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Education Reform as a Model for Texas Criminal Justice System

| July 17, 2012

Last Wednesday, I published this piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram titled “Education Reform as a Model for Texas Criminal Justice System.”

In a new report on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice by the Sunset Commission that is the blueprint for must-pass legislation, the recommendations unconsciously, but wisely, take a page out of the education reform book.

Policymakers should go even further than the sunset report in bringing to the corrections system the principles of individualized intervention, accountability and performance-based funding that have guided successful education reforms.

The corrections system has too often eschewed individualized intervention in favor of cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all models such as mandatory minimum sentencing and large lockups where inmates are treated the same regardless of their treatment needs, behavior and other factors.

Meanwhile, education systems are moving toward individually tailored approaches such as digital learning and one-on-one tutoring.

Fortunately, the sunset report envisions a more individualized corrections system, calling for personalized re-entry plans for all offenders released from state prisons and the systemwide use of an individualized risk and needs assessment to guide supervision and treatment.

Individualized re-entry plans for the 70,000 Texas inmates released annually would identify what resources, such as family members and churches, are available to assist them in successfully re-entering society.

Also, the sunset report wisely recommends these personalized re-entry plans begin behind bars, before being handed off to parole officers and service providers. This coordinated and customized inside-out approach makes sense because an inmate’s decisions during incarceration, such as whether he learns a trade and maintains family contacts, significantly impact success upon re-entry.

The report also recommends a systemwide individualized risk and needs assessment, which is analogous to assessments of academic proficiency that school systems have long used to determine which students to place in gifted and remediation programs.

Such assessments help allocate resources and ensure the program being offered addresses people’s risks and needs. Correctional assessment instruments contain an inventory of questions covering factors such as attitudes, peers, substance abuse and mental health issues, employment and living status that have been retroactively verified to accurately predict the risk of re-offending and identify which needs must be met by a supervision or treatment program to reduce that risk.

This information enables probation and parole departments to ensure those most at risk of re-offending are on smaller caseloads and under closer supervision, while low-risk offenders are not pulled away from their jobs for unnecessary appointments.

Finally, the sunset report urges lawmakers to align probation funding formulas with outcomes and factor in the risk level of departments’ caseloads, just as school districts with more at-risk students receive a funding weight.

Currently, Texas funds the 121 probation departments based largely on the number of probationers. Similarly, Texas funds its prisons and the programs within them based on the number of inmates and participants. In contrast, states are increasingly tying part of education funding to student performance and, even in Texas, persistently failing schools and districts are subject to closure.

Corrections must move from a system that grows when it fails to one that rewards results. This requires rigorous performance measures to determine which programs are getting the best results and linking part of funding to desired outcomes, such as lower recidivism, reduced substance abuse and increased victim restitution.

Lawmakers must act to incorporate Senate Bill 1055, which passed unanimously last session, into the budget. This would enable counties to voluntarily receive a share of the state’s savings when they send fewer low-level offenders to prison and achieve lower recidivism, higher employment rates and higher rates of victim restitution among their probationers.

As the next session approaches, the sunset report has provided Texas lawmakers with a promising opportunity to apply lessons from education reform to improve Texas’ corrections system.

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MARC A. LEVIN is Right on Crime’s Policy Director, as well as the Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Based in Austin, Texas, Levin is an attorney and an accomplished author on legal and public policy issues.  Levin served as a law clerk to Judge Will Garwood on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and Staff Attorney at the Texas Supreme Court.  In 1999, he graduated with honors from the University of Texas with a B.A. in Plan II Honors and Government.  In 2002, Levin received his J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law.  Levin’s articles on law and public policy have been featured in national and international media outlets that regularly turn to him for conservative analysis of states’ criminal justice challenges.

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