Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Direct sentences to prison up despite declining Texas crime

Texas policymakers in recent years have nearly broken their arms patting themselves on the back for the state's much ballyhooed criminal-justice reforms. In a sense, it's justified. The 2007 probation reforms cut against the grain of decades of lock-em-up legislation and the state has curbed growth of incarceration levels. At one point, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) was projected to house 17,000 more prisoners by 2012 than actually turned out to be the case.

Still, Texas' results are disappointing compared to jurisdictions that incarcerate far fewer people. Texas houses more prisoners today than any other state including much-more populous California. New York, where crime rates are far lower than here (see the chart), imprisons its citizens at a rate of 288 per 100,000 compared to 648 per 100,000 in Texas. (If incarcerating more people reduces crime, somebody forgot to tell the Empire State.)

Crime rates descended significantly across the country in the 1990s and continued to decline over the most recent decade. In Texas, crime ebbed somewhat but remains higher than in other large states and nationally. Texas crime rates per 100,000 people dropped by 25% from 2002 to 2011, but reported crime in Texas is still much higher than the national average, much less New York (source).

Texas vs. National, New York
Index Crime Rates, 2001-2011

Oddly, despite fewer reported crimes, the Texas criminal justice system successfully prosecuted more people for felonies throughout most of this period. The total number of Texas criminal cases resulting in convictions or deferred adjudication (a form of probation) continued to grow throughout the decade, topping out in 2011 and defying lower crime trends (source):

 

Until quite recently, arrests in Texas continued to increase despite declining crime, topping out in 2009. Then, over the next two years, arrest numbers began to precipitously drop (source: 2012 data not available yet):


Given lower crime rates, recent declines in arrests and the 2012 nosedive in conviction numbers, it's possible, but by no means certain, that criminal prosecutions and prison admissions may soon begin (after a frustratingly long lag time) to reflect declining crime trends. But it remains to be seen whether those patterns a) continue or b) affect admissions to TDCJ. So far, those reductions have not resulted in a lower prison population.

Confoundingly, despite declining crime, the number of people entering TDCJ each year has remained remarkably stable (TDCJ annual statistical reports are available online only back to 2005; ditto for probation revocation data from TDCJ-CJAD).

TDCJ Admissions by Source
 
Prison admissions due to probation revocations remained fairly steady since 2005, declining by a scant 3%. Parole revocations, OTOH, declined by 38% while the rate of prisoner releases on parole ticked up slightly. By contrast, felony prosecutions resulting in direct prison sentences actually increased by 12% since 2005, despite overall crime declines. That explains why the Legislative Budget Board projects, paradoxically, that prison admissions will increase in coming years. The trend can't be explained by crime rates or arrest patterns and appears to stem primarily from prosecutorial charging and plea bargain decisions.

See the spreadsheet underlying these charts here.

14 comments:

ckikerintulia said...

Grits I guess Texans are just more criminally inclined than New Yorkers, and lead the pack in Amerca, where Americans must be the most criminal people in the whole world--based on incarceration rates.

but maybe there's a better explanation

Anonymous said...

Texas can always do what New York, Chicago, and Detroit do. Stop investigating crime where there is no bodily injury. If the criminal is not on the scene or noone was hurt, don't bother calling the police. Just suck it up and deal with.

I applaud Texas Law Enforcement and the Courts for locking criminals up...even if it is a property crime.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

4:25 says, "I applaud Texas Law Enforcement and the Courts for locking criminals up"

That's nice and all, except that TDCJ released more than 77,000 criminals last year (1,445 directly from solitary confinement). So while that's a fine sound bite, in practice nobody wants to pay for locking up that many folks for too long. Rick Perry says spending hikes should be limited to inflation plus population growth, and for the past three decades we've never managed that on criminal justice because of Big Government Conservatives like yourself.

If we got better outcomes - i.e., lower crime - you might have a point. But with Texas' index crime rate 95% higher than New York's in 2009 and our incarceration rate more than double theirs, it's hard to argue the lock-em-up approach has generated superior results.

Prison Doc said...

I am afraid lots of people agree with Anon 4:25. At least that's what I run into among the average civilian, maybe they listen to O'Reilly too much where he praises nightly the "tuff on crime" approach. When you're a blowhard you don't have to let facts get in the way.

Anonymous said...

...appears to stem primarily from prosecutorial charging and plea bargain decisions.

AND, when will the tuff on crime pleas to prison start coming out of prosecutors funding?

Simple Solution - MANDATORY SENTENCING GUIDELINES backed with financial sanctioning. If there is one thing spoiled prosecutors fear, it is their slush funds being depleated.

Anonymous said...

There are some glaring problems with this analysis. One is that it doesn't mention the significant (20%) population increase in Texas from 2001 to 2011. So while the index crime rate has declined, the absolute number of index crimes is pretty much flat. Clearly, statewide numbers of arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration are tied to the absolute number of crimes, not the rate per 100K. And then there is the comparing of index crimes (violent felonies) on the one hand, to the larger category of felonies overall (for convictions), and then to the even larger category of arrests in general (for felonies and way more). I'm not clear on what the point of analysis is. But whatever the point is, I would be pretty skeptical.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:21, actually the absolute number of index crimes fell as well, from 1,098,809 in 2001 to 996,372 in 2011 - that's nearly a 10% decline in absolute numbers DESPITE population increases.

The point of the analysis was to identify the source of upward prison population pressure during an era of declining crime. As the final chart shows, parole revocations are down a lot, probation revocations are down slightly, and the growth in imprisonment results mainly from local decisions to send more people to prison despite declining crime trends.

Anonymous said...

But again, that is a selective characterization of the the actual numbers. Expressed as a fraction of the 2001 index crime number, the trend by year is:

2001 - 1.00
2002 - 1.03
2003 - 1.04
2004 - 1.03
2005 - 1.01
2006 - 0.98
2007 - 1.01
2008 - 1.00
2009 - 1.02
2010 - 0.97
2011 - 0.91

So the trend is monotonously flat. It remains to be seen if the 2011 fluctuation signals a change in the trend, or simply a one-off fluctuation. But to characterize this period as a period of declining crime is an obvious mischaracterization. Whether it is an intentional mischaracterization or an inadvertant mischaracterization remains to be seen.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Okay, 8:28, let's take your characterization that crime was "monotonously flat" since 2001 and compare that to the growth in convictions over the same period, depicted in the second chart. What do you notice? That the growth in convictions is utterly disconnected from the amount of crime. Prosecution is a growth industry. They don't need more crime to prosecute more people, for reasons Glenn Reynolds has articulated. And that's the reason why TDCJ population growth, according to the LBB, is driven by admissions despite crime rates at modern lows.

Curtis Faye Brooks said...

I would have liked to seen these statistics itemized by race....

Anonymous said...

Convictions are tied to the number of crimes and other things as well. If the number of crimes is flat but the police get better at solving crimes and collecting evidence establishing guilt, then convictions will go up. Also there is an assumption in the analysis that a decreasing crime rate means fewer people are committing crimes. That may or may not be true. The number of people committing crimes may be increasing when the number of crimes are decreasing. And an increasing number of people committing crimes will translate to incrases in arrests and convictions.

It would be nice if these sorts of complex social trends could be cleanly attributed to a small band of draconian government string-pullers, as you imply in your analysis. That is biased view. The reality is less clean and more complex.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:02, I addressed all your real criticisms, now you're just blowing smoke. I never said only prosecutors were responsible, which is why the post also noted the increase in arrests from 2001 - 2009. Until you have evidence to support them, your hypotheticals aren't worth arguing and fly in the face of the raw numbers.

Speaking of which, above you provided a ratio of the total number of index crimes by year with 2001 as the baseline "1." Here's the same calculation, for comparison, for the total convictions/DAs:

2001: 1.00
2002: 1.05
2003: 1.18
2004: 1.20
2005: 1.28
2006: 1.30
2007: 1.42
2008: 1.37
2009: 1.38
2010: 1.36
2011: 1.42

(The 2012 number can't be calculated because UCR data aren't in.)

Whatever the cause, in the 21st century the rate of convictions has become disassociated from the rate of crime. The system has secured such power that it no longer needs more of the latter in order to secure more of the former.

Anonymous said...

"Whatever the cause, in the 21st century the rate of convictions has become disassociated from the rate of crime. The system has secured such power that it no longer needs more of the latter in order to secure more of the former."

Thank you for confirming my suspicions about your biases. That completely explains the myopic analysis.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"That completely explains the myopic analysis"

So what explains your failure to find any factual support for an opposing view? If by "myopic" you mean I focus on data and not woulda-coulda-shoulda speculation, then I'm guilty. You've provided no fact-based explanation for the disconnect between stagnant crime and rising conviction rates. You seem to think alleging bias is enough to deflect any criticism. But my bias is to rely on facts over ideology, and the facts say upward pressure on prison admissions is unrelated to crime rates, and has been for the past decade.