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Four candidates in running for ERS board of trustees position

Voting is underway to elect one of four candidates running for a position on the Employees Retirement System of Texas’ (ERS) board of trustees. Voting began on March 16 and ends on April 16.

The election is to fill the position held by Yolanda (Yoly) Griego. Her term expires on August 31.

Candidates for the position include John Wicks, a reviewer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Monitoring and Standards Division, Brian White, a deputy public counsel for the Office of Injured Employees Counsel, Cheryl MacBride, deputy commissioner of administration for the Texas General Land Office and Veterans Land Board, and Griego, a programmer for the Health and Human Services Commission who is running for a second term.

Created in 1947, the ERS administers a benefits package for state employees and retirees that includes:

  • Retirement benefits for employees and retirees of state agencies.
  • Health and other insurance benefits in a Group Benefits Program for employees and retirees of state agencies, higher education institutions, Community Supervision and Corrections Department employees and active or retired employees of the Texas Municipal Retirement System and Texas County & District Retirement System.
  • TexFlex, a tax-saving flexible benefit program.
  • Texa$aver 401(k) and 457 investment accounts.

The contested position on the six-member ERS board is one of three filled through election. The remaining three members are appointed, one each by the Governor, the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Both appointed and elected members serve staggered six-year terms. Member duties and responsibilities include trust fund investment decisions, approval of a legislative agenda and the selection of benefit providers.

Members of the ERS as of January 31, 2009 and retired state employees receiving an annuity from ERS are eligible to vote. Paper ballots are mailed to members’ homes. Members can cast their ballots by mail or online at Online voters will need their 11-digit ERS employee identification number and the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Election results will be certified on May 12. A runoff election will be held if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. The term of the winning candidates runs from September 2009 until August 31, 2015.

In Texas drug courts, actions speak louder than words

Elizabeth Reagans speaks to judge at the bench
Elizabeth Reagans of Houston tells State District Judge Brock Thomas of her progress in the Success Through Addiction Recovery (drug treatment court) program funded through the Community Justice Assistance Division.

Photo by David Nunnelee

Actions speak louder than words in Texas drug courts.

Take the case of a teary-eyed probationer who tells a judge in Houston that if not for the stress brought on by her mother’s recent illness, she wouldn’t have used cocaine again. The judge is sympathetic but sends her to jail for 10 days to think about her actions.

Later comes the offender who after years of abusing drugs has been clean for months and recently reached out to the family she had abandoned long ago. Like a proud parent, she steps to the bench to show the judge pictures taken of her and members of her estranged family during a happy holiday reunion. The judge smiles, shakes her hand, and tells her that she’s making good progress in her recovery. She beams and practically skips back to her seat in the courtroom.

So it goes in drug court, or drug treatment court. Do the right thing and you’ll be praised. Mess up and you’ll be held accountable. But even for those who do stray, there is merit in being truthful about it.

“There are three rules: show up, try hard, and be honest,” said former 339th Criminal District Court Judge Caprice Cosper, one of four state district judges in Harris County who presided over drug courts in 2008. “It’s in their nature to run and not to face up to the consequences of their actions. So there’s positive reinforcement for them coming to court and admitting to their errors.”

Probationers who appear in Harris County drug courts are typically longtime substance abusers who most likely would be serving time in a state jail or prison if not for their voluntary participation in the Success Through Addiction Recovery, or STAR, program. STAR is a tri-phased program that allows participants to gradually gain responsibility while completing substance abuse treatment and the requirements of the court. The program typically lasts between 12-18 months. Case managers evaluate each client’s individual needs and perform clinical assessments to recommend appropriate residential or outpatient treatment. Clients appear in court weekly to monthly depending on where they are in the program. They also meet regularly with their case managers, attend 12-step meetings or other pre-approved support groups three times a week, and submit to frequent random drug tests.

 It’s no cakewalk.

“Drug court is the most intensive supervision outside of the penitentiary that you can get,” Cosper said. “It’s the highest level of supervision. An awful lot is demanded of these people, particularly in the first three or four months of the program. But then, they are people that have significant addictions.”

Drug courts were first established in Texas in 1993 in Jefferson and Travis counties. By January 2004, 11 counties, including the populous counties of Bexar, Dallas, Harris, and Tarrant, had established drug courts. And in 2007, TDCJ’s Community Justice Assistance Division (CJAD) awarded the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department a one-time diversion grant to provide services to a newly-created court there specifically for DWI offenders.

In addition to CJAD, the Criminal Justice Division of the Governor’s Office also provides grant funding for drug courts at the state level. Additional sources of funding include the city, county, local law enforcement agencies and probation departments, attorney groups, church congregations, and the federal government. Program participants also pay a monthly fee to help offset treatment costs, which, typically, are less than half of what it costs to incarcerate an offender in a state jail for 12 to 14 months.

“It’s a more therapeutic approach and a more holistic approach to substance abuse issues,” Cosper said about drug courts. “While sobriety is the goal, judges know that if you don’t address issues like the dysfunctional family, education, employment, and mental health issues, then you’re never going to achieve long-term sobriety. So what they do in the program is address everything. They know if the probationer lost their mother, they know if their kid got kicked out of school, they know if they’ve got a job, they know if they’ve missed a drug test. They know lot of about what goes on in the lives of the offenders. And they know immediately.”

The primary goals of drug courts are to reduce recidivism, combat substance abuse, and rehabilitate participants. And national evaluations of drug courts have been promising. Results published in 2004 showed that just 12 percent of drug court participants ended up in prison within three years of entry into a drug court program compared to 27 percent of those who did not go through the court-supervised program during the same period.

In Harris County, 18 percent of those who have graduated from the STAR program since September 2003 have been re-arrested for a new offense or probation violation to date. National data, meanwhile, shows that 43.5 percent of drug offenders are re-arrested one year after being released from incarceration. Only 4 percent of STAR graduates have been convicted on a new felony offense within one year of graduation compared to 16.4 percent of nationwide drug court clients.

Those  who succeed can have the charges against them dismissed, gain an early release from probation, or have their supervision requirements and penalties reduced. Those who stumble are subject to being pushed back to an earlier phase of the program or otherwise penalized in accordance with a list of progressive sanctions that include jail time.

In January 2008, 153 men and women were participating in the STAR program in Harris County and another 128 graduates where part of an intensive alumni program. All of the graduates were employed, enrolled in school, or full-time parents as of their graduation. Sixty graduates had been discharged from probation and many were active in the recovery efforts of those still in the program.

 “A lot of the people have 15, 20, 25 years of addiction, and many of them have lengthy criminal histories,” Cosper said. “So judges know that if they didn’t have this intervention of drug court, they’d be back again. This is the population that I believe drug courts are really designed for. They take people who want to do something about their addiction and are ready to do it.”

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