Reducing Crime and Reducing Costs

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Houston is leading the way in reducing crime and public safety costs, says Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  According to his article in the Houston Chronicle:

“Houston’s murder rate fell 26 percent in 2011, reaching its lowest level since 1965. More broadly, the city’s violent crime rate declined 7 percent in 2011. This crime reduction has occurred simultaneously with a drop in both the local and state incarceration rates. As recently as 2008, the Harris County Jail occasionally held up to 12,000 inmates. Today, the jail population has plummeted to about 8,500.

Consequently, Harris County taxpayers no longer must pony up $31 million to send overflow inmates to jails as far away as Louisiana. Overtime costs that recently exceeded $40 million per year have been slashed, and the sheriff’s office has asked for a flat budget for the next fiscal year.

On the state level, Texas has seen more than a 9 percent drop in both its incarceration and crime rates since 2005.”

A major reason for the drop in Harris County’s jail population is the County’s new policy of prosecuting trace drug possession cases as misdemeanors instead of felonies.  Though, we don’t necessarily agree that those with more than a scintilla…rightfully continue to be charged as felons.  Being caught with a higher quantity of drugs for one’s own use does not necessarily make that person more of a criminal.  Those with drug addiction problems would benefit from treatment programs and other alternatives to incarceration – which are more successful and less costly to taxpayers.

Other efforts to reduce incarceration will be the Harris County Felony Mental Health Court, and the opening of a sobering center for those arrested on public intoxication charges.  For even more progress, Levin suggested that Harris County take advantage of the state law enacted in 2007 that allows police to issue citations and notices to appear for low-level, non violent misdemeanors, including a couple of ounces or less of marijuana, as well as opening up the option of pretrial release and reducing the bond schedule amounts for low-risk detainees.  (According to the article, a whopping 73% of the jail population is awaiting trial.)

Let’s continue the momentum!  To learn about the ACLU of Texas’ Criminal Law Reform Campaign, sign up for our e-alerts or join our Community Action Network to become more involved in the fight for justice in Texas.

Guest Blog: The Logic of the $100 Offender Copay and the Unintended Consequences

By Jennifer Erschabek
Austin Chapter Chair, Texas Inmate Families Association (TIFA)

Last session, a bill passed that requires the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) offenders to pay a $100 annual health care fee when initiating a medical visit. The new law also allows TDCJ to supply more over-the-counter (OTC) medications in the prison commissaries. This was passed as a way for the state to recover some of the medical costs of providing healthcare to inmates.  Besides the obvious concern that families and friends of inmates (when they can afford it) are bearing an additional cost when it is the state’s responsibility to provide care for those the state chooses to incarcerate, this new practice might not even be that effective at saving taxpayer dollars.

The state estimates that this prisoner co-pay will generate $10-$13 million over the next biennium.  But, we wonder how realistic this number really is.  Indigent prisoners (40-50 percent of the offender population) and those with chronic conditions are waived from the fee. This raises another concern about whether indigent inmates are correctly identified for exemption. Younger and healthier inmates will avoid using the medical system so they don’t have to pay the fee.

But, to us, it isn’t only about the money for which our loved ones receive low quality health care.  The new law allows for indigent inmates to receive free clinic visits and also free OTC medications.  According to our family members within TDCJ, this has resulted in a black market for medications, where indigent inmates are trading their OTCs for commissary goods. In many cases, offenders who do have money on their accounts are refusing to go to the clinic, instead self-diagnosing and ‘trading’ for medications to avoid the $100 charge for a medical visit.

The medical co-pay also impacts the health of the entire unit, offenders and guards. When offenders are not treated for contagious diseases such as scabies, mumps and staph infections, nobody wins.  This is a real threat to public health – in and out of prison.  Remember, many inmates are locked up for a short period of time, and then return to society. It benefits all of us to ensure that they return to society free of communicable illnesses.

There has been one good result because of the co-pay.  Now that more OTC medications are available to offenders through the commissary there are fewer medical visits.  But, they could have done this before – you really don’t need to see a nurse or doctor just to get Lotrimin or Benadryl.

Most important: It is the state’s responsibility to cover the medical costs of individuals who we choose to incarcerate.  TIFA will continue to work to lower this unjust and unhelpful copay.

Find out more about TIFA, and the work that we do.

Thank you Texas Observer and Houston Chronicle

By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director

Most reporters drank the ICE Kool-Aid last week when Immigrations and Customs Enforcement conducted a media tour of the Obama administration’s new “model detention center” in Karnes City, just southeast of San Antonio.

The Chronicle and the Texas Observer– unlike other media reports we’ve seen – noted that the facility will be run by a for-profit prison corporation with a checkered record, GEO Group, the second-largest for-profit prison company in the United States. National Public Radio noted protests by immigrants’ rights advocates, another part of the event largely ignored by media.

Typical single-source reporting,  particularly a story by the Associated Press that was widely picked up, distorted the real issue: continued detention at great expense to taxpayers and great profit for private prison corporations of immigrants who can be tracked at lower cost without incarceration while awaiting deportation hearings.

Federal and state governments should stop relying on the private prison industry. Private incarceration companies like GEO have incentives to cut corners and maximize profit at the expense of decent treatment and human rights. In 2007, state auditors had this to say about a Texas juvenile facility operated by GEO: “cells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine, and were in need of paint,” and “there is racial segregation [in] the dorms.” Last month, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center settled a lawsuit that alleged horrific abuse of youth at another GEO prison.

Sadly, most media outlets failed to report anything but what they were told.

We All Know the School-to-Prison Pipeline is a Problem – How Can We Seal It?

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

We have all heard the stories.  Children given criminal tickets for throwing a paper airplane in class, using profanity in school, talking back to a teacher … the list goes on.  While this behavior must not be condoned, I hope we can all agree that sending children into the juvenile and criminal justice systems for minor disciplinary transgressions is extreme (and counterproductive).

In addition to the use of these extreme tactics for controlling childish misbehavior, we also know that students of color and special education students are disproportionately impacted.  Just last week, the U.S. Department of Education released new data showing that African American students were 3 ½ times more likely than their white peers to be expelled.  Sadly, appalling data like this is nothing new.

Well … what can we do about it?  Join the ACLU of Texas and numerous other civil rights organizations at a community conference in Houston titled Civil Rights in the 21st Century: Uniting Communities for Justice.  This conference will provide an overview of the school-to-prison pipeline and, more importantly, will unite our community.  Our goal is to use this conference to as an opportunity to form a broad and diverse coalition of organizations and concerned community members dedicated to sealing, once and for all, the school-to-prison pipeline.  Join us!

To learn more about the conference and find out how to register please visit

Students of Color Experience Tougher School Discipline

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

As we discussed before in our blog series Breaking Schools’ Rules, students of color are disproportionally disciplined at school.  Last week, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released data that showed this unjust trend continues.  It found that African American and Hispanic children are more likely to get trapped in this school-to-prison pipeline.  Worse, studies have shown that students of color receive harsher consequences than their white peers for committing the same offenses.

And it doesn’t end at the school house door.  Those disciplined in school are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system later on.  For example, students in Texas who were suspended or expelled just once were 2.85 times more likely to have a run-in with the juvenile justice system.

We couldn’t agree more with the New York Times: instead of pushing kids out of school, we need fair and sensible discipline practices that keep kids in school.  That’s why the ACLU of Texas has fought, and will continue to fight, for policies that do not criminalize childish misbehavior at school.  Schools shouldn’t be the gateway to our bloated criminal justice system.  Instead, they should be positive learning environments where we use evidence-based behavioral models.  One approach to improving the atmosphere in schools is adopting Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which has been proven to improve student behavior, decrease ticketing and create a more positive school environment.

Acting childish when you are a child should not be a criminal offense. As a state, and as a country, we need to work as hard as we can to keep our youth on track toward success.   Sending low-level, non-violent offenders to prison benefits nobody (except, of course, the for-profit prison industry).

Want to do something to help seal the school-to-prison pipeline?  Join our Youth Rights Community Action Network and help ensure that all Texas students are educated, not incarcerated.

Why o why o why o did CCA think it could make stuff up in Ohio

By Frank Knaack (originally posted on
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) letter offering to purchase state and local prisons/jails in return for a 20-year deal and 90% guaranteed occupancy rate (probably making the hotel lobby very jealous) continues to gather press.  Last week, an AP story (Corrections firm offers states cash for prisons, Greg Bluestein, Associated Press) about the facility was picked up by a number of newspapers around the country.

In defense of the deal, CCA continues to point to its “successful” purchase of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Ohio.  Did CCA think no one would check to verify this claim?  Unfortunately for CCA, the ACLU of Ohio did.  Quoting Mark Twain, they wrote “’[t]here are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.’ A recent letter sent out by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to 48 governors offering to buy state prisons included a little of each.”

Here are some highlights from the ACLU of Ohio’s blog:

  • “While CCA claims it will save Ohioans $3 million per year, a recent report analyzing the state’s contract shows that taxpayers will actually lose money over the next 20 years.  Of course, this is not earth-shattering news, as other fiscal analyses in Ohio and Arizona have produced similar results.”
  • “CCA also leads readers to believe there was no drama behind the transition to private ownership, but the people of Conneaut may disagree.  As CCA took the reins of the Lake Erie facility, Conneaut city officials were informed that it would be the duty of local police officers to investigate crimes at the private prison.  Typically, the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) handles all investigations at state prisons, but private properties are under the jurisdiction of local police forces.  This could cost the city of Conneaut taxpayer dollars it just doesn’t have.”
  • “CCA also points out that 93 percent of the previous staff from the Lake Erie facility was retained in the ownership transfer — the implication being that governors shouldn’t worry about privatization because most state corrections officers will be hired back.  What it does not explain is that Lake Erie has been a privately operated facility for over a decade.  … Certainly, if the facility had employed state corrections officers, many of those workers could not afford to continue working there.  It’s no secret that private prisons pay employees far less than state workers and provide few benefits, leaving doubt that privatization of a state facility would be as ‘seamless’ as CCA describes in its letter.”

On the bright side, I imagine CCA’s management and shareholders made out quite well.  Stay tuned to Texas Prison Bid’ness for more on this story.

Anti-Muslim Bigotry in Post 9/11 America: What Does It Look Like and How Can We Stop It?

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

In the post-9/11 era, Muslims in America, regardless of their citizenship status, have become the new targets of intolerance.  From efforts by Texas Legislators to ban state courts from considering Sharia in their decisions, to the FBI’s use of training materials “that falsely and inappropriately portray Arab and Muslim communities as monolithic, alien, backward, violent and supporters of terrorism,” to the recent reports “that the NYPD spied on mosques and Muslim college students far outside New York City, without evidence or allegations of criminal activity,” Muslims in America face discrimination, harassment, and other human rights violations simply because of their faith.  While people have the right to express their opinions, our government must respect and ensure the right of all people to practice their faith.  Unfortunately, when it comes to these new targets of intolerance, our government often fails to uphold its obligations.  This is unacceptable, and un-American.

Want to do something to stop these abuses?  Join the ACLU of Texas and numerous other civil rights organizations at a community conference titled Civil Rights in the 21st Century: Uniting Communities for Justice.  At this conference, we will join together to expose Islamophobia and to learn how we can ensure that all Texans are able to exercise their faith, or no faith at all, freely and without government intrusion.

Want to learn more about the conference and find out how to register?  Please visit

Another Immigrant Detention Center is Not What Texas Needs

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

We can think of about a million reasons why the new “civil” immigrant detention center in rural Karnes City is anything but a showing of “civility” from ICE.  For starters:

  • It’s managed by the GEO Group, a for-profit prison company with a track record of mismanagement, prisoner abuse, inmate deaths, sexual assault of detainees by prison guards…and that’s just in Texas;
  • The location is in a rural area, far from legal or social services;
  • This is costing taxpayers a lot of money;
  • Karnes City taxpayers were not consulted about the facility until after the contract with GEO was signed.

Most fundamentally, though, is that a “civil” detention center like this shouldn’t exist. Who will be held there? You may guess that dangerous criminals will make up most of the center’s population.  Nope. This center will hold immigrants in the lowest security level of ICE custody – asylum-seekers awaiting their hearings, for example.  We increase the vulnerability of these vulnerable people seeking safety by separating them from their families far away from legal representation.  In 2009, ICE claimed it would reduce the use of isolated detention centers – which makes it more maddening that they just built a new one in Karnes City, a small town southeast of San Antonio.

Public safety isn’t protected by overreliance on expensive detention of non-violent border crossers, especially asylum seekers fleeing economic hardship or political, sexual and criminal abuses in their home countries.  Instead of treating them like dangerous criminals at a cost to taxpayers of an average $166 per day, the US should implement other programs. Alternatives to detention (or ATDs) cost significantly less — from 30 cents to $14 per day — than locking up immigrants in detention facilities.

Why deprive people of their liberty and ability to work, shatter families, expose detainees to abuse by guards, and spend more taxpayer dollars in the name of immigration enforcement? It makes you wonder, until you remember the enormous profits reaped by private prison companies like GEO Group. With that kind of money, you can buy yourself some pretty decent lobbyists, we’d guess.

In the end, “civil” detention centers like the new one in Karnes city are not consistent with American values and they do not benefit our society.  Worse, no corporation, state, county, or city should profit from putting people behind bars.  It is time to rethink this system. We would even save tax dollars along the way.

Help Unite Communities and Ensure Civil Rights!

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

On March 31, the ACLU of Texas is co-sponsoring Civil Rights in the 21st Century: Uniting Communities for Justice, a conference and community engagement event.  This is a historic gathering of a broad range of groups coming together in the name of civil rights and justice,  and we are excited to announce that Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, will be the conference’s keynote speaker.

We hope this conference will serve as a public education event, but our main goal is to use this gathering as an opportunity to connect community activists and look for ways to coordinate our work to better ensure that all Texans’ realize their fundamental human rights.

Over the next three weeks, this blog will cover the topics that will be highlighted at the event.  Want to learn more about the conference and find out how to register?  Please visit We hope to see you there!

When Mississippi Leads the Way… It’s Time for Texas to Rethink Solitary Confinement

By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director

Inspired, in part by the success in Mississippi – yes, Mississippi of all places – the states of Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of prisoners in long-term isolation.

In Texas, we call it “ad seg” – 23/7 isolation – meaning prisoners held in administrative segregation are locked alone for 23 hours out of every day. By some estimates, the cost of putting a Texas prisoner in solitary confinement costs 45 percent more than housing them in the general prison population. And isolation drives prisoners crazy. Yes, solitary makes sane inmates lose their minds. Prisoners with mental conditions get worse. (Remember the horror story of the Texas prisoner who gouged out his eyes several years ago?) Guards are endangered. States face costs they can’t absorb.

Last weekend, The New York Times reported on the ways that Mississippi has reformed prison practices to segregate fewer prisoners, concentrating on those who are truly a danger to others instead of those considered a nuisance — [who] disobeyed orders, had walked away from a minimum-security program or were low-level gang members with no history of causing trouble while incarcerated.

An excerpt from The Times:

“The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so…

More inmates are held in solitary confinement [in the Unites States] than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week…

Humanitarian groups have long argued that solitary confinement has devastating psychological effects, but a central driver is the recent shift in economics. Segregation units can be two to three times as costly to build and, because of their extensive staffing requirements, to operate as conventional prisons…

Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over conditions in the prison, which one former inmate described as “hell, an insane asylum.”

Mr. Epps said he started out believing that difficult inmates should be locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible.

“That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said.

By the end of the process, he saw things differently and ordered the changes.

“If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,” he now says.

If Mississippi can do it, so can Texas. To save taxpayer dollars and make prisons safer, Texas should reduce the use of solitary confinement.  Do you want to help?  Click here to ask the Sunset Commission to evaluate the true costs of solitary confinement in Texas.