Criminal justice should deliver better results at lower cost

Photo by Rob Crow

Texas spends more than $168 million each year locking people up for state jail felonies — in many cases for minor offenses — with a 62 percent re-arrest rate within three years. That’s an unacceptable outcome, and we’re failing Texans by propping up a broken system.

Lawmakers should instead shift resources to evidence-based treatment and rehabilitation programs, improve incentives for choosing rehabilitation and expand use of pre-trial intervention. Doing so would not only reduce prison populations but also lower re-arrest rates, save taxpayer dollars and keep our communities safe.

Being tough but also smart on crime is popular in a conservative state like Texas. Voters — including staunch Republicans — believe reform will make our communities safer and would cut costs.

According to a Texas Smart-On-Crime poll of Republican primary voters, conducted by Baselice and Associates in 2018, 91 percent of Republican primary voters favor increasing job training for people in jail or prison, and 75 percent favor reducing regulations so that former felons who have paid their debt to society can more readily apply and receive licenses for gainful employment.

That’s exactly what we could accomplish by funding a re-entry pilot program authorized by the Texas Legislature in 2017. Doing so would provide education, job training and job placement for non-violent offenders — the more than 70,000 people who return to our communities from prison each year. Easing job licensing requirements can also reduce recidivism and put people to work.

What should bipartisan criminal justice reform look like this legislative session?

  • Prioritizing treatment over incarceration and expanding probation for minor offenses.
  • Reducing probation revocations for administrative violations.
  • Serving 13- to 17-year-olds in smaller rehabilitative settings rather than remote juvenile prisons and better addressing the needs of incarcerated women.
  • Reducing barriers to occupational licensing to support successful re-entry and providing meaningful job training programs for those in prison.

Simply put, criminal justice reform is better results, better outcomes and lower costs. It would create opportunities for redemption.

It’s increasingly rare to find bipartisan support for anything these days. In our hyper-partisan, polarized world, it would be easy to shrug off a suggestion of Democrats and Republicans uniting behind a common set of solutions to anything.

But not when it comes to criminal justice reform. We’re bucking conventional wisdom and demonstrating that we can come together across the political spectrum to fix a broken system.

Back in 2014, we brought together businesses, faith organizations, nonprofit advocates and the state’s most prominent conservative and progressive organizations to pursue bipartisan plans to reform our criminal justice system. Texas’ Smart-On-Crime Coalition and our state Legislature were at the forefront of reform.

And, this past year in Washington, we saw the fruits of our work — and that of many like-minded state and national organizations — become law in the First Step Act, a smart path toward reducing crime, reforming our prison system, and saving taxpayer dollars. It’s policy that was developed and tested in states like Texas, and it’s a significant step forward.

There’s work still to be done, though.

And organizations like the Texas Association of Business, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Goodwill of Central Texas, Texas Association of Goodwills, Christian Life Commission, Prison Fellowship and the ACLU of Texas are once again calling on state leaders to take the next steps critical to reforming our criminal justice system.

Let’s make sure our lawmakers reach across the aisle and show voters bipartisanship isn’t dead this session. In doing so, we’d make great strides to reform our broken criminal justice system, strengthen our communities, reduce taxpayer costs and keep Texas safe. It’s time to act.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Bill Hammond

Chief strategist, Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition

@texashammond

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