Tue, Oct 02, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Texan judge launches revolution in justice

Tough-on-crime Republican Robert Francis is an unlikely champion of a movement to close US jails

By Ian Birrell  /  The Observer

He admits that when he took over the committee, he knew nothing about the subject and had no interest in what has since become his life’s mission. But he was trained as an engineer and, with an open mind, set about working out solutions. Perhaps it helps that he is at the end of his political career — when we meet, he is packing up his office in Austin, having announced his retirement.

“I’m not interested in the feel-good stuff, I’m interested in what works,” he says. “And since my job was not to build more prisons, I had to investigate the alternatives.”

Madden turned to Tony Fabelo, a former adviser to both Democrat and Republic governors, for evidence to defeat the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” lobby. Fabelo’s figures were frightening: in just two decades incarceration rates in Texas had risen from 226 people to 691 people per 100,000 residents, yet other states with slower growth rates saw faster falls in crime. Meanwhile, one in three Texan inmates was back behind bars within three years.

“They had created a totally broken system,” Madden says.

Fabelo told Madden to focus on short-term facilities to tackle the underlying problems of repeat offenders, such as substance abuse and mental health problems. He suggested spending US$240 million on these services — under half the amount earmarked for new prisons that year — and pointed out that every dollar spent in this way saved at least US$2 in the long run. Each prisoner, after all, costs US$50 a day.

Madden looked at the numbers and took a leap of faith. He went on the attack, using traditional right-wing arguments to subvert those seeking hardline penal policies.

“We moved the issue from one of being soft on criminals to one of being smart over the use of money,” he says. “If you are keeping people in prison who do not need to be there, then that is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

“We call it the Department of Corrections, so we should try our best to correct people, not just incarcerate them,” Madden says.

“Some people deserve to be in prison until they die, but you don’t fill up prisons with people we are mad at who have done dumb things in their lives,” he says. “You try to change their behavior.”

Few typify this better than Jose Barajas. As this bulky 31-year-old man told me his life story a shy smile flashed occasionally across his face; when it did so he looked almost like the sweet kid whose father was taken into the desert and shot dead by rival gangsters. Jose was just 11 then.

In subsequent years Jose drank hard, took lots of drugs and was determined no one would get the chance to take advantage of him like the men who murdered his father or abused his mother.

“Me and my pistol was enough,” he tells me. “I felt like a cowboy in the Wild West. I did a lot of robberies, a lot of carjackings, all sort of other things.”

Barajas was furious at a world that seemed unforgiving. One night, off his head at a party, he decided to die in a blaze of glory.

“I wanted to go out with a suicide by cop, get them to shoot me down,” he said. “So when the police came I started shouting at them, taunting them, but they refused to shoot me. I was so angry I did not die. Now I realize how selfish that would have been to my family and kids.”

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