By Kate Vickery
The last time that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was up for Sunset review, the prison system in Texas was bursting at the seams. Today, thanks to some positive reforms during the 2007 session, adult incarceration rates have leveled out. The state has a long way to go to make a real improvement in our chronic over-incarceration problem, but thanks to the advocacy of groups like the ACLU of Texas, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Civil Rights Project, and many others, reforms are starting to be made.
All of these groups were in attendance for the Sunset Advisory Commission hearing on June 5, 2012 at the Capitol. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Board of Pardons and Paroles, Windham School District, and Correctional Managed Health Care Committee are under review by the Sunset Advisory Commission.
Our Policy Strategist Matt Simpson and I attended to give the ACLU of Texas’ testimony on a number of issues that are currently not included in the Sunset Commission’s recommendations. It is important to start the conversation on these important issues because the Sunset process often sets the stage for the legislative priorities for the next session, which will begin in January. The ACLU of Texas is particularly interested in:
- increasing the use of parole/probation, especially medical parole;
- decreasing the use of administrative segregation (solitary confinement);
- improving the treatment of and services for youth certified as adults;
- and creating more independent oversight mechanisms for TDCJ.
We were pleasantly surprised by the support for reform of the Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision (MRIS) program. MRIS is a mechanism for releasing elderly (Texas’ oldest inmate is currently 90), and mentally and terminally ill individuals who are not a risk to public safety. Currently, the sickest inmates can cost the state up to $1 million per year each for health care while posing no public safety threat. Senator Whitmire called for lawmakers to make a “tough vote” for a bill that would make it easier to release these individuals, underscoring that this likely will be an uphill political battle.
Medical release was one of many issues discussed throughout the day and it was inspiring to hear the testimony of the agencies dedicated to criminal justice reform and the powerful stories of family members of incarcerated individuals.
To get more involved in these important issues, sign up for ACLU of Texas e-alerts!