In recent years, Texas has strengthened alternatives to incarceration for adults and juveniles, achieving significant reductions in crime while avoiding more than $2 billion in taxpayer costs that would have been incurred had Texas simply constructed more than 17,000 prison beds that a 2007 projection indicated would be needed. Similarly, juvenile crime has markedly declined at the same time Texas has reduced the number of youths in state institutions by 52.9 percent.
In 2003, the state legislature required that all drug possession offenders with less than a gram of drugs be sentenced to probation instead of state jail time.i In 2005, probation departments began receiving additional funds with the goal of implementing evidence-based supervision practices and treatment programs to reduce unnecessary revocations to prison both by preventing new offenses and reducing technical revocations. In 2007, lawmakers were faced with a Legislative Budget Board projection that 17,332 new prison beds would be needed by 2012.ii These beds would have cost $1.13 billion to build based on a $65,000 per bed construction cost and another $1.50 billion to operate over five years based on the $47.50 per day operating cost in 2008.iii The budget adopted in 2007 represented a historic shift, as, in lieu of building more prisons, policymakers allocated $241 million for residential and non-residential treatment-oriented programs for non-violent offenders, along with enhancing in-prison treatment programs.iv In 2009, the Legislature continued funding for this justice reinvestment initiative, and added new components such as 64 reentry coordinators with the goal of reducing the number of released inmates who return to prison.v
Serious property, violent, and sex crimes per 100,000 Texas residents have declined 12.8 percent since 2003.vi Such crimes per 100,000 residents fell 7.3 percent from 2005 to 2008.vii From 2007 to 2008, there was a 5 percent drop in murders, a 4.3 percent drop in robberies, and a 6.8 percent decline in forcible rapes.viii The number of parolees convicted of a new crime declined 7.6 percent from 2007 to 2008, despite an increase in the number of parolees.ix The 2008 per capita crime rate in Dallas was at its lowest level in 40 years, declining 10 percent from 2007.x It dropped another 10.7 percent through August 31, 2009.xi
Drug courts in Texas have been particularly successful:
Among all states, Texas and Massachusetts had the sharpest drop in their incarceration rates from 2007 to 2008. Texas’ incarceration rate fell 4.5 percent while the average state incarceration rate increased 0.8 percent.xii Texas with its 154,361 inmates has slipped from the state with the third highest incarceration rate in 2007 behind only Louisiana and Mississippi to the fourth highest rate in 2008, falling slightly behind Oklahoma.xiii Moreover, progress has continued in 2009 as Texas’ prison population dropped by another 1,563 inmates from December 31, 2008 to November 30, 2009.xiv Compared with 2008, in 2009 direct sentenced commitments to Texas prisons fell 6.0 percent and parole revocations fell 3.6 percent.xv This drop in parole revocations follows a 27.4 percent decline from 2007 to 2008.xvi
Texas has also been a national leader in juvenile justice reform. In 2007, Senate Bill 103 precluded misdemeanants from being sent to Texas Youth Commission (TYC) institutions and the adopted budget provided counties with an additional $57.8 million to handle these youths, about half the cost that would have been incurred had they been sent to TYC.xvii In 2009, lawmakers reduced the TYC budget by $115 million, primarily by ordering the closure of two remotely located TYC lockups. With part of the savings, policymakers invested $45.7 million in juvenile probation, providing diversion funding to juvenile probation departments whose judicial oversight boards agree to a reduced target for commitments to TYC. These funds must be used for programs that are proven to reduce re-offending. Most programs are non-residential and focus on treatment, community service, and strengthening the family.
The TYC population declined 6.8 percent from 2008 to 2009, contributing to a total 52.9 percent drop since 2006.xviii After Senate Bill 103 became effective in June 2007 diverting misdemeanants from TYC, juvenile adjudications declined 10.3 percent from fiscal year 2008 to 2009.xix Similarly, filings to revoke probation for a new offense or rule violation dropped 6.3 percent from 2008 to 2009.xx The most recent data on statewide referrals to juvenile probation shows a 4.3 percent drop from 2007 to 2008.xxi In Bexar County (San Antonio), juvenile referrals declined 5.8 percent from 2007 to 2008 and then another 10.0 percent in 2009.xxii In Dallas County, the juvenile felony referral rate has declined 7.8 percent from 2005 to 2008.xxiii Also in Dallas County, offenses filed in court fell 16.5 percent from 2007 to 2008 and have been projected to decline another 20.0 percent in 2009 based on data for the first three quarters of the year.xxiv
While Texas still has the nation’s fourth highest adult incarceration rate, an increased emphasis on policies that are both tough and smart has enabled the state to turn the tide and reduce crime while controlling costs to taxpayers. Given the strain on the state’s budget, policymakers will likely face a new challenge of not merely avoiding the massive costs of new lockups, but actually trimming the corrections budget while continuing to enhance public safety. Fortunately, solutions are available, such as realigning corrections spending to strengthen cost-effective community corrections programs that prevent re-offending, fostering the use of evidence-based supervision practices in all probation departments, and enacting targeted sentencing reforms. Policymakers must also evaluate the effectiveness of programs to rehabilitate inmates before they are released, ensuring those that keep inmates from reentering prisons are not eliminated. By continuing to build upon the initiatives that are successfully reducing both crime and incarceration rates, Texas can achieve further crime reductions and lower its corrections budget through the closure of unneeded adult and juvenile correctional facilities.
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This article by Haley Holik originally appeared in TribTalk, March 5th, 2018. Gov. Greg Abbott recently called for significant changes to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, noting the agency faces…