“The Lone Star Model Part II: Criminal Justice” seems an unlikely title for a post given Texas’ image as a hawkish, gun-toting “wild west” police state. Contrary to the heavy-handed, disciplinarian image of the state that consistently conducts the most inmate executions, Texas has reformed its justice system to be more clement and sensible. Don’t be mistaken though, the State of Texas still maintains its reputation for strict enforcement of the law and devotion to public safety. The reforms that have been enacted in Texas are carefully-calculated measures that don’t throw the baby out with the bath- water. The reforms are every bit as humanitarian as they are cost-effective, resulting not only in a fairer system but one that is less burdensome and cheaper to maintain. The beginning of such reforms came in 2003 with the passage into law of HB 2668 which stipulates that first-time drug possessors found with less than 1 gram of a controlled substance or less than 1 pound of marijuana be sentenced to “community supervision,” legal jargon for probation. The change not only saved largely non-violent offenders from horrifying prison experiences and the stigma of a criminal record with prison time but it may have saved the state roughly $117 million in the first 5 years of implementation. Granted, that figure is an estimate of the potential cost-savings made at the time of the bill’s passage into law. Still, the savings in taxpayer money alone is a compelling endorsement of the law not to mention the benefits reaped by the convicts, many of them young, one-time offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Texas’ total incarceration rate declined from 757 per 100,000 population in 2003 to 636 per 100,000 in 2013, representing ten consecutive years of decline. The Texas legislature’s 2007 Justice Reinvestment Initiative marked an important turning point in corrections spending priorities; the initiative opted to devote $241 million to a variety of treatment and rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing recidivism rather than spending $523 million for new prison construction. Between 2006 and 2008, the parole approval rate increased slightly while at the same time the parole revocation rate decreased by 25%, resulting in more parolees and fewer parolees losing their parole and being sent back to prison.
The legislature of 2007 passed S.B. 103 which diverted youths convicted of misdemeanors away from the agency that handles juvenile delinquents, the Texas Youth Commission. Additionally, the law lowered the maximum age of persons permitted to be held in such institutions from 21 to 19 years. Importantly, the bill allocated money to county organizations that serve and treat misdemeaning youths through a variety of approaches other than incarceration. The result? During the period lasting from 2000 to 2010, the youth population incarcerated in all facilities (both private and public) dropped by 37%. Texas’ 2010 youth incarceration rate of 139 per 100,000 population was 34% lower than the U.S average of 210 per 100,000. In 2009, the state established the Commitment Reduction Program, further realigning spending priorities toward community-based alternatives to incarceration at the county level. Importantly, this legislation is incentive-based, that is, the most cost-effective and recidivism-reducing programs earn the state’s funds. In 2011, the legislature devoted another $39 million to the program. Also in 2011, S.B. 653 consolidated the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, to create the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. This streamlining is not only more efficient in carrying out necessary functions and using funds, but it makes for a simpler, more transparent juvenile justice system. According to the Texas Department of Justice, arrests of juveniles declined by 27% during 2007-2011 and the incarcerated juvenile population decreased by 62% in the same period.
Texas’ private-sector sensibilities are also playing a role in this transformation. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) was founded in 2004 by former New York financial professional, Catherine Rohr to prepare Texas inmates for re-entry into society. The faith-based program intentionally recruited inmates with histories in drug-dealing, hustling, and gang leadership who wanted to reform their lives. The program immerses the prisoners in an MBA curriculum, introduces them to business mentors, life-skills coaching, sets them up with a job placement program, and provides them with a re-entry care package. An independent study by Baylor University, found that 3-year recidivism rates for a control group of males released from Texas prisons was 24% compared to 6.9% for PEP grads. Some other key findings include PEP graduates’ 95% employment versus the national ex-con employment rate of 50%; 20% of PEP grads were on public assistance as opposed to 45% of the general ex-con population; The study found the program’s ROI (return on investment) by taking into account the costs of re-incarceration prevented by the reduced recidivism of graduates, the taxes generated by the newly-minted entrepreneurs, the cost savings from a decreased reliance on public assistance, and the increase in child-support payments. The study found the ROI for every dollar invested in PEP to be $0.74 after the 1st year of a graduate’s re-entry, $2.07 after 3 years, and $3.40 after 5 years. While PEP is certainly the most successful rehabilitation prison program in Texas, other rehab programs, ranging from faith-based to substance-abuse correction to motivational speaking directives have an important impact on reducing recidivism and improving the outcomes of ex-convicts as they return to free society. The best part of all these reforms? Crime rates continue on their roughly 20 year nationwide descent. In 2000 the violent crime rate in Texas was 544.8 per 100,000 population. In 2010 the violent crime rate in Texas was 450.6 per 100,000 population.