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Washington could take a lesson from Texas on prison reform

| May 16, 2018

This article by Marc Levin originally appeared in Dallas Morning News May 15th, 2018.

Texans can teach Washington, D.C., a few lessons when it comes to barbecue, balanced budgets and criminal justice reform.

If Congress can put aside the gridlock, it can unlock the benefits that Texas has achieved through a decade of changes to its prison policies. Fortunately, Texas’ own Sen. John Cornyn is joining with bipartisan congressional leaders including Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., to take advantage of this bipartisan opening at a time when the two parties can’t agree on anything besides Teacher Appreciation Week.

The legislation in question, the First Step Act, was approved by an impressive 25-5 bipartisan vote on a Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee. It is modeled after the blueprint that Texas employed to drive down its incarceration rate by more than 20 percent since 2005 at the same time it achieved a crime decline of more than 30 percent.

In 2007, Texas was at a crossroads as it faced building more than 17,000 new prison beds that were projected to be needed. Instead, policymakers adopted a justice reinvestment package that expanded alternatives to incarceration such as drug courts and mental health treatment.

The package also cleared out backlogs for treatment programs behind bars that had waiting lists of many months. Such programs are often a condition of release even after approval by the Parole Board. This enabled more people in prison to be good candidates for parole, leading to higher parole rates and thousands fewer new crimes by parolees. Meanwhile, the parole system implemented graduated sanctions and incentives and restored the chaplain program so parolees could connect with churches and other religious congregations, rather than gangs.

Then in 2011 Texas doubled down on its reforms by enacting a policy allowing those in state jails to earn time by completing programs, such as educational, vocational and treatment interventions, that are correlated with reduced recidivism. Since then, thousands of those confined in state jails have earned up to 20 percent off their sentences as a result of being incentivized in this way.

While there is an element of luck in our daily lives, those of us who do not live in prison generally experience a connection between the efforts we expend and the results we experience. By allowing many of those in prison to earn time by completing programs proved to reduce recidivism and expanding the availability of such programs, the First Step Act would enable the federal prison system to gain from what Texas has learned.

Of course, the First Step Act recognizes that not everyone behind bars should be eligible for a reduction. Had Osama bin Laden not met justice courtesy of America’s finest and ultimately been placed in federal prison, he certainly should not have received any such opportunity. So the First Step Act appropriately excludes the most serious offenses such as terrorism from earning credits through completing programming.

It is called the First Step Act for a reason, as it does not purport to fix every problem in the federal system. Other needed changes, such as reining in mandatory minimums for minor drug offenses, can and should be addressed in future legislation.

One thing is for sure. We know that about 40,000 people will be released this year from federal prison to live near  you and me. Many of them will not have completed programs that could have reduced the risk they pose to society and improved their chances of holding jobs. Texas policymakers of both parties put on their boots, rolled up their sleeves, and herded the votes to deliver successful prison reform. Let’s bring that Texan can-do spirit to D.C. and draw upon the wisdom of former President Ronald Reagan, who said “there is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

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MARC A. LEVIN  is Vice President of Criminal Justice Policy 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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