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August 17, 2023

Intriguing accounting of Texas punishment numbers

The latest issues of Texas Monthly includes "a roundup of the many categories — both good and bad — in which Texas ranks number one. "  One notable part of the roundup is titled "When It Comes to People Behind Bars, Texas Is Way Ahead," and here is part of the discussion (with links from the original:  

For years our elected officials — sheriffs, district attorneys, judges, and governors — have won office by promising to be tough on crime.  The most infamous metric for this is that we’re the number one state in executions.  Since 1976, when the Supreme Court declared the death penalty was once again constitutional, we’ve killed nearly five times more convicts than Oklahoma, our nearest competitor.  (Our northern neighbor, however, executes more prisoners per capita than we do; we’re number two by that measure.) 

But we’re also the leader when it comes to living, breathing subjects of the criminal justice system: no state has more inmates than Texas.  (Though, again, on a per capita basis we don’t come out on top; we’re number ten, behind some much smaller states.) We weren’t always number one; California, with a far bigger population, used to outdo us.  Then in the nineties, Governor Ann Richards led an expansion of prisons and a tightening of parole rules that pushed us into the top spot.  Between 1993 and 1998 the population of our state prisons, state jails, and private facilities more than doubled, to 143,889 — more than the entire population of Waco.  Ten years later we reached 156,126 inmates.  Yet, as crime rates fell, so did those numbers, aided, to the surprise of many, by conservative politicians affiliated with the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime initiative, which framed prison issues as economic issues.  Texas began sending nonviolent inmates to community-based programs designed to divert them from future crimes, and it started closing prisons, not building new ones.  Then, during the pandemic, law enforcement curtailed arrests, the court system slowed down its processing, and TDCJ took fewer transfers from county lockups.  By April 2021 Texas had 116,926 inmates in its prisons.

But now, as society is getting back to normal, our numbers are climbing once again.  As of January, Texas had 124,893 inmates. California, with 10 million more residents, had about 29,300 fewer inmates.  And this is all part of a much larger web. Texas has more inmates in “administrative segregation” — solitary confinement in all but name — than any other state, more than 3,000.  And our numbers are shockingly high when it comes to prisons without air-conditioning, incidents of prison rape, and unpaid inmate labor.

None of these changes take into account our 252 county jails, where, by some accounts, on average more than 60,000 men and women await a trial, a plea bargain, or a transfer to state prison.

August 17, 2023 at 06:55 PM | Permalink


Texas has net in migration and California, with its disasters in SF, Oakland and LA, has net out migration. People can still vote with their feet.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 17, 2023 8:15:48 PM

Most of the immigrants from California to Texas are not "voting with their feet." They're following their jobs. And, in any event, seeking for-now cheaper real estate.

Texas has long been fairly innovative with diversion courts for drugs, veterans, first-time offenders. etc. and other incarceration alternatives, driven in part by the TPPF, the same kind of conservative thinkers behind the First Step Act.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Aug 20, 2023 9:15:23 PM

Fat Bastard --

There's a reason jobs are moving to Texas from California: Texas has a relatively low tax, pro-growth environment created by elected state lawmakers and the California has the opposite. In other words, people are indeed voting with their feet.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 20, 2023 11:56:14 PM

Taxes are not significantly lower in Texas than in California. And Texas is excellent at defunding education at the local and university level, as well as public utilities and infrastructure, while handing out subsidies to industry like candy on Halloween.

The main financial difference between Texas and California, as it currently stands, is real estate value.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Aug 24, 2023 12:46:16 AM

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