A Deincarceration Miracle in Texas?
Texas has a special place in the prison-reform debate. It's often brought out as an example of how deep-red states can have success in reducing incarceration. See, most recently, this piece from Ken Cuccinelli.
It's certainly true that both incarceration and crime have fallen in Texas in recent years. It also seems that policy efforts starting in 2007 managed to reduce recidivism and save money. But to get a more nuanced picture, I downloaded an assortment of numbers from the Justice Department.
Specifically, I grabbed incarceration, violent crime, property crime, and murder rates for both Texas and the U.S. as a whole. Then, I divided the Texas rates by the national rates — this gives us a sense of what happened in Texas that was not happening in the country overall. Here are the results:
Bear in mind that the numbers here are ratios. For example, Texas's incarceration rate actually increased somewhat during the 1980s, but the nationwide rate rose much faster, so it shows up here as a decline. Regardless of how you measure, though, Texas's incarceration explosion in the early-to-mid 1990s is nothing short of astounding. In just a few years, it changed from a state with relatively low incarceration despite high crime, into a state with extremely high incarceration and reduced crime. (Some of us may see a connection there.)
A few more interesting tidbits. First of all, Texas's incarceration rate actually began to fall at the turn of the century, well before the state's recidivism initiative (which no doubt helped to sustain the decline). Second, at this point, Texas was extraordinary even in a country with high incarceration rates all over: In 2000, it had an incarceration rate 62 percent above the national average, despite crime rates that were nowhere near that high. And third, Texas actually remained exceptional in this regard. In 2012, its incarceration rate was 28 percent above the national average, although its violent- and property-crime rates were less high and its murder rate had been below the national average for two years.
Texas is definitely showing how a state with very high incarceration can back off a bit without paying the price in crime. That's incredibly valuable. But it's less clear what the Lone Star State's experience means for more, dare I say it, normal states.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen