|Holliday Unit, Huntsville ,Texas|
I appreciated Scott Henson’s recent Grits for Breakfast post related to prison release rates in Texas (see “The arithmetic of de-incarceration: TDCJ edition”). Scott has a way communicating about complex issues that paints a simple and easy to understand picture for the reader. It’s one of the reasons why his reporting often leads to tangible policy changes, like the recent adjustment of property offense penalty thresholds. That measure will likely decrease the number of felony theft cases and shift additional cases into community supervision, hopefully leading to treatment and services for people with addiction and mental illness.
In Scott’s recent post, he provides a graph comparing the number of people sent to prison each year to the number of people released. You can immediately see a problem that could stall progress on criminal justice reform in Texas.
If the number of people received into the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not equal to or less than the number of people released from prison each year, we will soon have to build more prisons.
Texas prison populations have declined, but only by 3.6 percent. We have a long way to go before we come close to the reductions in prison populations achieved by New York and other states. Most advocates believe that Texas should decrease its prison population by at least 30 percent.
There has been undeniable progress. The number of placements into pretrial diversion programs has nearly doubled since 2005, with a 63 percent increase in felony diversion. Also, thanks to the leadership of the outgoing Chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Rissie Owens, with support from former Governor Perry and the Legislature, the number of people approved for parole release has increased by several thousand each year.
Also, the Parole Board decreased the number of parole revocations each year by 30 percent. This happened because the Board was given additional options in terms of treatment and intensive supervision, allowing TDCJ to address higher levels of risk and need in the community instead of in costly prisons.
But the numbers illustrated by Scott Henson bring up important concerns. The number of people sent to prison each year remains relatively stable when it should be declining along with crime rates and greater use of diversion programs. Further, even with increased parole approval rates, the number of people released from prison each year remains fairly low. There are at least three issues that need to be addressed by the next Legislature to prevent criminal justice reform from going backwards:
1. Increase the number of people sentenced to community supervision instead of prison;
2. Reduce probation revocations; and
3. Increase parole release rates.
I’ll follow with three posts to a discuss each of these issues. As an introduction, I should emphasize why this is important. Despite all of the progress, there remain 150,000 incarcerated people in Texas, a staggering number. The prison population in Texas increased by 200% during a period when the actual population increased by only 48%. Prison stopped being the last resort for those who commit violent offenses, and the state created an assembly line to process more than 70,000 new prisoners each year.
If you pass by one of the prison units built rapidly in the 1990s, you’ll see a half mile stretch with two rows of buildings that look exactly like warehouses.
The state spends $6.2 billion every two years on this out-sized system. It separates families, often forcing parents and children to travel 600 miles across the state for a brief weekend visit with their loved ones. Even prison officials argue that the system is too large, making it nearly impossible to adequately address the factors that led to criminal involvement in the first place. There is a better way to deal with crime in this state. Stay tuned for the next post on more effectively addressing social issues through community supervision instead of prison.