10 Questions | Texas Sen. John Whitmire
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Texas Sen. John Whitmire, the dean of the Texas Senate, has served his state for nearly four decades—10 years in the state House of Representatives and 29 years in the Senate. The chair of the House Criminal Justice Committee believes early intervention—whether in the justice system or in schools—can help prevent many problems later on. That’s one reason children’s issues are important to him.
What has been the biggest change that you have seen in public service over the years?
“It’s definitely got more complicated. A lot more special interest groups, much more partisan, much more reporting. Reporters are much more aggressive and oftentimes smarter than they used to be. Not always, but sometimes smarter. Life is just a lot more complex than when I started 39 years ago. Didn’t have cell phones, didn’t have Internet. Didn’t have the crime problems. Didn’t have the drugs. Crack cocaine didn’t exist, that I’m aware of. Certainly cocaine was the drug of the celebrities back in the ’70s and ’80s. Didn’t have a drug cartel in Mexico that I’m aware of, or it was a lot smaller. Just since I started chairing criminal justice in ’93 we had 60,000 inmates. Today we have 158,000. Doubling of a prison system in less than 20 years. It’s amazing. So what’s changed? A bunch. But it’s also gotten a lot more partisan.”
You have said that you like to put a human face on the issues. How do you do that and why is that important?
“You’ve got to put a human face on it so other legislators can understand the issue. It makes bureaucrats deal with it more realistically. When they just kind of talk hypothetical or projections or numbers. It doesn’t talk about an AIDS victim being taken off his medicine because of budget cuts, which leads to his most likely death and the potential of spreading the disease. When they come in and say, ‘I want to cut $14 million from drugs for AIDS patients.’ How many people are we talking about? What’s the probably they’ll survive if you do that? Get them to talk in real terms. For tuition increases: What does that do to students who are barely affording college now?
You’ve got to slow down in this business and make it real. Sometimes members don’t want to do that sometimes they don’t know how to do that, but I’ve found it very beneficial.”
What are the challenges that the growing Hispanic population brings to your state?
“The blooming, growing Hispanic population is a young population, that’s one of the first things to recognize, which means you’re going to need schools and infrastructure. It is a relatively low-income group, so they’re going to need social services, health care … so we should prepare and also benefit from this growth. It will be a tremendous workforce, great culture. I understand it threatens some people, but they ought to get over it and embrace it because it’s here and it’s not going anywhere and it’s going to be a tremendous asset.
“Change is sometimes slow. I think some folks are frightened because of the unknown. There’s a language barrier sometimes, certainly a culture. It’s going to happen and we can either make it work or resist and I not only want to make it work, I want to embrace it and promote it because … we’re very fortunate, our Anglo population is getting older; the African-American population is pretty flat. So who’s going to provide the workforce in the future? The young population is largely Hispanic and lots and lots of talent. I think we ought to promote it. I’ve got colleagues and others that disagree but I think I’m right and they’re wrong.”
Why did the 2009 change in the way Texas deals with nonviolent juvenile offenders work and why was it a good move for your state and the juveniles involved?
“The youth corrections system was in bad need of a fix. We were sending way too many kids there; kids that we proved could be helped in their community. That (old) model was back from the ’50s, when you just kind of gave up on a kid and sent him to rural Texas—out of sight out of mind. (Juvenile offenders) now are largely in juvenile probation department programs, work with them closer to home near the courts, near the family. In urban settings they would get better health care mental health and education services. We saw that was working and we’ve enhanced that. In fact that we just merged juvenile probation with Texas Youth Commission, into one new juvenile justice department with the emphasis on keeping kids at home in the community. The worst of the worst would be sent to a state facility to be incarcerated. It’s a win-win. You get a better product. The youth go there and come out better than when you sent them, unlike the past. And you save millions of dollars.”
Why is it important to be involved in juvenile issues for you?
“The reason you get involved in juvenile justice and children is because if you don’t fix it there, you have to fix it down the road when they’re adults and it’s so much more expensive. You pay now or you pay later. If you pay now, it’s much more affordable, plus you reduce human misery and you reduce the number of crime victims. If you go to the adult system, most of the guys have been causing problems since they were youngsters.
If someone had intervened earlier, maybe they wouldn’t be locked up in an expensive prison and public safety would be enhanced.”
What was the most surprising thing from the Texas school discipline study produced by The Council of State Governments Justice Center?
“The most surprising thing in the report was how extensive it was, the problem that across the state. Such a large number of youth had been expelled. I didn’t know the extent that African-Americans were expelled or suspended at a greater rate than other ethnic groups. If you look at the most of our criminal justice systems, juvenile or adult, it’s heavily weighted in terms of African-Americans. If you go back upstream to the schools and who gets in trouble, or who, through discretionary decisions, the administrators have decided are expelled, I guess it shouldn’t shock me that it’s African-Americans. It definitely alarmed me, though, because it’s just wrong. It’s something we need to talk about and address.”
The study found that the number of times students were disciplined really impacts whether they would graduate and go on and be successful.
“It does impact them. They get labeled. They get an ID number. They get labeled to the point they’re ostracized. They’re observed, they’re punished and they get driven to the juvenile justice system and they graduate from there and go to the adult system. There’s a correlation there between being suspended and expelled and ending up in the criminal justice system. No doubt about it. If you went to the adult system and interviewed most of them they were probably suspended or expelled at one time so they get expelled and they find a support group and the support group oftentimes is a gang and they turn to crime.”
What does that say about the challenges facing Texas?
“Texas has a challenge to do something about it. We’ve documented the problem, now we’ve got to find some solutions. But let me quickly add, I don’t think it’s just a Texas phenomenon; it’s a national one. In fact, we saw numbers where California and others are expelling suspending more kids than we do, but I can’t fix their problem. We can address it in Texas. We’ve got to go work on it. We’ve got to find out from the school districts that are having good results what they’re doing right and I think it’s also a resource allocation problem. You can’t be cutting the education budget. When you’re asking school districts to have early intervention and more intensive mentoring and can’t let class sizes get too large. You’ve got to support teachers, try to get good people to go teach and stay teaching. The fact that we’ve brought awareness to this issue is a good start.
What’s the next step?
“The next step is I’m going to have hearings. I’m going to have working groups with educators, law enforcement, people that will look at other models around the country, see what’s working. I’m big on working groups. We’ll get 12, 14, 20 people together, meet regularly. What are they doing in their community that we can share with others?
Ultimately probably pass some laws.”
A lot of states passed zero tolerance laws in the late ’80s, early ’90s …
“I think the zero tolerance needs to be revisited; I think we need to put some discretion. We all know what to do when somebody brings a gun or a knife or a weapon to school with the intent to harm someone. But I think you have to use some common sense. If some kid’s been hunting that weekend and he leaves a shotgun shell in his back seat, I’m not sure that it makes sense for him to be under some mandatory suspension or expulsion. Hear his story out and if it was just a mistake, that’s why they came up with that word. I think the mandatory requirement needs to be revisited.”
The report found that only 3 percent of disciplinary actions were mandatory …
“Apparently the mandatory is not causing the huge numbers. It’s the discretionary. That gets you back to the African-American element. The black kids are being kicked out by somebody’s discretion. We need to look inside their mind, or their heart, and see what’s driving that train.”
So you’re looking for better planning on how to handle disciplinary problems?
“They’re not crimes, they’re dumb teenage behavior. Teachers ought to be trained to recognize it and support them. It starts at the top. You’ve got to have a policy that works. Then support the teachers, if the teacher wants to use some discretion. Find the good teachers who want to work with the kids longer too. But let me add that we want to make sure the teachers are safe and in the kind of environment that they need to teach the kids.”
You’ve been a leader in Justice Reinvestment in your state. What would you tell other states about adopting similar initiatives? Why do they work?
“It reduces crime because you don’t have the recidivism. If you treat people for their addictions, and educate them, give them life skill courses, have a re-entry program that works, you’ll not have recidivism. If you cut down on recidivism, you cut down on crime. Also you save billions of dollars. The alternative to incarceration on the frontend works. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the right profile person. I’m not talking about rapists, murderers and child molesters. We lock them up for very long periods of time. We do a real fine job, and have begun to do a good job of dealing with nonviolent offenders who need help with drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services. It all goes to trying to release a better person than the one you received.”
One of your colleagues pointed out there are two varieties of students that need to be disciplined, the ones you’re afraid of and the ones you’re mad at.
“You’ve got to distinguish (between them). You’ve got to decide who you’re mad at and who you’re afraid of you handle somewhere else. If you’re afraid of somebody you lock them up in very secure facilities and leave them for long periods of time. If you’re mad at somebody you work with them, get over it. Make them a better person, give them the opportunity to turn their lives around. It’s the right thing to do and it saves money, too.”
What advice would you give to states in strengthening public safety?
“Learn the issue. A little bit of knowledge is dangerous. Most legislators know just a little about their corrections system and all of its facets. Get familiar and recognize locking somebody up is not always the toughest thing you can do. You can always lock somebody up. That’s a no brainer. And it’s no always the toughest thing. The toughest thing you can do, and probably the most conservative thing you can do, is prevent the next crime … when you arrest somebody and prosecute them, you require or work with them to turn their lives around. If somebody just insists he or she doesn’t want to, you can always lock that person up. For certainly nonviolent low level crime, the toughest thing you can do is make somebody fix his problem, go to work, pay taxes, raise a family and not become a burden on your state. Learn how it works. It’s not that complicated. It requires some resources and some leadership but it’s out there if you just do it. You can always lock somebody up; that’s a no brainer. You waste millions of dollars if you lock up people that don’t need to be there.”
What is your advice to younger generation of senators across the country as they begin their careers?
“Work hard, have fun, make a difference. Don’t be afraid to do the right thing. I think they can make tremendous difference and show some leadership and they will be surprised how strong they become politically.”