Monday, August 12, 2019

Are Texas' prison population reductions significant?

On the Reasonably Suspicious podcast this month, my co-host Amanda Marzullo and I discuss Marie Gottschalk's article about Texas justice-reform efforts in the Baffler, in which she argued that Texas' decarceration reforms had been overstated and demonstrated the limits of left-right coalitions on #cjreform.

Since Grits had to look them up for our podcast conversation, let's record some data links here before I clear my browser tabs.

I largely agree with Gottschalk's assessment of Texas' progress, and have said much the same thing before. (Indeed, Grits was quoted in her article.) Moreover, her observations about the cognitive dissonance between the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice supporting state spending on mental health and drug treatment, while other parts of the organization oppose Medicaid expansion, are difficult to argue. (Check out the podcast, out this week, for that discussion.)

But there's an extent to which her complaint is overstated. Texas undeniably has made significant progress.

For example, the latest annual statistical report on the Texas corrections system (2018) is out. As of August 31, 2018, Texas' prison population  was at 145,018 - as as low as it's been in two decades, and down seven percent from a high of 156,126 in 2008.

But Texas' population has boomed over the intervening years, so the overall incarceration rate has declined. For example, in 1999, Texas had 149,684 prisoners. But the state's population back then was 20.4 million. By 2018, the state population was up to 28.7 million.

So, in 1999, Texas' incarceration rate per 100,000 people was 734; in 2018, it was 505. That's a 31 percent decline. From a number-of-people incarcerated standpoint, Texas' prisoner reduction happened mostly because the parole division reduced technical revocations and increased parole rates for lower risk inmates. But population growth is the bigger factor in lowering the rate.

Among reformers back in the '03-'07 period, none of us fantasized that what was later dubbed the "Texas model" would radically reduce the number of people incarcerated, especially after Governor Rick Perry vetoed the legislation in 2005, allowing only a weakened version to pass in '07. The goal was to stop the sharp upward curve, and to build momentum for future reforms.  And only the first part of that goal was achieved.

The reason I largely agree with Gottschalk's argument is that Texas hasn't really done anything since then on the decarceration front. We've been a leader on innocence, on forensics, and made strides on debtors-prison reform. But the only major decarceration measure that's passed since 2007 was the 2015 increase in property-theft thresholds. And that little-noticed item only passed as a Senate amendment to a House bill tacked on by Konni Burton; the legislation couldn't make it through the process on its own.

Crime has plummeted over the last 20 years, but prison populations in Texas were affected only a little.

As of 2019, decarceration progress in Texas has utterly stalled, while red states like Oklahoma and Utah have reduced drug possession to a misdemeanor and enacted decarceration reforms of which Texans can only dream.

So the Lone Star State has made more progress on prison decarceration than its harshest critics might grant. But it remains inarguable that there's much more to do. And the Texas Legislature, particularly the Texas Senate, has at this point relinquished all momentum toward further progress.

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