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Tough Texas gets prison results by going softer on crime

AUSTIN — When it comes to crime, Texas has a reputation.

Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Texas has executed more convicts than the next six states combined. More than one in 10 prisoners in the United States are incarcerated in the state, with the prison population there nearly tripling since 1992. Tough-on-crime talk never went out of style here.

But now Texas is drawing the spotlight for a very different incarceration trend. A series of reforms implemented seven years ago has reversed the explosive growth of the inmate population and reduced recidivism. Now, Texas is the model other states are looking to for ways to reduce crime.

The genesis of all the good news came from a very grim time. The number of inmates in Texas prisons skyrocketed during the 1990s and 2000s. The population grew from about 50,000 in 1990 to a peak of 173,000 in 2010, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a 346 percent increase. At the same time, the U.S. prison population doubled, to 1.5 million.

Texas couldn’t build prisons fast enough to accommodate the growing number of inmates. The state began shipping some to county prisons. Private, for-profit prisons sprang up to handle the overflow. During Democratic Gov. Ann Richards’ administration, the state added 100,000 new beds. But by 2006, even those beds were full.

That year, Department of Criminal Justice director Brad Livingston approached state legislators with a problem: Outside observers were projecting the state’s prison population would grow by 15,000 inmates in the following six years. He would need $523 million to build a sufficient number of prisons to house them.

Livingston had strong relationships with the men he was asking for money. State Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat, the longest-serving member of the Texas Legislature, had authored the penal code that sent the inmate population soaring in the 1990s. Republican state Rep. Jerry Madden, Whitmire’s counterpart in the House, was known as a conservative good ol’ boy with an affinity for law and order.

But Whitmire and Madden knew that the appropriations request would lead down an expensive road. The new prisons would have to be staffed, an ongoing expense added to a bloated prison budget that was eating up huge amounts of state revenue.

Then-state House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican, wanted an alternative to the endless expansion of beds.

So instead of authorizing the new prisons, Whitmire and Madden called in a third expert, Tony Fabelo, a 20-year veteran of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council whose job had been eliminated three years earlier by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Fabelo, a native Cuban and Ph.D., knew more about the Texas criminal justice system than just about anyone in the state. Craddick gave them an unlikely mandate: Bend the growth curve downward.

In the end, Whitmire, Madden and Fabelo asked for about half the amount the Department of Criminal Justice wanted. And instead of building prisons, the trio built a treatment system.

To counter the huge number of former inmates who returned to jail after violating parole, they opened hundreds of new beds in drug treatment programs with names like the In-Prison Therapeutic Treatment and Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities. Some probation violators could be sent to intermediate sanction facilities, a step lower than prison, aimed at getting an offender’s attention without locking them up.

More slots were set aside in outpatient treatment programs for criminals sentenced to probation. Pre-trial diversion programs for those suffering from mental illnesses, overseen by officers who specialize in mental health and drug treatment, helped more people avoid jail.

Seven years later, the number of inmates has dropped from its peak, down to 168,000 in 2013. In 2011, the Legislature voted to close a prison in Sugar Land, the first time Texas had shut down a prison in 166 years.

The state’s crime rate has fallen dramatically. Even recidivism is down, from 28 percent to 22.6 percent, according to the most recent data.


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