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CITY Crime and More, More Punishment

Lacking more people up longer is an approach to crime that has been tried and has failed. Now the Mayor’s Task Force wants to try it again.

During my seventeen-year journalism career, I had covered many meetings of citizens’ groups appointed by high officials to study urgent issues, then reported on or analyzed their conclusions. But I had never served as a member of any such group. Journalists are supposed to be neutral observers, not participants. Then I was given a chance to combine the roles: observe the social dynamics, politics, and interaction of some of the city’s leading citizens; participate in the discussions, the preparation, and vote on the findings; then step back and critique the experience. This would afford me a small but valuable insight into the workings of the city I wrote about, I thought.

The subject was crime. No conflict-of-interest questions here, no money to be made on inside knowledge of highway route changes, future shopping center sites, or mass transit line decisions. Also, the issue holds few political, racial, or religious quandaries. After all, only criminals oppose efforts to reduce crime. Therefore, after weighing the pros and cons for a few days, I agreed in July a year ago to serve on the Mayor’s Criminal Justice Task Force.

Basically, I learned that seventy intelligent, hard-working people studied the problem of crime for six months and issued a report that, in my view, endorses measures that have never worked to deter crime or resulted in the reduction of the crime rate. Once again, ignoring history, a task force concentrated on punitive rather than preventive measures. We still are busily mopping the water off the floor while we let the tub overflow. Mopping harder may make some difference in the level of the flood, but it doesn’t do anything about the open faucet.

Like many other members (I later learned), I brought no special knowledge of the subject to the table. Still, I was no stranger to our crime-saturated society. During the early Sixties, I had worked two summers as a jailer in the Dallas County Jail. As a young reporter, I had served the usual apprenticeships covering the police beat and the courts; later I had spent many hours riding with police, interviewed more defendants and their victims than I care to remember, listened to never-ending debates on why our society was so violent. In recent years, I had written articles about murders in Harlem, drug dealing in Big Bend, prostitution in Houston, violence in the West Dallas Housing Projects, and gang mayhem in San Antonio. And everyone I knew had been a victim of crime or knew someone who had.

Of course, violence and crime have been among the most durable aspects of the American experience. Violence had brought us independence, freed the slaves, first conquered then tamed the West, and fathered the labor and civil rights movements. Violence also had terrorized thousands of immigrants (the term “hoodlum” originated in San Francisco during the 1860s to describe juveniles who preyed on that city’s Chinese population); lynched 1,985 blacks in the South between 1882 and 1903; created organized crime after the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919; and possessed and corrupted cities in the Seventies and Eighties with drug wars. Billy the Kid, Al Capone, John Dillinger, Charles Manson, Son of Sam, John Hin-ckley Jr. The Dishonor Roll rolls on.

Outside the Third World, the U.S. still is the most violent nation on earth. No country comes close to matching our rates of murder rape, robbery, or aggravated assault. Only the Soviet Union and the Republic of South Africa have larger prison populations. In America, where the penitentiary originated, only California had more reported crimes than Texas. Closer to home, Dallas and Fort Worth last year led the entire nation in major crimes per capita, Dallas ranking second among the country’s thirty-three largest cities in per capita rate of robberies, burglaries, and thefts. Clearly this was the place to study crime. “Apathy is just frozen violence,” someone once said. I agreed. Something had to be done.


The Mayor’s Criminal Justice Task Force did not have an auspicious beginning. Its first breath of life came from the late city councilman Jim Hart, an Oak Cliff dentist whose tough anti-crime pronouncements sounded like he began his day eating raw wolverine. Hart underwent a sudden logarithmic increase in news value by advocating public hangings and by blaming much of Dallas’s crime dilemma on illegal aliens. “Hart wanted an issue paper addressing crime and the criminal justice system in Dallas,” said Levi Davis, now an investment banker at Rausch-er Pierce Refsnes. In the spring of 1985, Davis was an assistant city manager in charge of police, fire, and convention matters.

Davis got Police Chief Billy Prince to draft a report, but it was not enough. “Hart got the mayor’s endorsement for a larger project,” Davis recalls. “Charles Anderson called me and said ’we’ve got to do something.’ Our suggestion was to go statewide, suggest Governor Mark White form a blue-ribbon task force to study crime like Ross Perot’s drug study,” said Davis. Mark White thought it a splendid idea but he wondered: shouldn’t such an effort come from the “grass roots” rather than the governor’s office in Austin? Dallas should lead the way, be the example for other Texas cities. Of course, this was politically wise: if Dallas came up with draconian recommendations that would cause the Ayatollah Khomeini to blanch, the good governor could thank all concerned and turn his attention to other matters.

With the ball bouncing back to Dallas, Levi Davis took charge and began assem-bling committee members: law enforcement officials, judges, representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s office, Dallas Crime Commission, city councilman Craig Holcomb, probation and justice department people, the district attorney’s office, familiar civic workers like Alex Bickley. The group needed a chairman and quickly found one in-of course-a businessman, Charles Terrell, board chairman of Unimark Insurance Agencies. Terrell had served on the city council in the mid-Seventies but had not been particularly active in civic work in recent years- His knowledge of criminal justice mostly came from his chairing the board of OPEN Inc., a Dallas organization that emphasizes the family as a rehabilitative tool for ex-offenders. Terrell’s appointment surprised him: “Mayor Taylor was in a press conference and called me and said, ’Charlie, you’re missing this meeting. I want to appoint you chairman and will you accept because I’ve got a room full of press here.’ Thai’s how much time I had to decide.”

An intelligent, hard-working man, Terrell got to work and by late June had chosen an executive committee, more members, and seven subcommittees (alcohol and drug abuse, corrections, court processes and convictions, crime prevention, juvenile justice, law enforcement, and legislative needs). The plenary sessions met every six weeks, the subcommittees according to their chair’s schedule. I was assigned to the corrections subcommittee.

From the outset, Terrell faced formidable problems. For the first six months the group functioned with no money and no full-time staffer until [he arrival of Sherry Smith in October. Smith prepared a grant request and in January received $27,000 from the Criminal Justice Division of the governor’s office and matched it with $27,000 in local monies (the grant request structure was $21,200, postage and publication costs; $16,000, salary; $10,500, temporary clerical help; $3,700. travel-of the $54,000 received, $13,000 was not used and will be returned to the city and state). Conservative resources indeed. What was worse, in my opinion, was the absence of a trained researcher in criminal justice matters. We never had anyone to gather data from around the country to learn how other states and cities were handling crowded courts, overflowing prisons, mandatory sentences, drug and alcohol abuse, juvenile certification. We had wagonloads of data from the Dallas Police Department, Texas Department of Corrections, the Department of Public Safety, and the governor’s office, ail stating the proportions of the current mess and what we could expect in the future, and naturally enough, all the data were shaped by a law enforcement point of view. The one exception was an excellent report by the Dallas consulting firm of Hen-ningson, Durham & Richardson Inc. (released the month the task force began work) that concluded that the state’s criminal justice system was overworked, underfunded, and would only get worse unless alternatives to prison were put in place. The task force listened politely but ignored the warnings,

It was also in October that Charles Terrell realized he needed to expand the committee’s membership, broaden its scope-in a word, get more minority members on board. Accordingly. Petis Norman (businessman). Adelfa Callejo (attorney). Rene Martinez (Sanger Harris executive), Cal Stephens (businessman), Dr. Charles Hunter (educator), Yvonne Ewell (park board member), Bob Estrada (attorney), and five other non-minority members were chosen to complete the full seventy-member group. Terrell knew that the early membership had a severe law-enforcement slant, but had trouble, he says, in finding qualified minorities to serve. “Still today, almost a year later, at the last three meetings I’ve asked for more minority nominations,” Terrell says. ’”You know how fast they come? Pretty damn slow.” Life, said Samuel Butler, is like giving a concert on the violin while learning to play the instrument. So must be chairing a seventy-member committee studying a problem no one has the answers to.

Two of the new minority members were furious at being added late and were under no illusions why they were asked to join. “They needed another Hispanic name.’” said Rene Martinez, who felt his appointment was patronizing and perfunctory and attended only one meeting. “My input at this point would be very insignificant.”

“We were window dressing,” said Adelfa Callejo, whose five-page resume includes her past presidency of the Dallas County Criminal Bar Association and a four-year term as chair of the Dallas Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. “All the work had already been done during the previous four months of meetings. They had a workshop session to update things for us but it was too late to contribute anything,” In a February 17 letter of resignation to Terrell, Callejo asked that her name be removed as a member and suggested the task force be called “a Criminal Punishment Task Force because it concerns ’get-tough reform legislation’ and not criminal justice.” Later she agreed to stay on after talks with Terrell and the mayor.

Terrell denied the new members’ charges. “They probably saw a report and thought it was set in concrete. The final vote on all recommendations didn’t occur until December 16.” True enough, but the full task force met only once more (November 4) before the all-day December voting day, and almost every one of the fifty-five subcommittee topics had been debated and chosen. Anyone catching the train at this point caught the caboose, not the engine.

By late fall, the machinations and sociology of the committee had become quite clear to me and provided a fascinating microcosm of the classic strengths and weaknesses of Dallas. Charles Terrell was a fair, impartial chairman and ran a clean ship. I neither uncovered nor heard of any secret meetings or “hidden agendas,” no scabrous deeds or arm twisting. Busy men and women volunteered many hours trying to understand a difficult problem. I was very impressed with Councilman Craig Holcomb, who rarely missed a meeting despite a frantic daily schedule. Sitting back under his reentry vehicle hair style, he pithily made points and offered suggestions. His knowledge of city government was a great help. Others, sadly, had their minds made up from the get-go. Whatever thoughts they once held had long since stultified into attitudes and it would have been easier to argue with the Pentagon. Moralizing like a Victorian deaconess or trembling with anger, these members uttered the same phrases over and over: “rehabilitation doesn’t work”. . .”mandatory sentences”. . “no more good time”.. “courts [or judges] are soft on crime.”

On the issue of tougher sentences, for instance, advocates brought up New York’s so-called “Rockefeller drug law,” passed in 1973, that called for a minimum sentence of fifteen to twenty-five years for possession of two ounces of heroin; and the Bartley-Fox Massachusetts gun law, mandating a one-year minimum prison term without possibility of parole for anyone illegally carrying a gun. What we didn’t hear was that both laws became major sources for, of course, overcrowding of prisons, but more importantly, overcrowding of courts. Defendants responded to the threat of harsher penalties by demanding more trials, so the average time between arrest and disposition in drug cases almost doubled from 173 days in 1973 to 340 in 1976. What both .states got were more verdicts of not guilty, more dismissals, more appeals, more new trials. And more slow, slow justice.

Preventive detention (not letting people out on bail) was another arrow in the quiver of the “get-tougher-on-crime” members. I found a federal government study that showed that the number of people imprisoned for committing violent crimes while out on bail was less than 2 percent. This made no dent in the certainties of the lock-em-up school.

As I saw it, two major problems vexed the task force. First, even after Terrell added new members, there were precious few differences in criminal justice philosophy, and hence little of the cross-fertilization of perspectives that might have produced new ideas. Presented with any proposal to get tough on crime from the district attorney’s office, the police department, or the state prison system, most members of the task force salivated as predictably as Pavlov’s does. Of course, all of us wanted dangerous felons locked up, but too many members seemed to think the choice was between a wrist pat or whacking the accused in the head with a two-by-four studded with nails.

Regrettably, recent American criminal justice policy has emphasized increasing the severity of punishment rather than its certainty and has neglected social support programs almost entirely. We have fewer family support programs like OPEN Inc., fewer job .support programs, fewer drug/ alcohol treatment centers, fewer rehabilitative programs in general than any other Western nation. This approach to crime solving was neglected almost completely except in a bland, lip-service sort of way.

We needed real. honest-to-God dissent. Where was Mannette Dodge, an attorney and head of the Dallas Texas Civil Liberties Union? Or Richard Grinter of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, whose Hall Street office works out alternative sentencing plans? Where were academic criminal justice specialists like Dr. Mary Almore of UT-Arling-ton or Dr. Clifford Black of North Texas State University? Where were legal scholars like Professor Walter Steele of the SMU law school, an expert in Texas criminal procedure or Professor Neil Cogan, an authority in constitutional law? It seemed Dallas leaders still feared other points of view that didn’t show a Magdalene-like devotion to law enforcement. What little debate occurred came from defense attorneys like Vince Perini and Henry Ackels, but the plenary meetings were always on Monday mornings when defense counselors had docket call. (“Unintentional,” claimed Terrell, who said he had wanted to meet early in the week before the members were ensnared with appointments and travel.) Dissent also came from Ned Rollo, executive director of OPEN, an ex-offender and therefore the only task force member who could speak with absolute authority about incarceration.

Secondly, it was apparent early in the game that the task force’s legislative needs , subcommittee, chaired by attorney David Dean, a former Texas Secretary of State appointed by Bill Clements and the former Republican governor’s point man on criminal justice matters, ran the show. He was ably assisted by Rider Scott, chief felony prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. As Dean told the executive committee in July 1985, his charge was to prepare a legislative package of approximately ten items to present for passage at the 70th Legislature in January 1987.

Henry Ackels, last year’s president of the Dallas County Criminal Bar Association, was a member of Dean’s subcommittee from the beginning. “I was excited. The way the task force was presented to me was it would be a comprehensive and well-rounded examination of criminal justice and the problem of crime in Dallas. But after a few meetings 1 realized the committee was simply an arm of the DA’s office. Early on, Rider Scott presented us with two lists of proposals. On one were items like changes in the oral confession law. exclusionary rule, sentencing structure, things the DA’s people had tried in the past to get approved in Austin. The other list had new things like R.I.C.O. |Rack-eteer-In flue need and Corrupt Organizations legislation. Ninety-eight percent of the report are Scott’s proposals,” says Ackels.


There were two public unveilingsof “the final package1’ of the Mayor’s Criminal Justice Task Force Report. The first, on February 12 at a noon news conference in city hall, presented nine major sections:

Oral confessions: Allow for admission of a voluntarily made oral confession by a defendant to a peace officer.

Exclusionary rule: Amend the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure to allow a “good faith exception” to the exclusionary rule.

Prison expansion: Expand prison capacity of the TDC to a minimum of 42,000 inmates by September 1. 1989.

Good Time Law: No awarding of good time if an inmate refuses to work.

Prison Management Act: Repeal this law, which credits inmates with good time when prison capacity reaches 95 percent.

Sentencing: Alter September 1, 1987, con-victed felons should serve a minimum of 25 percent of a sentence and second-time offenders 50 percent before becoming eligible for parole.

Certification of juveniles as adults: A thirteen-year-old should be so certified in crimes of capital murder, murder, aggravated assault, robbery, kidnapping, and sale of narcotics.

(Many members protested the juvenile certification provision, and by the time of the report’s second presentation in April, the controversial section regarding juvenile certification at age thirteen as adults had been deleted.)

Speedy Trial Act: Repeal the Texas State Speedy Trial Act.

Alternatives to incarceration and education: State should expand academic and vocational training to inmates and develop other educational alternatives to jail.

For me. the Task Force Report is far from a balanced look at fighting and preventing crime. The spinal cord of thought in all but three sections is: put more people in prison longer. No respected study I read suggested this had any effect in reducing crime. From 1969 through 1983 the rate of violent crime-as measured by police reports-rose nationwide by 61 percent. Since 1973 we have more than doubled the national incarceration rate; by 1983, there were enough inmates in state, local, and federal prisons to populate a city the size of Atlanta. Areas with the most punitive penal systems-the South, for instance-also tended to have the worst rates of crime. The hard fact is that violent crime is worse today than before the prison boom of the Seventies and Eighties. The fundamental point that emerges over and over again regarding stiffer penalties and more prisons is this: the reduction of serious crime through incarceration is disturbingly small, particularly when balanced against the economic costs of building more prisons. Most of our report flies in the face of this incontrovertible fact and barely addresses prevention or prison alternatives. For a few comments on the specifics of the Task Force Report, “let us proceed from without inwards” as the anatomists say.

Oral confessions: Texas stands alone in not allowing as court evidence voluntarily made oral confessions by a defendant to a police officer. So what? What’s wrong with having something in writing to ensure accuracy? In fact, why not tape the proceedings as a matter of course; the law doesn’t require the defendant’s consent, only that the voices are identified and he is read his rights. Then there would be no question about coercion, rights, confession content. Police are under tremendous pressure to make good cases. Like the rest of us, they occasionally lie. When they falsify evidence, and are caught, they are fired, as Dallas Officers Kelly Shoulders and Bryan Cornish were in September. It comes down to a swearing match, the officer’s word against the defendant’s, and juries tend to believe police. The crucial point is that we have the technology to ensure accuracy. Why not use it?

Exclusionary Rule-Briefly, the exclusionary rule states that if the police break rules to acquire evidence, the evidence is excluded from trial testimony. However, in US. v. Leon (1984), the Supreme Court held that if the officer acted in “good faith” in procuring a warrant, the evidence is admissible- The task force wants state law to conform with this “good faith exception.” Texas is already well on its way. In Osban v. State (September 17, 1986), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals made a 6-3 decision that “could be construed to embrace the Leon doctrine,” a Criminal Appeals Court attorney said. It remains case law, not statutory law.

For me the real point about both these sections is that they really don’t make much difference in the fight against crime. The U.S. General Accounting Office concluded in the late Seventies that in federal courts less than eight felony arrests in a thousand were “lost’-either screened out by prosecutors or dismissed by the court-because of the exclusionary rule. In his dissent in U.S. v. Leon, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. cited four other studies, all showing that less than 1 percent of all cases resulted in acquittals because evidence had been excluded.

“We have now had fourteen years of basically conservative opinions from the Supreme Court and it is very surprising to me to read reports like this that essentially say the law is ’too liberal.” that courts are ’coddling criminals,” allowing them to go free. It just isn’t so,” says SMU’s Neil Cogan. “The goal of the report is so implicit it screams at you,” says Walter Steele, an expert in Texas criminal law procedure, “It disturbs the balance between the prosecution and defense so as to make prosecution easier in a system already resulting in an over 90 percent conviction rate. Isn’t it curious that nowhere did they find even one place that was unfair to the individual citizen?”

Prison expansion: In 1984 it cost more than $60,000 to build an average prison cell and $23,000 a year to house the inmate. The Texas Department of Corrections still lacks about 900 security guards and 191 medical positions to meet U.S. District Judge William Justice’s court orders. In August, the Legislature cut $33 million from the proposed TDC 1987 budget of more than $300 million. (At this writing the House had proposed to cut only S3.7 million.) In our current economic crisis, big bucks for more prisons will come slowly if at ail. Because the task force had no research personnel we heard nothing about alternatives: Iowa’s work release and prisoner employment programs; Oklahoma’s Community Treatment Centers; Nebraska’s five pre-release centers; North Carolina’s Community Corrections Act, which utilizes restitution and community service projects; Georgia’s “intensive supervision’’ and ninety-day “shock incarceration” measures. Massachusetts shut down its reform schools and relies primarily on community-based treatment; their juvenile crime has fallen 26 percent since 1978. Do these measures work? We never found out.

Good time law. . .parole reform. . .joinder of offenses. . .mandatory sentences. With the single-mindedness of a freight train, the task force traveled down one track: lock more up longer. “The real problem with this passe, futile, atavistic, inaccurate approach,” says Steele, “is that it detracts people from thinking about the more appropriate serious issues, how to prevent crimes before they happen. Don’t study how to put people in prison longer. We’re already doing a pretty good job of that and look what we’ve got.”


A second offering from the Mayor’s Criminal Justice Task Force will be presented to the Texas Legislature in January. Last June, Charles Terrell and task force member Dr. Jon Fleming, a psychologist who works with Terrell and was a member of Governor White’s Select Committee on Public Education, released a report they co-authored titled “A New Proposal To Combat Crime Through Non-Traditional Education.” It calls for emphasis on educating illiterate first-time and non-violent offenders (estimated as high as 80 percent by TDC officials) by retaining them long enough to learn to read, write, and do basic math.

Well and good. How to finance this noble plan? Terrell and Fleming suggest using revenue from an increase in the gasoline tax or perhaps a lottery. Two months after releasing this second report. Terrell agreed to head up gubernatorial candidate Bill Clements’s panel to recommend reform of the state’s criminal justice system, although he supported Mark White in the past as well as many other Democratic candidates. Why?

“Well, he asked me,” says Terrell. “And I was very disappointed by Mark White’s reaction to the task force report and our education paper.” Of course, Clements is adamantly opposed to tax hikes and has said that, if elected governor, he would veto any tax bill the Legislature passes. Terrell says wait and see, citing the support of another well-known tax opponent. House Speaker Gib Lewis. In fact, now the mayor’s report is known as “The Texas War on Crime,” a legislative package presented by Lewis, Starke Taylor, et al. Ironically, exactly a year before, Governor White recommended the state house non-violent inmates in work camps, much like those Terrell would like to see used as education facilities.

The task force continues. Fifteen new members have been added as well as a new education committee. Fifteen decided not to serve a second year.

In dealing with social ills as with physical ills, the first step toward a cure is an accurate diagnosis. I feel that we on the task force tailed in this elemental quest. I hope that in the committee’s second year, members will take a hard look at the comparative evidence from around the country to help dispel several myths that have hindered our coming to grips with violent crime. We must also realize that if we are serious about attacking the roots of this American affliction, we must build a society that is more equal, more secure, more nurturing of family and community ties, and less destructive of cooperative values.