Right on Crime Director Derek Cohen walked through the history of Texas’ criminal justice overhaul with Judy Maggio of KLRU. The Lone Star State has been called the birthplace of criminal justice reform, but it wasn’t too long ago that it was known for its “lock em’ up” approach.
In 2015, Texas “got to the point where covering the bill for [prisons] was becoming fiscally unattainable,” said Cohen. The House Speaker at that time, Tom Craddick (R-Midland), realized this issue and asked Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden (R-Plano) to find a more effective, less costly route. Madden worked alongside Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), with support from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). Advocates spotlighted a number of flaws within the system:
“We were revoking people too easily from community supervision,” said Cohen. “We were [also] sentencing people to carceral sentences, that being behind bars, as opposed to community supervision – almost as a default.”
The problem with defaulting to incarceration, especially for longer sentences, is that it does little to strengthen public safety Cohen explained. Research out of the University of Maryland found that the likelihood of future offenses does not decline any further once someone has served a sentence of several to ten years, making the return on expensive mandatory minimum sentences extremely low. Evidence like this encouraged tough-on-crime lawmakers to consider reducing sentences and diverting certain offenders to alternatives to incarceration where possible.
At the end of the day “Texas is a conservative state that values the Judeo-Christian principle of redemption,” said Cohen. The opportunity to deliver second chances, while lowering re-offense rates, allowed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to come to the table on criminal justice reform.
Texas passed evidence-based reforms in 2007 and used savings garnered from lower incarceration rates to strengthen probation and parole, as well as substance abuse treatment. Looking ahead to future reforms Cohen said, “We definitely want the government to get out of the way of reentry.” One major obstacle for inmates reentering society is state occupational licensing laws which often deny applications to those with criminal convictions, regardless of if their conviction is related to the profession at hand. Cohen explained this not only hurts competition, but hurts public safety by arbitrarily barring former offenders from accessing honest work.
Looking forward to additional reforms, Cohen pointed out that Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently voiced support for bail reform. “We have a system right now that doesn’t err on the side of safety” said Cohen. “What it simply does is it takes the offense in front of you and says, ‘well. I think this person should pay X amount of money for bail.’” Gov. Abbott’s push for a bail system that bases pretrial release on risk rather than pocketbooks aligns with the conclusion of Right on Crime’s most recent research.
States like Kentucky, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi have followed Texas’ lead in passing smart on crime legislation that protects victims and saves taxpayer dollars. The Texas model is being considered by Congress in shape of the FIRST STEP Act. The bill has been tabled until after midterm elections.
Watch the interview here.