What If Texas Had Never Reformed Its Criminal Justice System?

Texans are proud of their state and for good reason. We have not only survived, but thrived during hard economic times. We create more jobs than anyone in the nation. And have you tried our barbecue?

We’re also proud of being smart when it comes to our criminal-justice system. That wasn’t always the case. We’ve always been tough, but we haven’t necessarily been wise. This mentality led to a lot of low-level, non-violent offenders being locked away, bloating our criminal-justice system like a bad federal government program — even when there were safer and more cost effective alternatives. 

In Texas, that mentality started to change in 2005. But not all states have figured this out. For years, federal courts have directed California to reform its overcrowded prisons, citing unconstitutional conditions. After false starts and costly stopgaps, a federal court finally ordered California to reduce overcrowding or else face the reality of releasing thousands of prisoners.

Texas came to a similar crossroads in 2007, prior to the federal government’s mandate. Had policies persisted, Texas would have been required to spend over $2 billion to house an estimated 17,000 new inmates over five years.

This was untenable. The Texas Public Policy Foundation got involved to help find solutions that made corrections safer, more victim centric, and financially manageable.

Instead of letting the problem fester as it did in California — where prisons were around 200 percent over-capacity— the Texas Legislature took action and invested in measured, calculated reforms targeting prison diversion for low-level, non-violent offenders.

Texas’ prison population is remarkably lower than it was in 2007, by rate and raw numbers, even though Texas’ population has grown dramatically. And crime rates are at their lowest levels in decades. Probationers and parolees are also seeing better results.

Nevertheless, some critics still claim that the 2005 and 2007 reforms did not improve Texas’ criminal justice system. This argument flies in the face of solid data. Texas would be a much different place had those proactive actions not been taken. Here’s a look at what might have happened.

Build Prisons or Face a Federal Lawsuit

The incarceration status quo in 2007 was unsustainable. By 2012, Texas would have been over-capacity by 17,000 inmates. Without reform, the state would have had to build several new prisons at an estimated cost of $2 billion.

No one can know for sure whether or at what rate the prison population would have continued to increase. But we do know that bordering states New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas — none of which has gone through major criminal-justice reinvestment — all have increased incarceration rates today compared to 2006. (Louisiana, which also borders Texas and which incarcerates more prisoners by rate than almost anywhere in the world, saw a modest drop.) 

In 2007, Texas voters approved a bond measure to set aside $273.4 million to build three new prisons in anticipation of the prisoner increase, with more money needed in subsequent years. Fortunately, this money never had to be spent on prisons, as Texas closed three prisons since 2007 and will likely be closing another in the near future.

Without reform, the prison population would probably have increased, forcing taxpayers to cover the cost or else face overcrowding. By contrast, California has had to make deep cuts (up to 46,000 inmates) to its prison population due to its inaction.

Texas Would Be Less Safe

The 2005 and 2007 reforms invested heavily in probation and parole by increasing resources and much-needed treatment and rehabilitation bed space for already eligible offenders. The success of these investments on public safety are apparent.

In 2006, Texas parolees had a revocation rate back to prison of 12.9 percent, down from 14.8 percent in 2004. By 2008, that rate was 9.5 percent — proportionately a 22 percent decrease from 2007. More importantly, fewer people on parole were committing new offenses. In 2006, 7,647 parole violators returned to prison for committing new offenses. By 2008, only 5,993 parole violators returned to prison for committing new offenses, even though more individuals were being monitored on parole.

Meanwhile, revocation rates for community supervision continued to decrease  after 2007, even though probation took on 10,000 more individuals from 2006-2008. Without this investment, more offenders would be on a path to incarceration, leading to more recidivism and more dangerous communities in Texas. 

The Texas model of conservative criminal-justice reform allowed the Lone Star State to avoid unmanageable costs while increasing public safety. Not only did Texas avoid California’s painful mistakes, its successful reforms became the model for dozens of other states, who also avoided federal oversight while enhancing safety and saving taxpayer dollars. That’s something to be proud of.

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