Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On the differences between DOJ and TDCJ prison population totals for Texas, and the Next Big Task

It turned out a number of national-level advocates were interested in a question raised as a footnote in a post titled, "If Texas' justice reforms were so great, why does the state still have the nation's largest prison system?" When you ask TDCJ how many people are incarcerated in prisons and state jails, they'point you to the 2012 Statistical Report (pdf) which informs us that there were 152,303 prisoners in Texas prisons, state jails and SAFP treatment facilities as of Aug. 31, 2012. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, though, Texas had 166,372 state prisoners in 2012, or 14,069 more than TDCJ's oft-quoted numbers.

Looking at TDCJ's figures regarding who is in Texas prisons and state jails, the prison population dropped by several thousand in recent years, enough to close three prison units over the last two sessions and leave enough extra beds to consider closing a fourth. But throughout this period, the BJS reporting on Texas incarceration levels remained stubbornly high, only falling finally in this most recent 2012 report.

"Which is right?" several people have asked me, including from a couple of different national groups. Having now looked into it more than I really cared to and crunching a few numbers, IMO, "Both," is the correct answer. The question boils down to the definitions underlying the two numbers. When Marc Levin, Jerry Madden or Grits cite numbers in the 150,000s for Texas' prison population, what we're quoting are TDCJ reports on the number of people actually, presently incarcerated in one of Texas' 109 prisons and state jails. Secure probation and parole facilities are reported in the same document but broken out separately. County jail data are reported to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards which publishes monthly reports.*

The federal number, though, is attempting to get to an apples-to-apples number they can apply across states. They count prisoners based on their legal status at the time of custody, not whether they've formally entered the prison system or not. Instead, the BJS report says in a footnote that, "Jurisdiction refers to the legal authority of state or federal correctional officials over a prisoner, regardless of where the prisoner is held" (emphasis added.).

Looking at Texas' data in that light, there are two main categories of prisoners in secure lockups who are formally state prisoners but not counted in TDCJ's incarceration totals: State prisoners in county jails and parolees in treatment facilities or Intermediate Sanction Facilities but who have not had their supervision formally revoked.

So, let's look at those numbers. The reporting dates won't be apples-to-apples, but close. As of Aug. 31, 2013, here are the statewide totals, by my count, of state prisoners in county jails:
  • Convicted felons in jail awaiting transfer: 4,769
  • Convicted state jail felons awaiting transfer: 1,186
  • Parole violators (technical): 2,170
  • Parole violators (new crime): 2,810
  • Convicted SJF, sentenced to county jail time: 823
  • Total: 11,762, or 17.5% of Texas' 67, 096 county jail prisoners
Now, let's look at TDCJ's most recent statistical report, which provided numbers as of Aug. 31, 2012 (the new one is due out soon). Here are the categories Grits identified as fitting the BJS definition:
  • Intermediate Sanctions Facilities: 1,831
  • Parolees in SAFP treatment programs: 318
  • Total: 2,149
Adding those to the county jail numbers, one gets 13,111. The difference between the DOJ's number and TDCJ's for 2012 was 14,069. So that explains most of the difference and the rest may be accounted for by the disjointed dates and/or some other small category of state prisoners BJS counted that I didn't spot with a cursory glance.

Bottom line: Marc Levin is right that there are fewer people locked up in Texas prisons and state jails. And I suspect even he would acknowledge that the greater credit for those reductions goes to the parole board than the 2007 probation reforms. Rissie Owens and Co. have inched up parole rates by a few points and it made a huge difference. Meanwhile, some of the national advocates (even if motivated perhaps in part by jealousy - same reason everybody loves to hate the Dallas Cowboys!), have just cause to scoff at claims of de-incarceraton based on federal data. For that matter, even using TDCJ's lower number, we still have more people incarcerated in Texas than California did even before its recent court-ordered reduction.

Texas has done most of what it can on the supervision side to reduce revocations. (Probation revocation rates remain stubbornly high but have improved greatly for parole.) The next step for Texas has to be actual sentencing reform, adjusting penalty categories for nonviolent drug and property offenders to make room for violent prisoners being held on extremely long sentences.

That's the biggest reason why the Texas Legislature balked at doing more for the last three sessions following the 2007 probation reforms. The obvious, next steps they need to do are really hard and small-government conservatives, especially after Jerry Madden's departure from the House, have been unable to muster the political capital necessary to get the job done. IMO the votes are there on the House side in particular to support pretty significant reforms if the leadership would ever let the bills get to the floor. The House Calendars Committee has become a graveyard for reform legislation, with Speaker Joe Straus, like his predecessor Tom Craddick, largely shielding the membership from voting on most of the promising bills that get out of committee.

For example, by my count there have been sufficient votes on the floor of the Texas House to pass a bill reducing low-level marijuana possession from a Class B to a Class C ticket-only offense ever since the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee first unanimously voted such a bill out of committee in 2005. This year that committee passed a bill lowering penalties for defendants under 21, which also stalled in Calendars. Under both Speakers Cradddick and Straus, the Calendars Committee has consistently refused to let such legislation onto the floor. In retrospect it was a miracle (spurred by pragmatism: they couldn't afford to build new prisons) that the 2007 probation reforms ever got a vote.

FWIW, my sense is that Texas' prison population will go a little lower, still, on its current trajectory, so long as the parole board's approval rates don't decline again. I suspect we can even close one or two more prisons. But even with the pleasing contribution of a continued falling crime rate, Texas' too-high sentencing categories for the most common nonviolent offenses must change before state government's incarceration footprint can be reduced very much further. That's the next, big task.

* Note to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards: Please put your old monthly reports online in an archive!!


JG said...

Please send me an alert when Levin acknowledges that the real reason that TDCJ's population is FINALLY declining has nothing whatsoever to do with "Justice Reinvestment" Texas style.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JG, you're right, they've got a lot invested at this point in promoting the "Texas model," which with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight wasn't as big a factor as was initially thought in recent prison pop reductions. I wouldn't say it has nothing to do with it, but increased parole rates are the bigger factor.

JRI, if you want to call it that (I don't) was part of the reason the upward curve on new prison and state jail entrants leveled off. E.g., all the parolees in ISFs stay there for 4-6 months instead of being revoked to prison for however many years are left on their sentences. That's helpful toward the goal of long-term reductions, however they're counted in the data. So there are parts of the '07 reforms that are working well.

Also, don't underestimate TPPF's work on juvenile stuff as well, where the state cut the number incarcerated in state youth prisons by 2/3. They have done more than most to move forward the public debate in Texas and America on overincarceration.

JG said...


I totally get that TRI was good for Texas, since prison population growth was continuing an upward trend while most states had leveled off and a few had begin a downward spiral. I also appreciate the Right on Crime buzz, which has finally brought most state officials to see the futility of the "get tough" binge.

But every time I read that Richard Viguerie and Grover Norquist are urging other states to reduce their prison populations "like Texas did" I get a sudden urge to send them a spreadsheet of DOJ/BJS national prison population figures for the last decade.

Like you, I'm waiting for TPPF to urge Texas to adopt some of the criminal justice reforms that are working to reduce prison populations and costs in many other states.

You can keep Jerry Madden at home, advocating the sentencing reforms we both agree are badly needed in your state.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JG, I wouldn't be so quick to scoff. The three prison closures are real and Texas prison and state jail pop is far below earlier projections. Just because TDCJ and DOJ are measuring different things doesn't make TDCJ's measurement invalid.

Moreover, TPPF has advocated a more aggressive path than the Lege has taken, especially in the sessions since 2007 when the Lege did virtually nothing toward de-incarceration. They take a "catch more flies with honey" approach, to be sure, but then I'm personally more on the abrasive side, so I appreciate those who can play "good cop." :)

Anonymous said...

Two things come to mind that I would like to ask about. On a daily basis TDCJ has hundred of inmates "in transit". These inmates may stay in transit for weeks and they lose their beds when they are in transit. How do you get a head count on those? There has always been a lot of speculation about the number of prisoners who travel the state in very uncomfortable circumstances. A 3 hour trip to or from Galveston can take a week or more. That can be extremely harmful to sick inmates.Surely there is a better way but there are many who suspect this is done to avoid head count. Do you know the answer to that?
Secondly,let's look at the other end of the spectrum. I expect there are many stuck with long parole/probation terms that no longer need to be there. A huge cut could be made from that end and it would be extremely beneficial in keeping inmates getting out and finally getting off. Has such a move ever been considered? I try to keep up and I have heard nothing but I see that as an important part of the process.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the person above me. Some of these inmates have spent over 23 years as an inmate and have caught no cases in the last ten years. These people have been up for parole for the past 10 years, did not make it and was not told why. This makes no sense. Most of these people were 17, 18 years old when they committed a crime, now they are in their 40's. Why have they not made parole? Just to keep the count up? get real, Parole Board!!!!!!Let them out on parole, they have grown up in the system. If they have been a model inmate for the past 10 years or more, give them a chance!!!!

Anonymous said...

And once they are released from prison the probation period goes on forever. I would bet there are probation officials in the field that could point out individuals that are not a risk. Cut those people loose and give these folks the job of supervising those who need to be supervised. I would guess there are thousands who could go on about their business with no risk to society. Are those fees more than the cost of supervision? I resent it when people do everything right and are still kept on a leash.

Anonymous said...

I think people are missing the boat on this one. Texas over the past two years has closed down 3 prisons signaling the tough on crime state is wanting to get smart on crime or right on crime, depending on what party your behind.

TDCJ's population was forecasted to be 162,000, is now only 152,000 inmates thanks to several changes. Now I agree Texas can do more. The Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles should seriously reduce the TDCJ inmate population 6,000 to 10,000 inmates by next session.

In the short term TDCJ can closed the Connally Unif and should look to close Bridgeport and Lindsey State Jail by next session. Leasing beds when you have existing beds is stupid. Why would TDCJ lease beds from CCA Bridgeport when they could move those females to Marlin and use the old VA hospital as a satelite unit and save money.

I think it's time for Senator Whitmire to call Brad again and ask him why he is wasting money on the old Marlin VA Hospital and leasing beds for low level female offenders who could be housed at the old VA hospital.