Wednesday, May 31, 2017

More to Do: TX decarceration reforms led to below-average reductions

Texas has received significant credit - Grits has argued perhaps more than we deserve - for enacting policies to reduce incarceration levels. But the truth is, compared to other states, our decarceration reforms have been fairly minimal and this past legislative session they essentially ceased.

Source: Sentencing Project
This new report from the Sentencing Project tells the tale: Texas incarceration rates are down 4.5% from their peak, just below the average reduction among all states (4.9%). Compare that to the states with the largest reductions in prisoner population (compared to peak levels):
  • New Jersey: 35%
  • New York: 29%
  • Alaska: 27%
  • California: 26%
  • Vermont: 25%
  • Connecticut: 22%
  • Minnesota: 17%
  • Maine: 16%
  • Mississippi: 16%
  • Hawaii: 15%
Texas could do much better.

In 2015, Texas took another significant step forward by adjusting property-theft thresholds for inflation, making them the highest in the country and significantly reducing the number of felony theft admissions. That change coupled with declining crime made it possible to close four additional prisons in the next TDCJ budget.

But this year, that progress halted. Legislation to reduce penalties for low-level drug possession and use the savings for treatment never made it out of committee. And with the exception of applying property-theft thresholds to forgery-by-check offenses - tacked on as an amendment to another bill by a liberty-minded senator in the final days of the session - further property-offense reforms all died in the House Calendars Committee, like so many other reform bills before them.

Texas' claims to modeling decarceration among states are now outdated. The "Texas model" - touted by our friends at Pew's Justice Reinvestment project and the Texas Public Policy Foundation as a technocratic fix to mass incarceration  - is now a full decade old and has long since been surpassed by good work in other states.

Texas was "smart on crime" for a brief, shining moment, but we haven't sustained it.


Anonymous said...

I wrote the following in response to your 2013 post on this subject and it still holds true today, except you can add Washington State, Oregon, California, Alaska, and Massachusetts to the states that have legalized marijuana and DC has completely decriminalized since then....

Thank you, thank you, thank you Grits for writing what has needed to be written for years now. I am sick and tired of reading all this BS about how Texas has "lead the way" on reducing incarceration, implementing alternatives to incarceration, blah blah blah. All one needs to point out is that you can still be sentenced to jail in Texas up to 180 days for possessing 0-2 oz. of marijuana, or sentenced to 25-to-life for getting busted 3 times for personal possession (>1 gram!) of cocaine or other "hard" drugs. Other states decriminalized marijuana decades ago, and Colorado and Washington have legalized, and we're still living in the drug war dark ages down here. All I gotta say to people in the rest of the US, Australia, or anywhere else in the world -- don't believe the Texas hype!

Anonymous said...

Oops, sorry, add Nevada and Maine to the list of states that have legalized marijuana too. See:

Anonymous said...

Sad! What else could we expect from this lege when most of their base still thinks in terms of simply "lock em up," be tough on crime, all drugs are hard drugs, and treatment is just moly-coddling criminals. The further away from metrpolitan areas you get in Texas,it is shocking how much greater the sentences are that juries hand down in the rural counties. And we have a lot more rural counties than metropolitan ones. I suspect the legislators who depend on voters from all those counties will continue their hard-on-crime stance until their constituents can somehow be educated otherwise and that may take another generation since all they know is what they hear on Fox.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, 2:37, the polling tends to show voters support reform more than the pols.

Professor Mom said...

I say it's time to elect folks that represent the people

Wise Texan said...

Until we address the problems with prosecutors in these rural areas, I just don't see much changing. They all seem hell bent on doling out ridiculously high sentences and scaring offenders into taking terrible deals for fear of facing a jury. At least this has been my personal experience and observation here in West Texas.

Anonymous said...

I assume my viewpoint is skewed since I work in Prison, but I am continuously amazed by all the free-world types I run into who are believers in really LONG incarceration for what I consider "minor, non-violent" offenses. Frustrating.

Prison Doc

boudou223 said...

I would like to see more reform come into the prison system. To coin an old phrase we only send people to prison to make them better criminals. However, there is an equity issue in sentencing and incarceration. Instead of Monopoly "Go to jail directly to jail ... We could possibly revisit what incarceration is for? Is it punishment, rehabilitation, restitution? Not sure what the answer is but I have been the victim of crime and my recompense was I paid for the loss, I paid the medical bills, I paid the premium increase. The offender did time in jail served. If we want to stop crime and reduce sentences change the laws. If the crime causes any loss but no violence, I'm all for complete restitution by the offender and the that's the end of the story. Second offense, you lose the benefit. As to the issue of marijuana someone, give me a toxicity level that is defined as impairment and an immediate reliable form of testing then I am willing to start a discussion on legalization. The argument always comes back to, "Well marijuana is safer than alcohol", isn't gonna get any sympathy from me. I've had to hold a mans hand as he died because the top of his head was just cut off, by the guy who decided to park his vehicle, in the left lane of IH 35, and go to sleep in the front seat, because he was so drunk he didn't know he was on an interstate. He didn't even wake up when he got rear ended.

He's Innocent said...

I'll agree with Boudou223 who asks that we revisit the point of incarceration. It used to be the Texas Department of Corrections. Now, it is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. May be just words to some, but it highlights the whole tough on crime mentality that just does not work. It destroys lives, families, children's lives, and ripples through generations. society never forgives anymore, it is retribution all day, every day for those trying to re-enter.

I do believe most folks want CJ reform. Too many though have no real idea what that means when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it. They still do not want anyone "like that" living next to THEM! Yet, close to zero believe you when you tell them that convictions are about 95% all plea deals. Bother to explain why and they look at you like you are bonkers. Why plead to what you are not guilty of?? Oh, because those DA's that THEY voted for terrorize everyone with maximum charges, maximum sentences. Regular readers of Grits knows this. I know this from personal familial experience.

This crap costs lives people. It costs people their families. It costs people wrongly convicted of sex offenses their children, their grandchildren. And it hurts my heart to think of what my husband's grandchild will think of him one day with only the public record to document what "really" happened. What about the minor child who will be 12 this weekend that he cannot see? What does that boy think of him? Will he ever be able to see that boy again? (No, there is no victim, CP only, and no he did not download it!) The public record is bullshit. But he'll be a pariah for that child forever. At least I can still see mine, but it breaks both our hearts that he cannot.

What is wrong with you so-called family minded Christians? This is all just wrong. I have little hope of all this ever changing. And that hurts too.

Anonymous said...

Great reporting as usual, Grits! Minor error in your post. You list Minnesota (MN) as one of the states with a reduction in incarceration rate, but Minnesota (MN) is actually one of those 12 states with increasing incarceration. Michigan (MI) is the state you were looking for with a 17% reduction in incarceration rate.

George said...

@ He's Innocent,

At one point I think there really was somewhat of an effort to use the prison systems as a tool to rehabilitate convicts. I no longer see that, instead I see an overblown system that is owned by the state, ( other than the privately owned prisons ), but exists, by and large, for the profits of privately owned companies, some of whose stocks are traded on the stock exchange. Sure, there is the retribution aspect of it --- people who commit serious crimes should be punished in some fashion or another but allowing any entity other than state/federal systems to actually house inmates should not be allowed in my opinion. Money, and the quest for it, is the great corrupter of our nation and the world.

How much punishment is enough? There are no true minimum or maximum sentencing guidelines that I'm aware of here in Texas. Different jurisdictions can hand down extremely lengthy sentences primarily, I think, because of emotions and platforms to run reelection campaigns on.

When you bring up the way the "justice" system deals with those accused/convicted of sex offenses, wow -- this really points to just how insane our country is. This business of a registry, residency restrictions, child safety zones is a scam and, for the most part, not warranted. More and more judicial rulings are in fact coming to the same conclusion. Punish those who are guilty but don't add to that punishment once the sentence is completed.

All serious crimes are a tragedy and should never be committed. Here's a question though, why do victims advocacy groups for the victims of sexual assault feel that additional punishment and shaming should be administered upon these offenders any differently than say those who commit murder, physical/mental child abuse, aggravated assault etc. and the list goes on and on. I think we all know why, it's the word SEX.

What's wrong with the so-called family minded Christian? I believe it's because most, not all, but most aren't true Christians in their hearts. That makes them Christian Atheists, they verbally say that they are Christians and say that they believe in the redemptive power of Christianity but they don't genuinely believe that in their hearts. They'd much rather spout off about what they've done, how much they tithe and place their blind trust in a political figure instead of the real Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Most only want to worship with like minded individuals and pretend as if they are making a difference. Most of the larger churches are too all about the money.

Yes, this is all just wrong and yes it does hurt. What to do about it though, that is the question. It will take a conscious effort from a great number of people to become activated to shake things up. At least at this point, we have the power to vote and THAT is the great equalizer in this whole equation. Most citizens who can vote DO NOT vote and THAT is what needs to change. Search for and find advocacy groups of like minded individuals and educate yourself, support these groups and make a difference -- do not give up and view things as hopeless, that's exactly what is expected of you.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for decarceration. How will they have access to their victim if they are locked up!!! Think about it.

Anonymous said...

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Here's how to fix that: