Senator West votes on closure of Dawson State Jail
AUSTIN — Soon, a very important step will take place as it relates to how criminal justice will be administered in the State of Texas. Monday, the Senate Finance Committee followed the recommendations of a criminal justice workgroup that proposed the non-renewal of the contract with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) that currently has an agreement with the state for the operation of the Dawson State Jail facility. If approved by the Senate, then the full Legislature, the contract will not be renewed when it expires at the end of August, consistent with the state's fiscal year.
At its outset, Dawson State Jail, as part of the state jail program created by the Legislature in 1993, was on the vanguard of a criminal justice reform that was designed to divert non-violent offenders from what we know as the state prison system. We were at the end of a period of rapid prison population growth when Texas thought that with tough sentencing, we could incarcerate our way out of a crime problem. Seeing the rising incarceration headcount, private corporations jumped into the prison business.
In the 20 years since, times have changed and the state jail program has experienced hard times, some caused by several rounds of budget cuts, the most crippling which took place in 2003. When that happened, substance abuse and other rehabilitative programs that were designed to return short-term offenders to the community equipped with the tools necessary for success, were stripped from the state jail formula.
What we were left with was a place where offenders would serve out sentences that averaged nine months to a year before being released - more than often not - only to be arrested again at rates that are higher than for those who return from state prison. At the same time, since 2005, other programs introduced and funded through local probation departments have proven successful in keeping offenders out of prison. Now with lower prison populations, the need for privately-run jail space has been diminished.
But what has acted to propel Dawson more swiftly along the path toward closure have been persistent reports of neglect and lack of proper medical treatment for the offenders assigned there. These conditions have resulted in deaths over the past five years and have raised the ire of civil, criminal and faith-based advocacy groups, in addition to correctional labor organizations.
Over the remaining months of the legislative session, this issue will be thoroughly examined. Dawson was not the only privately-run jail facility recommended for closure. What the legislature must do, is to act in in the best interest of all involved, including offenders, who though convicted of crimes, still possess basic rights that must be protected. What citizens can and must do, is remain vigilant and hold all public servants, and those who act on their behalf, accountable as stewards of the public trust.
For more information, please contact Kelvin Bass at 512-463-0123.