On criminal justice and safety, the federal government should look to Texas

Photo by KUT

It’s no secret that our justice system is in need of reform. Today, nearly one in every 100 adults is imprisoned, causing prisons all across our nation to be dangerously overcrowded. Our criminal justice system comes with an $80 billion price tag each year — a steep cost, shouldered entirely by hardworking American taxpayers. While we cannot put a price on the safety of our communities, evidence suggests this system is not making us safer.

I have had the honor of serving in Texas law enforcement for more than three decades. I am proud of my role in improving the safety of my community and our state. My experience has shown me effective crime control policy is not about locking up every offender who violates a law; it is about locking up the most dangerous criminals while using more cost-effective alternative sanctions where appropriate. Make no mistake: violent offenders belong behind bars. But many non-violent offenders, particularly those with addiction and mental health issues, can be more effectively served through alternative programs. This frees up prison space, saves money, and reduces crime and recidivism.

In the Lone Star State, we’ve led the way in utilizing diversion programs for low-level offenders, demonstrating that we can reduce both crime and unnecessary incarceration. Beginning in 2007, our state legislature committed funding to build up diversion programs for non-violent offenders — diverting them from prison entirely.

These new policies paid off. The state imprisonment rate has fallen 15 percent since 2006, saving Texans from spending billions of dollars on new prison construction and operations. Most important, over the same period crime in Texas fell by 26 percent. By reducing unnecessary incarceration, our state increased public safety.

Texans should be proud of our leadership in this area. Others, including the federal government, can learn from and follow our example. Today, our federal prisons are operating at 23 percent over capacity, with 93 percent of federal prisoners serving sentences for non-violent offenses. Operating these prisons consumes 25 percent of the U.S. Department of Justice’s annual budget. This prevents the Justice Department from supporting local innovation in crime fighting strategies and draws vital resources away from finding and punishing violent criminals.

Federal reform is critical. The good news is our own U.S. Sen. John Cornyn agrees. That’s why last session, he championed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), a bill that would cautiously reduce overly harsh sentences for non-violent offenses and support recidivism reduction and treatment programs. This proposal would save money and improve the safety of our state and nation. Congress did not vote on the bill last year, but hopes are high that with Senator Cornyn leading the charge, we can get this legislation across the finish line.

As a police chief, safety is my foremost concern. Texas has demonstrated that we can reduce imprisonment and strengthen our justice system, without compromising public safety. It’s time for the rest of the nation to follow our lead.

Jody Lay

Police chief, Terrell