PBS' Need to Know posed that question Friday evening in a 25-minute feature on Texas corrections reforms and the state's closure of its first-ever prison unit in last year, interviewing state Sen. John Whitmire in the bowels of the now-empty Central Unit. "You can't build your way out of the problem," said Whitmire. "If you don't deal with the root causes of crime, you'll never, ever have enough prisons. You'll bankrupt your state." The closed prison unit, said the chairman, is "the evidence we need that we're doing something right, and we're not compromising public safety." At one point, Whitmire said "most" of the 12,000 women locked up in TDCJ probably don't need to be there.
PBS also interviewed outgoing House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden who recalled how, when he was named Chairman in 2005, House Speaker Tom Craddick called him in and said eight words to him that "changed my life": They were, "Don't build new prisons, they cost too much." Madden estimates that so far Texas' reforms have saved the state around $2 billion.
In a blast from the past, the story quoted Gov. Rick Perry's 2007 State of the State speech, showing a clip where the Governor declared that "There are thousands of non-violent offenders in the system whose future we cannot ignore. Let's focus more resources on rehabilitating those offenders so that we can ultimately spend less locking them up again," he advised to hearty applause. Another nifty quote: "Doing the intelligent thing is not being soft," said District Judge Robert Francis, who runs a reentry court in Dallas.
The reporter marveled that with Texas' reforms diverting thousands from prison, crime rates continued to fall even as incarceration rates declined. And Jeff Greenfield interviewed Adam Gelb from the Pew Center on the States to ask if Texas' "experiment" might become a "national movement." Gelb discussed how conservatives like those who've signed onto the Right on Crime principles are able to get to the same place on the issues as moderates and liberals, often agreeing on outcomes for different ideological reasons.
Relatedly Gelb's colleagues at the Pew Center on the States just released a public opinion poll which affords reason for optimism that the public would support further changes along these lines. Among the top line findings:
- American voters believe too many people are in prison and the nation spends too much on imprisonment.
- Voters overwhelmingly support a variety of policy changes that shift non-violent offenders from prison to more effective, less expensive alternatives.
- Support for sentencing and corrections reforms (including reduced prison terms) is strong across political parties, regions, age, gender, and racial/ethnic groups.
Too many: 45%:On average, said Pew, voters think about 20% of US prisoners could be released without harming public safety.
About right: 28%
Too few: 13%
Don't know: 14%
Remarkably, 69% supported the statement, “One out of every 100 American adults is in prison. That’s too many, and it costs too much. There are more effective, less expensive alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders and expanding those alternatives is the best way to reduce the crime rate,” with a whopping 50% saying they "strongly support" it. Among major state budget items, more voters said they were willing to cut prisons (48%) than any other area of government.
Fully 77% of voters agreed that “Our spending on corrections has grown from $10 billion to $50 billion over the last twenty years but we are not getting a clear and convincing return on that investment in terms of public safety,” including 76% of Republicans surveyed.
Equally fascinating is that common tuff-on-crime messages are beginning to lose their appeal. Asked if they agreed with the statement, “People who commit crimes belong behind bars, end of story. It may cost a lot of money to run prisons, but it would cost society more in the long run if more criminals were on the street,” just 25% said they supported it (15% strongly support). The public just isn't buying that common argument anymore, according to these data.
Reports like these give me hope that Texas may continue down a reformist path despite considerable political uncertainty. It's purportedly a Chinese curse to wish on another that they "live in interesting times," but without question we certainly do.