd also like to see judges compelled instead of merely authorized to grant early release from probation for successful probationers sentenced on lower-level offenses. The 2007 reforms required judges to consider it halfway through the sentence, and the number of early releases climbed dramatically, though from a very low starting point. Much more, however, could be done. The main reason such probationers are kept on the rolls is that they pay fees that sustain the department's budget, a motive that will become even stronger if TDCJ's suggested cuts to CSCDs are enacted. But petty offenders clog up caseloads and divert focus from supervising more dangerous folk, and caseload sizes are about to skyrocket under the proposed House and Senate budgets. Plus, keeping low-risk probationers on the rolls heightens the chance that a minor incident years after the fact will result in a long prison sentence. Letting probationers earn their way off supervision through good behavior just makes good sense from the standpoint of managerial efficiency, reduced recidivism and simple economics.

      There are plenty of other policy changes that could be made to reduce Texas' prison population without harming public safety, but strengthening diversion programming instead of eliminating it should be at the top of the Legislature's list. This round of FY 2011 cuts takes the knife to the wrong part of TDCJ's budget.

      Posted by Gritsforbreakfast


      January 12, 2011

      Parole caseloads too high to monitor ex-offenders

      In Dallas a TV station has a story titled "Most Texas parole officers say they are overworked," which is based on a report from the state auditor discussed on Grits a couple of months ago. A lawyer quoted in the story identified the main problem:

      Attorney Joe Padian, who represents dozens of offenders who are currently up for or out on parole, said that there is a problem with supervision.

      "The problem is, they need to find a way to prioritize which offenders need heavy supervision and which don't, then concentrate on watching the potentially dangerous offenders," he said.

      Padian said he believes parole officers are overburdened by large caseloads that require constant supervision for offenders who don't need it.

      The auditor not only found that parole caseloads are too high but that parole officers don't receive required in-service training and lack basic technology like voicemail on their telephones to help them do their jobs.

      In 2007, the Texas Legislature changed the law to allow many probationers to earn their way off of probation early through good behavior. The same should be done for parolees so TDCJ can focus limited supervision resources on those who need it most. Otherwise, in the current budget environment it's almost unimaginable the agency can hire more POs, improve technology or provide officers more training.

      Reducing caseloads would strengthen supervision for those most at-risk and avoid expending resources on those who pose little threat. From a political perspective - where lessening supervision even for low-risk offenders risks allegations that you're soft on crime - who knows if it's possible? But from a policy and public-safety perspective, though, the need to reduce caseloads both for parole and probation officers borders on imperative.

      One out of every 22 Texas adults is in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole: There's no way the state can supervise nearly 5% of the population effectively through the criminal justice system, even in economic good times, much less when facing a $15 to $27 billion budget shortfall. We'd all be safer if limited resources were focused on supervising the highest risk offenders instead of trying to keep tabs on everybody and their dog.

      Parole caseloads too high to monitor ex-offenders


      2010:

        JULY 02, 2010

        Parole, reentry, and cutting corrections costs

        A few tidbits on parole stood out from my notes from Wednesday's meeting of the Texas House Corrections Committee on prisoner reentry ...

        Parole board chair Rissie Owens thanked the committee for additional treatment beds and told them they were responsible for an uptick in parole rates, which is up to 31% this year, she said, and which would be (just barely) the highest rate in recent memory if it's sustained for the rest of the year. In particular, she noted, waiting lists for in-prison treatment beds have been eliminated and there's no lag time when a prisoner is told they'll be released upon completion of required programming.

        We talk a lot on this blog about best-practice reforms on the probation side, but I was pleased to learn that the parole board has applied to participate in a technical assistance arrangement with the National Parole Research Center.

        Before parole, the committee was told, a parole "plan" must be developed, investigated and approved by the department before release. Problems creating the plan were cited as the main reason for delays in release after the parole board had granted approval (followed distantly by subsequent disciplinary violations by the inmate). On average, that process takes 43 days, the committee was told, but in extraordinary cases it can take many months.

        Parole not only contributes to the equation regarding inmate population through decisions on releasing prisoners, but also by deciding who to revoke. Owens said that 19,107 parolees were reviewed last year for potential revocation, three-quarters of whom were not revoked. Parole division director Stuart Jenkins described how parole officers now use a "Violation Action Grid" that dictates intermediate sanctions that may include anything from increased reporting or supervision to a stay at an Intermediate Sanctions Facility.

        There were 7,460 parole revocations in 2009 out of 105,820 offenders supervised, according to the TDCJ's annual statistical report [pdf] - a respectably low ratio of just 7%. One problem facing the department, said Jenkins, is that warrants may be issued by parole officers when violations don't really justify revocation.

        Of parolees revoked to prison, the committee was told, 46% committed new crimes, 40% had both a new crime and technical violations, and 14% were technical violations only. All of those revoked for technicals, said Owens, had been through Intermediate Sanctions Facilities at least once and were chronically noncompliant.

        Jerry Madden asked about a couple of discrete categories of offenders, questioning in particular whether parole eligible inmates who are eligible for deportation should be prioritized for release. He said there were hundreds of DWI offenders so situated who'd been denied parole. Madden also asked about a promising pilot program he'd authored (HB 3226) to let TDCJ pay for free-world housing for parolees if they're eligible for parole but have no place to go and the cost of paying their rent is less than the cost of incarcerating them in TDCJ. Jenkins said the program had maxxed out at just more than 300 parolees and currently was only being done for 155, but that providers in all the major counties had agreed to participate.

        Chairman McReynolds questioned Owens lightly about low medical parole rates, but you can tell they'll be revisiting the issue when the state begins to talk seriously about budget cuts. The Chairman said his committee had recently visited TDCJ's "cancer wards" and were told that 40% of TDCJ's $800 million healthcare budget was going to pay to care for frail, elderly inmates. That's $320 million to care for a small (but growing) fraction of TDCJ prisoners. As costs for elderly inmates increased, however, the parole board has become less willing to grant medical releases. From their annual report (pdf, p. 23), here are the total number of medical releases over the last several years:

        2005: 174
        2006: 161
        2007: 101
        2008: 103
        2009: 59

        McReynolds said he wanted to talk with Owens going forward into the session about how the Legislature could "help" the parole board increase approval rates for medical parole, saying that caring for frail elderly inmates is a "huge budget driver" for the agency. Owens said that Thomas Leeper - who is a former City Attorney from Huntsville and former Assistant City Attorney in Bryan - heads the three-member review panel in Huntsville that considers medical parole. She added that on July 7 she, Mr. Leeper and TDCJ's medical director will be meeting to discuss the subject. Leeper only joined the board last year, according to the parole board's annual report (pdf), so he can't be blamed for any failures to use medical parole in years past. Perhaps their meeting next week will spark a welcome change in the board's direction on medical parole.

        I've been talking about policy changes that could allow the state to close several prisons next year to save money in the budget, but the parole board could accomplish the same task with just a minor uptick in parole rates for nonviolent and low-risk offenders.

        UPDATE: Parole attorney Bill Habern emails to say that "In our office we still have clients who have been long approved for parole waiting 9 months and more to even get into sex offender treatment." Fair point: I think mostly the "treatment" discussion on Wednesday revolved around substance abuse.

        Parole, reentry, and cutting corrections costs


        Marc Levin: Texas parole reforms lowered crime, cost

        January 5, 2010

        Public safety is job one, but recent improvements in Texas parole outcomes demonstrate that we can be safer while saving money.

        In 2008, 1,016 fewer Texas parolees were alleged to have committed a new crime than in 2007. Net savings may exceed $96 million. These gains continued in 2009, though scaling back parole supervision could reverse this progress.

        Why are so many fewer parolees committing crimes? For starters, substance abuse treatment resumed in 2005. Prior to 2007, drug tests were sent to a laboratory, creating a delay of a few weeks. Now, results are instant and most parolees with a drug problem admit to it before being tested. Violators who do not pose a public safety risk are immediately referred to outpatient treatment.

        Graduated sanctions such as curfews and increased reporting have been enhanced, ensuring a swift but commensurate response to each rule violation. Parolees who repeatedly violate the rules or commit a misdemeanor are often sent to an Intermediate Sanctions Facility for approximately 90 days, in lieu of being revoked to prison. Some parolees at these facilities receive drug treatment along with follow- up counseling upon release. Literacy, GED and workforce preparation programming are available at some facilities.

        Parole officers have increasingly been oriented towards helping parolees succeed while some states are known for simply "trail'em, nail'em, and jail'em." Funding for parole chaplains was restored in 2007. Parole resource centers emphasize decision-making based on concern for others and the victim. Texas also has smaller caseloads than many states, ranging from 15 to 75.

        Employed ex-offenders are far less likely to re-offend, and 65 percent of Texas parolees are working. In contrast, 80 percent of California parolees are unemployed. Job placement and training for parolees has been enhanced since 2007 through closer ties between parole offices and local workforce centers.

        In Texas, parole is a privilege, not a right. Inmates demonstrate their commitment to change through good behavior and completion of work, education and treatment programs. Each case is reviewed based on individualized factors and the severity of the offense.

        Furthermore, the most dangerous Texas sex offenders are ineligible for parole. The most seriously violent inmates serve 87.5 percent of their sentences, with serious sex offenders serving 97.5 percent. Yet two-thirds of offenders enter prison for a nonviolent offense.

        Prosecutors recognize the value of strong parole policies. The National District Attorneys Association notes that low-risk offenders can be released without jeopardizing public safety if they are properly supervised. Without parole, they would subsequently be released without any supervision.

        While the primary benefit of reducing crime by parolees is the averted human and economic toll on victims, preventing crime also saves money. Incarcerating an additional 1,016 parolees would have cost $20.8 million. Moreover, building 1,582 prison beds would have cost $76.2 million.

        Prison costs 13 times more than parole, but if supervision, treatment, workforce development and chaplaincy for parolees are scaled back, more parolees may commit new crimes and be revoked to prison. The result: more crime and higher costs to taxpayers.

        Instead, we must continue to break the cycle of crime. Since prisons consume 85 percent of the corrections budget, the best way to save money is to prevent crime so fewer lockups are needed.

        Texas remains tough, but is also smart on crime. As policymakers face budget pressures, they must remember that a strong parole system is vital for public safety and taxpayers.

        Marc A. Levin is the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.

        His e-mail address is; mlevin@texaspolicy.com

        Texas parole reforms lowered crime & cost


        2009:

        COURTS

        No liability for parole chief

        Judge repeals jury fine but chides state board.

        By Mike Ward
        AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
        November 13, 2009

        An Austin federal judge has overturned personal damages of $21,250 that a jury had imposed on the chairwoman of the state parole board a month ago, but the judge did not change the finding that officials violated a paroled convict's constitutional rights by denying him a required hearing for 576 days.

        U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks again harshly criticized state parole officials for the way they classify parolees as sex offenders, including many who have never been convicted of a sex crime.

        The Tuesday decision absolves Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Chairwoman Rissie Owens of personal liability in actions against Ray Curtis Graham and still leaves state taxpayers liable for paying Graham's legal fees, which are estimated at more than $100,000.

        In his new order, Sparks wrote that Owens has been aware of problems in the parole system but did nothing until the court ordered her to do so.

        "Her inattention is mystifying, and it shows her to be some combination ... of 'indecisive, insensitive, inattentive, incompetent, stupid, (or) weak-kneed,' " Sparks wrote, quoting from another court decision in a related case.

        Even so, Sparks said, "her inaction, however abstruse, does not make her personally liable in this case." He left intact the portion of the verdict that determined that Owens and state Parole Director Stuart Jenkins had violated Graham's right to due process. Owens could not be reached for comment.

        Graham's lead attorney, Richard Gladden of Denton, said an appeal of Sparks' new order is planned.

        "The judge has reached out and found hyper-technical reasons to foreclose the jury verdict," he said. "Maybe he thinks he's scared her enough to make her change her ways in how these cases are handled, but this order is definitely an about-face from the verdict."

        Graham had sued the parole board after he was classified as a sex offender in December 2007 though he was never convicted of a sex crime. He was arrested on aggravated rape charges in the 1980s, and parole officials used that as a basis for classifying him as a sex offender five years after he had been released on parole.

        Graham said he was never allowed to review evidence against him before the parole board made its decision in December 2007, despite several federal court orders requiring such hearings. The jury verdict on Oct. 8 came after an unusually contentious, high-profile trial, during which Sparks had declared a mistrial and fined an assistant attorney general for disregarding his warnings about making prejudicial comments in front of jurors.

        Spark's new order continued his earlier harsh criticism of the parole process.

        "The Board as a whole seems to regard the procedural due process rights at issue ... as annoying pests that plague and torment it through no fault of its own," Sparks wrote in his 32-page order made public Thursday.

        mward@statesman.com; 445-1712

        No liability for parole chief


        October 09, 2009 Parole board chair Rissie Owens personally liable for rights violation Texas' Board of Pardons and Parole violated the rights of an individual who was required to register as a sex offender as a condition of parole, without so much as a hearing, even though he'd never been convicted of a sex crime, a federal jury found yesterday.

        Even more surprising, the jury held Parole Board Chair Rissie Owens personally liable, while Judge Sam Sparks fined the state's attorney for prejudicial comments in court. Reports Mike Ward from the Austin Statesman ("Jury says state officials violated parolees right to hearing," Oct. 9):

        An Austin federal jury on Thursday found that two top state parole officials violated the constitutional rights of an ex-convict who was denied a required hearing for 576 days.

        Jurors also held Board of Pardon and Paroles Chairman Rissie Owens liable for $21,250 in damages and awarded Curtis Ray Graham attorney's fees that are expected to top $100,000.

        The verdict came after an unusually contentious trial presided over by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who in August had declared a mistrial in the case and who earlier this week fined an assistant attorney general for disregarding his warnings about making prejudicial comments in front of jurors.

        Graham sued the parole board after he was classified as a sex offender even though he was never convicted of a sex crime. He was arrested on aggravated rape charges in the 1980s, and parole officials used that as a basis for classifying him as a sex offender five years after he had been released on parole.

        Graham alleged he was never allowed to review evidence against him before the parole board made its decision in December 2007, despite several federal court orders requiring such hearings.

        It is rare for ex-convicts in Texas to win such legal challenges in state or federal courts. It is almost unheard of for parole officials to be held liable for official omissions. State parole director Stuart Jenkins, a second defendant in the high-profile case, was not held liable.

        At a time when several similar lawsuits are pending against state parole officials, attorneys have argued that a win by Graham could force new hearings in perhaps thousands of parole cases in which offenders were classified as sex offenders without proper hearings. Such a finding can bring more stringent limitations on their freedom.

        "This should send a message to the parole board that their arrogance not to change their policy won't work any longer, that constitutional rights matter in how they do their business," said William Habern, a noted parole-law attorney from Riverside who represents Graham.

        Owens and her attorneys left the courtroom after the verdict without commenting. Jenkins declined to comment, as did his attorneys.

        It's pretty darn rare, and quite astonishing, for parole board chair Rissie Owens to be held personally liable in such a case - that implies that she was acting outside the legal strictures of her official capacity when she violated the plaintiff's rights. Owens' attorneys argued she shouldn't be liable because she was following the advice of TDCJ attorneys, but Sparks didn't care because he'd already ordered hearings in the same case on two different occasions and Owens defied him. Thus TDCJ's legal advice did not shield her from personal liability because they were advising her to ignore an order from the federal court.

        That also tells us something about the attitudes of legal counsel at TDCJ, doesn't it? They advised Owens to take a course of action so blatantly unconstitutional and in violation of federal court orders that she came to be held individually liable! Yikes!

        With thousands more ex-cons similarly situated, I'm betting the parole board changes its policies ASAP rather than Rissie Owens risking similar verdicts that could potentially rack up millions of dollars if they all came out like this case.

        It'll be easy enough to initiate hearings going forward when future inmates are up for parole, but what happens with all those who've already been released and assigned sex offender registration but were never convicted of a sex crime? It seems like those rulings now have to be revisited. What a mountainous logistical and practical mess!

        Congrats to attorney Bill Habern and his team on a significant win, and a sound legal ass kicking.

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: Judiciary, Parole, sex offender registration, TDCJ


        Jury says state officials violated parolee's right to hearing

        Parole board chair found liable for $21,000 in damages.

        By Mike Ward
        AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
        October 09, 2009

        An Austin federal jury on Thursday found that two top state parole officials violated the constitutional rights of an ex-convict who was denied a required hearing for 576 days.

        Jurors also held Board of Pardon and Paroles Chairman Rissie Owens liable for $21,250 in damages and awarded Curtis Ray Graham attorney's fees that are expected to top $100,000.

        The verdict came after an unusually contentious trial presided over by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who in August had declared a mistrial in the case and who earlier this week fined an assistant attorney general for disregarding his warnings about making prejudicial comments in front of jurors.

        Graham sued the parole board after he was classified as a sex offender even though he was never convicted of a sex crime. He was arrested on aggravated rape charges in the 1980s, and parole officials used that as a basis for classifying him as a sex offender five years after he had been released on parole.

        Graham alleged he was never allowed to review evidence against him before the parole board made its decision in December 2007, despite several federal court orders requiring such hearings.

        It is rare for ex-convicts in Texas to win such legal challenges in state or federal courts. It is almost unheard of for parole officials to be held liable for official omissions. State parole director Stuart Jenkins, a second defendant in the high-profile case, was not held liable.

        At a time when several similar lawsuits are pending against state parole officials, attorneys have argued that a win by Graham could force new hearings in perhaps thousands of parole cases in which offenders were classified as sex offenders without proper hearings.

        Such a finding can bring more stringent limitations on their freedom.

        "This should send a message to the parole board that their arrogance not to change their policy won't work any longer, that constitutional rights matter in how they do their business," said William Habern, a noted parole-law attorney from Riverside who represents Graham.

        Owens and her attorneys left the courtroom after the verdict without commenting. Jenkins declined to comment, as did his attorneys.

        "I feel that I have been vindicated," said Graham, a minister who operates an auto detailing business in Athens, in East Texas. He has been on parole since 2003, after serving prison time on charges of attempted murder.

        Graham received a hearing in early August after Sparks ordered it.

        It did not change the outcome in his case, but Graham's attorneys say it did not comply with the judge's order to make an official finding that Graham was a continuing threat to society.

        Defense attorneys insisted that Owens and Jenkins had followed procedures in effect at the time and that the officials believed the process was constitutional because it had been reviewed by agency attorneys. They should not be held liable for doing what they thought was right, their attorneys argued — even though Sparks himself had twice ordered that Graham receive a due-process hearing on his case.

        The trial started with a bang Monday, with Sparks repeatedly warning Jenkins' attorney, Assistant Attorney General Kim Coogan, to limit her remarks about Graham's criminal history.

        Sparks cited her for contempt for remarks at an August hearing and had declared a mistrial last month after he vented his disgust with the state's lawyers several times.

        At one point, with jurors sent out of the courtroom for the umpteenth time by an increasingly irritated Sparks, he pointedly warned the attorneys they were irritating the jury.

        "A sixth-grader who's not doing well in school, who's a C student, can look at these undisputed facts and make a determination that due process was not followed," the judge said at another point in the trial. "The only thing we know in this case is there were no (required) hearings and that for over a year and two-thirds that nothing was done. Ten minutes. That's all it would have taken to hold a hearing."

        On Monday, after Coogan noted while questioning a witness that an evaluation of Graham had diagnosed him as "a psychopath," Sparks fined her $500 for "deliberately and intentionally injecting prejudicial" information into testimony, despite his repeated earlier warnings.

        She later paid the fine with a check from the attorney general's office.

        In closing arguments Thursday, Coogan set Sparks off again, suggesting that jurors should disregard the "mumbo jumbo" instructions that Sparks was giving the jury.

        Sparks exploded, hinting that he had only one other remedy: jail.

        But after the verdict, he took no action against her, opting instead for a later hearing to address the issue.

        Coogan referred a reporter to Attorney General Greg Abbott's press office, where spokesman Jerry Strickland responded, "We are reviewing the order, nothing further."

        mward@statesman.com

        Jury says state officials violated parolee's right to hearing


        Parole case verdict: Rights violated

        By Mike Ward
        October 8, 2009

        After four hours’ deliberation, an Austin federal jury this afternoon found two top parole officials guilty of violating the constitutional rights of an ex-convict who was denied a required hearing for 576 days.

        Jurors held Board of Pardon and Paroles Chairman Rissie Owens personally liable for some of the $21,250 in damages — plus attorneys fees that are expected to top $100,000 — that were sustained by Curtis Ray Graham, who sued after he was classified as a sex offender even though he was never convicted of a sex crime. He was arrested for aggravated rape in the 1980s.

        The State of Texas would have to pay part of the verdict, which is expected to be appealed.

        Graham testified he was never allowed to review evidence against him before the parole board made its decision in December 2007, despited several federal court orders requiring it.

        State parole director Stuart Jenkins was not held personally liable.

        It is rare for ex-convicts to win such legal challenges in state of federal courts. It is almost unheard of for state parole officials to be held personally liable for official omissions.

        And at a time when several similar lawsuits are pending against state parole officials, attorneys have argued that a win by Graham could force new hearings in perhaps thousands of parole cases where offenders were classified as sex offenders — with more stringent limitations on their freedom — without proper hearings.

        “This should send a message to the parole board that their arrogance not to change their policy won’t work any longer, that constitutional rights matter in how they do their business,” said William Habern, a noted parole-law attorney from Riverside who represents Graham.

        Owens left the courtroom after the verdict without comment. Jenkins declined comment, as did his attorneys.

        “I feel that I have been vindicated,” said Graham, a minister who operates an auto detailing business in Athens, in East Texas. He has been on parole since 2003, after serving prison time on charges of attempted murder.

        Richard Gladden, one of his attorneys, said the verdict is significant “because it puts parole authorities in this state on notice that their procedure used in many other cases, perhaps thousands, is unconstitutional.

        “My guess is the court clerk’s office is going to be flooded now with other parolees filing suits on how their cases were handled,” he said. “But the state has no one to blame but itself. They have been on notice for some time that this denial of due process was unconstitutional.”

        Defense attorneys insisted that Owens and Jenkins had followed procedures in effect at the time that they believes were constitutional because they had been reviewed by agency attorneys. Neither of them should be held liable for doing what they thought was right, their attorneys argued — even though Sparks himself had twice ordered that Graham receive a due-process hearing on his case.

        The trial had started with a bang on Monday, with U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks repeatedly warning Jenkins’ attorney, Assistant Attorney General Kim Coogan, to limit her remarks about Graham’s past criminal history.

        Sparks cited her for contempt for remarks at an August hearing and had declared a mistrial last month after he vented his disgust with defense lawyers several times.

        At one point, with the jury ushered out for the upteenth time by an increasingly irritated Sparks, he pointedly warned the defense attorneys they were irritating the jury.

        “A sixth-grader whose not doing well in school, whose a C student, can look at these undisputed facts and make a determination that due process was not followed,” the judge said at another point in the trial, chewing again on attorneys with the jury out of the courtroom. “The only thing we know in this case is there were no (required) hearings and that for over a year and two-thirds that nothing was done. Ten minutes. That’s all it would have taken to hold a hearing.”

        On Monday afternoon, after Coogan noted while questioning a witness that an evaluation of Graham had diagnosed him as “a psychopath,” Sparks fined her $500 for “deliberately and intentionally injected prejudicial” information into testimony, despite his repeated earlier warnings.

        She later paid the fine with a check from the Attorney General’s Office.

        Then, in a bizarre twist, Owens’ attorney, Assistant Attorney General Bruce Garcia, asked Sparks to declare a mistrial based on Coogan’s comments.

        “Are you trying to get a mistrial?” Sparks asked Coogan. “Your conduct today has prejudiced them (Owens and Jenkins) in the eyes of the jury.”

        Even so, he denied the mistrial request.

        In closing arguments this morning, Coogan set Sparks off again, reportedly suggesting that jurors should disregard the “mumbo jumbo” jury instructions that Sparks was giving the jury.

        Sparks exploded, hinting that he had only one other remedy: jail. But after the verdict, he took no action against her, opting instead for a hearing in coming days when he will address the issue.

        Get more Legislative coverage inside the Virtual Capitol

        Categories: Criminal justice

        Parole case verdict: Rights violated


        Prison release is the first surprise of many

        Paroled after three decades in prison for capital murder, Michael Eubanks is now reconnecting with a family he barely knew.

        By CINDY HORSWELL
        HOUSTON CHRONICLE
        Sept. 13, 2009

        When Michael Eubanks was convicted of capital murder in 1978 and given a life sentence, his hair was as flaming red as his temper.

        The 20-year-old from Houston got into prison fights daily. His first year he was even thrown into solitary confinement for organizing what officials called a mutiny.

        After all, he never expected to make it out of prison alive. Nobody cared what happened to him. He didn't know his birth parents and had burned bridges with his adopted ones. He saw his chances for parole as “slim to none.”

        Yet, after three decades in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell, he felt he had mellowed like his strawberry-blond hair.

        He's now 52. He earned a college degree behind bars and became a master leather craftsman.

        Still, since becoming eligible for parole in 1997, Eubanks' application had been rejected five times. In Texas, parole for capital murder is next to impossible. Again he pensively waited this summer to learn his fate. He didn't feel anything like the person who made prison his home, never expecting to rejoin society.

        • • • •

        Eubanks always knew he was adopted at 6 months, but he never knew why. His mother, Faye, would only say, “You don't need to know.”

        So he pushed his questions aside while growing up with three brothers in Lubbock.

        His father, a machinist, was a good provider. They lived on tree- lined streets in nice brick homes.

        Yet the family moved around like tumbleweeds in Lubbock, forcing Eubanks to adjust to six different schools.

        At that time, he was more mischievous than his brothers, but he never slipped into serious trouble — until his 15th birthday when his family relocated to Denver and then Houston.

        In Houston, Eubanks once again attended multiple schools. He felt detached from his classes and dropped out in 10th grade.

        “I was real rebellious,” he said. “Whenever I argued with my parents about hair length or smoking, my answer was to leave. I was a teenager with a motorcycle and wanted freedom. I lived for the moment.”

        Eventually, he began hanging out with bikers such as the Highway Demons or Conquistadors. His experimentation with drugs grew to include heroin.

        Soon he was stealing from his parents, robbing small stores and running drugs coast to coast.

        At one point before the murder, he almost jumped off his train ride to self-destruction. He had been sentenced to his only other stint in prison for stealing a souped-up El Camino in 1975.

        He'd been locked up a year and got paroled on his 19th birthday.

        With his parents' help, he got a new truck and machinist job and stayed clean for four months, but then those familiar arguments arose over his hair length and curfew. He took off on his own once more. It was a big mistake.

        • • • •

        At a local pool hall, he met up with old friends from the drug scene and soon was immersed in a narcotic haze.

        On Oct. 2, 1977, the 20-year-old Eubanks ran out of drugs and money while partying. So he and a 16-year-old friend decided to replenish their supply by burglarizing the home of an apartment maintenance man in Houston that the teen knew. They found only $45, a small marijuana stash and a few items, but the racket woke up the apartment owner, Larry Teague, who had been asleep.

        Eubanks, armed with a sledgehammer, struck Teague and then strangled him with a leather bullwhip taken from the wall.

        “I panicked. (Teague) weighed 50 pounds more than me,” Eubanks said. “I felt if he got to me that I'd be in trouble.”

        Eubanks and his teenage accomplice, Michael Pittman, were arrested within three days. Pittman testified against Eubanks for a reduced 15- year sentence.

        Eubanks' girlfriend was pregnant, but their son wasn't born until after Eubanks was jailed for the murder. He only got one chance to hold the infant before he was whisked away.

        Although thankful for not receiving the death penalty, Eubanks told his girlfriend to forget about him. “You need to focus on the baby,” he said. “I'm never getting out of here.”

        • • • •

        When Eubanks arrived at the Eastham Unit north of Huntsville in 1978, his cellmate told him, “This is the end of the world.”

        It didn't take long for Eubanks to make a name for himself.

        He fought so often he was placed on the prison boxing team. He then helped organize a “work strike” in support of prison reform. That landed him in solitary.

        His heart was hardened. None of his adopted family members visited him in prison.

        His outlook changed gradually as years passed, beginning when he bet a pound of coffee that he could earn his high school diploma. He did it, and he went on to earn his associate's degree from Lee College in 1984 and his bachelor's in humanities from University of Houston- Clear Lake through correspondence classes in 1999.

        He became a peer health educator, instructing inmates on tuberculosis and AIDS.

        “Through all this, I found myself hanging around different people who weren't as wild,” he said. “Many were Christians, whose lives seemed smoother, with less uncertainty and anger.”

        So when a friend gave him his first Bible, he read it from cover to cover.

        He eventually asked his mentor, Rabbi Jim Pratt, to pray with him that the man he killed might somehow know his deep regret. None of the victim's relatives had attended the trial, and Eubanks knows no way to find them.

        “Saying you're sorry isn't enough,” he said. “I did something for which there is no excuse.”

        He had been eligible for parole since 1997 — but now, despite five rejections, he held onto a glimmer of hope that he might just get that second chance.

        And then he got word that his name made the list of those to be paroled in July once he became the first capital murderer to complete a pre-release program at aChristian prison in Sugar Land. Founded in 1997, the unit requires inmates who volunteer to go there to attend Bible studies as well as learn about life skills and substance abuse.

        Once he learned he won his freedom, he sat down and cried.

        He had barely squeaked past with the necessary five of seven votes from the state's parole board. Harris County prosecutors sent a letter of protest based on the “sheer brutality of the crime.”

        Family members of his murder victim could not be reached for comment, but the Houston mayor's crime victim advocate, Andy Khan, found Eubanks' release “surreal,” believing anyone committing such an insidious act should remain imprisoned until he dies. In the past 14 years, nearly 2,000 capital murderers serving life sentences have been eligible for parole in Texas, but only 3 percent made it, records show.

        • • • •

        The granting of Eubanks' parole was his first surprise.

        One of his Christian exit courses was taught by former district Attorney Carol Vance, who was not only the namesake of the Sugar Land unit but also a prosecutor who helped send Eubanks to prison.

        “I recognized him the moment he walked in the room,” Eubanks said. “I once hated him with a passion, but now I admire him.”

        Although Vance said he's been conned before, he said he would trust Eubanks as his next-door neighbor.

        Upon his release, he moved to the Isaiah House, a halfway house in northeast Houston. He landed a job quickly, working as sales manager for an electric sign company.

        However, the most amazing development has been finding his biological family.

        He went to an address in Conroe that was the last known address for one of his adopted brothers. He spoke to an 80-year-old white-haired woman through a locked gate whom he didn't recognize at first, but she turned out to be his adopted mother, Faye.

        “I want to apologize for the way I put you through hell,” he told her.

        He hoped to restore their relationship, but the next day she called to say she wasn't ready for that yet.

        At the same time, she did confirm that his biological mother was her sister — whom he had known as “Aunt Betty” — and that she was living in Baytown.

        He then learned the mystery behind his adoption. Betty Brown released him to her sister to save his life because he was so scrawny, weighing only 8 pounds at six months.

        Brown had been recently divorced and could not afford medical care.

        Tests eventually revealed that Eubanks was starving because of his allergy to milk. He was switched to coconut milk and thrived. Eubanks also learned that Brown's son Warren Gable was his brother.

        Her daughter, Brenda Harris, was his half-sister. While they'd visited together when Eubanks lived in Lubbock, he had thought of them as his aunt and cousins.

        They recently arranged to meet again at Gable's home near Brenham. When Brown saw her son again after all these years, she ran to hug him.

        “I was so glad that I forgot that he had a bad past,” she said. “I don't know what I'm stepping into, but I feel like my sister has given him back to me, and I want my son to have a second chance.”

        Eubanks blinked back tears at the reunion, especially when they surprised him with a cake in honor of his birthday that month.

        He was also overwhelmed when he was later reunited with his only son, Michael Small, now 31, of Katy. He's a U.S. Army Reserve staff sergeant who recently returned from Afghanistan.

        “He turned out so good,” Eubanks said.

        cindy.horswell@chron.com


        EDITORIAL: CRIMINAL JUSTICE

        Texas parole system needs overhaul

        EDITORIAL BOARD
        September 02, 2009

        Once again, folks in a courthouse are addressing a problem that folks in the statehouse should have addressed long ago. A cloud long has hung over the secretive, overburdened system by which Texas decides who stays in prison, who is released and who returns.

        As with anything dealing with crime and punishment in Texas, the numbers are staggering. The Board of Pardons and Paroles considered more than 74,800 cases last year. About a third of the reviews resulted in releases.

        All were handled in secrecy by overworked folks working with files riddled with more errors than anything this important should include.

        The American-Statesman's Mike Ward, who has been covering and uncovering problems in the state's criminal justice system for 20 years, reported this week that four federal cases in the past two years have spotlighted troubling questions about the state parole system.

        Still pending are at least 12 other cases challenging the system.

        The questions involve the legality of parole restrictions and the unnecessarily secretive process for making parole decisions that can affect us all.

        "We have been advised by attorney after attorney after attorney that it is correct," Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, said of the process.

        Court after court after court might be about to tell the board something other than it has heard from attorney after attorney after attorney.

        And sometimes even things that are correct and legal might not be right. By law, parole proceedings must be secret. The law is wrong.

        The secrecy extends to the files used to make parole decisions. Inmates do not get to review them for possible errors, of which, Ward reported, there are many.

        Before trial, defense lawyers have the right to see what is going to be used against their clients. Why not the same rules in the parole process?

        In addition to drawing fire from without, the system has sparked questions from within. Bert Reyna, who served on the board until 2004, said the problems are broad.

        "It's horrible, a totally unbelievable system that is not working right," he told the American-Statesman, pointing to the lack of a system for culling out mistakes in files.

        In addition to the lack of a system, there is a lack of time.

        "You have to move cases," said former board member Lynn Brown. "There are so many that have to be voted each week. If you were out for a few days, you could get backed up where you couldn't even get in your office (because) there would be so many files there waiting to be voted."

        U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks did the math in an August order stemming from an inmate's challenge of the system:

        "The testimony established it is common practice for 30 to 40 cases to be reviewed in one work day — an amount that indicates each review takes approximately 12 minutes, assuming the commissioners conduct an uninterrupted eight-hour workday."

        It is a system that is — and long has been — overdue for top-to- bottom review. As is too often the case with state government in Texas, it's being done now — piece by piece — in courtrooms.

        That's too bad, because the evidence is clear: Texas' parole system is broken. Everybody running for state office next year should be forced to talk about what they'd do about it.

        Find this article at:
        Texas parole system needs overhaul


        August 31, 2009

        Sam Sparks v. Rissie Owens: Federal judge may unmask secretive parole process

        The Austin Statesman's Mike Ward brings word ("Court cases forcing change at parole agency," Aug. 31) of a recent clash between US District Judge Sam Sparks and an attorney from the Board of Pardons and Parole:

        U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks had heard enough. After several days of listening to attorneys for the State of Texas defend the state parole board's operations, he became exasperated by the testimony of a parole board lawyer.

        "The lady is wrong. She is stating issues of the law that are wrong," he told the jury.

        The rare display of judicial pique resulted in a mistrial after state lawyers objected that his remarks could have improperly influenced jurors. But Sparks had already made it clear that he had serious questions about whether parole board policies violate a prisoner's right to due process.

        Sparks is not the first judge to make such findings. In three other cases in two years, Austin federal judges have questioned the legality of the state's policies for placing restrictions on parolees, particularly sex offenders, who face some of the strictest conditions on their parole. Across Texas, parole officials said, more than a dozen other lawsuits on the issue are pending.

        The court cases have highlighted criticism of the parole board for not taking time to adequately review parole cases, for operating in secret, for not detecting errors in paperwork and for placing conditions on parolees that are not justified by the evidence. Although most of the cases so far have dealt with sex offenders, observers say that changing the rules for those cases could open the door to broader changes, including more openness.

        RELATED: Federal judge: Parole board may have improperly labeled thousands as sex offenders.

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: Judiciary, Parole, TDCJ


        Court cases forcing change at Texas parole agency

        U.S. judges question legality of practices they say violate due process rights of prisoners.

        By Mike Ward
        AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
        August 31, 2009

        U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks had heard enough. After several days of listening to attorneys for the State of Texas defend the state parole board's operations, he became exasperated by the testimony of a parole board lawyer.

        "The lady is wrong. She is stating issues of the law that are wrong," he told the jury.

        The rare display of judicial pique resulted in a mistrial after state lawyers objected that his remarks could have improperly influenced jurors. But Sparks had already made it clear that he had serious questions about whether parole board policies violate a prisoner's right to due process.

        Sparks is not the first judge to make such findings. In three other cases in two years, Austin federal judges have questioned the legality of the state's policies for placing restrictions on parolees, particularly sex offenders, who face some of the strictest conditions on their parole. Across Texas, parole officials said, more than a dozen other lawsuits on the issue are pending.

        The court cases have highlighted criticism of the parole board for not taking time to adequately review parole cases, for operating in secret, for not detecting errors in paperwork and for placing conditions on parolees that are not justified by the evidence.

        Although most of the cases so far have dealt with sex offenders, observers say that changing the rules for those cases could open the door to broader changes, including more openness.

        Although most Texans probably find it hard to sympathize with red- tape travails of convicted felons, a growing chorus of former and current parole officials agree that systemic troubles that have nettled Texas' secretive system for decades seem to be coming to a head.

        "This is all on a collision course," said Scott Medlock, director of the prisoner rights program for the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project. "Three federal judges and two appellate courts have told them the system has to change ... but the state's litigation strategy is that the (5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) will bail them out. I don't think so."

        For their part, state parole officials say the current process is constitutional.

        "We have been advised by attorney after attorney after attorney that it is correct," said Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

        Even so, some officials on both sides concede that some change appears to be coming.

        In recent months, parole officials changed their procedure that listed parolees as sex offenders and placed restrictions on their activities once they were released — even if they had never been convicted of a sex crime — to allow inmates to see state-ordered evaluation reports. They have also been ordered to determine in each case whether the parolee constitutes a continuing threat to society because of a "lack of sexual control," a move that, if adopted for all sex-offender cases, promises to bring additional paperwork and reviews.

        "It doesn't appear to be a matter of if the process will change; it's now a matter of when," said Bill Habern, a Huntsville parole attorney who has been battling for years for such changes to the system. "I didn't used to be able to say that. We now have federal courts mandating this (due process in some cases)."

        Even so, parole officials have remained mum on what changes, if any, they are contemplating, citing the ongoing litigation. They also insist that their work may be misunderstood because of 1970s-era state laws that mandate secrecy, much more so than in other states.

        In Texas, convicts are not even allowed to see their own files and, until recently, could not see documents to which they had to respond as the parole board considered their release.

        The parole board reviews tens of thousands of cases each year of convicts who are eligible for parole. It also decides what conditions to attach to paroles, revokes parole of convicts who have violated those restrictions and rules on requests for clemency and pardons.

        Two former parole board members say they see problems with the way the agency operates.

        "It's horrible, a totally unbelievable system that is not working right," said former parole board member Bert Reyna, who left the panel in 2004.

        For example, he said, case summary reports should be made available to inmates and their attorneys.

        "There are too many mistakes in those files that are never caught, because there are currently no checks and balances in the system," Reyna said.

        In one case, he recalled, an inmate was listed as having killed another man, without any details, when in fact he had gunned down a federal probation officer outside the Laredo courthouse — making it a much more significant crime.

        In another case, an inmate was listed as having been involved in human smuggling and other crimes when he had no such convictions.

        "That information was about another inmate and somehow got in the wrong file," Reyna said. "I can't tell you how many times, when I checked the facts in those case summaries, the information was wrong."

        Then, too, say Reyna and Lynn Brown, who served on the state parole board from 1997 to 2004, the paperwork load facing the board encourages decisions without a full review of convicts' files.

        Even though some convicts' files have thousands of pages, Sparks estimated that board members review and approve parole conditions for some of the worst offenders once every 12 minutes — assuming they take no break for lunch and work an eight-hour day. Former and current board members say it's probably less than that.

        In fact, in 1999 when the Austin American-Statesman was allowed to watch parole decisions being made, in the first public access to the inner sanctum, they approved one every seven minutes — one every four minutes once a reporter stopped asking questions.

        "You have to move cases," Brown said. "There are so many that have to be voted each week. If you were out for a few days, you could get backed up where you couldn't even get in your office (because) there would be so many files there waiting to be voted."

        Owens and other parole board members have insisted in court testimony that they spend an appropriate amount of time reviewing and voting on the more than 74,800 paroles they considered last year. Just over 23,000 paroles were approved in 2008, nearly 31 percent.

        As far as mistakes in the files, parole officials insist they err on the side of public safety and do not vote to release convicts who are dangerous or pose a threat.

        Others have criticized the parole board for having to vote on cases a second time because members missed important information in the files and failed to impose conditions for parole, such as requiring drunken drivers not to drive or sex offenders to stay away from parks and schools.

        "There are hundreds of cases every month that have to be voted again because the board didn't impose the conditions they should have, because they didn't read the files," said Sandra Pickell, who retired last year as an assistant director of review and release processing for the state's parole division that processes paperwork for the parole board.

        Despite the ongoing legal challenges and complaints, parole officials defend the system, noting that any system this large — Texas has the second-highest prison population in the nation — will have some problems.

        Betty Wells, the parole board's general counsel, said any changes made so far to the system have applied only to specific cases, as ordered by a court.

        mward@statesman.com

        Find this article at:
        Court cases forcing change at Texas parole agency


        August 16, 2009

        Probation numbers expanded even more than prisons


        Via Doc Berman, I was fascinated by this telling chart, which accompanied an op ed by Charles Blow in yesterday's New York Times, depicting national growth in the four major categories that make up the correctional poppulation over a 25-year stretch: Offenders in prisons, jail, on parole, and on probation (or in Texas statutes, "community supervision"). Texas' chart would look relatively similar, but with even steeper "prison" and "probation" curves.

        These categories cost taxpayers more money as you descend the Y axis from top to bottom. Probation costs the least per offender and prison the most, thus naturally probation is the punishment used the most often. Parole is a function of the cost of incarceration and physical limits on the number of prisoners the state can reasonably stuff in a box. However, expansion of probation and parole populations also contribute to boosting the number of prisoners because of high revocation rates, particularly for drug offenders.

        This explains the crux of Texas' 2007 probation reforms and why they've been so effective so soon at reducing the state's incarceration rate, even as crime has fallen. The statute straight-up reduced maximum probation terms for many offenses to just five years (down from ten), and allowed judges to terminate probation early for probationers who demonstrate good conduct and complete other terms of their supervision. Fewer people on probation means fewer people get revoked, which on the margins reduced pressure on the prison system overall enough to forestall the immediate need for new construction.

        At the time we could say the tactics were "evidence based," but a leap of faith was still required - nobody knew exactly what would happen.

        Today, Texas can say these methods have worked in the real world with few of the much-ballyhooed ill effects on safety that critics stridently predicted.

        Indeed, the legislation arguably contributes to public safety by giving offenders incentives to earn their way off probation early through good behavior.

        Since we've seen the tactic can work without increasing crime - indeed, now that Whitmire and Madden's 2007 reform legislation has come to be viewed as a national model - the Texas Lege should go back in 2011 and finish the job, adding the offense categories which were approved by the Senate but stripped out of the later-vetoed legislation by the House in 2005. The most vocally opposed legislators are mostly gone now, and there's plenty of evidence to justify expading the use of shorter, stronger probation more broadly.

        Posted by; Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: Parole, Probation, TDCJ


        August 12, 2009

        Federal judge: Parole board may have improperly labeled thousands as 'sex offenders'

        While I was out of town last week, federal District Judge Sam Sparks issued an important ruling criticizing the secretive process by which the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole makes decisions about release conditions for sex offenders.

        Here's how the story by Mike Ward began in Friday's Austin Statesman:

        A federal judge on Thursday issued a stern rebuke to state corrections officials for the way they classify some parolees as sex offenders even though the defendants have never been convicted of sex crimes.

        U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks also voiced frustration with state parole officials for ignoring earlier court decisions and a previous directive by him and ordered the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to review whether to leave parolee Ray Curtis Graham on sex offender restrictions.

        "It's time for the parole division and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to stop being defensive and start trying not to use technical defenses," Sparks said, in ruling that the restrictions were not imposed on Graham legally and that parole officials ignored a subsequent court warning about the deficiency.

        "The undisputed evidence established no official involved in the ... process has ever made the necessary finding that Mr. Graham constituted a threat to society by his lack of sexual control."

        In January 2008, Sparks warned the parole board that he had serious concerns about their policy on imposing restrictions on some parolees. For Graham, that meant requiring him to undergo sex-abuse therapy and barring him from becoming a minister and going to church, among other things.

        In a parole system known for its secrecy — decisions are usually made behind closed doors, and most parole files are not public record — Thursday's development marked a rare crack in that armor, although not the first. In three other cases in two years, Austin federal judges have questioned the legality of the state's policy by which restrictions are placed on parolees.

        Across Texas, parole officials said, more than a dozen other lawsuits on the issue are pending.

        While the case involved only Graham, Sparks said he believes the parole board has illegally placed restrictions on perhaps thousands of parolees who have been classified as sex offenders.

        It sounds like Judge Sparks is fed up and about to get serious with the Board of Pardons and Parole if they don't soon change these policies. Congrats in particular to Bill Habern, whose parole-focused firm out of Huntsville has been hammering away on these important due process claims for some time.

        Posted by; Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: Judiciary, Parole, sex crimes, sex offender registration, TDCJ


        Judge scolds parole officials over sex offender classification

        Sam Sparks stops trial after attorneys object to comments he made to jury about witness' testimony.

        By Mike Ward
        AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
        August 07, 2009

        A federal judge on Thursday issued a stern rebuke to state corrections officials for the way they classify some parolees as sex offenders even though the defendants have never been convicted of sex crimes.

        U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks also voiced frustration with state parole officials for ignoring earlier court decisions and a previous directive by him and ordered the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to review whether to leave parolee Ray Curtis Graham on sex offender restrictions.

        Sam Sparks Judge finds board's method 'troubling.'

        "It's time for the parole division and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to stop being defensive and start trying not to use technical defenses," Sparks said, in ruling that the restrictions were not imposed on Graham legally and that parole officials ignored a subsequent court warning about the deficiency.

        "The undisputed evidence established no official involved in the ... process has ever made the necessary finding that Mr. Graham constituted a threat to society by his lack of sexual control."

        Sparks also declared a mistrial in the case after a week of testimony when attorneys for the state objected to comments he made to the jury about a witness' testimony.

        Graham filed suit against parole officials after they officially listed him as a sex offender in December 2007 — without allowing him to see the results of a psychiatric evaluation they ordered him to undergo or to appear with his attorneys at a hearing at which the decision was made. Graham, who served time in prison for burglary and attempted murder, was never convicted of a sex crime. He was arrested for aggravated rape in 1982, but was never convicted.

        In January 2008, Sparks warned the parole board that he had serious concerns about their policy on imposing restrictions on some parolees. For Graham, that meant requiring him to undergo sex-abuse therapy and barring him from becoming a minister and going to church, among other things.

        In a parole system known for its secrecy — decisions are usually made behind closed doors, and most parole files are not public record — Thursday's development marked a rare crack in that armor, although not the first. In three other cases in two years, Austin federal judges have questioned the legality of the state's policy by which restrictions are placed on parolees. Across Texas, parole officials said, more than a dozen other lawsuits on the issue are pending.

        "I think this case displays the arrogance of power that permeates the parole board," said Bill Habern, one of Graham's attorneys.

        That view is strongly disputed by parole officials, who insist they are following the law as they interpret it.

        Sparks stopped the trial Thursday morning after he contradicted a parole board witness on her testimony about federal court decisions.

        After former parole board general counsel Laura McElroy testified that federal court decisions allowed the state's policy, Sparks had told jurors: "The lady is wrong ... the lady is wrong ... (McElroy) is stating issues of the law that are just wrong."

        Assistant attorneys general representing the state complained that the judge's remarks might have prejudiced the six-member jury against Parole Board Chairwoman Rissie Owens and state parole director Stuart Jenkins.

        "I was out of bounds," Sparks said of his remarks. But he also told parole officials they will have to answer for their actions in not giving Graham a hearing before they imposed the conditions.

        While the case involved only Graham, Sparks said he believes the parole board has illegally placed restrictions on perhaps thousands of parolees who have been classified as sex offenders.

        "I don't believe the Board of Pardons and Paroles can justify the imposition (of the condition) on any parolee," Sparks said, citing wording in the current policy that says the condition can be attached if an offender "could" pose a public safety threat.

        "Everyone in this room is a possible risk to the public, including this federal judge," Sparks said, noting that restrictions had been placed on Graham even though the parole board never had made that finding in his case. "Actually, that's more troubling to the court than this individual case."

        Until June, parole officials routinely refused to give offenders a copy of psychiatric evaluations and other documents and to provide face-to-face hearings. That policy was changed after Graham's case appeared headed to trial.

        In testimony, parole officials said they specifically made the new policy retroactive to cover Graham and about 650 others without sex-crime convictions who have been placed under sex-offender rules.

        Parole officials repeatedly insisted the state policies are legal — even though Sparks in January 2008 strongly hinted they were unconstitutional and ordered copies of his order delivered to state parole officials. Several testified they had either never received it or not read it.

        Parole officials also said there was no legal requirement for a "live" hearing.

        To provide offenders hearings, they said, could cost more than $1.7 million a year for additional staff.

        Parole officials and a spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment on the case.

        Judge scolds parole officials over sex offender classification


        July 28, 2009

        Tracking evidence-based probation practices in Travis County

        Over the weekend I ran across this fine piece of journalism from the May/June issue of the Texas Association of Counties County magazine describing the details of Travis County's efforts to implement "evidence based" practices at its probation department.

        The county saw reductions in recidivism, probation revocations and incarceration costs for both state prisoners and the county jail.

        The National Institute of Corrections republished the story on their website, pairing it with an array of related documents about stronger probation systems.

        Here's a notable excerpt from the County magazine story:

        The experiment achieved positive results: because of its four-year effort, the county’s overall one-year recidivism rates dropped from 29 to 24 percent.

        More recidivism-related outcomes:

        Pre-experiment, 26 percent of low-risk offenders were re-arrested within one year; post-experiment, only 6 percent were re-arrested after one year. That is a 77 percent drop in low-risk offender recidivism.

        Pre-experiment, 26 percent of those offenders were re-arrested within one year; post-experiment, only 13 percent were re-arrested within one year of their original offense. That is a 50 percent drop in medium-risk offender recidivism.

        Pre-experiment, 34 percent of those offenders were re-arrested within one year; post-experiment, only 31 percent were re-arrested within one year. That is a 9 percent drop in high-risk offender recidivism.

        Tony Fabelo, a criminal justice expert who worked closely with the department throughout the transition, said those numbers are significant at all levels.

        “The biggest decline has been for the low and medium risk (offenders), which makes sense. The high-risk people are high risk.

        They are very difficult to work with,” he said, adding that having fewer low- and medium-risk offenders on caseloads results in having more available resources geared toward offenders most likely to endanger public safety.

        Recidivism wasn’t the only area in which the department saw beneficial results. The changes also resulted in the department reducing its overall felony revocations by almost 20 percent. Technical violations were reduced by 48 percent. According to the numbers:

        Pre-experiment, in 2005, the county had 1,052 felony revocations; post-experiment, in 2008, the county had 846 felony revocations.

        In 2005, the probation department filed 608 technical revocations; in 2008, that number dropped to just 318.

        Only 3.4 percent of its felony offenders had their probation revoked in 2008 because of a technical violation, compared to 5.9 percent in 2005.

        Based on all those figures, the Legislative Budget Board concluded that Travis County potentially saved the state $4,881,881 over the course of three years, just by avoiding those 290 technical revocations. According to state data, about 67 percent of those technical revocations would have lead to the person being sent to prison for an average of 16 months. Another 29 percent of revocations would have lead to an average of 10 months in a state jail.

        The other 4 percent would have spent time in the Travis County Jail. Nagy estimates that the county saved approximately $386,736 in 2008 in jail housing costs. The county calculated that savings by comparing the amount of time probationers spent in jail pre-experiment and post-experiment. That time decreased from a total of 111,339 days in jail in 2007 to 95,225 days in 2008, a 14.5 percent drop.

        The experiment was carefully documented throughout its duration, which resulted in a series of reports that can be found on the Travis County Adult Probation Web site.

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: Probation, Travis County


        July 23, 2009

        Expanding ranks of Texas lifers part of national trend

        Texas has both life sentences which are eligible for parole (most of them) and also life without parole (LWOP). The latter in Texas is only a sentencing option in capital murder cases and as of 2008, just 71 Texans had received LWOP sentences, according to the report, while 8,558 offenders (6.1% of TDCJ's total inmate population) were serving life sentences in Texas adult prisons but will ultimately be eligible for parole.

        "However," as the Sentencing Project correctly notes, "eligibility does not equate to release and, owing to the reticence of review boards and governors, it has become increasingly difficult for persons serving a life sentence to be released on parole."

        Six states and the federal government have only LWOP sentences, says the Sentencing Project. The total number of people nationally serving life sentences quadrupled in the last 25 years, with just 34,000 total prisoners serving life sentences in 1984 and more than 140,000 in 2008.

        Among Texas lifers, 43.5% are black, according to the report, 33.8% are white, and 22.0% are Hispanic. There are 422 juveniles mixed into the totals for Texas lifers - about one in 20 out of all life sentences. Three of those juveniles are sentenced to life without parole, but going forward that penalty was abolished for juveniles by the 81st Texas Legislature. Out of those 422, thirteen juvenile girls are serving life sentences.

        Notably, California uses life sentences much more liberally than Texas, particularly for juveniles but really for everybody. In a prison system just a little larger than ours (serving a population that's 60% greater, it should be added), a whopping 20% of all California prisoners are serving life sentences compared to just 6.1% in Texas. Of the more than 34,000 lifers in California, 10.8% are in for LWOP.

        Does anyone wonder why California is cutting prisoners loose because it can't afford to incarcerate them all?

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: LWOP, TDCJ


        July 21, 2009

        TDCJ: Paroling older offenders could save Texas $49 million per year

        Thanks to the addition of billions in federal stimulus funds and a now-vanished revenue infusion from high oil prices last year, Texas was able to stave off the kind of serious state budget crunch in 2009 that's crippled California and put the pinch on dozens of other states. The effects on criminal justice in California have been extreme, from the Los Angeles Sheriff choosing not to pay DNA testing in rape cases to slashing prison guard salaries by ten percent, the Golden State is taking radical steps to stay within its budget.

        By comparison, Texas prison guards got 3.5% raises this year in an effort to reduce understaffing and the state financed modest increases to diversion and treatment programs to keep from building more prisons. Looking forward, though, by 2011 most official estimates see Texas experiencing severe if delayed effects in the state budget from a slumping economy, meaning legislators will be faced with cutting the budget or dipping into the state's "Rainy Day Fund."

        At that point, legislators will be looking for places to cut, and this morning I ran across a brief, two-page report (pdf) on the TDCJ publications page that tells them how to save $49 million per year right off the bat. (It was published in December but I hadn't seen it before now and the Lege didn't act on the information this session.) According to the analysis, performed in response to HB 429 passed in 2007, The:

        Aging of the offender population has a demonstrated impact on the resources of the health care system. Offenders age 55 and older access the health care delivery system at a much higher level and frequency than younger offenders.

        Encounter data indicates that offenders aged 55 and over had a documented encounter with medical staff almost three (3) times as often as those under age 55. In terms of hospitalization, the older offenders were utilizing health care resources at a rate of more than four (4) times higher than the younger offenders. The 55 and older offenders comprise about 6.8% of the overall service population and yet account for more than 30.5% of the hospitalizations.

        TDCJ incarcerated more than 10,950 offenders over the age of 55 as of Aug. 1, 2008, the agency reported; about 5,000 of them are not serving time for so-called "3g" (violent) offenses. (More than 60% of offenders in TDCJ's institutional division are eligible for parole, according to the agency's annual statistical report - pdf, p. 15). Paroling those offenders, said the agency, would save the state more than $20 million annually in off-site medical costs, at a minimum, as well as reduce the burden on internal TDCJ medical systems.

        In addition, paroling 5,000 offenders would save money by allowing the state reduce its reliance on private prison contractors:

        Based on the most recent LBB offender population projections ... a reduction of 5,000 incarcerated offenders could eliminate the need for contracted temporary capacity, currently 1,899 beds, reducing current agency expenditures by approximately $29 million annually.

        So when Texas legislators start talking about budget cuts, TDCJ has identified $49 million per year the state could cut from the prison budget that should be discussed well before anyone starts talking about reducing staff pay.

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: Health, Parole, TDCJ


        July 20, 2009

        Probation officer screened job applicants for drug cartel

        Yet another bribery case has cropped up involving a criminal justice worker on the Texas border with the arrest of federal probation officer Armando Mora last week in McAllen. Reports the American Chronicle ("Federal probation officer charged with drug trafficking and bribery," July 20):

        According to allegations in the criminal complaint, Mora received bribe payments from members of a drug trafficking organization to provide sensitive and confidential information from government records. It is alleged before the drug trafficking organization considered hiring drivers for their tractor-trailers to transport its drug loads, it would provide personal information - full name, commercial driver's license number and date of birth - to Mora, who in turn would obtained confidential and sensitive information from government sources about whether the prospective driver was on probation or supervised release or had any outstanding arrest warrants. If Mora reported no such warrants or supervision, the drivers would be hired. On the other hand, the complaint alleges that on at least two occasions in May and June 2009, Mora allegedly advised the drug organization not to hire three drivers telling a member of the drug trafficking organization that two of the drivers were undercover agents and the third was one of his own supervisees and and an FBI informant. In June 2009, Mora is alleged to have received $5,000 from a member of the drug trafficking organization for providing the confidential information regarding the third driver.

        Obviously ratting out undercover officers puts federal agents at risk. I also have a big problem with using probationers as drug informants, for reasons identified earlier this year by Bobby Frederick at the South Carolina Criminal Defense Blog:

        If a person is trying to get clean or stay clean, they cannot repeatedly go into houses and make drug deals - sooner or later they will use and their recovery will be blown to bits. Many narcotics officers do not care if you stay clean or not - you are a tool that they use to do their job for them. Many narcotics officers do not care that you are placing yourself in danger - again, you are a tool that they require to make drug arrests. Rachel Hoffman's death in Florida, although tragic, was representative of the ethics problems that narcotics officers often ignore in their work and thankfully brought national attention to the problem.

        There is a fundamental contradiction between policy goals when a probationer is used as a drug informant. Putting someone on probation instead of sending them to prison implies both that the court viewed them as not dangerous enough to require incarceration and also that they're capable of possible rehabilitation.

        But if that person is sent back over and over into drug environments by the state, it's nigh on impossible to make the kind of clean break from reoffending and drug use that rehabilitation requires.

        In this particular case, what kind of message does it send to learn that the FBI and federal probation officers knowingly encouraged an offender under federal supervision to apply for a job as a driver making drug shipments?

        In the bigger public-policy picture, this example shows why anti-corruption efforts deserve greater priority in the enforcement battle against multinational drug cartels: One corrupt official can easily thwart the work of many, many others in the system, and too often that's exactly what happens.

        Americans tend to think of public corruption as more typically a Mexican problem, but we've seen far too many examples of corruption on the US-side of the border to take much comfort in such stereotypes.

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: Border Wars, bribery, drug policy, Probation, Snitching, USDOJ


        June 20, 2009

        Governor Perry's 2009 Criminal Justice Vetoe

        No tinkering with parole mechanics

        SB 1206 by Hinojosa/Edwards would have authorized TDCJ to release inmates when they'd completed conditions for parole specified by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Perry vetoed the bill because he said it usurped the authority of the BPP. However, he put the onus for getting offenders out the door more quickly back on the parole board, declaring in the veto statement:

        "But because I appreciate the goal of Senate Bill No. 1206 to not hold inmates longer than necessary, I am directing the Board and TDCJ to work together to ensure that offenders are not held for extended periods after successfully completing a rehabilitation program required by the Board as a condition for parole. They must set up procedures that provide for TDCJ to notify the Board of the successful completion of parole release requirements so that the Board may act to effect the release to parole."


        May 13, 2009

        Perkins' parole nomination scuttled!

        What a shocking outcome: On Sen. Whitmire's motion, with Sen. John Carona's vocal, bipartisan support, the Senate rejected Shanda Perkins' nomination to the parole board on a 27-4 vote, calling her unqualified.

        Whitmire said he respected Perkins but she should not be on the parole board, which literally considers matters of life and death. Texas has increased pay for the full-time slot, he said, to $95,000 per year to attract the most qualified candidates possible and she didn't fit the bill. He suggested the Governor appoint Perkins to a different slot, possibly a university regent.

        Watch the debate here beginning at the 2:42:30 mark; here's initial AP coverage.

        Senators Whitmire, Carona, and Shapleigh deserve huge credit for speaking out to oppose this nomination. I've never seen a vote quite like that!

        MORE: From the Austin Statesman, where Mike Ward reports that "The four votes to confirm the nomination were Sens. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls; Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay; Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, chairman of the Nominations Committee, and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound."

        Several senators who voted for Perkins in the Nominations Committee actually changed their votes.

        AND MORE: The Fort Worth Star-Telegram says, "It was the first time in decades that a gubernatorial appointee has been rejected on the Senate floor."

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: nominations, Parole


        May 13, 2009

        Parole board vacancy: Insert dildo joke here

        (UPDATED) The full Texas Senate today will consider the nomination of Shanda Perkins, the anti-sex toy crusader from Burleson who Governor Perry has nominated to serve on the parole board despite having no apparent experience regarding criminal justice besides the effort to ban dildos from Johnson County. (I know, I know, it can't be done - they're indigenous.) The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned Texas' statutory sex toy ban.

        Perkins says her role in the sex-toy prosecution was overblown and she only passed around copies of the law she thought should be enforced and tried to pass a resolution to ban short skirts worn by her nemesis, the dildo saleswoman, to local Chamber of Commerce events. (A commenter on another blog noted that we've heard this song before.)

        Normally sex toys don't come up much in the nominations process so at least her appointment has provided some comic relief, but for those whose lives will be affected by Perkins' decisions, it's no laughing matter. There's a time and a place for everything, including dildo jokes, but you'd think an appointment to the parole board wouldn't be one of them.

        UPDATE: Who'da thought? Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman says her nomination appears to be in trouble:

        “She appears to be toast. Burned toast,” said one senator.

        By several reports, the Senate’s 12 Democrats are lined up to not confirm Perkins’ nomination and two Republicans said privately the are among several GOPers who also oppose it.

        MORE: I'd have never anticipated this:

        The Texas Senate has blocked 1 of Gov. Rick Perry's nominees to serve on the state board of pardons and parole over concerns she is unqualified for the job.

        The 27-4 vote Wednesday to send the nomination of Shanda Perkins of Burleson back to committee was a resounding bipartisan rejection of the former banker.

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: nominations, Parole


        May 06, 2009

        More disapprobation for Shanda Perkins nomination to parole board

        I'm not the only one, apparently, dissatisfied with Shanda Perkins' nomination for the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole. Harold Cook at Letters from Texas vents that:

        Yesterday, the nomination of Dr. Bryan Shaw came up, to continue as one of three commissioners over the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

        Most of the Senate Democrats opposed the confirmation, based on the silly notion that the state agency charged with protecting the environment should...well, you know...do a little of that from time to time.

        During the course of that debate, Republican Senator Mike Jackson, who chairs the Senate Nominations Committee, the first stop for all these appointees, remarked in defense of Dr. Shaw that the Senate needs to look beyond policy differences, and instead cast their votes based on a particular appointee's qualifications, experience, and expertise.

        Fair enough, Chairman Jackson. Let's talk about Shanda Perkins . Ms. Perkins is pending in Jackson 's Nominations Committee, as a Perry appointee to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Her committee hearing is today.

        What are Shanda Perkins' qualifications? Well, she led a revolt against sex toys.

        Her holy quest to rid Planet Earth of the scourge of people doing whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes landed one woman in jail, and the whole mess ended up in Federal Court. The courts eventually ruled that Ms. Perkins' goal, and the law that goes with it, is unconstitutionally illegal.

        Perkins' only other qualification for appointment by Perry seems to be that she was caught passing out anonymous fliers attacking Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison at Republican events.

        So what's it gonna be, Mr. Chairman? Is the talent bar in Texas so low these days that we're going to entrust decisions, regarding who remains in prison and who is set free, to a political hack anti sex toy crusader who is unconcerned with the U.S. Constitution?

        The appointment is an embarrassment.

        The Senate Nominations Committee will consider Perkins' nomination at a meeting this aftenoon at 1 pm. or 30 minutes after the Senate adjourns in the Senate chamber.

        UPDATE: The Senate Nominations Committee approved Perkins' nomination on a 4-1 vote, with Sen. Elliott Shapleigh the lone opponent. Unfair Park broke the news of the committee vote; see also brief coverage from AP.

        MORE (5/7): From the Dallas News' Trail Blazers Blog:

        When Shapleigh quizzed Perkins and three other Perry appointees to the board about their credentials, the other three cited advanced degrees, years of prison work and experience in state and local government. Perkins cited her experience as a Sunday school teacher and a church youth counselor.

        AND MORE: Best coverage yet of the hearing from Jim Vertuno at AP who reports:

        The ACLU sent Perry's office a letter Wednesday saying Perkins' has "no relevant qualifications for the position and no identifiable experience in the area of corrections policy" and her nomination should be withdrawn.

        Perkins' approval "will fail to promote fairness on the parole board or confidence in the criminal justice system," the letter said.

        And also this tidbit:

        Shapleigh also asked how she would vote if there was new evidence that could show a death row inmate may be mentally disabled, which would prevent them from being executed.

        "I would vote against," execution, Perkins said.

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: nominations, Parole, Texas Legislature


        Parole officer charged with bribery

        By Tony Plohetski
        April 29, 2009

        Authorities have charged a Travis County parole officer with bribery after they said he offered to have a parolee’s ankle monitoring bracelet removed in exchange for $150.

        Wayne George Johnson, 34, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the second-degree felony. His bail is set at $10,000.

        According to an arrest affidavit, parolee Tyler Allen Nitsche, 27, made an outcry about the offer this month.

        Investigators asked Nitsche, who was on parole on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in Webb County, if he was willing to wear a recording device for a conversation with Johnson.

        During an exchange, the affidavit said, Johnson accepted a partial payment from Nitsche and requested more money to remove the device.

        Parole officer charged with bribery


        April 25, 2009

        Probation fees a sleeper issue, barrier to success of reforms

        At a moment in history where more than 10% of adult Texans have outstanding arrest warrants, the ever growing array of increasingly unmanageable fines for low level offenses and fees for probationers is a mundane "sleeper" issue, one that may have profound implications in particular for how well the probation-centered de-incarceration reforms approved by the Texas Legislature in 2007 work in the long term.

        This subject of onerous fees too seldom rises to a high enough priority level, I'm afraid, even on this blog. But with every new legislative session, probationers suffer from a death from a thousand cuts, and every new fee and fine makes it less likely they'll be able to successfully complete court-ordered community supervision.

        The most egregious example is the Orwellian-named Driver Responsibility Program, especially the high fines for DWI offenders - it suffers about a 70% noncompliance rate! Similarly, rates of restitution payments are strikingly low in part because the amount of restitution expected from low-income defendants is frequently unrealistic in the first place.

        Every two years in Texas, more nickel and dime fees are added onto probationers' plates until we've reached the point where, for many, it's unrealistic to expect them to pay. After all, most of these folks, carrying a criminal record, don't qualify for high paying jobs and a felony record precludes them from many occupations. It doesn't matter, though; the Lege just keeps tacking on fees.

        I mention this after noticing a bunch of bills in this vein moving through the process, starting with one by Rep. Paula Piereson attaching a new $50 fee for probationers who are required to do community service. Similarly, version of Sen. Dan Patrick's DNA database expansion bill that passed out of the Senate includes a new $34 fee to cover the costs of processing DNA tests.

        According to the criminal justice impact statement, HB 666 by Gutierrez "would increase the court cost on the conviction of certain intoxication and drug offenses from $50 to $60 and make it applicable to any offense classified as a Class B misdemeanor or higher that falls within specified offenses types, including assault, arson, robbery, burglary, theft, fraud, weapons, and intoxication."

        A bill that passed out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and is waiting in Calendars, HB 2389 by Hernandez lards on more fees for alcohol offenses, creating "a $50 breath alcohol testing program fee as a court cost for persons if convicted of one of seven Penal Code offenses: Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), Driving While Intoxicated with a Child Passenger, Flying While Intoxicated, Boating While Intoxicated, Assembling or Operating an Amusement Ride While Intoxicated, Intoxication Assault, or Intoxication Manslaughter. It would allow counties to retain $5 of each fee collected for administrative costs," according to the fiscal note.

        Another bill that's out of committee makes mandatory use of "ignition interlocks" for all DWI probationers and makes them pay for the costs. A bill requiring electronic monitoring for registered sex offenders requires them all to pay for the equipment. Another bill that passed out of committee in the Senate would authorize arrest for someone who is able to pay for monitoring costs, in the view of the court, but fails to do so.

        Maybe it sounds petty to complain about a $50 additional fee, but my real complaint is the overarching trend. We see more of these fees literally every session, and probationers already owe fines, court costs, probation department fees, restitution and can be required to pay for their own drug or alcohol treatment and testing. If they don't pay the mounting fees, fines and costs, they face revocation or at least an array of intermediate sanctions, none of which are themselves free to the taxpayers.

        These costs partially explain why so many defendants actually choose jail over probation for many low-level offenses, even though it costs the taxpayers much more. When that happens, or if they're revoked to prison, the state all of a sudden must foot ALL their costs, so surely it makes sense to invest the much smaller amounts on the front end if it means not overburdening probationers with fees to the point they cannot succeed?

        It won't happen in the 81st Legislature, but somewhere down the line - perhaps in an interim charge by one of the relevant committees - this issue needs to be studied in more detail and the issue of probation fees rationalized. If we as a society believe that police protection, criminal adjudication and the incarceration of people for crimes is a primary role of government, then we need to pay for those functions with tax dollars and stop larding on ever-higher pile of debts onto people who largely can't afford them.

        You can't squeeze blood from a stone, the saying goes, and trying doesn't make us any safer. In fact, it can contribute to probationers' sense that the system is so slanted against their success they should just stop trying, contributing to despair and, ultimately, to recidivism.

        Posted by; Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: Driver Responsibility Fee, fees, Probation


        States urged to improve probation, parole programs

        March 2, 2009
        By DAVID CRARY
        AP National Writer

        NEW YORK — The number of people on parole and probation across the United States has surged past 5 million, according to a new report which says financially struggling states can save money in the long run by investing in better supervision of these offenders.

        The Pew Center on the States report, released Monday, says the number of people on probation or parole more than tripled to 5.1 million between 1982 and 2007. Including jail and prison inmates, the total population of the U.S. corrections system now exceeds 7.3 million — one of every 31 U.S. adults, it said.

        The report also noted huge discrepancies among the states in regard to the total corrections population — one of every 13 adults in Georgia at one end of the scale, one of every 88 in New Hampshire at the other extreme.

        The racial gap also was stark — one of every 11 black adults is under correctional supervision, one of every 27 Hispanic adults, one of every 45 white adults.

        The report notes that construction of new prisons will be increasingly rare as most states grapple with budget crises.

        It said improved community-supervisi on strategies represent one of the most feasible ways for states to limit corrections spending and reduce recidivism. "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," said Susan Urahn, managing director of the Center on the States. "The economy opens a window of opportunity to do things that are not always easy to do."

        At present, according to the report, prisons consume nearly 90 percent of state corrections spending, even though two-thirds of offenders under supervision are on parole or probation.

        Costs per year for a prison inmate average nearly $29,000, while average costs for managing parolees and probationers range from $1,250 to $2,750 a year.

        Adam Gelb, director of Pew's Public Safety Performance Project, stressed that violent and incorrigible criminals need to be locked up, but contended that many prison inmates could be safely overseen in their communities at far lower cost.

        "New community supervision strategies and technologies need to be strengthened and expanded, not scaled back," he said. "Cutting them may appear to save a few dollars, but it doesn't. It will fuel the cycle of more crime, more victims, more arrests, more prosecutions, and still more imprisonment."

        Among the report's recommendations for strengthening community corrections:

        _Base intervention programs on sound research about what works to reduce recidivism.

        _Use advances in supervision technology such as electronic monitoring and rapid-result alcohol and drug tests.

        _Create incentives for offenders and supervision agencies to succeed, and monitor their performance.

        _Impose swift, certain sanctions for offenders who break the rules of their release.

        The report cited a probation program in Hawaii as a positive example.

        Under that program, which offers extensive counseling and treatment, failure to comply with random drug tests, office visits and treatment requirements is met with immediate sanctions — typically a few days in jail. Participants have proven far less likely than others on probation to be arrested for new crimes and sent back to prison.

        Arizona was praised for a law enacted last year that creates performance incentives for offenders and the county-based probation supervision system. For every month that an offender complies with the terms of supervision, the length of probation can be shortened by up to 20 days. Slip-ups result in a loss of the earned time.

        Kansas has made headway in curbing its prison population by offering grants to community corrections programs that cut down on the high number of probation and parole rule-breakers being sent back to prison solely for such rule violations.

        The Pew report says strong community supervision programs for low-risk offenders not only cost much less than incarceration but, when properly funded and managed, can cut recidivism by as much as 30 percent. That could be a huge boon to the states, which, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, spent a record $51.7 billion on corrections last fiscal year — up 300 percent over two decades.

        The five states with the highest rate of adults under correctional supervision were Georgia, Idaho, Texas, Massachusetts and Ohio, the report said.

        Those with lowest rates were New Hampshire, Maine, West Virginia, Utah and North Dakota.

        According to Pew's figures, Idaho had 48,663 people on probation in 2007 — the key factor in its ranking. Idaho corrections officials said the figure was too high, based on their count of about 26,900 offenders on supervised probation, but they did not immediately provide figures on additional offenders on unsupervised probation.

        Georgia, although only the ninth most populous state, had more people on probation in 2007 — 435,631 — than any other state, according to the report.

        The state Department of Corrections said the number might be inflated by double-counting of some offenders, but it has previously acknowledged that its probation population is the highest per capita in the country.

        One consequence, according to the department, is that Georgia probation officers have had a caseload far higher than the national average. Gelb said advanced technology could be used to improve supervision without necessarily hiring more personnel. For example, he said some states now allow parolees and probationers to periodically report to an ATM-like kiosk, rather than to a person in a state office.

        In any case, said Gelb, states could double or triple the amount they spend supervising parolees and probationers, and still come out ahead financially if the result was a reduced prison population.

        In Alaska, where construction is set to begin soon on a new medium-security prison, the corrections commissioner said he agreed with the thrust of the Pew report. "Confinement is the foundation of the system, but we are trying to move away from the philosophy that incarceration will solve the problem," said Joseph Schmidt.

        "What we are hoping is that we don't grow our prison population to a point where we can't afford it."

        States urged to improve probation, parole programs

        On the Net:
        Pew report: http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/
        Copyright 2009, The Associated Press.


        February 19, 2009

        Governor appoints anti-sex toy crusader to parole board

        Normally, the Texas Senate rubber stamps the Governor's appointments to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, but one of Rick Perry's three appointees announced last week perhaps deserves closer vetting by the Senate. According to the Governor's press release:

        Shanda G. Perkins of Burleson is a retired banking executive. She is a member of the United Way of Johnson County Board of Directors and Burleson Lions Club. She is also director of the Johnson County Chamber Summit, and is a member and past ambassador of the Burleson Chamber of Commerce. She also volunteered as a youth pastor, counselor and Sunday school teacher at Lighthouse Church. Perkins replaces Jose Aliseda of Beeville.

        That doesn't explain, though, why she's being appointed to this slot. As far as I can tell, Mrs. Perkins' sole experience in the criminal justice realm stems from a personal morality crusade against the sale of sex toys in Johnson County that led to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturning Texas' law on the subject.

        She's so tough on crime, in other words, she's tough on crimes the federal courts say cannot exist because they're acts protected by the First Amendment.

        But Governor Rick Perry thinks she'll make fair decisions on the parole board?


        (Photo via Unfair Park.)

        The other two parole board members named were reappointed veterans, board chair Rissie Owens and Juanita Gonzalez of Round Rock. I frequently disagree with Rissie Owens, who as presiding officer exercises significant control over the board's direction, but I'd never say she's unqualified. In Mrs. Perkins' case, though, I fear the Governor is putting politics over what's best for the state's troubled prison system.

        UPDATE: It turns out Mrs. Perkins has been busy lately distributing unsigned attack flyers against Kay Bailey Hutchison on behalf of Governor Perry claiming the senator and Barack Obama are aligned on abortion. The Star-Telegram' s Poli-Tex blog said, Perkins "described herself as a Tarrant and Johnson County chair for the Perry campaign."

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast at; Governor appoints anti-sex toy crusader to parole board

        Labels: Governor, Parole, SCOTUS, sex crimes


        2008:

          COMMENTARY

          Re-entry services for former inmates deserve support

          Reported By; Ana Yañez-Correa,
          TEXAS CRIMINAL JUSTICE COALITION
          December 03, 2008

          Men and women released from prison by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice get $50 and a bus ticket back to where they came from. For someone trying to start a new life, that isn't much.

          These people have served their time. A judge and a parole board have determined that they are ready to re-join society. For most, however, the days and weeks ahead will be their greatest struggle yet.

          On their first night out, they will need a place to sleep, but many landlords will refuse to rent to someone with a criminal record.

          Some public housing projects may reject them on the same grounds. Many will end up in temporary housing and homeless shelters, where they may be exposed to the problems they are trying to put behind them.

          One 2004 study found that parolees who lived in temporary shelters after release were more likely to end up re-incarcerated than those who had more stable housing.

          A person making a transition from prison to the community will quickly need to find a job that can make them self-sufficient.

          In Texas, however, they will face many barriers to finding skilled employment; those with felony records are barred from being licensed for 168 different professions, from electrician to manicurist. Even unskilled jobs may be hard to find, as employers conducting background checks often choose not to hire the formerly incarcerated.

          In the weeks and months after release, they will also have to contend with the lingering problems that took them to prison in the first place. One recent estimate held that 50 percent of the prison population suffers from mental illness. Drug addiction is another common problem. Nationally, about half of the prison population committed their crimes while under the direct influence of drugs.

          While people may be treated for mental health and drug problems while incarcerated, once they return to the community, those services become much harder to access.

          These problems are inextricably linked, and together they form a barrier to re-entry that some will find impossible to pass. Of the 70,000 people released from Texas prisons each year, about half will return. Faced with unemployment, homelessness, a lack of opportunities and untreated mental illness and drug problems, many will become desperate. In their desperation, they will offend again in a cycle of disappointment and failure all too familiar.

          According to the professionals who work most closely with released and paroled prisoners, the worst gap of all is the lack of coordination between those who do provide services to the recently released. While many good programs do exist, working alone and against great odds in communities across Texas, they need the state's support.

          Texas needs a Statewide Re-entry Council to ensure that parolees are given the tools they need to take responsibility for their lives, to become productive members of their communities and to fully re-enter society.

          Locally, the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable is working to bring together volunteers and community organizations to assist formerly incarcerated persons in finding housing, employment and health services. Travis County is on the forefront of offering re- entry services, but local efforts need an investment by the state to continue their good work.

          If we truly believe in the promise of redemption and the hope of a second chance, we must support the released men and women who wish to make new lives for themselves, as well as the selfless professionals who work with them and the communities to which, ready or not, they will return.

          Yañez-Correa is executive director of the coalition, an advocacy organization based in Austin.

          Re-entry services for former inmates


          Criminals, advocates say Texas parole restrictions unfair to low-level offenders

          November 11, 2008
          By DIANE JENNINGS
          The Dallas Morning News
          djennings@dallasnews.com

          It's called Condition X: tough restrictions on the way some criminals, mostly paroled sex offenders, must live once they're out of prison.

          Condition X determines the minutiae of their daily lives – whether they can visit a school or attend church; whether they can live with their families or in an apartment with a swimming pool; whether they can access the Internet, work at a convenience store, even whom they can date or marry.

          But a growing number of offenders are fighting back against the strict limits, which they say are most often imposed without a fair hearing, and treat low-level offenders and violent predators alike.

          "I'm not at war trying to defend sex offenders," said attorney Bill Habern, who has scored several incremental victories in court against how Condition X is imposed. "I'm at war trying to protect our Constitution."

          The current system is unfair to low-level offenders such as young people who had consensual sex with minors, said Mary Sue Molnar, co- founder of Texas Voices, a new organization devoted to changing sex offender laws.

          Ms. Molnar's son was 22 when he had sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend. He received deferred adjudication but was sent to prison several months later when he was caught with drugs and alcohol. She worries how he'll cope with the Condition X restrictions he'll face upon release.

          "You're looking at a young man who, because the place of employment is listed on the [public] registration, cannot find or keep a job – which is one of his probation or parole conditions.

          "Where is he supposed to live? You're looking at a man who cannot come up with the money for the order to pay probation fees, treatment fees, polygraph."

          Matter of due process
          Ms. Molnar and others say they're not championing pedophiles or rapists. But when someone has consensual sex with an older teen, "it is not as serious a crime as someone who has fondled a 6-year-old," she said.

          That distinction is one reason Mr. Habern and attorney Richard Gladden are determined to force state officials to give parolees more due process.

          And though their efforts mostly have been rebuffed by state judges, they're gaining some traction in federal courts:

          •In 2004, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "Condition X" can't be imposed on parolees who haven't been convicted of a sex offense, without an "appropriate hearing."

          •In 2006, the Texas parole board quit automatically denying sex offenders access to their own children, after a lawsuit claimed the board did not give a parolee notice or a hearing.

          •Earlier this year, federal Judge Sam Sparks in Austin expressed "grave concerns over the fundamental fairness" of such parole board hearings and commented that the Texas attorney general's office, which represents state agencies, "has apparently failed to take such constitutional challenges seriously."

          Assistant Attorney General David Morales said his office "takes all constitutional challenges seriously."

          Condition X is imposed on almost all paroled sex offenders, from those who had consensual sex with an underage teen to violent pedophiles. In some instances, sex offender conditions are even imposed on offenders who don't have a conviction for a sex crime, but whose offense included a sexual aspect. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, about 90 percent of paroled sex offenders have Condition X imposed on them.

          Majority vote
          It doesn't take much to require the sweeping restrictions of Condition X – just a majority vote of a three-person panel from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. No face-to-face hearing is held before the vote. Instead, each member individually reviews a "parole packet" with information from an institutional parole officer and prison officials, and any supporting material from the inmate's friends and family.

          The system gives "someone who is getting out on parole with sex offense stuff less due process than someone who is having their driver's license suspended," said Mr. Gladden, whose business card bears a picture of the Revolutionary War-era "Don't Tread on Me" flag.

          Mr. Gladden and Mr. Habern are challenging that procedure in Judge Sparks' court.

          When board members consider putting a convict under Condition X, the inmate doesn't know what evidence is presented against him and has no opportunity to respond. He can't even be sure panel members have read his file, Judge Sparks noted.

          A parole division employee testified in one case that board members spend an average of 10 to 30 minutes reviewing materials in each case.

          "It would certainly appear that if the voting members actually reviewed the files, the ... [process] would take substantially longer than 30 minutes," the judge wrote.

          Parole board member Jose Aliseda, who is a lawyer and former county judge, said the recent court cases "have caused us to examine our policy," and the board is trying "to make sure our policies meet constitutional muster." But he said he's "sufficiently comfortable" with the current process.

          In a recent 5-4 decision in one case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found the system acceptable.

          Going case-by-case
          But Mr. Habern intends to keep chipping away, hoping eventually to "force the parole board to examine each individual situation" about what restrictions are needed, rather than impose blanket restrictions on all offenders.

          Mr. Gladden agreed.

          "In Texas, before your driver's license can be suspended, you have a right to an in-person hearing," he said. "You have a right to know on what grounds they're going to suspend. You have a right to be heard as to why your license should not be suspended. And you have a right to appeal from that determination.

          "And it seems to me that ... you start saying, 'What's more important – my driver's license or not being able to live with my kids?'"

          Ms. Molnar, of Texas Voices, which has about a thousand members and supporters, said the system is not set up for offenders "to reintegrate into society and be productive members of society. It's set up for them to be roadblocked at every single turn."

          Parole board member Aliseda acknowledges that the restrictions make life difficult, but "I see success stories all the time," he said. "It's not impossible and it's especially not impossible after an offender has established the trust."

          Torie Camp, deputy director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, a victim's advocacy group, said the restriction issue is difficult for everyone.

          "I can easily see how being a parole board member, you would want to err on the side of caution," she said. "They want to do their very best to keep the community safe."

          Balancing the offender's constitutional rights with public safety is hard, she said. But painting all sex offenders with a broad brush "does a disservice to victims of sexual assault," she said, because the restrictions become meaningless.

          Like Mr. Habern, she advocates a more individualized approach instead of the restrictions routinely recommended by the parole division and imposed by the parole board.

          "For our own community safety, we actually have to look at reasonable and fair treatment for sex offenders when they're coming back into our communities, so they can reintegrate," Ms. Camp said.

          Those concerned about the process blame the parole division and the Legislature, which crafted the sweeping laws, for the problem, not the parole board.

          "The parole division does not exercise discerning judgment," said parole attorney Gary Cohen. Mr. Cohen said he has no doubt the parole division "deliberately sat down to fashion the most minimal cursory review that they possibly could."

          Officials with the parole division declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

          Mr. Cohen has little faith that politicians will rush to protect the constitutional rights of sex offenders.

          "It's not a politically favorable position for them," he said.

          Michele Deitch, who teaches criminal justice policy at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, said that eventually, the courts will have to address the issue of how to balance public safety with restricting individual freedoms.

          The issue of restrictions is "affecting more and more people," she said, and the inability to live a certain way is more than an inconvenience.

          "It's very clear there's an open question. ... Clearly there's deprivation going on there that needs some kind of due process protection," Ms. Deitch said.

          By the numbers:

          3,789 - Texas parolees supervised as sex offenders

          3,391 - Texas parolees subject to Condition X, the tough restrictions on the way many criminals must live once they're out of prison

          89.5% - Percentage of sex offender parolees subject to Condition X

          Texas parole restrictions unfair to low-level offenders


          Child killer Raul Meza testifies in bid for freedom

          By Steven Kreytak
          November 10, 2008

          More than 26 years after he killed 8-year-old Kendra Page in Southeast Austin, convicted murderer Raul Meza testified in federal court Monday on his lawsuit challenging the living conditions he is under since being released from prison due to the state’s mandatory supervision law.

          Meza, who has lived in a minimum security unit of the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle since 2002, said that he enjoys little freedom and limited chances to get a job, which would enable him to move out of the jail and into the community. Meza said, for example, that he only is allowed to spend two hours a week at Project Rio, a job program for parolees.

          He also complained that parole officials have taken so long to approve him to apply to jobs that they are filled with other candidates.

          A trial on Meza’s lawsuit against state parole officials began this morning in U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s court in Austin.

          Meza was sentenced to 30 years for killing Kendra, who was also sexually assaulted, according to her autopsy report. He also received a four-year term for having a weapon in prison.

          Read a Sunday Statesman story about his lawsuit and history here. He was released on mandatory supervision and lived free for a year and a half in 1993 because his time served and good time credit equaled his sentence. He was sent back to prison on a curfew violation. When he again earned enough good time credit in 2002, he was sent to the Travis County jail complex in Del Valle.

          His lawyers say he deserves greater freedom but because of the high-profile nature of his crime is subject to tougher conditions of release than other inmates released under similar circumstances and charged with similar crimes.

          They also contend the conditions were imposed without allowing Meza a chance to rebut their necessity. Lawyers with the Texas attorney general’s office, who represent the defendants, argue that the conditions imposed on Meza are lawful and legitimate given his history. Scott Medlock asked Meza how he felt about his crimes.

          “I feel terrible,” Meza said. “I feel I destroyed a life, I destroyed a family. I destroyed two families.

          There’s nothing I can do or say that will change that.” Celamaine Cunniff, who represents Texas Department of Criminal Justice defendants, challenged Meza about his testimony that it has taken parole officials an average of 90 days to approve him to pursue specific job prospects.

          Cunniff read from records on scores of jobs that indicate that he received answers often the same day or the same week on such requests.

          Most were denied because the employer did not want to hire someone with Meza’s criminal history or because they were too close to child-safety zones, which includes places such as schools and playgrounds, Cunniff said.

          Bid for freedom


          August 24, 2008

          Levin urges Corrections Committee to mimic Hawaii's HOPE program

          At the House Corrections Committee hearing last week, Texas Public Policy Foundation researcher Marc Levin said the state should consider adopting elements of the HOPE initiative in Hawaii - which stands for Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement. This morning I ran across this 2-page fact sheet from USDOJ describing the program, and also this Wall Street Journal feature from July.

          The HOPE program is similar to strong probation mechanisms used in drug courts, but with a much broader population of offenders. According to the Wall Street Journal:

          HOPE is the brainchild of Judge Steven Alm, an energetic 55-year-old former U.S. attorney for Hawaii who drives a black Corvette. He was assigned to criminal court in 2004 and immediately faced a slew of motions to revoke probation. In every case, he recalls, the defendant had "pages of violations stretching back months or even years" yet had suffered virtually no consequences for any of them.

          That is the reality across the U.S., Prof. Kennedy said. Probation, administered by a patchwork of state and local systems and often starved for resources, "basically teaches people to ignore" probation officers' warnings, he said, until violations accumulate to a tipping point. Then, offenders face dire -- and expensive -- consequences: in Hawaii, as much as 20 years in prison.

          To Judge Alm, this system seemed as absurd as parents failing to respond to a child's persistent misbehavior and then suddenly kicking him or her out of the house. His idea: Instead of one severe sanction after many violations, mete out relatively minor but "swift and certain" sanctions for every violation.

          The judge holds a "warning hearing" to explain the HOPE rules. Under regular probation, for example, offenders are usually drug-tested only when they meet with their probation officer, giving them time to wash out the drugs. In HOPE, probationers with a drug problem must call in every weekday morning to see if they are scheduled for a random drug test that day.

          Virtually every violation results in immediate arrest, a hearing within 72 hours and almost certain jail time, varying from a few days for a first violation to a few months for subsequent ones. Participants who accumulate several violations risk having probation revoked and being sent to prison for years.

          "I thought it would be counterproductive, " recalled probation officer Sheri Shimbakuku. "How will I help them if they're in jail?" But she says HOPE probationers seemed much more receptive to help: "Boy, it was just different seeing their reaction to being in jail."

          Flash incarceration has been used around the U.S. by specialized courts established to adjudicate drug cases, with demonstrated success. But the Hawaii program is one of the first to test the approach among a broader group of probationers. In a randomized, controlled trial of more than 500 probationers, researchers from Pepperdine University and the University of California at Los Angeles found HOPE probationers were less than half as likely as controls to miss probation-officer appointments or test dirty for drugs, even though the controls knew in advance when they would be tested and HOPE participants didn't.

          These preliminary findings are being announced Thursday, and full results are expected by year end.

          Posted by Gritsforbreakfast
          Labels: Drug courts, House Corrections, Probation


          August 21, 2008

          House Corrections to discuss technology, reentry and state jails

          The Texas House Corrections Committee will meet this morning at 9 a.m. in the capitol to take up three interim charges that should generate a fascinating discussion:

          The House Committee on Corrections will hear invited and public testimony on the following interim charges:

          1. Explore the use of technology practices that improve efficiency, safety, and coordination of criminal justice activities on the state, local, and county levels.

          2. Consider new strategies for meeting prisoner reentry challenges in Texas, including the evaluation of programs with documented success. This review should include the availability of housing and occupational barriers.

          3. Provide a comprehensive analysis and study of the Texas state jail system, including original intent for use, sentencing guidelines, and effectiveness. Develop suggestions for changes and improvements in the state jail system.

          You can watch the hearing once it begins at this link. See also an earlier Grits post on the committee's interim charges and links to materials from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition which will be presented to the committee as part of its reentry discussion.

          Posted by Gritsforbreakfast
          Labels: Re-Entry, Recidivism programs


          Learn more about judge's efforts to help probationers, scope of problem

          By Steven Kreytak
          August 13, 2008

          Following up today's Statesman story about state District Judge Charlie Baird's effort to help probationers in his court find jobs, here is some of the information compiled during reporting that did not make the paper.

          First, here is a link to an accounting of the cases pending as of Aug. 1 in Travis County's seven felony district courts, obtained under the Texas open records law from Debra Hale, court administrator in Travis County.

          As stated in the story, Baird has the second most cases pending in his court — 976. The 427th District Court, led by Judge Melissa Goodwin, has the most with 1,128. That court was created last year. There are 6,481 felony cases active in Travis County.

          The story referenced a 2006 Washington State Institute for Public Policy report that Geraldine Nagy, the director of the Travis County adult probation department, said she references often. That report can be found here.

          Mary Moran, Travis County offender workforce development administrator, said job services for ex-offenders — helping them prepare for and find employment — are in high demand in the area.

          She said that an estimated 1,500 people looking for jobs attended a job fair organized by the federal probation department and held Aug. 6 at a South Austin hotel.

          The crowd was so large that several prospective employers did not show up because they could not find parking, Moran said.

          Finally, anyone looking for a job who wants to participate in the City of Austin program that provides employment and social service help should call Mark Diaz at 972-6742 or Gail Dixon at 972-6749.

          Prospective employers should call program director Martin Harris at 972-5655.

          Efforts to help probationers


          Investigation: Questionable Drug Tests

          Reported by: Brian Collister
          Email: BrianCollister@woaitv.com
          07/08/2008

          We have all been told that we are innocent until proven guilty.

          That's how it's supposed to be.

          But right now, some people are being locked up without proof.

          A News 4 Trouble Shooters Investigation probed problems at the probation department to uncover why.

          We started by talking to a woman who says she is a victim of the system.

          Her name is Shannon McGillis, a mother of eight who is trying to get her life back on track.

          Back in March she got some disturbing news.

          “It was...I was angry. I didn't know what to do,” said McGillis.

          While on probation for possession of Methamphetamines, her urinalysis came back positive for drugs.

          At the time, she was seven months pregnant.

          “I was taken from my kids and my family and everybody, all my loved ones knew I was innocent," McGillis told the Trouble Shooters.

          She spent six weeks in jail.

          “The next day I was admitted and my son was born three weeks early,” said McGillis.

          The problem is, she says she doesn't do drugs anymore and she has a lab test to prove it.

          It's a hair test showing she was negative for all drugs.

          Lani Bennett also tested positive for drugs while on probation.

          "They didn't give me any warning or anything,” said Bennett.

          She was shocked when she was arrested at the driver's license office because of a warrant for a dirty drug test.

          "I'm (at) DPS trying to get a status of my license cause I'm trying to change over insurances for my car and I'm getting taken out in handcuffs," said Bennett.

          She went straight to jail and had only 15 minutes to get someone to pick up her four year old who was with her at the time.

          She also has a hair test proving she was clean.

          "People are capable of change. I have the legal paperwork to prove that I have changed and I did not use,” said Bennett.

          “I don't believe in locking people up for dirty urines," said Bill Fitzgerald, the Chief Probation Officer during an interview in his office with the Trouble Shooters.

          He says that he expected a spike in positive test results.

          That's because back in February they stopped doing the drug tests themselves and hired a company that does drug testing called Treatment Associates.

          They use a small, thin, rectangular-shaped, one-time-use device that is dipped in the urine.

          It's called a rapid test.

          The manufacturer says it's used as a preliminary test.

          If a single line appears in one of the boxes on the face of the device, you are positive for that class of drug, but not necessarily an illegal drug.

          "There's one issue there on my part that the test is more sensitive. So I anticipated we would end up with more people showing up positive for urinalysis. This test is more sensitive than the ones we used previously," said Fitzgerald.

          In fact, it’s sensitive enough that many prescription, and even some over-the counter, drugs will test positive.

          Something as common as cold medicine could land a person back in jail.

          And knowing all that, the county is still using this single test to determine someone's future.

          Fitzgerald says the probationers have the right to ask for a confirmation test, yet he admits they're not told they have that option.

          Brian Collister asked Fitzgerald during the interview, "Why not do confirmations as a standard procedure?" Fitzgerald responded saying, "That is more up to the D.A. and the judges than it is to me." Collister asked, "But why wouldn't you do a confirmation before sending it to them?” Fitzgerald responded saying "We do confirmations but we don't...we don't do them standard." Collister asked, "But why wouldn't you?" Fitzgerald responded, "Well financially...it's um. It would really hit our budget for one thing."

          But that's not true.

          We requested the contract Bexar County Adult Probation Department has with Treatment Associates before our interview with Fitzgerald but we didn't get it until July 8th, the day we aired the story and a week after our interview. According to the contract, the department can request a confirmation test at no additional charge.

          But Fitzgerald said he sees no reason to change his current procedures.

          Collister asked Fitzgerald, "Are you comfortable with the way things are set up now where you do not do confirmations as a standard part of your procedure?" Fitzgerald answered without hesitation "Yes."

          And the President of Treatment Associates, Jeff Warner, said he's comfortable with it, too.

          "The rate in the positive tests I stand by. I stand by our procedures. I stand by the products that have been used in those procedures," said Warner during an interview in the cramped room where they refrigerate all the urine that tested positive over the past few months.

          We also noticed in the contract that Treatment Associates is supposed to keep the urine that tested positive for six months in case the department requests a confirmation test.

          But Warner is only keeping them for 90 days.

          Because of all the problems the county is now moving to a less sensitive test and trying find a better way to handle the cost of confirmations.

          Questionable Drug Tests


          Jun. 21, 2008

          Survey reveals flaws in parole system; officers blame computer system

          Texas parole officers are supposed to closely watch inmates who are released from state prisons. But malfunctioning equipment and other problems allow some parolees to escape scrutiny, according to a new report by the state auditor’s office.

          In a survey, auditors found that for 55 percent of offenders, parole officers scheduled drugs tests one to three months later than required by state regulations.

          In 12 percent of the cases reviewed, parole officers did not make all of the required monthly contacts with parolees.

          Part of the problem is aging equipment.

          Parole officers complained about frequent slowdowns in the computer system used to track parolee records. The system was supposed to be completely replaced seven years ago, but the replacement is still incomplete, auditors said.

          The Parole Division of the Department of Criminal Justice employs about 1,250 parole officers to keep track of about 78,000 parolees.

          Online: complete report

          — Jeff Claassen

          Survey reveals flaws in parole system


          MAY 21, 2008

          Urinalysis another example of forensic science with subjective results

          The rate of positive results on urinalyses at the Bexar County probation department jumped fourfold after the private lab doing the tests changed their procedures in February, reports KSAT in San Antonio:

          On Monday, the president of the Central Texas Association of Public Employees and a Bexar County probation officer said the high numbers of positives were alarming."Confirmat ion has come back to the department and we're concerned about those, and also, a lot of defendants on their own have gone out and had hair follicle tests in other labs to confirm their suspicions," Sheri Simonelli said. Here's another great example of the subjectivity of forensic science.

          In this case, there exist no concrete standards for how to measure urinalysis results. Reports KSAT, "Jeff Warner, the owner of Treatment Associates, said a test used before a February switch wasn't aggressive enough, and has led to a 35 percent jump in positive drug tests. He said the county's probation department was using an outdated test and an unguarded urine specimen process."

          Normally one doesn't think of judging a scientific metric by whether it's "aggressive, " but whether it's "accurate." I have no way of knowing which standard lies closer to the truth. But if a change in (unregulated) testing protocols resulted in such dramatic a difference in results, the disparity demonstrates once again how large the error rate can be in common forensic science techniques that most people consider reliable.

          Urinalysis


          Speeding release of parolees could ease prison guard shortage, lawmakers say

          Whitmire, Madden question prison policies that keep inmates who are approved for release behind bars.

          By Mike Ward
          AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
          January 11, 2008

          As Texas' prison system struggles with an acute shortage of guards, two legislative leaders called Thursday for a review of whether thousands of convicts who have been approved for parole but still are awaiting release could be let go to ease the crisis.

          As many as 11,000 convicts could be good candidates for hastened releases from Texas' understaffed prisons, according to Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Jerry Madden, who head legislative committees that oversee prisons. Thousands of inmates would already be on parole but for paperwork delays or a lack of enough treatment programs, which lawmakers last spring ordered drastically expanded.

          John Whitmire wonders if trusties being kept as help.

          Jerry Madden thinks closing more wings may be 'wise.'

          Although guard shortages have been building for several years, primarily because of low pay and poor working conditions, the magnitude of the current problems took some state leaders by surprise this week when it was disclosed that a 300-bed wing in a Panhandle prison had been closed because there weren't enough guards to staff it. And although lawmakers began talking Thursday about how to remedy the situation, nobody was suggesting a pay raise for correctional officers.

          Legislative analysts said a pay hike that correctional officers are seeking is not currently possible because it could cost upward of $500 million, a big-ticket item not in the state budget.

          "In my judgment, we have thousands of people locked up who don't need to be there," said Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

          "Last year, there were 6,200 trusties in the system — the lowest, lowest-risk offenders — and 5,700 of those were parole-eligible. But they were still locked up. ... There were 1,500 that were already approved for parole with a release date for next summer.

          "Why not go ahead and process them out, drop the population of the system so we have enough correctional officers to properly cover shifts?"

          Trusties are the lowest-risk, lowest-security prisoners in the system, and they often are assigned jobs helping run the units, including cooking, laundry and filing.

          "These are the inmates who are helping staff these units, and I have to wonder whether they (prison officials) want to keep them there just to keep the units running," Whitmire said. "The public safety danger now is really not over whether to let these already paroled inmates get out — it's about not doing anything."

          In the past, suggestions of speeding up releases have triggered criticism from prosecutors and victims' groups who insist that freeing thousands of convicts is not the best way to address prison problems.

          Two decades ago, they note, such a decision resulted in a spike in violent crime in Houston and other areas, triggering a backlash for longer sentences and more prisons.

          Madden, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, agreed that the already approved parolees still in prison should be reviewed.

          "We shouldn't let anyone out of prison who shouldn't be out, but I would urge (prison and parole officials) to look at this," said Madden, R-Richardson. "We must ensure that we have safe staffing levels in our prisons — which I can't say now that we do at some sites — and closing some additional wings of some units seems a wise way to stretch the short staff farther."

          Prison officials last October quietly mothballed a wing at a Dalhart prison because they didn't have enough guards to properly operate the unit. About the same time, officials relocated 300 high-security convicts from a prison in Northeast Texas and replaced them with lower-risk felons, who take fewer correctional officers to supervise.

          The moves marked the first time in recent years that chronic staffing shortages have forced such changes. Prison officials insisted that proper security is being maintained, an assertion challenged by some correctional officers who warn that the situation is becoming dangerous.

          Whitmire, Madden and other lawmakers on Thursday questioned the opening of two new prisons — former Texas Youth Commission lockups in San Saba and Marlin are to open this spring as 616-bed adult prisons — when existing units are plagued by critical shortages.

          Lawmakers last spring approved funding for an additional 6,000 treatment and rehabilitation beds in a bid to cut recidivism and gave prison officials authority to build two new prisons.

          Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville, said those conversions were mandated by the Legislature last spring. Other prison officials said all options are being reviewed to ensure public safety.

          Speeding Release of Parolees

          Express your concerns about BPP/TDCJ to the Legislative Leaders below:

          Email Rep. Jerry Madden

          Email Senator John Whitmire


          2007

          Inmates’ early release worries prosecutors

          By Bill Hankins
          The Paris News

          Published December 9, 2007

          A new and serious issue relating to justice is developing across the state of Texas, and local district and county attorneys are being caught up in the state’s drive to clear prison beds.

          To do so, parole officials are under pressure to release some convicted people early to have space for more violent offenders.

          “Clearly, this is a money issue,” said Lamar District and County Attorney Gary Young. “The state has to find a way to pay for these folks to be housed in prisons. But justice is not being served when someone does eight years of a life sentence.”

          Young was referring to a Lamar County case in which Clifton Blackshear was sentenced in 1999 to life in prison for the manufacture of a controlled substance.

          He was released earlier this year and is back in Lamar County.

          In another Lamar County case, Timothy Brett Taylor received a three-year sentence and began serving his time in April of this year.

          Parole officials already have announced his release. He is back in Lamar County.

          “We are back to where we were in the late eighties and early nineties,” Young said. “Prisons are full again and the parole system is working to free up beds.”

          “It is sad when defendants are getting their first parole consideration when they are still in our county jail awaiting transfer to the actual prison,” Young said.

          That has happened in some Lamar County cases in which an inmate received his parole while still in Lamar County Jail.

          “There are people who know how to work the system that are agreeing to go to prison for what appears to be decent five or six-year sentences who know they will be out in less than a year,” Young said . “Many of them would rather do that than be on probation for two or three years.”

          Assistant County Attor-ney Bill Harris said he was amazed at the defendant’s reaction in a recent burglary of a habitation case.

          “I was prepared to offer him a lengthy probation, no jail time, but he told me he just wanted a sentence,” Harris said. “He knows that on non-violent offenses, inmates are doing about a month and a half for each year of their sentence. He knows he is going to be out of prison in less than a year, so why would he want to be on probation six or seven years, when he can go to prison and get it over with in just months.”

          State prison officials report there are 738,000 beds for adults in the state system, and that number is being reached on a regular basis, so release of some prisoners in non-violent cases may be pushed ahead of their scheduled release.

          The overcrowding of state prisons puts pressure back on county jail systems, which have a 71,962-bed capacity in Texas. That could cause some overcrowding in county jails in upcoming months.

          Texas HB 337, which addresses the issue, requires the courts to sentence probation violators appropriately and not revoke them to prison for minor mistakes.

          That also means more offenders remain on the streets even if they have failed to meet all the probation rules and have committed some repeat offenses.

          One of the tools used by parole officials is a different system of calculating time prisoners serve.

          “Some prisoners are getting eight to one credit for good time,” Harris said. “The way they are calculating good time is perpetrating a fraud on the citizens of the state of Texas, because they are giving these guys so much good time, they are discharging their sentences way before the law says they are actually eligible for parole.”

          Contrast that with the Lamar County Sheriff’s system, which makes prisoners serve more of their sentences.

          “The system that Sheriff B.J. McCoy has in place is the first 30 days are flat time, and after that 30 days, if a prisoner is a good prisoner, he will get two for one credit,” Harris said. “That means a 60-day sentence will be served in 45 days.”

          Victim and Witness coordinator Alan Hubbard said the release system used today is not fair for victims of crime.

          “They leave the courtroom after sentencing feeling a sense of justice only to learn later the defendant is serving little of that time,” he said. “Juries cannot be told the sentence they hand down can be reduced tremendously, and the juries could not consider that in sentencing if they knew.”

          Hubbard said another problem is that prison officials are alerting the county attorney’s office after a prisoner already has been released and not giving time for a county attorney to contest that release.

          Harris said the federal courts and prison system work a lot different.

          “A sentence to federal prison will mean a prisoner will serve most of their sentences before they have a possibility of parole,” he said.

          Early Release


          AUSTIN

          The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP)

          PEP founded by Houston couple Catherine and Steve Rohr, was honored with the Governor’s 2007 Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award today in recognition of its role in helping offenders incarcerated within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

          The “Most Innovative Program” award was presented to Catherine Rohr by Christina Melton Crain, Chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston during a ceremony held in Austin. PEP is among 6 organizations and 13 individuals from across the state recognized for their efforts to help inmates and those who are on parole or probation.

          The PEP program targets offenders who are nearing release, and who possess an entrepreneurial spirit. Operating at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, offenders volunteer to participate in the four-month program where they learn to develop full business plans and make oral presentations. Offenders are paired with mentors -- top business executives from across the U.S. who travel to the unit each month.

          Rohr herself is no stranger to the business world. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 1999, Rohr worked as an associate at Summit Partners in Palo Alto and then as Director of Investment Development for American Securities Capital Partners in New York.

          Rohr explained that she and her husband first had an idea for helping offenders develop a business strategy in April 2004 after visiting with a former inmate in who had started a successful handyman business.

          “In the process, we realized that inmates and executives have much more in common than one might think,” she said. “Many inmates are creative, passionate, ambitious, courageous and intelligent individuals with a strong entrepreneurial drive – their energy has just been applied in the wrong direction. I figured that if inmates’ entrepreneurial passions and influential personalities were properly channeled, they could become successful and production members of society.”


          TEXAS PRISONS

          New parole system director chosen
          Stuart Jenkins takes over for Bryan Collier

          By Mike Ward
          AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
          August 17, 2007

          Veteran parole administrator Stuart Jenkins was promoted Thursday to replace Bryan Collier as director of Texas' adult parole system, where he has worked for nearly a quarter-century.

          Texas' system is one of the nation's largest, monitoring the supervised freedom of more than 76,000 felons.

          Collier was chosen last month as deputy executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Collier replaced Ed Owens, who became conservator over the Texas Youth Commission about two months ago.

          Jenkins, 47, will make $100,000 a year in his new job, officials said.

          A 1982 criminal justice graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, Jenkins joined the then-state Department of Corrections in July 1982 as a parole officer in Houston, and he worked his way up through the ranks as a supervisor, a hearings analyst, a regional director and head of the parole division's warrants section.

          For the past two years, he has served as deputy director of support services for the parole division of the criminal justice agency, which supervises parolees once they are approved for release.

          mward@statesman.com; 445-1712


          NEWS Texas/Southwest

          Inmates fight fading 'pre-parole' system
          Some see no hope of release in program they say has moved away from goal

          May 28, 2007
          By DIANE JENNINGS
          The Dallas Morning News
          djennings@dallasnews.com

          MINERAL WELLS – If you have to be behind bars, the "pre-parole transfer unit" here is about as good as it gets.

          The 2,100 inmates wear street clothes instead of uniforms; live in air-conditioned dormitories instead of hot, cramped cells; and have access to telephones where they can make collect calls to friends and family, instead of relying on the U.S. Postal Service.

          But tension has been building for months behind the razor wire.

          That's because the Mineral Wells unit is a "pre-parole transfer facility" in name only – a remnant of an ambitious program launched a quarter-century ago aimed at relieving prison overcrowding and reducing repeat offenders.

          Three inmates have gone "over the fence" since August. Others have paid hundreds of dollars to join a lawsuit protesting the parole system. And still others have sent lengthy letters to the "free world" venting their frustration.

          It has reached such a critical point that officials have started moving some of the inmates back into regular prison facilities for security reasons.

          Between 50 and 60 inmates who had been denied "mandatory release" four times were transferred.

          "If you've been denied mandatory supervision four times, then those offenders may become more frustrated," said Bryan Collier, director of the parole division. "And then they feel they may be more prone to [escape]."

          PRE-PAROLE FACILITIES
          Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility
          Location : Parker County, on the site of the former Fort Wolters, an Army post
          Established: 1989
          Number of inmates: 2,100 minimum custody males
          Operator: Corrections Corporation of America
          Bridgeport Pre-Parole Transfer Facility
          Location: Wise County
          Established: 1987
          Number of inmates: 200 minimum custody females
          Operator: Corrections Corporation of America
          SOURCE: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Sonny Morris understands – he's been denied parole twice since arriving here.

          "I can't do my time here," he wrote in mid-May. "I'm desperate to get home... to get back to TDC and out of this ... abyss called Mineral Wells."

          Shortly after that letter, the convicted burglar from Dallas committed a minor infraction in the hope that it would get him a transfer out of the parole division and back to the prison system. He asked an officer to smuggle contraband out of the unit. Until then, he had worked hard to maintain a record of good behavior so he would be granted parole.

          His plan worked. He is due to be transferred to another unit – without the perks of "pre-parole."

          Still, Mr. Morris hopes his chances of release will be better there than in Mineral Wells.

          Only about one in 10 Mineral Wells inmates is any closer to release than inmates elsewhere in the system, estimated Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The other 90 percent simply have been assigned there by the parole division of TDCJ and haven't been approved for release by the board.

          Because of the name, inmates "probably think ... based on what 'pre-parole' would mean in the perfect world – that they're going to be released," said Ms. Owens.

          "The purpose, the role, whatever of the pre-parole transfer facility? Talk to TDCJ," Ms. Owens said.

          TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said the original purpose of pre-parole units was akin to halfway houses. But little of that program survives. Today, Mineral Wells "functions as a prison unit," said Ms. Lyons, tough inmates are no longer counted in the prison population, but in the parole division population.

          Wanting a way out
          Fellow inmate Robert Lovett, a convicted forger who has been at Mineral Wells since 2005, emphathizes with Mr. Morris. He too hopes to be transferred out of the parole division back to the institutional division.

          "It gets kind of hopeless," he said in a telephone interview. The "carrot" of parole is always in front of the inmates, but "when you behave, they smack it out of your hand."

          When Mr. Morris was assigned to "pre-parole" in 2005, he assumed his release was imminent.

          "When you come here you're supposed to go home," said Mr. Morris, who was sentenced to 10 years in 2002 on charges ranging from burglary to credit card abuse to evading arrest, in Dallas, Collin and Denton counties.

          That seemed a safe assumption based on the definition of "pre-parole" facilities. To get to a "pre-parole" facility, inmates must be within 12 months of their presumed parole date, have a good disciplinary record and be classified at a minimum custody level.

          Inmates who arrive at Mineral Wells receive "a new identification badge stating that they are under the supervision of the parole division," said Ohio attorney Norman Sirak, who has filed suit on behalf of Texas inmates.

          Initially, Mr. Morris' time behind bars was "a godsend," the 38-year-old said, because it helped him clean up after years of drug abuse. But though he requested drug treatment, he said, the only programs available are the voluntary ones he already joined.

          He believes his "good" time credits combined with his "flat" time behind bars total more than 100 percent of his sentence, he said. "There's no reason I shouldn't be gone."

          He said he requested reassignment to a regular prison unit, hoping a different parole board would release him. But he never got a response. Finally, he decided to force the situation by breaking the rules.

          Adding up the criteria
          Parole board chairwoman Owens is not familiar with specific cases, but she's heard complaints like Mr. Morris' before.

          "You can't serve more than 100 percent of your sentence," she said patiently. "You've only served five years [and] you've got five years of good time credit. They feel like they've done their 100 percent but [they] have not."

          Mr. Morris and other inmates claim the board violates state guidelines by not granting parole when suggested criteria are met – an argument also made recently in the Legislature.

          But, Ms. Owens said parole guidelines are simply decision-making tools. "Parole guidelines do not say 'yes' or 'no,'" she said. "It's static and dynamic factors that are merged together to get a parole score to tell us if a person would be a good risk on parole supervision."

          Mr. Morris is frustrated on various levels. In addition to maintaining a good prison record, he lined up a place to live, a job and even a church to help him ease back into society.

          Yet the parole board keeps denying him parole saying his accrued time "is not an accurate reflection" of his "potential for rehabilitation" and that his release would "endanger the public."

          How can he "endanger the public" Mr. Morris asked indignantly, when he has no record of violence in or out of prison?

          The inmate may not be a murderer or rapist, Ms. Owens said, but "there is a victim."

          "I guess 'danger' means different things to different people," she said. If you're the one whose home was burglarized, or who was swindled by a white-collar criminal at the Mineral Wells unit, "you'd probably consider them dangerous, too."

          Mr. Morris was to come up for parole again in September, but TDCJ spokeswoman Lyons said she doesn't know when he will be eligible again. Though Mr. Morris claimed the board didn't pay attention to his good behavior, Ms. Lyons said, "any type of infraction...will be considered."

          'Humane' intentions
          T.J. Daugherty, who implemented the "pre-parole" program in the mid-1980s, said warehousing was not the original intent. It "was written for the inmates," to better prepare them for re-entering society.

          "The thinking was to find a humane way of letting inmates out into the community with support," said Mr. Daugherty, now retired.

          In the early years, 1,100 inmates were placed in small "residential settings" across the state.

          Mr. Daugherty screened inmates for placement by checking their original crimes and prison records. Once in the units, they had access to counseling and classes – and paying jobs in the community in some instances. Part of their wages went for room and board and part for victim compensation. The rest could be set aside for use upon release or for their families.

          Inmates could come and go – and some of them simply left, which was one problem with the program, said Mr. Collier, of the parole division. There was no "one event that shut pre-parole transfers down," he said. But many facilities folded "because of the 'not in my backyard,'" sentiment. Pre-parole programs also suffered from poor timing, said Dr. Elmer Polk, associate professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Arlington. They were "successful in reducing costs of incarceration," he said, "but we did still have a high recidivism rate among the releasees."

          The push to crack down on crime signaled the end of the program in Texas.

          Few remnants remain
          Bob Glasgow, the former state senator who sponsored pre-parole legislation regrets the dismantling of the program.

          "We could cut recidivism better that way than any other program I've seen," he said. "It still should be done...(but) since the mid-90s to today the Legislature has taken the attitude that nobody can be soft on crime and get re-elected."

          Remnants of the pre-parole program remain scattered throughout the prison system, Ms. Lyons said.

          For example, a few units offer prison industry programs that pay inmates – but the jobs are within the unit, not in the community. Other programs such as Project RIO (Reintegration of Offenders) help inmates find work. Job fairs are held at all units.

          Meanwhile Sonny Morris marks time, back in the prison system. "It's very misleading for my family," he said. "It's misleading for me," he said.

          His lament is not likely to affect members of the parole board. "I've been on this board for a number of years," Ms. Owens said, "and no one has ever said to me 'you need to release more people.'"

          Inmates fight fading 'pre-parole' system


          Lawmakers seek better parole, officer retention

          April 13, 2007
          by Mark Lavergne/LSR

          The Texas Youth Commission’s woes have served as a nice warning sign to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ): “Get your house in order before this happens to you.”

          It so happens that TDCJ is up for review this legislative session. The House Corrections committee this past week heard several bills looking to address the agency’s significant problems: none quite as epic as TYC’s, and yet…

          Three problem areas dominated the committee’s discussion on April 2:
          1) employee relations;
          2) inmate rehabilitation; and
          3) prison overcrowding.

          Those last two are closely related, as many believe that relieving crowding means doing more to prepare inmates for reentry into society.

          The leading legislation on TDCJ is the sunset bill-HB 2053 from corrections committee chairman Jerry Madden (R-Plano). The bill, along with all bills before the committee on April 2, was left pending. Madden said there would certainly be substitute language before the bill went to the floor.

          The bill as filed contains the recommendations from the Sunset Commission regarding TDCJ, the Parole Board and the Correctional Managed Care Committee.

          The recommendations, as Madden described them, provide for better information to policymakers regarding the criminal justice system, improvements on parole decision-making, increased consideration for early termination of parole and probation, and greater oversight and transparency of the correctional healthcare system. Finally the bill continues TDCJ until the year 2019.

          HB 2053 would establish a six-member legislative oversight committee in order to provide information and analysis to the criminal justice system. Like the former Criminal Justice Policy Council, the committee would have the authority to hire staff. The committee would include Madden and Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman John Whitmire (D-Houston), as well as two senators appointed by the lieutenant governor and two House members named by the speaker.

          The bill also requires the parole board to annually update its parole guidelines and update the Legislature on its efforts to meet them. The bill would also require parole board members who deviate from guidelines in making a decision to provide detailed written statements explaining why.

          Madden said he intended to put TDCJ back under Sunset review in four years rather than the standard 12 for state agencies, in light of its size and magnitude. He said he believed Whitmire would do the same.

          Poor employee relations has plagued TDCJ much as it has TYC-and may lead to similar problems. The tell-tale sign of employee woes has been the shortage of correctional officers (CO’s). The shortage is attributable to two main factors: an inordinate turnover rate and lack of incentive for qualified people to apply in the first place.

          Dee Simpson, representing the Correctional Employees Council, said his organization would like to see more employee issues addressed in the Sunset bill.

          Simpson said the U. S. Department of Justice shows Texas leading the nation in reported sexual assaults in adult prison systems. Moreover, Simpson said, many assaults in Texas prisons go unreported because “there’s not enough eyes out there, because we’re running shortages all the time.”

          He suggested that the legislation mandate that TDCJ sit down and work with certified employee organizations (i.e., unions) and form a list of issues and possible solutions and send it as a report to the legislative oversight committee.

          One issue that has hampered retention rates at TDCJ for years was what Simpson characterized as an “unfortunate” overtime policy.

          Until December 2007, overtime pay was held by TDCJ until employees resigned or retired. Overtime labor historically has been rather commonplace at TDCJ, and not voluntary. So employees have been required to work more than they were getting paid for. This created a dubious situation in which employees were actually given an incentive to quit their positions-because only by doing that could they collect their constantly growing nest egg of overtime pay.

          Changes have recently been made, according to TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston. Since Jan. 1, 2007, the official policy of TDCJ has been to pay employees during the pay period for which they earned the overtime.

          But TDCJ still owes $30 to $35 million to (mostly correctional) staff. “Talk about having a surplus,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg. (D-ouston). “It’s easy to have a surplus if you don’t pay your bills.”

          Livingston said that in any given year more than 6,000 CO’s leave the agency, out of 24,000.

          Simpson noted that retention rates have increased since implementation of the overtime pay policy change.

          Rep. Pat Haggerty (R-El Paso) said he would offer an amendment to HB 2053 mandating that the overtime pay policy remain as it is now. Livingston said he would not have a problem with that. “My absolute intent is to keep this policy in place,” he said.

          In addition to fixing problems for current TDCJ employees, the committee is also considering ways to entice people to work for TDCJ. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) brought HB 2103 before the committee, which would create a pilot scholarship program used as a tool to recruit CO’s.

          Kolkhorst said initial scholarships would be offered only to Huntsville CO’s attending or planning to attend Sam Houston State University, mainly in order to keep down the fiscal note and show some success before expanding the program.

          Criminal justice and political science professor Ed Davis of Sam Houston State University suggested perhaps even offering the scholarship to current TDCJ employees who have GED’s, as they have already “earned their spurs” at TDCJ.

          Kolkhorst said she would work out a committee substitute with the higher education coordinating board as soon as possible. “The sooner the better,” Madden said.

          Texas prisons are reaching levels of overcrowding unseen since Gov. Ann Richards’ massive prison-building campaign in the early 90s. Efforts to reduce the overcrowding without building more prisons would necessitate several measures, including paroling more non-violent offenders and diverting unincarcerated non-violent offenders to other programs.

          HB 3702 from Rep. Borris Miles (D-Houston) would restore mandatory supervision solely for third degree drug possession non-violent offenders.

          Third degree refers to small amounts of a substance, mainly for personal use.

          “Mandatory supervision” (MS) refers to the automatic release of inmates after their calendar time served plus good time (i.e. credits one gets for good behavior during incarceration) equals the sentence. In 1995 the Legislature abolished MS in favor of discretionary mandatory supervision (DMS).

          The bill does not affect offenders convicted of dealing, nor would it affect third degree property offenders, Miles emphasized.

          Violent “3G” offenders would be ineligible for MS just as they are currently for DMS. The bill would allow the TDCJ to focus more on violent and sex offenders, Miles said. He also argued that placing drug offenders on MS sooner than later would allow them to be reintegrated into society.

          Marc Levin, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, observed that from 1977 to 1995 Texas had MS for almost everyone. Miles’ legislation would return to that policy, but only for the small class of third degree drug possession offenders.

          According to the Legislative Budget Board, this would result in the early release of 527 offenders per year. This is significant, Levin argued, because the state hopes to release 3,000 to 4,000 prisoners per year to alleviate the projected need for 17,000 new prison beds by 2012.

          “This is one piece of the puzzle, and a pretty substantial piece,” Levin said.


          Texas leads nation in use of satellite tracking

          April 10, 2007

          GPS devices help monitor movements of high-risk offenders
          Story by :TDCJ Connections News

          When TDCJ District Parole Officer Taylor Goodlett looks at his laptop computer screen each morning, he normally sees a lot of little green dots. The dots tell him exactly where a high-risk offender on his caseload had gone the day before and that he was, in fact, authorized to travel to those locations. Red dots, on the other hand, alert him that the offender might have gone astray.

          Goodlett is one of four officers working out of the Parole Division’s Region I central office in Tyler who use global positioning system (GPS) devices as part of their jobs. The technology is used to monitor the movements of high-risk offenders assigned to the agency’s Super Intensive Supervision Program (SISP) by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP).

          “What GPS does for me is that in a matter of minutes I can track where my offender has been all day long,” Goodlett said.

          TDCJ utilizes GPS for the monitoring of high-risk offenders more than any other criminal justice agency in the nation. Its use stems from legislation passed by Texas lawmakers in 1997 that instructed the agency to establish a program to provide super intensive supervision for offenders at the highest risk of committing further crimes as determined by the BPP.

          More than 1,400 SISP offenders are now being monitored by way of either active or passive GPS devices throughout the state. They include sex offenders, prison gang leaders, as well as offenders with histories of violent assaults and extensive prison disciplinary records.

          Most of these offenders were not actually paroled but, instead, released under sentencing laws which provided for release when calendar time served plus good time earned equaled length of sentence. In other cases, the offenders met all requirements for release.

          “SISP is the highest level of supervision that the state of Texas can offer, short of an offender being in prison,” said Region I Director Jay Patzke. “It’s dedicated specifically to offenders that pose the greatest risk to the public.”

          How GPS Works
          Before their release from prison, offenders to be monitored by active or passive GPS devices are fitted with an ankle bracelet that resembles an oversized wristwatch without a face. The jet-black bracelet made from hard, waterproof plastic, sends out a signal to a portable tracking device the offender either wears on his belt or carries with him. Once encoded, the tracking device itself is tracked around the clock by a satellite controlled by a company the agency contracts with for surveillance services.

          With the active system, data from a tracking device is downloaded live, giving a parole officer a real-time look at an offender’s movements. It is reserved for offenders with the highest risk factors. Tracking information from the passive system can be downloaded every six to 12 hours.

          Downloading begins once an offender arrives home ahead of curfew and places the device in a base unit. Officers then review the data the following morning on their computer screens. Green dots pinpoint the offender’s location throughout the day within a 20-foot radius and green arrows point out the direction traveled on roadways. Officers can even read the rate of speed at which an offender drove and send him a text message on his tracking device warning him to slow down if necessary.

          But should there be an unexplainable disconnect between the three main GPS components at anytime, day or night, an alert is sent to the satellite vendor, the Parole Division’s Warrants Section in Austin, and the supervising parole office. Alerts are also swiftly dispatched if an offender breaks curfew or travels to locations outside those approved in advance by his parole officer.

          Sex offenders with child safety zone requirements, for example, cannot come within 500 feet of a school or any other facility where children commonly gather.

          Also, a violent offender must steer well clear of the neighborhood in which the person he victimized lives.

          “Somebody is actually watching the offender 24 hours a day,” Patzke said about offenders monitored by passive GPS. “If he were to leave, it would send out an alert right then. We would then issue a warrant either locally or from the warrants center in Austin. Part of the beauty of the system is that everybody has access to it.”

          A Real Timesaver
          For field officers, GPS monitoring saves time. Before its introduction, they might have had to drive long distances to verify that an offender wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet was at an approved location by conducting what they call a “drive-by.” Without the offender’s knowledge, the officer would drive by designated location and fire a signal from a receiver that would display the offender’s bracelet number if, in fact, he was present.

          “With GPS, the officer can now pull up the screen and watch exactly what road he goes down and where he is going at all times,” Goodlett said. “So it eliminates the officer having to physically go out and verify the location of the offender. It improves time management.”

          GPS monitoring, in fact, has reduced the number of contacts a parole officer must have with an SISP offender each month from 15 to nine. However, officers still meet face-to-face with SISP offenders at least once a week at their offices and at the home of the offenders.

          “GPS has not replaced the offender case management contacts, but it has made things more mobile in that we can do verifications from the office,” Patzke said. “Now we know where an offender is 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

          Before, we had to do random checks. It took a lot more time. Officers were driving 60 to 70 miles just to do one check. And they were doing that weekly.”

          Expanded Service?
          Of the 77,000 offenders now on supervision in Texas, active GPS devices now monitor fewer than 30. Just a handful of offenders are actively tracked within Region I, which is made up of 62 East Texas counties containing approximately 14,000 offenders supervised from 16 different office locations. The remaining 320 SISP offenders in Region I are monitored by the passive GPS devices.

          Offenders not assigned to SISP can be placed on a regular caseload or supervised in part through electronic monitoring (EM) devices, which records only the times he leaves and arrives back home.

          District Parole Officer Edna Douglas supervises eight releasees on electronic monitoring and eight on GPS out of the Tyler office. She and fellow officer Larry Martin favor GPS over EM because of its ability to track offenders. And each believes its use might well be extended to people who commit the same crime repeatedly.

          It now costs the state $9.95 a day for each offender on active GPS supervision. Passive GPS supervision costs $4.41 a day, and electronic monitoring $2.16 a day per offender. Patzke said expanding GPS usage might strain the current number of parole officers since those with SISP caseloads now supervise far fewer offenders than their counterparts with regular caseloads.

          “It’s very intensive in terms of personnel,” Patzke said about GPS supervision. “An average caseload of a parole officer is around 75 people. The officers who supervise SISP offenders carry around 15 to 20 people.

          All agree that GPS monitoring has proven effective during its four years of use in Texas. Patzke and Region I Assistant Director Rodney Adams said the restrictions attached to GPS monitoring appear especially rehabilitative to offenders who may never before have had to adhere to a structured lifestyle.

          For the most part, GPS offenders can travel only to their jobs, to the parole office, and to treatment providers. Everything else, including trips to the grocery store, must be scheduled. Any deviation from their approved daily schedule sounds the alert.

          “It basically forces them to lead normal lives,” Patzke said. “For the vast majority of them, if they’re on it for awhile, it appears to change the structure of their lives. And it’s part of our mission to help them do that.” “I would say it’s a plus to the offender,” Adams added. “There’s a lot of things that we allow an offender to do because we can track and monitor him.

          This allows us the flexibility to where we can still be secure and protect the public.

          Patzke said SISP offenders are reviewed annually to monitor their progress on GPS. He says he regularly receives recommendations from officers within his region for offenders doing well on the system to be removed from the state’s highest level of supervision by the BPP. He said employers interested in promoting SISP offenders to higher level jobs also write to ask that their performing employees be moved to a lower level of supervision.

          “For a lot of them, this is the first time they have actually experienced success,” Patzke said about offenders who have learned to adapt to having their every move tracked electronically. “It just adds that structure and motivation for them to lead a normal lifestyle. And it works to the offender’s advantage because we can see where he’s at and what he’s doing and where he’s been. If you know your parole officer can see where you’re at and he’s not having to walk into your place of employment and check on you visually like we were doing, that makes your life a lot easier, too. It’s a plus both ways.”


          Teague v. Quarterman

          Cause 05-11368
          (5th Cir. March 21, 2007)

          On March 21, 2007, the United States Court of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit issued its decision in Teague v. Quarterman. Teague is a very important case that directly affects prisoners who are eligible for mandatory supervision release.

          I suspect that the TDCJ will ask for rehearing and try to persuade the full Court to reverse the Teague decision. However, unless and until the Court reverses itself, Teague is good law.

          CASE HISTORY

          1. Disciplinary Case and Hearing

          In December 2001, TDCJ prisoner Teague received a disciplinary case for "trafficking and trading" (Offense Code 15.0) because another prisoner (Jordan) "caused $225.00 to be deposited into Teague’s" Inmate Trust Fund Account. The TDCJ alleged that Teague had Jordan place the money into his ITF account in exchange for Teague providing Jordan legal assistance. Teague denied the allegation. The TDCJ produced no evidence to show that Teague knew that Jordan had asked someone to deposit money into Teague’s ITF account. Nevertheless, at the disciplinary hearing, Teague was found guilty and part of his sanction was the loss of 30 days of good time. After his Step 1 and Step 2 were denied, he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus (28 U.S.C. §2254) in federal court.

          2. 28 U.S.C. §2254

          Teague alleged that he was deprived of procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and raised the following claims:

          --Insufficient evidence to support the finding of guilt

          --Prison officials failed to serve him timely with notice of the alleged violation

          --Disciplinary hearing officer was not impartial

          --Disciplinary hearing officer improperly denied his request to call witnesses

          --Disciplinary hearing officer improperly denied his request to have the charging officer present at the hearing

          --Disciplinary hearing officer stopped recoding the hearing during Teague’s presentation of evidence

          --TDCJ improperly removed $225.00 from his inmate trust account

          The District Court granted relief on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support the disciplinary hearing officer’s guilty finding and denied the rest of the claims.

          The TDCJ filed a Rule 59e "Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment" on the grounds that the loss of 30 days of good time is "de minimis" and insufficient to warrant due process protection.

          The District Court agreed that the loss of 30 days of good-time credits, which represented approximately .18% of Teague’s prison sentence, was de minimis. The Court granted the TDCJ’s Motion and held that the loss of 30 days of good-time credits was insufficient to entitle Teague to due process.

          Teague then filed a Motion for Certificate of Appealability, which the District Court granted.

          3. United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

          On March 21, 2007, almost six years after the disciplinary hearing on the trafficking and trading case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued its decision in Teague.In its opinion, the Court affirmed:

          When a state prisoner has a constitutional expectancy to an early release from prison based on the accumulation of good-time credits, he has a protected liberty interest in the good-time credits and is entitled to due process before he can be deprived of the good time credits; and

          There is no right or constitutional expectancy to early release on parole in Texas because parole is within the total and unfettered discretion of the State; and

          Texas’ pre-September 1, 1996 mandatory supervision statutes creates a protected liberty interest in good-time credits. Therefore, prisoners eligible for mandatory supervision release under the pre-September 1, 1996 statute are entitled to due process before the TDCJ can take away any of their good-time credits.

          The Court also held, for the first time:

          (1) Texas’ post-September 1, 1996 mandatory supervision statute does not deprive prisoners of their constitutional expectancy of release; and

          (2) Texas’ post-September 1, 1996 mandatory supervision statute creates a constitutional expectancy of early release and a protected liberty interest in previously earned good-time credits. Therefore, prisoners eligible for mandatory supervision release under the post-September 1, 1996 statute are entitled to due process before the TDCJ can take away any of their good-time credits; and

          (3) Good time may not be taken away from a state prisoner by a TDCJ administrative tribunal without affording the prisoner due process, regardless of the absolute number of days forfeited of the percentage of the sentence (or the remaining balance thereof) represented by the number of days lost; and

          (4) TDCJ cannot discipline a prisoner for a Code 15.0 Offense (trafficking and trading) when there is no evidence that the prisoner had any knowledge of or participated in an unauthorized deposit into his Inmate Trust Fund Account.

          WHY THIS CASE IS IMPORTANT

          All prisoners with mandatory supervision dates have a protected interest in their good-time. Prior to Teague, only prisoners who were under the pre-September 1, 1996 mandatory supervision statute had a protected interest in their good-time credits.

          The TDCJ must give this class of prisoners (prisoners with mandatory supervision dates) due process before depriving them of any previously earned good-time credits, regardless of the amount of the good time and there is no exception for an amount that might otherwise be considered "de minimis."

          If a prisoner with a mandatory supervision date loses good time in a disciplinary hearing, he can challenge the disciplinary hearing via a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus.

          The TDCJ cannot use Offense Code 15.0 (trafficking & trading offense) to punish a prisoner who has no knowledge of or participation in an unauthorized deposit into his trust account.

          WHAT TO REMEMBER

          This case has no affect on prisoners who are not eligible for mandatory supervision release. The holdings in this case have no application to parole because there is no right or constitutional expectancy to early release on parole in Texas. Parole is within the total and unfettered discretion of the State.

          ALSO IMPORTANT

          This case took almost six years to work its way through the courts.

          Teague was represented by court appointed attorney Jason Douglas Hawkins of the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Northern District of Texas.

          TDCJ was represented by Steven Michael Bozarth of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Steven Bozarth is the husband of Melinda Bozarth who is the General Counsel for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

          The Fifth Circuit heard oral argument on November 9, 2006.

          WHAT PRISONERS SHOULD DO IF THIS CASE APPLIES TO THEM

          Any prisoner who was disciplined and punished for a Code 15.0 offense, and who the TDCJ did not/cannot prove had knowledge of or participated in the unauthorized deposit into his ITF account, should file a grievance about the disciplinary case and ask that the case be reversed regardless of how long ago the disciplinary case was written. He should cite Teague as support for his grievance.

          If the prisoner had money confiscated from his ITF account because of a Code 15.0 Offense (trafficking and trading), he should file grievance and request that the TDCJ refund the money. He should file both a Step 1 and Step 2 and cite the Teague case for support.


          Sunset panel urges ethics rules for parole commissioners

          Report recommends more independence from
          Texas Department of Criminal Justice

          By Mike Ward
          AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
          Thursday, January 11, 2007

          State law prohibits the seven parole board members and their spouses from having ties to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the prison system. The reason is to avoid conflicts of interest in parole decisions.

          The law, however, does not cover the state's 12 parole commissioners, who are hired by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to help make such decisions.

          In fact, at least nine parole commissioners are former prison system employees, including one who retired and was hired as a commissioner in the same year.

          In a little-publicized section of proposed changes for Texas' criminal justice system, the Sunset Advisory Commission on Wednesday took the first step to hold everyone involved to the same standard.

          "They should all be impartial. They should all have no conflict," said Senate Criminal Justice Commission Chairman John Whitmire, D- Houston, a member of the Sunset advisory panel. "This is a loophole we need to close."

          Under the recommendations:

          •Parole commissioners and their spouses would be prohibited from owning an entity founded or regulated by the prison agency or parole board.

          •Commissioners and their spouses could not be officers or paid representatives of a criminal justice trade association.

          •Commissioners could not be registered lobbyists.

          •Commissioners could not have worked for the prison agency within two years.

          The changes, argues the report, "would strengthen the parole board's independence from (the Texas Department of Criminal Justice), and help prevent the bias in release and revocation of decisions."

          One catch: The change would apply prospectively, and would not include current parole commissioners.

          Parole board Chairwoman Rissie Owens' husband, Ed, is deputy executive director of the prison system.

          Sunset panel urges ethics rules for parole commissioners


          Parole notices flood the state

          No rush to release, officials say, only a bureaucratic mix-up

          By Mike Ward
          AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
          December 07, 2006

          Judges, prosecutors and police across Texas got a shock just after Thanksgiving, when their mailboxes filled with notices that tens of thousands of convicts were coming up for parole.

          All at once, there were 29,000 letters statewide, a torrent when normally just a few thousand are mailed each week.

          "I got probably 40 or 50 in one day, where I might usually get two or three," Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said. "I thought they were doing a flood of releases."

          Not so, red-faced corrections officials explained. The cause, they said Wednesday, was a lack of envelopes.

          "This is beyond ridiculous. It never should have happened," said state parole director Bryan Collier, whose employees were responsible for the goof.

          Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville, said a chain of mistakes began when a parole division office in Austin ordered envelopes in August, just before the end of the fiscal year.

          Because money from one fiscal year cannot be spent in another, the order was cancelled.

          "Someone was supposed to put in a new order," Collier said. "They didn't."

          By mid-October, the envelopes ran out.

          And the required notices to trial-court officials of inmates' impending parole began piling up.

          "Someone should have been screaming that they needed envelopes," Collier said. "They didn't."

          Late in the week before Thanksgiving, top parole officials found out. They scoured stores in Austin and Houston, and rushed in truckloads of envelopes, he said.

          "We bought them on the spot market: wherever we could find them," Collier said.

          Parole employees were marshaled to work overtime to get the backlogged notices into the mail.

          "We estimated there were about 29,000," Collier said, noting that the agency mails as many as 400,000 of the notices to trial officials each year to allow them to protest a pending parole.

          Then, to answer recipients' calls about the paperwork flood, Collier said, an explanation was quickly sent out.

          For Bradley and others, the loaded mailboxes came two days after legislative leaders suggested that thousands of prisoners might be released early to solve an overcrowding crisis.

          "It had the appearance initially of undue political pressure on the parole board," Bradley said. "It looked like a flood of early release."

          Collier said an investigation is under way that could result in disciplinary action, even terminations. It is expected to be completed within a few days.

          The office in which the glitch occurred, he confirmed, is the same one that was criticized this year for not properly processing parole- attorney fee affidavits, after the disclosure of problems by the Austin American-Statesman.

          "There's no excuse, in my opinion, for this," Collier said Tuesday. "I've asked for an audit of that whole section, wall to wall.

          "Obviously, I was far from happy."

          Neither is Bradley.

          "We have to pull and review files and respond to the notices," he said. "Now, I have a backlog I have to work through."

          mward@statesman.com; 512-445-1712


          The Daily Texan
          www.dailytexanonline.com

          Probation may be a problem in Texas' criminal justice system

          Nolan Hicks and Ingrid Norton
          Posted: 11/14/06

          At around 10:30 a.m., Darnell Walker opened the door to the florescent waiting room of the Travis County Adult Probation Department wearing all black: mid-length shorts, a button down T- shirt and a baseball cap. He shuffled up to the payment window, filled out a form and carefully unfolded a wad of 20s from his wallet. He carried a weathered yellow folder bearing the Travis County seal and the words Adult Probation and Community Supervision.

          Walker has had the folder for the two years since he started probation and will need it for three more, when he's expected to complete his probation sentence.

          "As long as I keep my head straight, I'll get through it fine," he said, sitting in the probation office.

          Walker said he was arrested in July 2004 for cocaine possession. He'd been helping his cousin sell crack in northeast Austin for about a week when undercover cops caught them, he said.

          "It was a bad mistake," said Walker, a soft-spoken 25-year-old who said he had never been arrested before and is confident he'll get through probation fine. "They gave me another chance to be a better person and to get it off my record."

          Under Walker's five-year probation term, he can't drink or do any drugs, and he has to meet with an officer once a month, stay employed and pay $60 monthly in supervision fees. His sentence is one of the most lenient possible for possession of a controlled substance.

          According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's most recent 2003 statistics, there were 238,209 people who, like Walker, were on probation for five to 10 years for felonies. With an additional 196,303 people who have committed misdemeanors, the total number of probates in Texas was nearly 450,000 at that time.

          With state criminal justice budgets increasingly stretched and a prison population that has tripled over the past decade, the question of who should be on probation and for how long is becoming more and more pressing.

          "There are too many people for the officers to keep track," said Ana ñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a prison reform advocacy group. "Each probation officer has to look at 150 cases."

          Texas has longer probation supervision than any other state in the country. The profits Texas receives from supervision fees provide an incentive for the state to maintain long probation periods, ñez- Correa said. She said there is a reluctance to let people off their probation early, even if they have complied with supervision restrictions.

          "Probation profits from those on it," ñez-Correa said. "They don't let people off early."

          According to a study by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the state collects $1.13 for every dollar it spends on probation.

          Tony Fabelo, a prison analyst who used to head Texas' Criminal Justice Policy Council, said the whole probation system must be rearranged to give priority to supervising violent offenders, rehabilitating drug users and making sure the rest comply with probation rules. He said right now there are too many probates for officers to prioritize. For example, under the current system, offenders only fill out forms on their first visit.

          "We have a probation system that in general is badly organized," Fabelo said, sitting in the Starbucks on San Antonio and 15th streets, a few blocks from the probation office. "It's a big paperwork processing machine. They're not supervising these people."

          Fabelo noted that Texas' supervision terms of up to 10 years are the longest of any state, contributing to high caseloads. The result is that not enough attention goes to new probates. With such long supervision periods, probates also have more chances to mess up, he said.

          Probates who break the terms of probation are sent to jail. A recent Texas Public Policy Foundation study reported that 41 percent of state jail intakes were revoked from probation. Half of those were revoked for a "technical" reason, such as having a beer or missing a meeting. The study, conducted last year, reported that the average length of probation in Texas is 67 months, or about five-and-a-half years, nearly two years longer than the national average.

          As Fabelo greeted politicians and consultants coming in and out of the coffee shop for their morning lattes, he said legislators are now more willing to try things like probation reform as an effort to solve prison overcrowding. In the late '80s, the last time Texas' prisons began to overcrowd, the emphasis was on building prisons, he said.

          "Building prisons is very appealing, because it's quick," he said. "When you do it enough, you get the feeling that there's more to it than that, and we have legislators who've been here for 10 or 15 years who know that."

          Back to where we were in the '80s

          "We were full back then, and we're full today," said Rodney Cooper, deputy director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees prisons.

          When Cooper started as a correctional officer in 1978, there were 16 prison units scattered throughout East Texas. Today, there are 105, stretching from Jasper to El Paso, according to the department. With nearly 150,000 inmates today, six times Texas' prison population of 25,000 in 1978, Texas' prison system is second in size only to the federal government's.

          "Back then, there were 15 or so staff members to a shift," Cooper said. "Today, you might have 50."

          Part of the prison system's expansion resulted from the 1980 case Ruiz v. Estelle. The court ruled that certain enforcement practices and inmate overcrowding in Texas' prison system violated inmates' civil rights. One measure ruled against was the "building tender" system, in which inmates would be appointed by the wardens to help keep the peace.

          When Cooper came on in the late '70s, it wasn't unusual for three inmates to share a two-person cell, because there weren't strict capacity limits. After the case, room capacity limits were put in place, and prisons struggled to find room for all the inmates and to hire new staff to accommodate the law's requirements. At the same time, Texas' population kept rising. The federal "war on drugs" initiative also contributed to the influx of prisoners.

          During this transitory period in the mid-'80s, Cooper remembers at one point having 20-inmate tents set up around the parameter fence at Huntsville to make up for bed shortages.

          "You literally ran out of room," said Keith Price, who started as a correctional officer 30 years ago and retired as warden in 2003.

          Price, who is currently an assistant criminal justice professor at West Texas A&M in Canyon, remembers a time in the late '80s when one inmate getting discharged from the prison hospital would cause frantic phone calls to find an extra bed.

          "You get to the point where a handful of people will put things into a crisis," he said. "We weren't quite at that point when I left [in 2003], but we were getting there. I'm sure it's happening all the time today."

          Price said the system stabilized after the prison building boom in the early '90s, but that continued convictions have caused the population to keep climbing.

          "Right now, we're back to where we were in the '80s," he said. '"The problem was that we kept sending people to prison, and that's where we are today."

          "You can't lock everybody up," said James Marquart, a criminology professor and director of the crime and justice studies program at UT-Dallas. At this point, it costs about $40 a day to keep someone incarcerated. With 169,110 inmates, according to the 2004 statistics, this amounts to $6.7 million per day and $2.4 billion annually. For this reason, the system needs to prioritize who is put in jail, he said.

          "We need to cream off the less risky people and find something to do with them, Marquart said.

          Marquart said one of the ways to do that is to put less risky people on probation instead of in prison.

          Reform efforts during the 79th Legislature aimed to do that, including House Bill 2193, vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry in June 2005.

          The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, and state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, previous chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, meant to head off prison overcrowding.

          Provisions of the bill included decreasing the maximum period of probation from 10 years to five and provided incentives to encourage the early release of well-behaved probates, Madden said. It would also provide probation instead of jail time for non-violent third- degree felonies, often drug offenses.

          Geraldine Nagy, director of adult probation for Travis County, has elected to adopt many of the changes in the bill. Nagy said long supervision terms are not effective because most people who re- offend do so within the first two or three years of being put on probation. Under her tenure, the Travis County probation office has launched a program to profile the probation population to determine which group needs the county's limited resources the most, she said.

          Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley disagrees with probation reform. He said weakening third-degree felony statutes will put criminals back on the streets. He said the state has sufficient resources to supervise probates for 10 years, and it should continue to do so and build more prisons.

          "That state continues to grow," Bradley said. "As it does, criminals move here, and we need a place to put them."

          Madden still believes he can find a better solution after consulting with objecting district attorneys and the governor's office. He is confident a compromise can be reached this legislative session, when he plans to reintroduce his bill.

          © Copyright 2006 The Daily Texan


          Justice system under fire

          Prisons packed because of board's reluctance to parole, lack of treatment programs, panel says.

          By Mike Ward
          AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
          November 15, 2006

          Thousands of prison convicts eligible for parole are filling crowded prisons because the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has not followed its own parole guidelines and because alcohol- and drug- treatment programs are not available, members of a state panel charged Tuesday.

          "If you'd just followed your own guidelines, we wouldn't have a (prison) capacity problem right now," state Sen. John Whitmire, D- Houston, told parole officials during a daylong hearing by the Sunset Advisory Commission that was punctuated by intense criticism of Texas' justice system.

          Texas' 153,000 prison beds are full, and the state is leasing about 1,500 additional beds from county jails.

          The sunset commission, which periodically reviews state agencies and recommends changes, has in hand a staff report that concludes the state's seven parole board members and 12 parole commissioners do not follow their own guidelines in deciding who is freed and who is not, especially when it comes to low-risk convicts.

          In addition, parole approval rates vary widely in each of the six offices across the state on the same types of cases. Several commission members said that means that one burglar might be paroled when another may not, even if the cases are similar.

          "Justice means truly equal," commission member Howard Wolf of Houston said. "We do not have a just system."

          Parole board Chairwoman Rissie Owens of Huntsville defended the varied approval rates and said the guidelines were never meant to be a mandate on which cases were to be approved. That should be left to the discretion of board members, she said.

          Responded Whitmire, the longtime chairman of the Senate committee that oversees prison and parole programs: "But the guidelines were established so we wouldn't have the disparities we're seeing now. If you're in Angleton, you get one kind of treatment. If you're in Amarillo, you get another."

          The public hearing was to have focused on a Sunset staff report that, in a departure from past practice, recommends that the Legislature spend tens of millions of dollars more for rehabilitation programs and bolster early-release and prison- diversion programs, instead of building several expensive prisons.

          But the details of how the current system is failing to rehabilitate offenders in increasing numbers, or even to follow its own mandates, quickly sparked an intense debate, which could be a precursor of what the Legislature will face when it convenes in January.

          If the state builds new prisons, the price tag will probably be more than $100 million in what officials agree is only a temporary solution. Once those beds fill up, even more prisons will be needed. And the state will need more correctional officers too, even though it is more than 2,200 short already because of low pay and unfavorable working conditions.

          If lawmakers chose to beef up rehab and treatment programs, the price promises to be almost as high. But members of the commission insisted that the choice is a no-brainer.

          "We need to start putting our money into bricks and mortar and start putting it into programs that reduce recidivism in this state," said state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, a member of the commission. "You pay now, or you pay later."

          But, cautioned Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham: "It's unrealistic to say there will be a day when we don't have to build prisons."

          The growing population of Texas means more prison beds will be needed to house the dangerous, violent offenders who should be off the street, she said.

          "But if we were to get the people out of those beds who really don't need to be there, who are backlogged there because we don't have enough treatment programs, who are bedridden or terminal, we would have enough beds to take care of that growth — right now," Whitmire suggested.

          "Nine hundred people who have been approved for parole are still in prison, because we don't have the treatment beds for them," he said. "It's a horrible waste of money."

          Commission members quizzed Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, who said that the agency supports significantly more funding for rehabilitation and treatment programs — for the first time in more than decade. Prison officials have requested such in their budget request, he noted.

          The commission's report also recommends that a special legislative committee be created to gather and track data on criminal justice trends, replacing a similar agency that was abolished in 2003.

          Without that information, there is no effective way to plan for the future, according to the report.

          At several points during the debate, members questioned whether the parole program should be separated from the prisons agency.

          Commission Chairman Kim Brimer, a state senator from Fort Worth, questioned at one point whether the panel should consider drafting legislation to totally overhaul the corrections system, but no vote was taken.

          mward@statesman.com; 445-1712

          Average parole approval rates by region, 2005

          Parole panel Average approval rate Average approval

          for high-risk inmate for low-risk inmate

          Amarillo 8% 43%
          Angleton 4.5% 54%
          Gatesville 4.5% 38%
          Huntsville 3% 46%
          Palestine 0.5% 58%
          San Antonio 15% 53%

          Source: Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, 2005 annual report

          Find this article at:
          Justice system under fire


          Nov. 14, 2006

          Parole board blamed for prison crowding

          Associated Press

          AUSTIN — Texas prisons are overcrowded with thousands of unnecessary inmates because the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles hasn't followed its own parole guidelines for releasing prisoners, a state panel said Tuesday.

          Members of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies and recommends changes, told the parole board in a hearing in Austin that a lack of alcohol and drug treatment programs was another contributing factor to the overcrowding problem.

          Texas has 153,000 prison beds but has had to lease another 1,500 prison beds from county jails to accommodate the number of inmates, the Austin American-Statesman reported in its online editions Tuesday.

          "If you'd just followed your own guidelines, we wouldn't have a (prison) capacity problem right now," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

          Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the agency is asking for money to pay for more rehabilitation and treatment programs.

          Sunset commission members also said the parole approval rates vary greatly across the state, meaning similar cases will get different treatment depending on where they occur.

          "Justice means truly equal," commission member Howard Wolf said. "We do not have a just system."

          Rissie Owens, chairman of the parole board, defended the approval rates. She said the guidelines should be left to the discretion of board members and aren't a mandate.

          "We need to start putting our money into bricks and mortar," said state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio. "You pay now or you pay later."

          Parole Board is to Blame


          HoustonChronicle.com
          June 25, 2006, 12:18PM
          MENTAL HEALTH COURT

          Program focuses on probationers' mental health

          'Smarter' justice also aims to ease jail crowding
          By DALE LEZON
          Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

          One afternoon earlier this month, state District Judge Marc Carter bounded down from his courtroom bench, grabbed several defendants in bearhugs and congratulated them for completing three months of probation. Then he handed them diplomas.

          "I'm proud of every one of you," Carter said as probationers and their family members applauded and joked.

          It was an uncommon sight in a Harris County felony courtroom, where judges, draped in black robes, rarely speak to defendants and normally step down from the bench only during recesses.

          But Carter's friendliness is routine in the county's fledgling mental health court, an intensive supervision program that was started in March to help people with mental health problems complete their probation and continue treatment.

          Officials also hope the new program eventually will help ease crowding in the county jail and state prisons, where probation violators often end up.

          "It's win-win for everybody," said Kathleen Williams, manager of special programs for the county's Community Supervision and Corrections Department.

          Carter volunteered to help preside in mental health court at the request of state District Judge Mark Kent Ellis, who helped develop the program and splits the caseload with Carter. Thus far, 32 people have been enrolled in the yearlong program.

          Ellis, who worked with county probation and mental health officials for more than a year to develop the program, said prisons and jails offer mental health treatment, but more effective care is available from county social services.

          In Harris County, he said, about 40 percent of the people on probation get it revoked for violating requirements of their release. The revocation rate is only about 20 percent among mental health probation cases.

          That figure jumped to about 30 percent in 2004, however, at least partly because of shortages in staff and funding, Ellis said. The increase prompted county officials to look for a remedy, and the more personal, intensive approach of mental health court resulted.

          Ellis said he expects the new program to reduce revocation rates.

          "This is about having judges get more personally involved in probationers' lives to help prevent them from going to prison," he said.

          Personal contact
          People assigned to the court have violated the rules of their probation because of mental illness, Carter said. Sending them to jail does little to protect the community, he said, if they are released without correcting their problems.

          Emphasizing the importance of personal contact in working with the probationers, Carter said that stepping down from the bench and listening to their concerns shows that he cares about them. Such interaction motivates them to stay out of trouble and complete probation, he said.

          He added, however, that he won't hesitate to deliver a tongue- lashing, and even jail them, if they refuse to comply with the program's requirements.

          "It's not softer criminal justice," Carter said. "It's smarter."

          The program can accommodate up to 100 people at a time, Williams said. Participants must be part of the department's mental health caseload as well as be enrolled in the New Start program at the county Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority. They also must have a history of difficulty complying with probation requirements.

          And they must be diagnosed with schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder or impaired functioning because of mental conditions, and they must have at least two years' probation remaining.

          Sex offenders and people convicted of crimes involving a death are not eligible.

          Williams said four probation officers provide intensive, personalized support for the court's participants.

          They meet individually with them and their mental health workers as often as weekly, and make sure they appear in court when needed. If the probationers fail to show up, the probation officers find them, she said.

          Follow-up care
          After they complete the program, they have a year of follow-up care to make sure they continue their treatment. The program is funded by a portion of a $1.3 million state grant to improve probation services.

          Williams said mental health court is part of a county probation program dubbed Change Through Intervention, an effort by judges and probation officials to have more personal contact with those having trouble following probation rules.

          Judges meet with probationers and their case managers regularly as a way of heading off problems that could lead to violations, and jail.

          The county's drug court, another effort at compassionate intervention, offers probation violators a chance to avoid jail by completing substance-abuse treatment in special lockdown facilities.

          "When (judges) stay up on the bench, it's like they don't care, like they don't have a concern about what's going to happen to you or not," said Brian Burk, 32, who is on probation for a drug conviction and in treatment for what he described as anger management.

          "When (Judge Carter) comes down from the bench, he shows us more respect that he thinks we are more than just criminals. It makes me feel better."

          dale.lezon@chron.com
          HoustonChronicle.com -- This article is:
          http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ metropolitan/3997728.html


          June 16, 2006, 12:42AM
          Legislator says more paroles may be coming

          By CLAY ROBISON
          Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

          AUSTIN - With a new report forecasting continued prison crowding, a key legislative chairman said Thursday that the state may need to consider a small increase in the parole rate.

          Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said a limited number of additional paroles could be approved without endangering public safety. The goal is to help the state avoid the multimillion- dollar expense of building and staffing new prisons.

          "I don't think we'll be turning out any more dangerous people than we are now," he said, adding that he was "very happy" with how the parole program is conducted.

          Madden said he also wants to continue strengthening local probation departments to reduce the number of people sent to prison. More than 150,000 inmates are in state prisons now.

          If the state doesn't build new prisons or take other steps to expand capacity, such as leasing additional space in county jails, the prison population will exceed operating capacity by 9,600 beds in fiscal 2010, the Legislative Budget Board projected in a report released this month.

          Although the shortfall is less than predicted last year, Madden said the Legislature must act quickly to either curb the growth in prisoners or start building.

          Just one new maximum security prison with a 2,250-inmate capacity would cost about $250 million to build and additional millions to staff and operate, he said.

          Madden said the parole rate is now about 27 percent of inmates who are eligible, down from 30 percent in 2003 and 2004. The Legislative Budget Board has estimated that an increase of 2 percent from the current level would eliminate the need for any new prisons by 2010, he said.

          Even with that increase, parole rates would still be much lower than they were in the late 1980s, when Texas had a severe shortage of prison space and the prison system was under the control of a federal court order that limited the inmate population.

          At that time, hundreds of convicts were released each week, including murderers and other violent offenders, some of whom soon committed new crimes. The parole rate peaked at about 80 percent in 1990, before then-Gov. Ann Richards ordered the Board of Pardons and Paroles to clamp down on early releases in 1991.

          The Legislature also overhauled criminal justice laws and spent $3 billion in voter-approved bonds to build new prisons.

          Andy Kahan, the Mayor Bill White's crime victims advocate, isn't eager to see more paroles.

          "That's the parole board's discretion," he said. "They played a great role in the reduction of crime in Texas by not releasing people convicted of crimes early, and we're hopeful that trend will continue."

          Madden said he doesn't envision a return to the 1980s' conditions.

          He said progress against further prison crowding already is being made through probation improvements.

          "The good news is that probation departments are decreasing the revocation rates and increasing early discharges. That means we are slowing the spillover of probationers being sent to prison," he said.

          Madden said the Legislature last year approved about $54 million to help improve probation services, including increased treatment and aftercare for alcohol and drug abusers.

          The crime rate declined from a peak in 1988 and has remained steady at a lower level since 2000, the Legislative Budget Board reported.

          Earlier this week, however, the FBI reported increases in violent crime in 2005, including a 2.4 percent increase in Houston.

          clay.robison@ chron.com


          AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN
          EDITORIAL

          Checking in on parole lawyers is a good step
          EDITORIAL BOARD

          Monday, June 12, 2006

          Bryan Collier, the state's parole director, did right this week by announcing that his agency will start enforcing the law not against parolees, but for attorneys who represent prisoners seeking parole. As the law has long required, those attorneys will now be required to file reports that disclose who they represent before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and how much they charge.

          Such reports are supposed to provide a check on lawyers who represent prisoners trying to make parole. Parole board members operate in a highly secretive process that makes it easy for an unscrupulous lawyer to charge a prisoner's family an enormous sum based on promises that he has backdoor access to that process.

          In fact, because the state has not enforced the law, some prisoners might have been ripped off by people who were not even lawyers. In April, a former convict from Dallas was returned to prison after he was accused of cheating inmates and their families seeking help for parole. And state officials are investigating two firms suspected of cheating clients.

          The disclosure law was enacted in 1947 after a scandal, and there have been scandals since involving paroles promised through supposed "connections" with parole board members and employees.

          Parole officials previously said they had no power to enforce the law. But reporting on this sorry situation by the American- Statesman's Mike Ward forced a re-examination of that "we can do nothing" attitude.

          And while we're on the subject of prisoners let's bring back the Criminal Justice Policy Council, or something like it. It was abolished in 2003 in a short-sighted money-saving move by Gov. Rick Perry. The council provided state officials and the public with in- depth studies and projections of the prison population.

          Such a group might not seem particularly necessary, but key legislators who have had to live without it want it back. State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said the state needs "a study group that will help us better project future growth."

          Such projections are needed so the state can decide how to spend the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars it might need to build new prisons and hire more guards. The state's 110 prisons are full, with 152,000 inmates.

          While the prisons are not yet overcrowded, they've been chronically understaffed. And as Ward revealed previously, 761 Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees were arrested on various charges last year, and the number this year is on pace to be even worse. There are other signs of a growing crisis: A prisoner was killed and three others injured just this month in a gang feud.

          Texas spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s contending with a lawsuit challenging the its overcrowded prisons and many of its policies, such as using prisoners for guards. It took a huge, costly expansion of the prison system to resolve it.

          Madden wrote the governor that the state needs a well-staffed unit a separate agency, a contract with a private entity or perhaps a university to gather and analyze criminal justice trends. The governor is non-committal, but Madden and Sen. John Whitmire, D- Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, are right in calling for such a unit.

          One way the state once relieved prison overcrowding was to start letting too many prisoners out too early on parole. The result was more crime victims. Let's not go there again.


          Probation situation bad & getting worse

          05-28-2006
          The Herald Staff,
          From the Plainview Daily Herald

          By RICHARD ORR
          Herald Correspondent

          “It ain’t pretty.“

          That’s Adult Probation Director Bill Coleman’s assessment of funding cuts that are gutting probation departments across the state, forcing many of them to drop programs and trim personnel in what he believes is a penny-wise, pound-foolish fashion.

          Funding for basic supervision in Coleman’s three- county jurisdiction — Hale, Swisher and Castro — fell from $341,478 in 2004 to $290,452 last year. State funding is geared to the number of people on probation, and it went up slightly in 2003 due to a higher number of felony and misdemeanor probationers that year.

          “We’re getting about the same money from the state today as we got in 1989,” said Coleman.

          As a result, he’s had to drop the day-reporting center, where hardcore probationers had to report on a daily basis. He’s also dropped parenting classes. And come June 30, he’ll shuck the GED and English as a Second Language programs, which had been dropped earlier in Swisher and Castro counties.

          He also cut two part-time crew supervisors in the community service project and didn’t fill two full-time positions that came open.

          In 2001, he dropped one fulltime officer in Hale County and has implemented several other, smaller cuts along the way.

          His department now operates with nine officers — down from 12 in the past four years — six clerical staff, Coleman and one full-time community service supervisor to handle a misdemeanor and felony caseload that totaled 1,900 at the close of 2005.

          The 122 probation departments across Texas currently receive a total of $98 million a year from the state for basic supervision purposes, compared to Lubbock ISD’s annual budget of $103 million to operate one school district.

          In an effort to make up for the loss of state money, courts have been allowed to assess higher and higher fees on probationers to the point where some defendants who are eligible for probation can’t afford it.

          In the case of misdemeanor probation, the state only covers six months when the average stay is 21 months. So after six months, the only income the department sees is from probation fees.

          “We charge $40 and are allowed $60, which may have to soon start charging — as much as I’d hate to. Some defendants choose to serve out their time in jail, which costs $38 a day, or prison at $44 a day,” said Coleman, adding that by way of comparison, it costs $2.13 a day to keep someone on probation — with $1.16 of that coming from probationers themselves in the form of fees. “In too many cases,“ he added, “those who go to prison leave behind a family that winds up on welfare. Society loses the tax money the defendant had been paying when working and, worst of all, their children are more likely to wind up getting in trouble with the law.

          “At a minimum, probationers pay $80 to $100 a month in fines, fees, court costs and restitution. For some, it amounts to several hundreds of dollars a month.“

          According to the May issue of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, from 1988 to 2004 the prison population in Texas has climbed 278 percent to a current total of about 150,000 inmates.

          At the present rate of incarceration, it’s been estimated that 14,000 new prison beds will have to be built by 2010 — with construction costs placed at $1.24 billion and operating costs pegged at $224 million annually for the extra beds alone.

          It’s been estimated that half the people in prison today are there as a result of willing transactions between consenting adults.

          “It’s the violent, hardcore murderers, rapists and child molesters that belong in prison,” said Coleman. “If the state would put more money into probation, it would be less likely to need more prisons. We save the state $43 a day. And all we have to do to be successful is not make the person any worse than when they came through the door.

          “Prison is certainly going to make them worse. The longer you stay in prison, the more likely you are to come out violent and more apt to commit more crimes. It’s supported by dozens of studies.”

          “It ain’t pretty.“


          Austin American Statesman

          Texas' closed parole system is open to trouble EDITORIAL BOARD
          Tuesday, May 23, 2006

          After some prodding by this newspaper, the parole division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will reconsider whether it has the power to enforce a law that requires lawyers for state prisoners applying for parole to disclose information on their work.

          For some time, the division's stance has been that it does not have that power, which made it easier for scam artists to exploit prisoners and their families. Recent articles by American-Statesman reporter Mike Ward have exposed such problems in the parole system.

          Although the review might bring about a bit more disclosure, the Legislature ought to consider opening the entire process of applying for parole to much more public scrutiny. Some limited secrecy might be justified — to protect crime victims who object to a parole application, for example — but keeping the process entirely confidential is an invitation to trouble.

          Currently, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles considers all applications for parole from state prisoners behind closed doors. A prisoner's prison record, recommendations and comments from judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials and any pleas or recommendations from the prisoner's family and friends are kept confidential. And the three-member panels that consider the applications — about 70,000 a year — also meet behind closed doors.

          There's supposed to be an exception to the secrecy: Lawyers hired by a prisoner or his family to help win parole are supposed to file periodic reports ("fee affidavits") that disclose the name of the client and the fee paid. They are also supposed to file an annual summary.

          But as Ward showed in Sunday's article, the law is not being enforced. Too many lawyers are filing incomplete reports or no reports at all. When asked why, the parole division said it didn't have any legal power to enforce the law. But now Bryan Collier, parole division director, is taking another look.

          The fee affidavits and annual summaries are supposed to give the state a handle on overseeing a lucrative business, one vulnerable to fraud and influence peddling. The secrecy of the parole process helps those who claim they — for a fee — have some access to those behind the closed doors, and families desperate to get a loved one out of prison are sometimes ripe for being ripped off.

          As Ward recounted, Texas has a history of pardon and parole scandals going back at least to the 1930s. But the problem isn't just historical. Officials now are investigating Andy Bob Coats, a convicted Dallas con man accused of taking thousands of dollars from prisoners to help them win parole. Yet Coats was on parole himself; it was revoked this month.

          Parole is a privilege, not a right, granted to people who stand convicted of a crime, some extremely serious. Decisions on whether to return them to society are clearly of public interest, and those decisions should be based on the public interest, not whether the prisoner hired the right lawyer with the right connections.

          The Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Board of Pardons and Paroles are up for review this year by the state's Sunset Advisory Commission, giving lawmakers a great opportunity to examine this secrecy in detail.

          Lawmakers could build public confidence in the parole process by taking most of the secrecy out of it. Meanwhile, the parole division could start by enforcing what little disclosure law there is.

          Texas' closed parole system


          KLTV 7 Tyler-Longview-Jacksonville, TX:
          www.kltv.com

          Poor disclosure rates plague parole system, newspaper finds

          AUSTIN A newspaper investigation reveals that the state's secretive parole system has poorly enforced a disclosure law that's designed to prevent inmates from being scammed with promises of early release.

          The Austin American-Statesman reports that dozens of parole attorneys have ignored a mandate that requires them to submit forms listing their clients and fees.

          The forms are virtually the public's only way to see which attorneys legally perform consulting work.

          The secrecy that shrouds the parole process in Texas drives many inmates and families to hire attorneys who claim to know their way around the system.

          Parole officials have praised the disclosure law as the best way for families to avoid being ripped off by illegal consultants. At least three-point-six (M) million dollars in fees were collected by parole attorneys last year.

          The state's top parole official said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will review its previous stance that the agency was powerless to enforce the mandate.

          Copyright 2006 Associated Press.
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          Parole system shrouds frauds

          Poor enforcement of disclosure law hides 'consultants' who rip off inmates, families.

          By Mike Ward
          AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

          Sunday, May 21, 2006

          The enigmatic process that determines which Texas prison inmates should be set free on parole has long been prone to eruptions of scandal and corruption.

          Shrouded in secrecy and buffeted by politics, the system is largely ignored by the public until it boils over and brings down a governor or spawns criminal charges.

          The volcano appears to be rumbling again.

          A Dallas ex-con has been sent back to prison amid allegations that he bilked inmates and their families with false promises to help prisoners win parole. In recent weeks, state investigators have expanded their probe to include two other firms suspected of using the secretive nature of the parole process to cheat clients.

          As the investigations blossom, an Austin American-Statesman analysis shows that state parole officials appear to have little control over the network of attorneys - and hucksters - who ply the secret byways of the parole process trying to affect which murderers, rapists, drug dealers or embezzlers get out of jail early.

          State supervision of this little-known multimillion-dollar industry rests largely on a single requirement - that attorneys hired to help inmates gain parole file regular reports showing whom they are being paid to represent.

          What might seem like an insignificant exercise in paper-shuffling is actually much more: It is the only way for parole officials to track what has become a lucrative business rife with opportunities for fraud and influence peddling. It is the only way inmates and their families might know who is legally doing consulting work and to presumably protect themselves from getting ripped off. And it is one small check that might afford the public some assurance that the system is not improperly paroling dangerous convicts.

          Failing to disclose the basic information required is a misdemeanor.

          At least, it's supposed to be.

          An American-Statesman review of all disclosure filings in the past year shows that dozens of attorneys ignore the mandate, including many being paid by the state to represent convicts in some hearings.

          Some offer written excuses for their failure to comply: They lost their files, their clients won't let them say or they didn't have time to tally up the information.

          One lawyer's excuse: He's old and can't remember.

          Officials in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's parole division who oversee the program initially insisted they have no power to enforce the law. But after learning of the Statesman's findings, state Parole Division Director Bryan Collier said he has ordered that stance reviewed.

          "Our position is and has been that we didn't have the authority or the capability to enforce this statute, and we are now reviewing that to see if that is, in fact, a correct position," he said. "If we're supposed to be doing it, we should be doing it right."

          Longtime parole consultants agree.

          "It's a mess," said William Habern, a veteran Huntsville parole attorney who has been complying with the law for 30 years. "If they enforced this law, there is no telling how many people they might find, how many lawyers are doing parole work and not registering, how many who aren't lawyers are doing parole work illegally and how many are charging exorbitant fees for little or nothing.

          "It's just another example of how the parole system in Texas is sick beyond the telling of it, from top to bottom," he added.

          The Board of Pardons and Paroles - its seven members appointed by the governor - and 12 parole commissioners hired by the board considered more than 70,000 of the state's 148,000 inmates for parole in fiscal year 2005 and granted parole to 19,582 - just under 28 percent. Under state law, every scrap of paper filed and every record of parole deliberations save for the final vote is secret, so there is no way to know how decisions are made.

          Given the enormous flow of cases, board members may spend less than a minute considering each one when they deliberate individually, in offices around the state. So many inmates, or their families, hire consultants, who claim a higher success rate for their clients than inmates navigating the process by themselves. The consultants file briefs or argue before the board.

          The disclosure law is the public's only window into an otherwise opaque system.

          On the books for decades, the disclosure requirement was touted just last month by state officials as an important way Texans could avoid rip-offs, as authorities investigated Andy Bob Coats, a convicted Dallas con man accused of scamming hundreds of prison inmates and their families out of perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars - all while he was on parole himself.

          That was much the same reason that legislators, alarmed by the close relationship between the board and "professional clemency seekers," enacted the disclosure law almost 60 years ago. In response to continuing questions about the system's integrity, lawmakers tweaked the statute in 1989 and 1993.

          Parole consulting is a tight-knit business where it is not unusual for officials to switch sides, from making decisions to trying to influence them. For that reason, lawmakers have consistently thought it a good idea for the public to know who was on which side - and how much they were charging.

          "I look at people who are getting a lot of business to see if there's anything our agency is doing that they're getting rich off of, that we need to change," Collier said.

          At issue are the so-called "fee affidavits" and annual disclosure reports filed with parole officials. Under state law, an attorney representing an inmate on a parole matter must file a one-page affidavit disclosing the client and fee paid. By Jan. 31 each year, the attorneys must also file a summary of the previous year's clients, how much they were paid and whether they are a former prison or parole board member or employee, or have associations or relationships with any.

          Records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act show that even attorneys who are filing are not complying with the law.

          In all, 535 attorneys filed disclosure forms with the parole agency for last year, showing they collected at least $3.6 million in fees ranging from less than $100 a case to more than $15,000. That bought representation in about 3,700 parole cases.

          More than 80 of the 535 attorneys who filed the disclosure reports did not list either clients or compensation as required by the law. At least 15 of those were under contract with the parole board, according to the state filings.

          Many left the forms blank. Others insisted they could not recall who their clients were or said the parole board had the names already.

          "I have no idea," one Fort Worth attorney wrote on his 2006 disclosure form.

          On his form for 2005, Grand Prairie attorney Paul Leech said he represented "one person in Tarrant County whose name I cannot remember. At 73 my recollection is poor."

          Leech said he answered that way because the parolee's case went on so long that he was unsure which year it came before the board, and, after searching his files for details without success, he had to make the filing deadline.

          "Families shop around for someone who can promise, 'We can handle this. We have a great success rate,' " he said. "Most have been on the parole board or say they have some influence with them."

          Dozens more did not list their compensation. Some answered nly "yes" or listed their billable rate instead of the specific fee, as required. One answered "reasonable attorney's fee." Another: "Info unavailable." Others cited attorney-client confidentiality. Another said she could not provide details "since I have direct deposit and am not informed as to the amount of compensation I receive for each parolee."

          Many who did not list their compensation are paid by taxpayers to represent inmates at parole revocation hearings, records show. Some who filed the required disclosure reports gave no client names or compensation. "See your records," one advised, echoing the sentiments of several others.

          In 2005, officials said, the parole board paid 234 attorneys more than $733,600 in fees to do that work. Collier and other parole officials said all should have submitted both fee affidavits and annual reports, just like privately retained attorneys. "Before a (parole revocation) hearing starts, the hearing officer makes sure they have a fee affidavit on file," Collier said. "It's up to them to file an annual report."

          And even though state officials say the agency is supposed to ensure attorneys' affidavits and annual reports are properly filled out, they acknowledge that has not happened in many cases.

          Along with attorneys' mistakes and omissions, the agency's paperwork miscues added to the problems. The annual disclosure forms for 2005 noted that they"must be filed with the Parole Division no later than January 31, 2002." The 2006 forms asked attorneys to list "all offenders whom you have represented since January 1, 2001."

          Several attorneys corrected the dates on the forms they filed. Others tried to explain.

          "I assume this is an old form," wrote Austin attorney Dan Green. "If you need info from 2001, please let me know."

          Collier and other officials concede the system may not be working as it should.

          Gatesville attorney Allen Place Jr., among those who meticulously follow the disclosure law, is a former state representative who wrote changes designed to beef up the law in 1993.

          "The purpose of the registration is to know who is doing this work, and, in light of recent events, that need is certainly still there," he said. "But perhaps the fee listing is no longer applicable. What does it really show... unless you know how much work went into each case, that all cases are different?"

          Gary Cohen, a longtime Austin parole attorney, agrees. Cohen, who discloses fees on affidavits and last year provided no fee detail on his annual report, says the fee disclosure rule is "outdated and redundant" and does little to enlighten the public.

          "If the original intent of this law was to keep paroles from being sold ... it serves no useful purpose now," said Cohen, echoing sentiments of other lawyers. "No place in state law are attorneys required to disclose specific fees like this, and even if you know what someone charges, you still can't make any judgment about whether qualified or reasonable services were provided.... In light of recent events, that should be the goal."

          Violations by former parole board members and parole employees are a Class A misdemeanor, with a maximum punishment of a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Violations by attorneys are a Class C misdemeanor, which has a maximum $500 fine.

          The Texas Department of Criminal Justice "does not have the authority to enforce compliance," parole officials wrote in an e- mail response to Statesman queries. Responsibility for "submission of an annual representation summary rests with the person who is required to register."

          After further consideration, however, Collier said he is not so sure of that and has referred the issue to agency attorneys "to see exactly what authority we have."

          mward@statesman.com; 445-1712


          Pilot Program Helps Prepare Inmates for Return to Free World
          www.prweb.com

          Pilot Program Helps Prepare Inmates for Return to Free World Long-term prison inmates coming up for parole are often ill-equipped to return to the free world. A pilot program at a prison in Texas is helping these inmates transition to a life outside of prison walls.

          Lovelady, TX (PRWEB) April 21, 2006 -- Maria (not her real name) had not seen her son for 12 years. But the 80-year-old mother was determined to get to East Texas where her son is an inmate at the Eastham Maximum Security Prison. The only problem was how to get there from her home in California. With no other family or friends to help, she did the only thing she could do. She set out by car-alone-to arrive in time to be with her son for a unique Easter celebration.

          Called the Resurrection Family Celebration, 39 Eastham inmates-each serving sentences of at least 30 years for serious crimes-and 60 of their friends and family members came together in the prison gym on the Saturday before Easter to share a meal, laugh, cry and reconnect. The celebration was part of a new pilot program that helps offenders who are one year from being eligible for parole prepare for their eventual return to the free world. Dr. Paul Carlin conducts the program, known as Criminal Recovery and Relapse Prevention (CRRP).

          Dr. Carlin developed the program as a way to give serious offenders the tools and support they need to thrive outside the prison environment. The program is based on Belief Therapy, a model Dr. Carlin developed that takes it's name from the premise that people's beliefs directly impact their actions. Dr. Carlin was recently honored with an award from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and a Texas House Resolution for his prison ministry work.

          "We know that to make it on the outside, these men need the help and support of family, friends and the community they'll be returning to," said Dr. Carlin

          Dr. Carlin is also developing a separate program to help parolees better adjust to their new lives. Called Reentry Crisis Counseling, it is a modality aimed at intervening in situations that may result in the parolee being returned to prison.

          ###

          Disclaimer: If you have any questions regarding information in these press releases please contact the company listed in the press release. Please do not contact PRWeb®. We will be unable to assist you with your inquiry. PRWeb® disclaims any content contained in these releases. Our complete disclaimer appears here.

          © Copyright 1997-2006, PRWeb®. PRWeb is a registered trademark of PRWeb International, Inc.


          Posted on Mar. 22, 2006

          Officials, advocacy groups call for probation reform

          By JOHN MORITZ
          STAR-TELEGRAM AUSTIN BUREAU

          AUSTIN — Even though Gov. Rick Perry vetoed legislation last year designed to ease restrictions on nonviolent offenders who are placed on probation, lawmakers should try again to pass similar legislation to reduce prison crowding and help rehabilitate low-level lawbreakers, a legislative panel was told Wednesday.

          The House Corrections Committee heard testimony from probation officials and advocacy groups who said that closer monitoring of probationers and treatment programs for people with substance-abuse problems have gone a long way to keep nonviolent offenders from straying.

          “Texas cannot sustain a broken probation system and the escalating cost of prison overcrowding,” said Ana Yanez Correa, who heads the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a watchdog group that monitors trends in prison, parole and probation policies.

          Correa was an enthusiastic supporter of a probation-overhaul measure that easily passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Perry after several prosecutors raised objections.

          The bill would have reduced probation for some felonies from 10 years to five, boosted funding for drug courts and community-service programs, and given judges greater oversight over probationers. Supporters said the bill would lighten the workload of probation officers and lead to fewer probation revocations because of rule violations such as failing to pay fees.

          In his veto message, Perry pointed out that the state budget lawmakers approved for the 2006-07 cycle contained money for several regions of the state to hire more probation officers and develop innovative programs to prevent offenders from having their probation revoked.

          Tom Plumlee, who heads the Tarrant County adult probation offices and a statewide probation advisory panel, said the extra money has helped cut officers’ caseloads. But more must be done to change what he called the “culture of probation” that in some cases encourages officers to recommend revocation for minor transgressions.

          “If somebody misses a [meeting with a probation officer], he goes to jail,” Plumlee said. But if an officer can find out why the probationer failed to report and can correct the behavior, the probationer will have a better chance of succeeding, he added.

          “When you fix that part of it, you can make some positive changes,” said Plumlee, whose office oversees about 20,000 probationers.

          The corrections committee is gathering information on what legislation it might offer when lawmakers return to Austin in January for the regular legislative session. The earliest any bill could be filed is December.

          The panel also heard testimony that the state’s 151,000-bed prison system is operating near capacity and that more money might be needed to lease space from local jails and private correctional facilities.

          Bonita White, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s community justice assistance division, told the panel that judges statewide have said the state needs additional drug-treatment programs for probationers.

          “We need more substance-abuse treatment … so people don’t go from one violation to prison,” White said.

          Plumlee said most cases that arrive at his office involve drug and alcohol abuse.

          “Most of them are nonviolent property offenders,” he said. “And of course, drug use drives just about most everything.”

          John Moritz, (512) 476-4294
          jmoritz@star-telegram.com

          © 2006 Star-Telegram.com and wire service sources.
          All Rights Reserved.
          http://www.dfw.com


          Mar 14, 2006 7:26 pm US/Central

          Park Cities Attorney Accused Of Parole Fraud

          Ginger Allen
          Reporting
          (CBS 11 News)
          By Todd Bensman and Ginger Allen
          Investigative Unit
          CBS 11 News

          Norma McCain says she spent all her life savings trying to set her beloved son free – to no avail. He was serving 20 years for aggravated assault when the phone rang in February 2005.

          Before the call was over, McCain’s heart was in her throat. It was someone who identified himself as “Bob Johnson,” whom McCain said led her to believe he was a lawyer from a parole consulting firm called Parole and Probation Services.

          The man carried a message of hope that seemed unfathomable. She said Bob Johnson, whose signature appears over a “Senior Partner” title in later correspondence, promised he could probably get McCain’s son paroled in “four or five months,” years earlier than his first possible scheduled review. The service would cost about $5,000.

          “Being a desperate mother and fighting for eight years hiring all these attorneys and investigators, and nobody could do anything,” the White Settlement resident said. “And Bob Johnson said they could do it because they worked with the parole board.”

          “I was real excited.”

          But no attorney named Bob Johnson had ever registered with the state prison system as representing her son, as required by law. McCain said she eventually realized that every promise delivered by the Dallas-based Parole and Probations Services was a hope-shattering lie, and in that belief she has much company among other relatives of inmates.

          A CBS 11 News investigation that began last summer found that “Bob Johnson” is not a lawyer as many who dealt with him say they were led to believe. In fact, that’s not even his real name. Several former clients have identified Bob Johnson from a prison mug shot as Andrew Robert Coats, a seven-time convict with a string of seven fraud convictions who has used aliases before, court records show.

          Coats’ convictions all involved con schemes, except an eighth conviction he got for escaping a light-security federal penitentiary. For one scheme, Coats was convicted of securities fraud in Houston where residents were bilked of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1998, the Texas Attorney General successfully sued him and his wife, Peggy Coats, for $500,000 in restitution to victims of yet another scheme.

          Peggy Coats started Parole and Probation Services in Dallas at about the time her husband was paroled from a 12-year sentence in late 2002. It wasn’t long before fraud complaints were once again dogging the couple. In all, the business has taken in at least $450,000 from Texas inmates’ relatives scattered across the country since Coats was paroled from prison, charging fees ranging from $2,500 to more than $12,000.

          It is illegal in Texas for any non-lawyer to represent inmates in parole matters for pay, and any lawyer who does has to register the relationship with the state.

          It is also illegal for anyone who is not an attorney to represent themselves as an attorney.

          After CBS 11 began investigating complaints about the company’s business practices last summer, a Park Cities lawyer named Jeffrey Lee Fletcher stepped forward and claimed to be handling the company’s legal work. He now says he has completely taken over the Coats family business, and hired the Coats as regular employees, although state incorporation records still do not show an ownership change.

          As similar complaints continued to mount even after the Snider Plaza lawyer got involved, both he and Coats have now come under criminal investigation by the Texas prison system’s Inspector General’s office, officials this week confirmed.

          Fletcher and Coats declined interview requests but have released statements proclaiming that they are victims of a conspiracy by anonymous troublemakers campaigning, in part by email, to destroy their honest business. “We have contacted Homeland Security regarding these messages since the email source is unknown,” Fletcher wrote in his.

          They also say they’re willing to refund money to any unsatisfied client and in fact have issued refunds to several clients that CBS 11 has identified. However, those clients received their refunds after either filing complaints or threatening to go to the police. In one letter to a client, Fletcher proposed that he would provide a refund only if the client withdrew a complaint she had filed with the Attorney General’s office.

          Fletcher this week promised to release a complete list of all those who received refunds.

          In his statement, Coats praised Fletcher, writing in part: “It appears that the only thing these people have to complain about is due to my history. It is not fair to any of us, but especially not to Mr. Fletcher, who is a tireless worker and advocate of those seeking parole and a chance of a new life.”

          In his statement to CBS 11 last week, Fletcher praised Coats. “I found Bob to be a very proud man and a very fair and honest man. It was not until you told me about his past last summer that I became aware of his history. Shortly thereafter, we met about it, and we discussed everything about the matter and we have no discussed it since and never will. His criminal past is only something that someone could use to vilify or hurt him as these people are trying to do. He has, from day one, been as honest and fair with me as anyone ever has been.”

          A CASCADE OF COMPLAINTS

          In all, CBS 11 has identified 19 mothers, fathers, wives and inmates across Texas who allege that Bob Coats, aka Bob Johnson, and more recently Fletcher, took in fees that averaged between $3,000 and $7,000 each from dozens of clients by promising legally implausible feats. When the first known clients began complaining last summer, the men either threatened defamation lawsuits, hurled personal insults or claimed an ability to call down the wrath of friends in high political office.

          “I think that it’s terrible that this person, Bob Coats, Bob Johnson – whoever he claims to be for the moment – is taking advantage of inmate’s families when he himself has been in the same predicament,” said Melinda Sartain, a North Texas resident who believes Coats and Fletcher made promises they knew they couldn’t keep and ripped her off for thousands.

          To no avail so far, a number of individuals who identify themselves as victims have filed complaints against Coats and Fletcher with the Dallas Police Department’s swindle squad, the Texas Bar Association, Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill, and the Texas Attorney General’s office, according to records and interviews.

          Common themes permeate the complaints, according to interviews with a dozen clients and company correspondence with them and many others. Chief among these allegations is that PPS representatives:

          Promised to seek “early parole review” for inmates whose statutorily set review dates were still years in the future. Parole lawyers, as well as current and former board members say there is no such thing as early parole review and that parole reviews can not be moved forward in time by law, except in exceedingly rare instances when an inmate is terminally ill and at imminent risk of death.

          Promised to seek “special parole review.” But the experts say this process only exists in highly unique circumstances, when an inmate has already had a review and been denied parole and pertinent new information surfaces that was not considered. Several PPS clients who paid on the promise of obtaining special parole review had never been up for parole, so “special review” would not be legally available to them.

          Led clients to believe they were in regular contact with parole board members, who wield the power to grant parole releases, about reviews that were still years away. In several instances, Fletcher suggested to clients that he had a relative on the board, implying a special connection that could prove decisive during a review. Former parole board members and lawyers who specialize in dealing with the board say it is highly unlikely that a board member would ever communicate with a lawyer on a case that was not actively under review.

          “This is pretty atrocious,” said Daniel Lang, who served on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles from 1995 through 2001. Land had just reviewed CBS 11’s copies of PPS correspondence with clients, provided by the clients.

          “I’m seeing letters that imply that this firm can do things that they are no, or cannot do,” Lang said. “Often they do not come out and say they are meeting with a board member but they imply they are in constant contact with board members, and board members and commissioners just do not have time to be in constant contact.

          “I think someone is instilling a lot of false hope and sometimes false fear to get them to represent them in a manner that they probably can’t deliver.”

          FALSE STATEMENTS MADE

          Parole and Probation Services continues to operate. CBS 11 has uncovered numerous statements by PPS representatives that have proven to be false.

          For instance, in one letter to Norma McCain, Fletcher wrote that he was personal friends with Attorney General Greg Abbott and threatened to call “my buddy Greg” to have him prosecute her for fraud after it became known she was complaining about the company.

          Fletcher was angry over an item that appeared in a prison newsletter warning inmates about PPS and listing her as a contact person for new complaints.

          Fletcher mistakenly accused McCain of listing Abbott’s address as her own and then accused her of criminally impersonating the Attorney General. More than a dozen inmates eventually wrote McCain at the home address actually listed in the news item, claiming PPS made promises, took their families’ money and claimed to do work that was never done.

          Fletcher wrote in an insult-laden letter to McCain that Attorney General Abbott “is a friend of mine and someone with whom we conduct business regularly through other clients. My relatives have flown on his corporate jet recently. So you really picked the wrong state official to try and impersonate, don’t you think?

          “I would have some measure of respect for you if you had had the guts enough to tell us what you were going to do, but you have proven yourself not only a coward but one who by her own sheer ignorance has drug up a whole bunch of trouble for herself…Unless you send me a letter of apology with a retraction…I will contact my buddy Greg and have his office initiate a fraud claim against you.”

          A spokesperson for Abbott said the attorney general has never heard of Jeffrey Fletcher.

          In his first dealings with Norma McCain, Bob Coats claimed he had gotten her name and telephone number as a referral from the University of Houston’s Innocence Project. A spokesperson for the Innocence Project, however, said giving referrals to lawyers for profit is strictly forbidden by policy. It remains unclear to this day how Coats actually obtained McCain’s name and phone number.

          In another letter to McCain’s imprisoned son, Fletcher wrote that he was not entitled to review his own client file. From prison, Gregory McCain had grown increasingly suspicious that PPS had accomplished none of the tasks it had claimed and he demanded to see his client file. In the file would have been records of the work PPS claimed to have performed.

          Fletcher wrote in a letter back that the inmate had no right to the client file because it was “proprietary.”

          “That’s a violation of the state bar rules,” said Bill Haburn, a Huntsville-based lawyer who has run a parole services legal practice for nearly three decades.

          Asked to review CBS 11’s collection of letters between PPS and clients who believe they were defrauded, Haburn concluded that PPS’s Fletcher and Coats routinely made misleading claims about what they could do.

          Especially disturbing, he said, was the fact that Coats, a non-lawyer, appears to have accepted fees while having Fletcher act as an attorney for the parole work – a practice Haburn said did appear legal under current law.

          “Under 508.081 of the government code, only lawyers can be paid a fee to represent someone before the parole board, so they’ve got somebody who’s not a lawyer accepting a fee to represent someone,” Haburn said. “Now they may pay a lawyer to do the work, but I think under the statute that’s probably illegal.”

          OTHER QUESTIONS

          CBS 11 found other apparent irregularities in the way PPS has practiced. Under current law, all attorneys representing inmates in parole matters are required to file “lawyer fee affidavits” with the state prison system. Records show that Coats has never filed such a fee affidavit, but that Fletcher began doing so in August 2005 with gusto, filing more than 90 through the end of the year.

          The records show that in many cases fee affidavits Fletcher filed were for Coats clients who were taken on many months earlier, and in some cases up to a year or more earlier. For instance, inmate Rocky Wilson hired PPS in October 2004 “to get me an early review,” before Fletcher was involved in the company.

          No fee affidavit for Wilson appeared for Wilson until Fletcher filed one more than two years later, in January of this year. Most of the affidavits are notarized by Peggy Coats.

          Clients who feel jilted by the company say they want justice – and their money back. Several said they investigated on their own and that they caught Fletcher and Coats in a web of lies.

          “It leaves a real bitter taste in your mouth when someone is deliberately scamming you, lying to you,” said J.J. Pankritz, who paid the company $2,000 of a $4,800 fee before terminating the deal. “And I don’t think he felt that anyone would do anything about it.”

          Lisa Sampson eventually got her money back after a series of confrontations and complaint filings. But she said she is so angry over the deceit and pain caused by her PPS dealings that she is still pushing for justice.

          “I’m going to make sure he doesn’t do it to anyone else,” Sampson said of Bob Coats.

          To comment on this story, email Todd Bensman
          To contact a reporter about this story,
          call 214-563-0482
          (CBS 11 News)


          Overhaul of probation system urged
          By JOHN MORITZ
          STAR-TELEGRAM AUSTIN BUREAU

          AUSTIN - Even though Gov. Rick Perry vetoed legislation last year designed to ease restrictions on nonviolent offenders who are placed on probation, lawmakers should try again to pass similar legislation to reduce prison crowding and help rehabilitate low-level lawbreakers, a legislative panel was told Wednesday.

          The House Corrections Committee heard testimony from probation officials and advocacy groups who said that closer monitoring of probationers and treatment programs for people with substance-abuse problems have gone a long way to keep nonviolent offenders from straying.

          "Texas cannot sustain a broken probation system and the escalating cost of prison overcrowding," said Ana Yanez Correa, who heads the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a watchdog group that monitors trends in prison, parole and probation policies.

          Correa was an enthusiastic supporter of a probation-overhaul measure that easily passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Perry after several prosecutors raised objections.

          The bill would have reduced probation for some felonies from 10 years to five, boosted funding for drug courts and community-service programs, and given judges greater oversight over probationers. Supporters said the bill would lighten the workload of probation officers and lead to fewer probation revocations because of rule violations such as failing to pay fees.

          In his veto message, Perry pointed out that the state budget lawmakers approved for the 2006-07 cycle contained money for several regions of the state to hire more probation officers and develop innovative programs to prevent offenders from having their probation revoked.

          Tom Plumlee, who heads the Tarrant County adult probation offices and a statewide probation advisory panel, said the extra money has helped cut officers' caseloads. But more must be done to change what he called the "culture of probation" that in some cases encourages officers to recommend revocation for minor transgressions.

          "If somebody misses a [meeting with a probation officer], he goes to jail," Plumlee said. But if an officer can find out why the probationer failed to report and can correct the behavior, the probationer will have a better chance of succeeding, he added.

          "When you fix that part of it, you can make some positive changes," said Plumlee, whose office oversees about 20,000 probationers.

          The corrections committee is gathering information on what legislation it might offer when lawmakers return to Austin in January for the regular legislative session. The earliest any bill could be filed is December.

          The panel also heard testimony that the state's 151,000-bed prison system is operating near capacity and that more money might be needed to lease space from local jails and private correctional facilities.

          Bonita White, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's community justice assistance division, told the panel that judges statewide have said the state needs additional drug-treatment programs for probationers.

          "We need more substance-abuse treatment ... so people don't go from one violation to prison," White said.

          Plumlee said most cases that arrive at his office involve drug and alcohol abuse.

          "Most of them are nonviolent property offenders," he said. "And of course, drug use drives just about most everything."

          John Moritz,
          (512) 476-4294
          jmoritz@star-telegram.com



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