At a recent conference at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a state representative was touting Texas’ criminal justice system as a model for reform. I question the validity of that assertion and suggest that an alternative view of what constitutes reform is sorely needed. Here are some performance measures on Texas’ social justice institutions:I agree with that. And what solutions does Mr. Martin offer?
• Texas incarcerates the greatest number of persons in the U.S. but is dead last in the percentage of persons who graduate from high school.The monolithic prison system we have created is unsustainable, and real reform will require a radical change in how we administer our social justice institutions.
• Texas has 75,000 inmates incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, a number that exceeds the prison populations of all but one state.
• Texas prisons hold more people with mental illness than our state mental health institutions have patients.
• Texas continues to incarcerate almost twice as many African-American males as are enrolled in the state’s public universities.
What would constitute real reform of our criminal justice system? I draw on two state systems with which I am familiar. In the past six years, California has reduced its prison population by 50,000 by “realigning” its criminal justice system and shifting the burden of managing low-level offenders from state prisons to local communities. California is now spending $800 million less on its prisoners than it did two years ago without compromising public safety and without an increase in crime rates. Ohio’s Department of Youth Services has reduced its juvenile offender population by two-thirds since 2009, by developing an extensive network of services delivered locally rather than in penal settings. Consider for a moment the potential impact if Texas pursued similar reforms.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a sizable array of alternatives to expensive prisons beds, but these are sorely underfunded. In the department’s current appropriations request, funding for community supervision and diversionary programs is less than 10 percent of the $6 billion total. The department has requested more money for fleet vehicle replacements than for treatment alternatives to incarceration. The agency has also requested more than twice the amount of money for computers than it has requested for providing services to parolees with serious mental health issues, even though such services have proven effective in reducing the rate of recidivism for such offenders.
Rather than spend our dollars to manage those who run afoul of the law, session after session elected officials simply follow the well-trodden path of supporting a monolithic system whose top-heavy administrative costs have subverted its primary mission to provide public safety and promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime. It is absurd to under-fund a proven and cost-effective program to reintegrate offenders, when the program constitutes an infinitesimal fraction of the budget. That the department is willing to spend $37 million to replace fleet vehicles and obsolete computers but requests only $6 million to provide needed services for inmates being released into our communities with serious mental illnesses constitutes a brazen violation of its goal to provide supervision and administer the range of options and sanctions available for felons reintegration back into society following release from confinement.