Thursday, November 05, 2020

Texas prison population ↓ by more in last year than most US states incarcerate

Grits mentioned before that Texas' prison population in the last few months plummeted to 21st century lows - a little more than 120K, down from the low-140s in 2019. At the time, though, one couldn't tell from the data whether this was because of people backlogged in county jails waiting to be sent to TDCJ. 

Our pal Keri Blakinger answered that question a few days ago, emailing to say: "there are just 1,600 jail inmates that are state ready and waiting to be picked up, per Jeremy [Desel, TDCJ Public Information Officer]. Which is interesting because it means that there actually IS a population decrease beyond what is explained by just the people waiting in the jails."

For context: In recent years, Texas has both received and released closer to 5,000+ prisoners per month, so Keri's right that 1,600 means they've eliminated the backlog from their brief intake cessation.

How big a decrease are we talking about? TDCJ had 142,169 prisoners as of August 31, 2019, and 120,707 as of September 2020, giving Texas a 15% reduction (21,462 fewer inmates) over the last year.

How significant a decrease that is depends on how you look at it, but it's not small potatoes. 21,462 fewer inmates represents about a 1.5% reduction in the total number of federal and state prisoners in the entire country, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

Only 21 other state prison systems, by my count, incarcerated more than 21,000 people in 2019. Put another way, in the last year, Texas reduced its prison population by more prisoners than most states incarcerate en toto! 

Indeed, Texas' prison population reduced so much in the last year that, if Wyoming, Vermont, Rhode Island, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Maine, and Arkansas had reduced by the same amount, their prisons would all be virtually empty.* 

If Grits were still a professional opposition researcher working for candidates, as I did in a past life, I might look at this sudden drop and wonder "Why are Texas state leaders soft on crime?" I might even look at recently reported increases in murder rates nationwide, which are mimicked in Texas' data, to try to claim Governor Abbott or Lt. Gov. Abbott were responsible for increased murders (as opposed to the murderers) because incarceration declines happened on their watch.

That would be unfair, disingenuous, and frankly ridiculous, just as it was when those state leaders claimed for campaign purposes that Austin had turned into some murderous, crime-ridden hellhole. But that's politics. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In reality, this reduction represents good news on every level and R and D partisans should all accept it as such. Texas state leaders had been had been telling the prison system to focus budget cuts on treatment services and other areas that would squeeze prisoners and increase recidivism. But now, populations have dropped. This news means TDCJ can likely close multiple, additional units to save money instead. In a year when tax revenue is short thanks to COVID, lower prison populations should turn out to be a budgetary mitzvah.

*The total 2019 prison population of these 8 states was just 311 more than Texas' one-year reduction.


LC in Texas said...

Those inmates that have been declaring innocents all the years in prison need to have their cases re-evaluated - unless proven to be very violent and dangerous, they do not belong in prison. Pardon and parole boards need to do a better job.

TheLawEnforcementProject said...

There are some very good reasons to look-back-on/reevaluate some particular cases, but just because an inmate declares innocence is not one of those reasons

Gadfly said...

Out of curiosity, I was trying to figure out why Gatesville has lost 3,000 people in the past decade. But, per TDCJ annual reports, the women's prison population has varied by no more than 500 per year the entire decade. So, Gatesville's air is leaking from somewhere else than the prison system.