Three years ago, a group of conservative legislators from California slipped off to Texas. Among the purposes of their visit was to learn more about a new approach to controlling crime. The strategy involved investing in community corrections, not new prisons. The somewhat surprising thing was that the plan had been developed in Texas, with strong support from conservatives. Texas, after all, is a state that prides itself on being tough on crime. It executes more inmates than any other state and incarcerates the highest percentage of its population of any big state.I'm glad Texas 2007 reforms are still getting national attention, but less sanguine about the fact that during the last 2011 session, the Texas Legislature slashed the prison budget without concomitant reforms, setting TDCJ up for a near-immediate budget crisis over rising healthcare costs. (They're reportedly paying $5 million per month over the budgeted sum while they're negotiating with UTMB.) So while the Lege defintely accomplished something original with Whitmire and Madden's 2007 budget efforts, they failed to build on that work in the last session, instead authorizing thousands of additional prison beds and passing dozens of new crimes and penalty enhancements.
For two decades starting in 1985, Texas had built prisons with gusto, increasing by 300 percent the number of inmate beds. But in 2007, when Gov. Rick Perry produced a budget that asked the Legislature to appropriate $523 million in additional funding for three new prisons -- with more prisons to follow -- legislators balked. Instead, lawmakers decided to invest $240 million in diversion and treatment. By all accounts, this approach has been working. There have been declines in ongoing crime. Parole violations have plummeted. Prison overcrowding has eased.
Texas’ success intrigued the California delegation, but it didn’t inspire them to follow suit. Facing a strong prison workers’ union, opposition from district attorneys and a general unwillingness to relinquish the one tool -- being tough on crime -- that had worked for the GOP in the Golden State, the Californians listened but left with no game plan. “I think they honestly wanted to get something done, but they really felt they couldn’t do anything,” says Texas Rep. Jerry Madden, who was at the meeting as one of the architects of corrections reform in his state. “There were too many other influences they had in their system. It was almost an impossible situation for them.”
Today, California’s corrections system is a trainwreck. The state prison system is so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that conditions violated the Constitution’s 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Unable to balance its budget, California is currently in the process of shipping 40,000 state inmates to county jails. Texas, meanwhile, has become a model for corrections reform. Last year, at least 11 states, including Arkansas, Kentucky, Ohio and North Carolina, undertook similar sweeping corrections reforms with the intention of limiting the growth of their prison populations. This year, states as diverse as Georgia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Hawaii are expected to take up corrections reform based on ideas that have played out successfully in Texas.
“The Texas story helped spawn a wave of reforms around the country,” says Adam Gelb, who directs Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project. “We hear over and over, ‘If Texas can do this, [the approach] can’t possibly be soft on crime.’”
Cost clearly has been a major impetus for reform. Between 1985 and 2008, state prison populations nearly tripled. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, corrections spending rose even faster, by more than 600 percent. It now makes up 7 percent of state general fund spending. But cutting costs is only part of the story.
Ideas matter too. When crime began to spike in the 1960s, criminologists and public policy experts responded with a simple and compelling proposition: Lock away more people for longer. Today, new ways of thinking about public safety -- some of them rooted in game theory, behavioral economics and sociology -- are challenging the perceived wisdom about how to improve public safety and reduce incarceration rates.
Game theory seeks to understand what constitutes a rational course of action in situations where other people’s responses determine outcomes. For decades, academic game theorists have explored how promises, commitments, threats, the elimination of options, and other tactics can affect outcomes and the resulting “equilibrium.” In Texas and in a growing number of states and cities across the country, policymakers have found a smarter approach based on a new generation of research that applies insights from the world of game theory to the criminal justice system. It’s still a very new concept, but the resulting body of work is pointing policymakers toward new and potentially transformative ways of improving public safety while reducing the number of people behind bars. It also grapples with one of the most notable -- and appalling -- features of what some have called the current era of mass incarceration: its destructive effect on many African-American communities.
“Our crime rates have been dropping for nearly 20 years,” says Madden, “but we still have a greater demand for prisons. Why is this?”
A number of cities and states are asking the same thing. In response, elected officials across the nation from both political parties have begun to examine ways to replace a “tough” corrections policy with a “smart” one.
Texas opereates a massive prison system and the 2007 reforms staved off new prison building by diverting a small fraction from prison on the front end, as well as creating a handful of "intermediate sanctions" facilities that judges have the option to use. But other long-term trends - like the drug war, overcriminalization and the continued expansion of criminal law as seemingly the sole politically acceptable tool to confront every new social problem - continue to inflate the the system needlessly beyond its capacity. They failed to take that next step in 2011, but budget circumstances may force their hand by 2013.
Prison costs won't be foremost on legislators' minds next year - budgets for schools and health care will be billions in the red, compared to perhaps several hundred million less available for TDCJ - but the legislators charged with budgeting for them will be confronted with a similar question: Grow and tax or how to safely cut? Since the former is politically unthinkable for anyone hoping to weather a GOP primary, it behooves members to think seriously about the options for doubling down next year on their 2007 successes. Perhaps all the national recognition of that important first step will encourage them to guide the system further down that path.