Can We "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree"?
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
August 22, 2006
That old song still resonates in my head. In a letter to his love, the ex-inmate returning to society asked his girl to "tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree". His wondered whether he would be accepted or rejected?
My question is whether they are prepared to return to society or not. Better yet, what can be done to prevent them from ever having to sing the song above? Tarrant County (Ft. Worth) with a population of around 1,500,000 has 150,000 ex-offenders, about one in ten of its population. Bexar County with a population of about 1,400,000 surely has about the same.
Many of these experience as many as 20 rejections when they seek employment. My first impulse is to ask, "What can they expect?" Yet, we must hope for their employment lest they visit their crime school skills on us and return to a not so functional incarceration experience.
Today, Texas Legislators have a prison space crisis with a nearly a billion dollar price tag awaiting them when they reconvene in January. We in Bexar County daily fight a bloated jail population that costs roughly $70 million annually. As Commissioner's Court's Jail Population Chairman, I am dedicated to providing plenty of space for the bad guys while not allowing a single space for those first-time, nonviolent offenders who can be placed on electronic monitoring pretrial while continuing to work to support their families. We should place substance abusers but not drug dealers and the mentally ill in a rehab or mental facility, respectively.
In a special category are those just caught up in the bureaucracy of the system. Even occasional organizational inefficiency or indifference can be very costly as it needlessly retains inmates for no good reason. By diligence and dedication, I would estimate that we have saved the county around $10 million just in the past few years alone!
What I have long believed in is treating the causes of crime and not just the symptoms, jails and prisons, so as to save at least some of the incredible amount of tax dollars spent on this proverbial "pound of cure" approach called incarceration. What are the factors that impel some to a life of crime? Social ills like lack of education, antisocial, mentally ill or drug addicted behavior are a few. The lack of positive friends and family who can direct them to available community resources is another huge cause.
Many who are released have never held a legal job in their entire lives. No wonder recidivism or repeat imprisonment is 67.5 percent nationally, three fourths of whom are arrested within three years of release. This is according to Richard Gonzales, a free lance writer in the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Some local statistics indicate that our Bexar County recidivism rate is even higher than 67.5 percent!
How do we convert previously incarcerated persons into useful members of society? More importantly, how do we keep them from ever entering the criminal justice system in the first place? As we finance public school education and our community college systems as well as other higher education systems, these are questions we should seek to answer.