What do Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and John Cornyn have in common? All are strong Texas conservatives. Each has consistently fought on behalf of limited government and other core conservative values. And all have embraced the issue of criminal justice reform because our current criminal justice system is fundamentally inconsistent with core conservative values of limited government, opportunity for all and personal responsibility. State lawmakers need to follow their lead.
Texas’ criminal justice system is sprawling, ineffective, and expensive — costing taxpayers $3 billion each year without doing enough to protect public safety. The war on drugs that includes stiffer penalties and more prison time has been one of the biggest failures of the state and nation with an estimated one trillion dollars spent to eradicate drug abuse since the 1970s.
As a result, Texas has become the United States’ largest jailer. On any given day, we have more than 210,000 people locked up in state or county facilities. This translates to one in every 100 adults. An estimated 4.7 million adults in Texas have a criminal record.
The more than $3 billion in taxpayer dollars that we spend on corrections each year doesn’t include the money that comes out of our local property tax bills. This is the money that funds local public safety infrastructure and staff, such as county and municipal jails, prosecutors and courts.
Despite the enormous financial costs, our system is not producing the public safety outcomes we should expect. We overuse expensive prisons, even though people on probation have better outcomes. Those incarcerated in our state jail system at a cost per day of $53 have a 63-percent re-arrest rate within three years. Those placed under community supervision at a cost per day to taxpayers of less than $2 have a 40% lower re-arrest rate.
Our flawed system is also quick to send nonviolent offenders back to jail for technical violations. When people on probation commit a technical violation, such as missing a meeting with their probation officer, they may be sent back to prison, even if they did not commit a new crime. More than 12,000 people are sent back to prison each year for these technical violations, costing an estimated $45 million.
One could argue the cost may be justified if it provides for additional public safety, but the opposite is true. Jailing people for minor, nonviolent offenses makes them more likely to commit another crime.
In 2014 Governor Perry said it best: “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money. Stop the recidivism rates.”
The key way to shut down prisons and save money while protecting communities is to change certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, especially when these offenses are the result of mental illness, drug addiction, or are first-time offenses. We should also allow law enforcement to spend less time arresting people due to issues like drug addiction and more time fighting serious and violent crime.
Republican voters feel the same so we can only hope that our conservative leaders here in Texas will take action.A recent poll by Baselice & Associates that surveyed Texas Republican primary voters showed significant Republican support on a range of key criminal justice reform proposals:
▪ 76% of GOP primary voters favor making possession of a small amount of drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony;
▪ 79% favor a policy that places people charged with possession of a small amount of drugs into community supervision or treatment programs instead of prison; and
▪ 72% favor changing the way technical violations are handled so those with minor infractions are held accountable through enhanced curfews, electronic monitoring, or increased check-ins.
Strengthening and streamlining programs that hold people accountable and reduce crime should be a top priority in the next legislative session. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Treatment reduces drug use by 40 to 60 percent and significantly decreases criminal activity during and after treatment. Treatment also increases employment prospects by 40%. Community supervision, job training, and drug programs can strengthen communities and keep neighborhoods safe by preventing more serious crimes in the future.
We can also be smarter about how we use prisons. When people on probation commit minor infractions, they should be held accountable through alternatives to prison, such as enhanced curfews, electronic monitoring, and increase check-ins. Other states that have limited incarceration for technical violations of probation have seen reduced costs and less crime.
Texas is long overdue for a better criminal justice system that is outcomes based and fiscally responsible. And Republican conservatives should lead the way.
Bill Hammond is the chief strategist for the Texas Smart on Crime Coalition.