GOVERNOR’S COMMISSION ON PUBLIC SAFETY LEARNS ABOUT TEXAS CORRECTIONS
The Governor’s Commission On Public Safety met on October 21, 2011, at Southern Oregon University, and heard a presentation from a seasoned Texas Representative named Jerry Madden. Representative Madden lead the effort in Texas from 2005 forward to change criminal justice policies in order to avoid building additional prisons. His assignment from the Speaker of the House was, “Don’t build prisons, they cost too much.” Before I summarize Representative Madden’s comments, it is important to know that Oregon crime statistics and Texas crime statistics are very different. I suggest Oregon’s numbers are much better than Texas’ numbers.
PRISON AND CRIME NUMBERS COMPARED
The 2010 population of Texas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 25,145,561, and the 2010 Oregon population is 3,831,074. Texas has a whopping 112 prisons, and Oregon has 14 prisons. Texas has about 172,000 prisoners, and Oregon has about 14,000. More importantly, the Texas incarceration rate in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, F.B.I. Uniform Crime Reports (after many of the Texas reforms), is 639 persons for every 100,000 people. Oregon’s 2009 incarceration rate is 371 persons for every 100,000 people. Out of 50 states, Texas ranked 4th highest for incarceration rate in 2009, and Oregon ranked 30th highest – not even in the top half of states.
Although Oregon has a low/moderate incarceration rate, our violent crime drop for 15 years is outstanding. Violent crime decreased 51.2% in Oregon from 1995-2009, while the Texas decrease was only 26.1%. Said another way, out of 50 states Oregon ranked 2ndfor the largest percentage reduction in violent crime while Texas ranked 28th – not even in the top half of states.
As a side note, testimony before the Commission by an economist specializing in crime analysis was that criminologists believe that incarceration accounts for 25% to 35% of the national crime decline. My interpretation of this statement is that for violent offenders and repeat property offenders and repeat drug offenders incarceration will at least slow them down in the number of crimes they commit. And of course, that means fewer crime victims, which is a very good outcome.
THE TEXAS RECIPE FOR NOT BUILDING MORE PRISONS
Representative Madden explained that Texas wasn’t going to let offenders out early, so they focused on how to slow down the offenders from coming into prison. It should be noted that Texas did not change any sentences for any type of felony crimes. In essence, they came up with five different ideas which they implemented. Here’s the list with a brief summary of each idea.
1. Reduce the number of parole violators who are sent back to prison. Sanction technical violators in the local community. For example, give violators short periods of lock up and provide positive programming such as drug and alcohol treatment.
2. Provide treatment programs in prison; so when the offenders are released, they are less likely to re-offend. An example is alcohol and drug treatment for those individuals who need it.
3. Use intermediate sanctions for felons who violate their probation rather than immediately sending them to prison. Prison in Texas costs $50 per day according to Representative Madden, so using cheaper sanctions saves money and also helps to avoid building prisons. Representative Madden said that intermediate sanctions in Texas cost about 65% of the $50-per-day cost for a prison bed. (Note: Oregon’s per day cost is about $82 per day. Caution should be used in comparing these rates across states to be sure the comparisons are considering the same factors.)
4. Texas focused on “Breaking the Cycle” of crime with juveniles. Texas had about 5000 kids locked up and have reduced the number to about 1500. Unfortunately, there was no details about programming for juveniles and what happens to a juvenile in custody who turns 18 years old. In Oregon, the individual who turns 18 years old almost always remains in a juvenile facility until they are released, or turn 25 years old, and are then transferred to an adult prison.
5. Early childhood support for families/mothers that need it. There was very little detail from the Representative about how this idea saved building prisons. I presume it is a long-range-prevention effort which, undoubtedly, will have positive effects.
Texas saved about $500 million on prison construction by implementing the above 5 ideas at a cost of about $240 million.
REPRESENTATIVE MADDEN MADE ADDITIONAL IMPORTANT COMMENTS
- Scientifically-valid risk assessments should be used from arrest, to plea bargaining, to sentencing, to probation, to prison, to programming in prison, to prison release and parole. In prison, a risk assessment should be used, so the right offender receives the right program. Spend your money on the group of offenders with whom you may be able to make a difference.
- Texas contracts out programming for offenders such as their halfway houses.
- 15% of Texas’ prisons are privately run and owned by the state government.
- Texas financially incentivizes counties to keep offenders in the community.
- Make sure the programs measure results. Have the courage to change where you spend the money if you are not getting the results you want.
TWO FINAL THOUGHTS
- Oregon has already implemented many of the Texas ideas but not nearly in the robust fashion necessary to maximize the benefit. For example, helping offenders reenter society when they leave prison is critical in reducing recidivism rates and helping ex-offenders change their lives for the better. The early results of pilot reentry projects in several Oregon counties show significant drops in recidivism rates. Spending more money on reentry programs is difficult in tough economic times, but the financial dividends over the long haul, not to mention the individual life changes for the better, appear to far outweigh the upfront costs.
- If Texas can avoid building new prisons using creative ideas and without changing any sentencing policy, Oregon should be able to do the same thing. All we need are the creative ideas.