In the 1990s and 2000s, states pursued the expensive goal of being tough on crime. Now, with budgets strained near breaking points, those states are trying to cut costs by being smart on crime. Reducing crime rates, recidivism and prison populations isn’t just good for society, after all, it’s good for a state’s bottom line.
And despite Texas’s reputation as the home of draconian crime policies, no other state has adopted more alternatives to traditional incarceration — or reduced by as many the number of prisoners it must pay to house.
Texas’s success had its beginnings in 2006, when state Sen. John Whitmire (D), state Rep. Jerry Madden (R) and corrections expert Tony Fabelo crafted an alternative to a pricey plan to add thousands of new prison beds. The package they presented to legislators included new inpatient and outpatient substance-abuse programs, sentencing alternatives such as pretrial diversion programs that kept minor offenders out of prison, and options to house parole violators in temporary holding sites that aren’t as harsh as prisons. the trio asked for about $250 million, about half the money that would have been required to build new prisons.
“They funded programs rather than prisons,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The results have been dramatic: The Texas prison population has decreased by about 5,000 inmates from its peak in 2010. The state still executes more people than any other — 10 so far this year — but crime rates have fallen markedly. Recidivism is down from 28 percent to 22.6 percent. Three years ago, Texas closed a prison in Sugar Land, the first time in 166 years it had shut down a detention facility.
The initial agreement avoided reducing sentencing guidelines, which would have been difficult to achieve politically and could have doomed the whole package. Observers such as Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, say the state has to do more to make a long-term dent in its number of prisoners.
But the reforms are beginning to show dividends: One estimate finds that the state has saved $3 billion so far. Lower crime rates and big savings: Smart on crime, it turns out, pays off.