The following article appeared in Grits for Breakfast, click here to go to website
Major development: Business lobby backs criminal justice reforms
The Austin Statesman's Mike Ward points to a major development on the criminal justice reform front: The entry of the Texas Association of Business, a powerful lobby representing some of the state's largest employers, will be backing a reform agenda on criminal justice this session. Reported Ward ("Big-business lobby enters fray on criminal justice reforms," Jan. 15):
In a significant shift in lobbying clout, Texas’ most powerful business group has decided to make criminal-justice reforms a key focus of its priorities for legislative action, seeking ways to spend taxpayer money more efficiently and to improve the state’s economic future.
Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said the group plans to push to expand successful rehabilitation and community-based corrections programs; to change Texas’ drug-sentencing laws to put more low-level offenders in local treatment programs and reduce penalties for small amounts of drugs; and to modify state licensing laws that keep some ex-convicts from ever becoming certified for various trades.
“We’re sending too many people to the slammer,” Hammond said. “The taxpayers and the business community are both being harmed.”
On Wednesday, the business group will meet to plan its strategy to persuade the Legislature to enact changes that Hammond said are designed to keep more low-level, nonviolent lawbreakers on probation and in treatment and rehabilitation programs in their communities, “rather than sending them all to Huntsville.”
This would have been unthinkable a decade ago and reflects the growing realization among fiscal hawks that Texas' corrections costs have grown at rates far in excess of other government spending. Here's TAB president Bill Hammond elaborating further on the group's new position:
“TAB supports criminal justice reforms from previous legislative sessions and ongoing efforts to improve public safety, reduce the rate of recidivism, and decrease prison costs,” the association states in its legislative wish-list this year. “Such reforms include, but are not limited to, finding cost-effective alternatives to incarceration through the implementation of enhanced probation programs.”
The bottom line, Hammond said, “is that the current system is ineffective. It doesn’t work.”
“We don’t pretend to be experts at criminal justice, but we’re for good public policy,” he said, noting that the association supports keeping Texas competitive in attracting new business in coming years. That should involve reforms to the current corrections system, he said.
In its legislative platform, the TAB notes that “while the daily cost of probation is $2.92 per person, only $1.40 of which comes from taxpayers’ dollars, it takes $50.79 per day for taxpayers to hold a single inmate in prison. That comes to a total of $18,000 per inmate, per year, with Texas currently housing over 150,000 prisoners.”
Congratulations to Hammond, TAB, and also the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has been working hard to convince business leaders they have a dog in this fight. This is an exciting development. TAB brings every bit as much clout to the Lege as traditional opponents of reform like prosecutors and police unions. Though one hesitates to begin counting chickens, it's possible we'll look back in just a few years and see this as a important tuning point. Grits certainly hopes so.