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Right on Crime | July 6, 2018
This article by Right on Crime signatories, former Texas State Rep. Jerry Madden and Deason Capital Services President Doug Deason, originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle July 6th, 2018.
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives resoundingly voted in favor of the FIRST STEP ACT, a prison reform bill based on data and designed to give offenders a greater chance of success when they leave federal prison. The 360 House members who voted for the bill included every Republican House member from the state of Texas. It may seem surprising to some that Texas conservatives would overwhelmingly support a criminal justice reform bill. But to those who understand the “Texas Miracle” at the state level, this vote makes perfect sense.
In 2007, due to several costly and unnecessary legislative and administrative barriers, it was estimated that Texas’ already bloated prison system was going to take on an additional 17,000 prisoners over the next five years at a cost of more than $2 billion to taxpayers. Instead of following the status quo, leadership, especially then House Corrections’ Chair Jerry Madden, looked at the drivers of the prison population to see whether The Lone Star State could safely reduce its prison population.
It found that one of the main reasons Texas’ prison population continued to rise was that thousands of individuals who needed treatment and programming while in prison could not receive such services due to a lack of resources and space. In fact, more than 2,000 state prisoners were eligible for release pending a slot and/or completion of a community-based or in-prison program but could not get in. This meant thousands of mothers and fathers could not reunite with their families and get on the road to redemption due to space, not public safety. Something had to be done. Saving money is fine, but for lawmakers like Madden it wasn’t about saving money, it was about increasing public safety, giving folks a second chance at life and preserving family bonds.
Texas decided to divert a portion of the money intended to build prisons and instead invested in treatment and programming behind bars and in communities. More offenders became eligible for placements which helped reduce recidivism. In 2004, 28 percent of prisoners released were re-incarcerated within three years. Today, that number stands at 21 percent. Even though Texas’ population has ballooned over the past decade, Texas’ prison population by rate and by raw numbers has each decreased since 2006. More importantly, Texas’ crime rates are at the lowest in decades.
Instead of building new prisons, Texas has closed eight adult and eight juvenile facilities, which has allowed more dollars to go toward programs that reduce recidivism instead of billions more in new prison costs. The reforms also allowed for more individuals to go on parole and provided funding for additional treatment, specialized supervision and programming, including halfway houses. This investment in better parole supervision made Texans safer and kept more families together. In 2006, 7,647 of the 76,696 parolees were revoked back to prison for committing a new offense. By 2010, only 6,616 of the 81,220 parolees returned to prison for a new offense. Today, continued focus on parole has allowed more parolees (87,304 in 2016) to be more safely supervised in the community with better results (5,097 were re-incarcerated for a new offense).
Now, Congress has the opportunity to enact similar reforms, which Texas proved will make us safer. The FIRST STEP Act, introduced by Doug Collins from Georgia, another conservative, reform-minded state, would require each federal inmate to go through an evidence-based assessment to gauge their needs and risk level in order to match them with the proper programming to give them the tools to be successful on the outside. The bill provides further investment in recidivism-reducing programming.
Offenders will be reassessed routinely to see if their risk level or programming needs have changed. The bill provides incentives for participating in these programs, including more visitation and phone time, relocation to a facility closer to home, and earned time credit that can be used towards an increase in time in home confinement if their current assessments categorize them “minimum risk” for reoffending.
Texas State lawmakers have lead the way on conservative criminal justice reform for more than a decade. It’s time their federal counterparts in the Senate do the same and support this critical public safety increasing piece of legislation.