SENTENCING Several sources have indicated that there is sentiment on the House task force against Texas’ current policy of indeterminate sentencing. However, the Governor’s Executive Committee Report endorses it. Opinion on the question is no less divided among liberals. “All a two-to-ten sentence teaches,” one legislator-lawyer told the Observer, “is how to give the warden good blow-jobs.” Put less pungently, the behavior required to obtain early release is not the same behavior that would insure successful transition to the free world. Moreover, calling punishment treatment does not make it any less punishing. Some reform groups, including the American Friends Service Committee, now advocate short sentences of definite duration. But in Texas, abolition of indeterminate sentences is endangered as a progressive idea by the general atmosphere of vindictiveness. Instead of swift, certain punishment, abolition would more likely result in a substantial increase in average time servedsomething some Texans may want but probably can’t afford. Incarceration is the most expensive alternative and W. J. Estelle, Jr., director of the Texas Department of Corrections, is already asking for a new prison. The Briscoe-Clayton proposals for noprobation plus tack-on sentences for offenders who use weapons are also open to attack on cost-effectiveness grounds, As of the first of this year, Texas had 18,934 men and women in prison, up 12 percent from last year and second only to California. Craig Washington has suggested that the Briscoe-Clayton package “would put four times as many people in prison and require By Rod Davis Austin The picture Rep. Lane Denton drew of death rates in Texas mental institutions in 1972-73 was dismal. There were 1,485 deaths in the 20-month study period out of an average annual patient population of 11,800. Denton didn’t question whether the incidence of death among the retarded and whether proper records were kept and Davis, a former wire service reporter, is now freelancing in Austin. 4 The Texas Observer four times as many prisons.” In the end, Briscoe may have to choose between law ‘n order and “no new taxes.” WIRETAPPING Briscoe would like to see an entire chapter dealing with organized crime added to the Texas Penal Code. A mainstay of this chapter is legalized wiretapping patterned , after federal law. The state code currently prohibits wiretapping, but that has not daunted the Houston police department and others from using illegal taps to make cases. At least $267,000 in federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funds have already been used to buy wiretapping equipment for Texas cops. They’re rarin’ to go. In fact, Houston Police Chief Pappy Bond is promoting his own model wiretapping legislation. Briscoe, Hobby, Hill, and Clayton are all going to have to push to get the more controversial “anti-crime” measures passed. There are formidable roadblocks, not the least of which are Criminal Jurisprudence Chair Washington in the House and Chairs Santiesteban \(criminal jurisprudence sub age passed, Clayton would probably have to replace Washington as chairman or make an end run around him. He could possibly decide to “reorganize” the House and set up a separate committee to deal with organized crime. At any rate, Washington’s committee assignments next year should be an indication of how strongly Clayton plans ‘ to push his law ‘n order program. Right now, the prospects seem to be lots of dandy in-fighting, low rent demagoguery, and very little legislation. whether some of the deaths could have been prevented through better care. Release of the study grabbed a few headlines and moments of air time, but not as much as expected. It may have been because the data was almost historical in nature, based on a situation three years ago that scarcely resembles the position of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation today. Nonetheless, there’s nothing like looking where you used to be to see how far you’ve gotten, which still may not be far. Closely following Denton’s report was a 111-page set of recommendations for MHMR from Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby’s Joint Advisory Committee on Government Oper ations. The report, drafted by Hobby aide Dr. June Hyer, predicts a gradual reduction in Texas mental care patient levels from 11,472 in 1976 to 10,636 by 1979. It recommends changing fiscal control from the present “facility-by-facility” appropriation basis to a more flexible “programmatic” approach. The Hobby report also calls for more emphasis on community care programs to help reduce institutional populations. Somewhat surprisingly, it advises curtailing construction funds for new facilities. Adding to all the MHMR attention this summer are Legislative Budget Board hearings in August. The department wants $827 million for 1978-79, up from $603 million in the 1976-77 biennium. Dr. Kenneth Gayer replaced David Wade as MHMR commissioner nearly a year ago. He is being credited for instituting long overdue changes in the department, including many of the problems addressed by Denton. Denton found in the ’72-73 period a hopeless system of accounting for deaths at the state hospitals \(for mentally ill, including alords he requested in 1973 weren’t provided until 1975. Secondly, many of the certificates gave either no cause of death or an imprecise one, such as respiratory failure. Nonetheless, the research indicates that, at least for the study period, it was possible not only to die from insufficient attention, but never to have the world find out why. Denton said 169 deaths were “preventable” had there been adequate, fully trained staff. There just weren’t enough people to go around. In the schools, where 67 percent of the patients suffer severe retardation and physical handicaps, almost constant attention is necessary. Most of the “preventPatients choked to death on their own vomit, or bits of food. Other categories of Furthermore, said Denton, few staff attendants were trained in simple life-saving techniques, such as the Heimlich method, to prevent choking. Of all the deaths, there were 31 inquests. About 20 percent of the deceased had autopsies. Denton said the sloppy recordkeeping opened several possibilities for death causes, the most interesting of which is improper drug dosages, something the department hotly denies. Corollary to the death study, Denton also estimated that one-third of the persons in institutions could receive better and less expensive treatment as outpatients at community centers. He said any increased state appropriations for MHMR should focus on augmenting staff levels and developing community programs. To what extent has the situation changed in 1976? The death watch at MHMR
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