This blog post was written by Right on Crime research associate Brian Bensimon.

A new report by Texas’s House Committee on Corrections urges the state to continue funding programs that provide alternatives to incarceration.

Despite a perceived reputation as a “tough on crime” state, Texas has led the criminal justice reform movement by enacting bold reforms that emphasize public safety and reduce recidivism.

In the last decade that legislators have been pursuing reform, the crime rate in Texas has fallen to its lowest level since 1968, while incarceration has similarly fallen by 12%, as well. By adopting alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts and expanding parole and probation capacity, large numbers of non-violent offenders have been diverted away from the prison system.

Facing a 2007 prison crisis that would require 17,000 new beds, Texas opted to invest $241 million in treatment programs and diversion options. By choosing to invest in treatment programs, the state saved $443 million between 2008 and 2009, and deferred between $2-3 billion in anticipated corrections costs long-term, allowing for other programs that reduce crime and lower recidivism. Such reforms have also allowed the state to close four adult prisons.

This approach to crime, which has both improved public safety and reduced budget costs, has served as an inspiration for other states looking to adopt effective reforms. Yet as Texas’ legislature comes back into session, belt tightening in the state budget means that further efficiencies will likely be necessary.

Top officials in Texas have asked agencies to reduce budgets by 4%. Due to this request, the Texas Department of Justice will face the challenge of identifying about $242 million in cuts.

To tackle this challenge, the report makes a number of suggestions including lowering probation fees and ending involvement in a federal program that mandates automatic suspension of a driver’s license for any drug conviction, including a small amount of marijuana. The report also suggested following Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate bill which automatically sealed certain criminal records after a period of time.

The report also addresses the fees associated with probation, which are sometimes insurmountable. According to the report, probationers can pay up to $60 a month to cover supervision. Moreover, many are also required to take (and pay for) certain classes, which can range from drug education and domestic violence classes to urinalysis tests. According to the report, probationers looking to get their license re-instated from the Department of Public Safety can expect to pay between $125 and $325.

However, the report does indicate that Texas can manage the issue by diverting the costs of probation up front. Just as Texas once decided to spend money up front to divert people from prison, rather than build more prisons, the state could invest in pre-trial diversions, which would allow the state to save taxpayer money in the long term.

By adopting an approach that is smart as well as tough on crime, Texans can expect to alleviate some of the obstacles related to probation and re-entry, while still improving public safety and reducing the financial burden of taxpayers.