- McReynolds advocating state jail changes, Lufkin Daily News, July 11
- Texas jails: Fine-tune and fund, don't scrap, Austin American Statesman, July 8
Probably the reason they can't imagine that outcome, of course, is that no one has suggested such a thing. Instead the idea expressed was to re-purpose the facilities - or rather, return them to their original purpose - as sanctions against misbehaving probationers instead of strictly focused on punishment with no support or supervision during reentry.
What might be usefully eliminated (and what was actually being discussed at the Corrections Committee hearing in Houston) is the "state jail felony": The offense category created in 1993 that's Texas' equivalent of a 4th degree felony. Its original purpose - to create an offense category with less stigma and more opportunities to prevent future criminality - was long ago lost to "tuff on crime" demagoguery. Today they're just little mini-prisons with shorter sentences where time is served day for day without the possibility of parole or supervision after release.
If state jail felonies were eliminated as an offense category, some offenses might be lowered to Class A misdemeanors - most obviously penny ante drug possession offenses - and others would just be re-labeled third-degree felonies, with penalties of 2-10 years. (Perhaps while they're performing such reclassifications, theft categories could finally be adjusted for inflation. Thresholds for state jail felony theft were set at $1,500 in 1993, but adjusted for inflation, $1,500 today is the equivalent of $1,027 at the time the statute was written.)
I don't know whether eliminating that offense category is a good idea or not, but discussing it has merit. It might be the shortest distance to adjusting petty drug possession penalties, removing the stigma of the "felon" label for people whose only crimes relate to small-time drug possession. That would also reduce mounting pressure on state-jail populations, possibly allowing closure of the Dawson State Jail facility in Dallas to make way for a city-backed development (which is about as close as anybody's come to calling for closing state jails per se).
On the flip side, such a change would also adjust penalties upward for certain petty offenders and at a minimum, as Sen. Whitmire points out, ensure they're housed with more serious criminals. What's more, making sure those penalties don't become excessive would require relying on the parole board, which has a track record of failing to follow release guidelines for TDCJs lowest risk prisoners. So the devil, as they say, is in the details. There are pros and cons to both approaches, but the debate would be assisted more by careful analysis in the media than vague expressions of fear.
UPDATE: From the SA Express-News editorial board, see "Time to revise the state jail system."