During the Silly Season we may expect the most asinine, foolish, and unrealistic criminal justice proposals imaginable bandied about before an ignorant public as though they actually had some relationship to the real world. I'll never forget the first campaign by Todd Staples, now Texas Ag Commissioner, who ran on a platform of imposing the death penalty for all drug dealers. (No, really.)
To me, Staples' absurd campaign position (which immediately vanished when he got into office - never even a bill filed on the topic) marks the all-time gold-standard for the ridiculous "tuff on crime" grandstanding we routinely see in Texas elections. So far, though, this year's front-runner has to be District Judge Tryon Lewis who's running in the GOP primary against Republican incumbent Buddy West out in west Texas. (Lewis was recruited against West after the incumbent sided against Tom Craddick in the Speaker's feud at the end of session.) Said Judge Lewis in today's Midland Reporter-Telegram ("Ailing and aging, West scraps for 8th two-year term," 9/23):
Honestly, from a public policy perspective that's just dumb. Dumb as a creosote post. Texas has made more than 2,300 separate acts felonies. Graffiti can even be a first degree felony, which brings a 5-99 year sentence. Can he really be saying that under no circumstances should judges or juries have discretion to impose probation?
"Perpetrators can get probation for almost every first-degree felony and serious crime. There shouldn't be some right to commit one free felony."
Even worse, I find it disingenuous bordering on irresponsible for a former judge to call probation a "free felony," since granting probation is entirely at the local judge's (or, rarely, a jury's) discretion. Probation requirements in Texas typically are quite strenuous, especially for the most serious offenses, and a felony conviction makes it difficult to get a job or housing for the rest of your life. Not only are many probationers revoked for failing to live up to supervision requirements, in many cases offenders PREFER incarceration to probation because probation requirements would make them change their lifestyle, while they can just wait out a jail stint.
I notice the Judge failed to call for higher taxes to pay for his idea, another disingenuous omission. Texas prisons are chock full, mostly with non-violent offenders, so eliminating probation for "serious crime," however that's defined, would increase the prison population significantly. It would also cause fewer defendants to accept plea bargains, boosting local costs for trials, pretrial detention, and other county expenses off the charts.
If a politician does not simultaneously explain to the public how he or she plans to solve Texas' prison and jail overcrowding crisis, it's straight-up hypocritical for them to run for office proposing harsher penalties for this or that crime.
There's one more philosophical disconnect I find annoying between such rhetoric and politicians who claim to be small-government conservatives. When speaking of criminal justice, Judge Lewis wants to take power away from local decision makers, but in the next sentence he espouses the opposite philosophy about schools: "Much too many [sic] of those decisions have been moved to Austin, but who knows what's right better than the teachers and principals who know their students?" he said.
My question in response: Who knows better than local judges and juries about the correct sentence for criminals in their community? Why does he support local control for schools and oppose it for the justice system?
I'll tell you why: It's the Silly Season.