Who Deserves Prison?


Read more of Mark’s work at his blog D.A. Confidential.

There has been much talk of closing prisons here in Texas. The Crime Report covered that issue a week or so ago, and the local paper has also written about it. From what I’ve read, the move seems budgetary rather than a result of some philosophical shift, and as I sit down to contemplate the subject a case that came up in court this week seems like a good representation of how I feel.

Several years ago, a couple of guys arrived at a business here in Austin and robbed it at gunpoint, tying up the proprietor, who was terrified beyond belief. A woman drove the getaway car, but did not go in. They were caught and the gunmen got prison, she got probation. This week, she was before the court because, not for the first time, she'd violated the terms of her probation by using an illegal substance. Each time, she'd been continued on probation rather than having it revoked and being sent to prison. Mostly because the violations weren't that bad, the minimum prison term for her is five years, she has several children, and is pregnant with another. Today, she wept and told the court that she'd smoked weed, yes, but done it because when she smoked the beatings she got from the man she lived with hurt less. A made-up story for sympathy? Sounds like it, except she went to SafePlace (a shelter for abused women) and told them the same thing before being picked up for the probation violation. As frustrated as we might have been with the violation, she bought some sympathy and credibility by her admission, and by her admission that she wanted treatment for her drug use

So it became a stark choice: either she gets prison for a bad act followed by repeated failures to abide by probation conditions, or she is left on probation in the hope that the reasons (or excuses, depending on your perspective) stop. I think it's fair to say that most of us (except the defense lawyer, I guess) were tired of excuses, aware of the serious underlying offense, and starting to wonder if it was impossible to make someone take hold of their life and turn it around. But we all agreed, ultimately, that this time prison wasn't the answer so she was sent to in-patient treatment for her repeated drug use, somewhere she'd be safe from abuse, where she could work on the many issues she obviously has. Make no mistake, she's on thin ice and knows it, I'm guessing she won't get any more breaks if she doesn't get her act together. After all, there's only so much the state can do when it comes to offering a helping hand. But I think it was the right thing to do, for her, for her children, and also when you look at the cost of imprisoning someone like her. Would prison make her a better member of society when she gets out? Unlikely. Is she a danger to those around her? Certainly not, if she takes to the treatment.

I also think that her case is emblematic of how the criminal justice system has been going lately, certainly in my county. Just the other day I ran into a reporter who was gathering information for a story about all the programs running in the county that work to “fix” people, rather than imprison them. Drug courts, DWI courts, all those.

Make no mistake, there are times when people have been offered help, assistance, support, and treatment. Times when we offer mercy and what we see as justice, but they see as weakness. Some people won't help themselves, they just don't want to put in the time and the effort.

They don't seem to realize that life is hard for all of us, we all have to work and make sacrifices. They have, and I've seen it, a sense of entitlement and for them leniency is just a way of amassing convictions without prison time. I have no problem with the criminal justice system keeping a hammer in its back pocket for those cases. But in general, as happened this week, I am inclined to think that a few helping hands will fix more problems than prison, and cost us less to boot. A long- and short-term savings, coupled with the salvation, if you will, of individuals has got to be a good thing, right? With prisons closing, perhaps we can make the rehab thing work. One just hopes that those in charge of the purse-strings don't look for a cut in those other programs, too, because I'm certainly not in favor of opening up the prison doors just to save money, with nothing else to keep our streets safe. But here's a quote from the Austin American Statesman's story:

“Closing prisons? It’s absolutely on the table,” said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, whose panel oversees the state-run system of lockups. “As tight as our budget situation looks, we cannot unravel the fledgling system of diversion and treatment programs that are paying big dividends now for the states. And there's only one other place to look – prison operations.”

So maybe a budget crunch is just what we needed. I know at 160-odd cases that I'm handling, a wee drop in customers would be more than welcome.

Comments are closed.