Q&A: John Whitmire
John Whitmire (full profile) has been a Texas legislator since 1972. The state senator, a conservative Democrat from Houston, talked with Governing Staff Writer John Buntin about how Rep. Jerry Madden (interview below) and he ended a prison-building binge in Texas, and made it a model for corrections reformers everywhere. Here is an abridged and edited version of the interview:
How did you first get involved with public safety issues?
I was called in by Lt Gov. Bob Bullock in 1993. Crime was on the rise in Texas. We had a huge prison backlog. We had 60,000 people in prison and 30,000 locked up in county jails sleeping on the floor. People were serving about one month for each year that they had been sentenced, so we also had a revolving door. It was really broken by anyone's measures. Bullock asked me to chair the [criminal justice] committee. I'll be honest with you: I thought it was a fix to ruin my career.
Why was that?
Well, because it was almost an impossible task. You're out of prison space. Crime's going through the roof. Crack cocaine convictions had just really become a huge numbers driver. Honestly, I didn't have much experience. Now, let me tell you what Bullock was. He was a genius when it came to working people. He knew that a year before I had been robbed at gunpoint in my garage. I hesitated about accepting [Bullock's offer]. [But] [i]f your boss asks you to do something, you either do it or don't get asked again.
That session was very monumental. We passed a new penal code, which was the toughest in the nation. We also did a [major down payment on] drug and alcohol treatment. If you recall, I said we had 60,000 confined in '93. We have 158,000 today confined in the state of Texas. The good news is it's leveled off and actually dropped some in recent months.
Tell us about what gave rise to another package of reforms in 2007?
Three years ago, we had a new capacity issue. When the leadership wanted to build three more prisons, I dug in, along with [Rep.] Jerry Madden. Instead of building three new prisons, we came up with 6,000 treatment beds, or diversion beds, alternatives to incarceration in one of our major prisons.
We came up with facilities that would be a condition to probation, substance abuse treatment facilities. Now, you go up to six months in a treatment facility where you're confined. But you don't go to a general population prison. We have intermediate sanction facilities, where if you're a parolee and you have a bad day, and don't conform to our rules and expectations and guidelines for parolees, you're not sent back to prison. You get up to 90 days in an intermediate sanction facility.
We also did some therapeutic treatment beds. One that I'm particularly proud of: For years and years I've said a DWI offender will kill you as a drunk driver just like a gun, but if he's not drinking he's not a threat to anyone. So, why are we putting him as a cellmate to a murderer or rapist? You can treat alcoholics different. We haven't in the past. In the past, they'd get very little treatment for their alcoholism. Now if you're three-times-plus with DWI convictions, we created a setting with 500 beds for you.
Now, let me quickly add after I'm sitting here saying some good things, we still have a lot of work to do. We still have major challenges that have not been fixed, for instance, reentry. We still don't do a good job of preparing inmates to be released. We don't give them work skills. We don't give them education. Some are not treated for their drug and alcohol addictions. So, where they live, where they work, are all major challenges.
Let's return to early 2007. Walk me through how you got this package of reforms through the Legislature.
So many people have asked me, "Mr. Whitmire, you've been talking like this for years and years and years. Why were you able to do it different in 2007?" Well, first of all, I think the public finally realizes you can't build your way out of prison crime issues. I mean, if you're just going to build prisons to take care of the problem, you'll never build enough. In 2007, I finally got the public support, the Legislature, my colleague's support, to distinguish violent offenders from nonviolent.
I actually told the leadership, if you politically need to say you built new prisons, call these [6,000 new treatment beds] prisons. I don't care what you call them. Call them prisons. They are, but they're not hard two man cells, tough prison beds. They're more dormitory sites. They're closer to urban centers. More importantly, they get you at the front end, hopefully where you never reach the harder sites.
Another thing in '07 that made a difference is Jerry Madden. He's an engineer, and he's very much into models and analysis and theories. He's just smart, a West Point graduate, and politically, a Republican conservative. I'm a pretty outspoken Democrat, although I do not politicize criminal justice. I have a lot of Republican support, but having Jerry Madden, a very conservative Republican… He was my partner, became very outspoken and made a difference. And I probably shouldn't underestimate, and don't want to underestimate, the positive influence that he made, not only with his knowledge but also his politics. The Legislature in Texas is controlled by the Republicans.
Now, the criminal justice system is an area where there's often a lot of hesitation about trying to innovate because the stakes, the consequences are so high if something goes wrong.
Sure. There's risk involved. There's risk involved in trying something different in criminal justice, as are risks in other areas of life. We release about 75,000 people a year in the state of Texas from prison. There's going to be some recidivism. There's going to be repeat offenders. There's going to be parolees who make mistakes, commit even sometimes violent crimes. You just have to be honest with the public. You did the very best. You did your due diligence. You had every reason to think he was a reasonable risk. And then also you show the ones that you didn't let out. Hell, if you want to really talk about how tough we are, well, we've got four hundred plus people on death row. It's not like someone can label the state criminal justice system as soft on crime.
[As a politician], I think you have to establish your credentials as wanting a safe society. I don't take a backseat to anyone on being tough. Somebody puts a gun, uses a weapon in the commission of a crime, murderers, rapists, child molesters... Man, there's no one tougher on Earth than me. Just lock them up and forget about them, those violent offenders. You have to start with securing public opinion that you're very serious about public safety.
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Q&A: Jerry Madden
Jerry Madden (full profile) has been an elected member of the Texas House since 1992. The Republican representative from Plano talked with Governing Staff Writer John Buntin about how Sen. John Whitmire (interview above) and he ended a prison-building binge in Texas, and made it a model for corrections reformers everywhere. Here is an abridged and edited version of the interview:
Let's jump right in. How did you get engaged with criminal justice issues?
My answer on that is very easy. I had [had only] two bills over 12 years in the Legislature that had anything at all to do with criminal justice. One of them had to do with drug treatment, and the other one had to do with education in the prisons. I had never been on a correction committee. I'm not a lawyer. I don't have any prisons in my legislative district. I'm an engineer by background. So I got started the day that the Speaker of the House, Tom Craddick, calls me, and says, "Jerry, you're chairman of corrections." And the first thing you do to the Speaker is you tell him, "Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I really appreciate the honor and the trust you placed in me."
I asked him, "Well Mr. Speaker, what do you really want me to do?" And he said, "Don't build new prisons that cost too much."
As you started to dig, what did you discover?
I started looking at it as an engineer, and said, "OK, I've got these prisons out here right now. How many do I have? How many people will they hold?" Because if I'm not going to build them, if I can't increase the population in them, I was going to have to either open the door and let prisoners go, or I was going to have to figure out some way to slow down the number of people coming in.
Obviously in Texas, we were not going to be in a position to open the door and let them go. That had gotten one of our previous governors [Ann Richards] in a great deal of political trouble. So I knew I wouldn't have the political support to do anything like that even if I wanted to, and I didn't want to. I had to look at the other end of the equation, which was people coming in. Where do they come from? How do we get them? What's the process for getting them there? What can be done in breaking the cycle of people coming to prison, getting out of prison and coming back to prison?
We started looking at all of the areas, and looking at where we could break the cycle. Where can we intervene to break the cycle of people coming in and going out of prisons? I actually found that there were several places I could do stuff.
First of all, I could do something to improve the parole revocation rates. When they leave the prison system, we have additional support for our parole divisions, and additional sanction capability for the parole divisions.
Second of all, we could do a lot of programmatic things in prisons. You'll listen to a lot of states out there say, "Well, they've got these programs in there but they don't get everybody in on them. They can't make everybody attend them." I say, "Why in the world do we have programs in prison and we have people who should get them and they don't?" Why shouldn't we make sure we have enough of the right programmatic things in prison that we can have a major impact on changing their thought processes to make them much more prosocial and less likely to do criminal activities when they go out.
The third place I looked at was probation, doing things like specialty drug courts and mental health courts. Did we look at the people coming in with mental health problems and help the local mental health departments so they would provide those resources earlier? And so we might be able to prevent criminal behavior by those people with mental problems? We also looked at doing intermediate sanctions to help the probation departments so they could have some tools that would work to break some bad habits early.
We looked at caseloads. We looked at the progressive sanctions models. We looked in the schools, because the pipeline to prison is the juvenile justice system.
When exactly did you get hit with this request from the Department of Criminal Justice to sign off on getting another big expansion to the system?
Actually, it didn't come from the Department of Corrections. It really came from the governor's budget at the start of the 2007 session. We had had projections from what we call the Legislative Budget Board that projected that we were going to be 17,700 prison beds short [in 2012]. The governor came in, and asked us to look for the funds for three new prisons at $500 million or $600 million dollars.
What advice would you offer other legislators who might want to do what in their states something like what you've done in Texas?
They have got to know their own state system. There are opportunities for cost saving that will not endanger the public and will make the state safer or no less safe, if you figure them out. I encourage fellow legislators to start looking at their system. If you've got projections of prison growth, then you have to look at your alternatives. What are the alternatives for your system? [That said] at the American Legislative Conference, we did some model legislation so we have made recommendations about things you can do, and that probably will save you money.
Tell me about your interactions with Sen. Whitmire.
First of all, let me say in 2005 when I started in this early, I found that, I didn't know anything about the prison systems. And I found the guy who really knew what was in the prisons, what was happening there, and that was John Whitmire. I found that he was saying things that made engineering sense, and were factual. We just started working together and found that it was a remarkably good partnership. We gained each other's trust and confidence.
Sen. Whitmire is famous in Texas for his high spirits. Could you give me an example?
I'm not going to tell any stories on John. [Laughter] He's very outgoing. He's a very strong willed individual, with a very interesting outlook on things. I really enjoy his personality. We've done some great work together.
Photos by Darren Carroll