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August 12, 2012

Texas continues to lower its (still high) incarceration rates

TexasToday's Austin Amerincan-Statesman has this lengthy story discussing trends in Texas's prison population levels.  Here are extended excerpts:

In July, Texas' prison system posted its lowest head count in five years, even as the state's overall population continued to grow at a fast clip.

Instead of 156,500 prisoners behind bars in Texas' 111 state prisons a year ago, the lockups now hold just over 154,000 — a drop of about 2,500, according to state statistics. Texas, which historically has had one of the highest incarceration rates per capita of the 50 states, is now in fourth place, down from second two years ago.

Whether the declining prison population is the start of a long-term decrease or a short-lived dip is a matter of debate that will be settled only by time. Still, experts say, prison population declines are occurring in other states, too.

"It's real. It's happening, not only in Texas, but around the country," said Tony Fabelo, an Austin-based criminal justice consultant who coached Texas officials during the 1990s as the state tripled the size of its prison system and is now advising other states on how to decrease their prison populations. "The challenge is to sustain the outcomes to see how far you can go in downsizing prisons. I have my doubts, but it's an interesting time for criminal justice," Fabelo said.

Instead of sending more and more lawbreakers to prison, judges in Texas and other states are increasingly sentencing them to alternative treatment and rehabilitation programs that have proven more effective — and that cost much less. For taxpayers, that could mean safer communities and fewer expensive prisons to operate. For criminals, that could mean more effective programs to help them escape drug and other addictions and become law-abiding citizens again.

A decrease in crime rates, changes in demographics and an aging state population also have a role in emptying Texas' prison beds, experts say.

Not since the early 1990s, when then-Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, shook up the historical punishment culture of Texas prisons by opening new drug-treatment prisons focusing on rehabilitation, has such a dramatic trend emerged, some experts say. Only this time, conservative Republicans are driving the reforms that began in 2007, as fiscal conservatism gained the upper hand over tough-on-crime policies.

National prison rates

"Policies in various states are finally catching up with what we know works," said Marc Levin, director at the Austin-based Center for Effective Justice and a leader in the national Right on Crime campaign, which promotes community-justice solutions. "For most nonviolent offenders, community-based initiatives are much cheaper and have much better outcomes," Levin said. "In this time of tight budgets and programs that work, this is the conservative thing to do."...

More reforms are expected when the Legislature convenes next year, with proposals to change drug sentencing to provide more treatment rather than prison time and a push to fund a 2011 law that allows Texas counties to limit the number of felons they send to state prisons in exchange for more state funding for local corrections programs.

"We're definitely going to be looking at what works and what doesn't — and we know that treatment and rehabilitation and community justice programs work," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, an architect of many of the reforms. "Prisons should be reserved for the worst of the worst, the violent criminals, murderers, child molesters we should definitely be afraid of. We have a lot of other inmates in there that could probably be housed someplace else, at less cost," Whitmire said....

Despite the enthusiasm in Texas and nationally for community-based alternatives to prison, there are limits [in part because] alternatives to prison don't work for everybody. Sharon Padilla's family highlights that dilemma.

The 34-year-old former Austinite, now living and working in Houston, served three years in Texas prisons for cocaine possession, after flunking out three times on probation with several stints in jail. "I went through programs one after the other, but nothing took," Padilla said. "Prison didn't do much, except it got me off the street.  Drug court got in my business big time, and I had to get my head straight. But it took myself to want to do it."

August 12, 2012 at 10:44 AM | Permalink

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Does this mean that Texans are now better behaved? One of the main reasons that Texas needs the death penalty is because Texans, as a group, are not law-abiding. Now, obviously a state w/o a death penalty has a better populace which isn't so prone to naughtiness.

Posted by: S.cotus | Aug 12, 2012 2:59:06 PM

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