FEATURE They Shot More than a Messenger Governor Rick Perry silenced Tony Fabelo. Now, hear what he has to say. BY JAKE BERNSTEIN In June 2003, at the end of the regular session of the 78th Legislature, Governor Rick Perry abolished an entire agency with a line-item veto. The agency had a biannual budget of only $2.5 million, but Perry’s action will likely end up costing the state much more than that. For an institution that was unique in the nation, the agency had a rather bland namethe Criminal Justice Policy Council. It had started in 1984 as a council of elected officials tasked with forcing agencies dealing with the criminal justice system to work together. One of its first employees was a freshly minted doctorate from the University of Texas named Tony Fabelo. Over two decades Fabelo would transform the council into an unbiased source of data and planning for one of the largest prison systems in the world. The council studied everything from prison costs and upkeep to the effectiveness of drug treatment programs. Astoundingly ,1 out of every 20 Texans are under the control of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice either in prison, parole, or on probation. Fabelo created order from chaos. “We must have a criminal justice policy council,” Senate Criminal Justice CommitThe Houston Chronicle upon hearing of Perry’s veto. “It’s critical to the state’s public safety net that we have experts like Dr. Fabelo around.” Why Perry removed Fabelo is a favorite guessing game of those who work on the advocacy side of the system. The official line from the governor’s office was that the council, created to act “as an independent agency to assist with solutions to prison over crowding” was superfluous, its demise a money saver. For those who don’t swallow that line, there are at least three different conspir acy theories detailing which hidden interest did in the straight-talk ing civil servant. Many, aware that a few key players in the lobby run much of the Lege, believe it was Fabelo’s apprais al of privatization grounded in realism and not ideology. In this the ory, it was a corporate deal and Mike Toomey’s fingerprints are all over the axe. Toomey was a lobbyist whose clients 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 18, 2005 included private-prison behemoth Corrections Corporation of America. He helped engineer the 2002-coordinated Republican campaign to seize the Legislaturecurrently under investigation by a Travis County grand jury. He then became Rick Perry’s chief of staff \(Toomey is back in the lobby for the 79th Legislature: see, Theory number two had Fabelo done in by faith, so to speak. The council did a study comparing faith-based treatment programs to those offered by the state. It found that, while faith-based programs saved the state money, recidivism rates were about the same. Both approaches failed to keep prisoners engaged or successfully integrate them back into their communities. According to this theory, faith-based Republicans, a key bloc in any Perry primary victory, are responsible for killing the council. Last but not least is the current prison crisis. The Legislative Budget Board, which subsumed many of the council’s responsibilities, says the state prison system could be at capacity by March. Fabelo had predicted as much the session before. A crisis in the prison system is not something to trumpet when running for reelection. The next best thing to solving the problem is minimizing its importance. None of this need concern Fabelo anymore. His value is clear to officials in five states where he is working as a consultant. He is also helping out in Puerto Rico, his boyhood home. Born in Cuba, Fabelo’s parents spirited their young son off the island after the revolution. They were headed to Spain on a tourist visa, but when the boat stopped in Puerto Rico, his father asked for political asylum. Fabelo laughs as he tells the story from his South Austin home. Throughout the house are touches of the islands. It’s clear in talking to the bearded and perpetually pensive Fabelo that he still cares deeply about Texas and the criminal justice system he spent almost 20 years trying to fine tune. What follows are excerpts from that conversation. The Texas Observer: There seems to be evidence that other states that didn’t have Texas’ prison building boom also had crime rates that went down. Are we safer or just poorer? Tony Fabelo: It is a combination of everything. We had such a crisis. We let the system get so out of control in the ’80s. We neglected to have adequate capacity. We neglected to really pay attention to how the war on drugs was having an impact on sentences, or pay attention to the probation infrastructure and so forth. We had such a crisis that we had a gigantic backlog in the county jails. The counties sued the state and won, and we had to pay the counties half a billion dollars over a period of,
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