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July 7, 2017

Texas continues to demonstrate how state "smart on crime" reforms can lead to less imprisonment and less crime

This Dallas Morning News article, headlined "With crime, incarceration rates falling, Texas closes record number of lock-ups," highlights why the Lone Star state should be viewed as a shining star for anyone eager to see states find paths to having less crime and less incarceration.  Here are excerpts:

Texas will shutter more prisons this year than it has in any single year in history, a response to the state's tight budget and shrinking inmate population.  In the state's two-year budget, which lawmakers approved in May, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was ordered to close four prison facilities by Sept. 1.  When all four are closed, tough-on-crime Texas will have shuttered eight prisons in just six years.

Criminal justice reform advocates, agency officials and lawmakers say the closings are possible because of a combination of factors, including falling crime rates and legislative efforts to reduce the number of people who spend time behind bars.  "This is something we have done incrementally over the last decade," said Derek Cohen, deputy director at the Center for Effective Justice at the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation.  "We're not any less safe publicly for that."

The drop in Texas' prison population began around 2007, when lawmakers were faced with an expensive decision.  The state had spent decades and millions of dollars building hulking prison edifices across rural Texas.  Tens of thousands of cells were quickly filling, and without changing the way Texas operated its criminal justice system, the state would soon be forced to spend millions more to house a burgeoning inmate population.

A state known for its lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to crime began to shift its approach.  Instead of erecting more massive prisons, lawmakers invested in diversion programs to help troubled Texans get back on track and avoid incarceration.  They spent more on initiatives to provide services to people whose mental illnesses landed them crosswise with the law.  Lawmakers in 2015 updated a decades-old property crime punishment scheme that had resulted in felony punishments for thieves who had stolen penny-ante items.  "What we saw was almost within 18 months, just an immediate decrease in the number of people sent to state jail on property offenses," said Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

At the same time, crime rates fell across the state.  Texas Department of Public Safety data shows that crime rates have fallen each year since at least 2012.  The overall crime rate in Texas fell nearly 6 percent from 2013 to 2014.  And it dropped another 4.7 percent the following year.

Texas closed its first prison in 2011 after much hand-wringing.  The Central Unit was a 79-year-old, sprawling behemoth on valuable land in the growing Houston suburb of Sugar Land. The prison population had begun to fall already, dropping 8 percent from 2004 to 2011. Legislators were facing a budget shortfall of up to $27 billion, and closing the Central Unit could save them about $50 million over two years.  For the first time in Texas history, it made political and fiscal sense to close a prison. It turned out, lawmakers were just getting started.

Two years later, they shuttered the Jesse R. Dawson State Jail in Dallas and a pre-parole unit in Mineral Wells.  Earlier this year, the criminal justice department closed a privately operated intermediate sanctions facility in Houston that was right next to Minute Maid Park.  As the closings continued, inmate population continued to drop, from 156,000 in 2011 to about 146,000 today, according to department spokesman Jason Clark....

It's unclear, though, whether the shuttering trend will continue in Texas.  Lawmakers this year did not approve any changes that criminal justice reform advocates said would keep the prison population on the decline.  Among the measures lawmakers rejected were proposals to reduce drug offense penalties and to keep 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, as most states do, instead of sending them to adult prisons.

July 7, 2017 at 09:26 AM | Permalink

Comments

In the absence of a crime victimization survey, the claim of a falling crime rate is dismissed.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 7, 2017 11:29:29 AM

Isnt it something that Texas can get smart on crime and have less prison time.

But the Feds need all the time that is available Via the guidelines. Smacks closely wiyh iur national debt and no budget. Wont be long and this old boat called USA will no longer float, debt will sink us all, its a given unless a reversal on getting smart on everything is implemented.

It doesnt take Wiley E Coyote Super Genius to do the calcs on this one.

All of the big useless talk has and will do absolutely zippo.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Jul 7, 2017 10:09:32 PM

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