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Jail Reform Necessary to Keep Texans Safe

Commentary

This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on 12/16/2012

A basic tenet of Texas criminal justice is corrections: punishing a lawbreaker and redressing his or her wrongs. It is not supposed to be easy, it is not supposed to cater to their desires, but rather keep Texas streets safe.

So when Texas criminals prefer to spend time in a state jail rather than at home on probation, as corrections officials across the state report, we should be extremely concerned. This preference should serve as a red flag that our tax dollars, to the tune of hundreds of millions, are not being wisely spent on state jails.

The state jail system was created in 1993 when lawmakers reclassified certain nonviolent Class A misdemeanors and third degree felonies as state jail felonies. This system had two goals: ensure sufficient prison beds were available for violent and serious offenders in Texas, and increase rehabilitation for low-level offenders at a lower cost.

The 1993 Legislature was quite prescient: using state jails in this way would have been akin to swift and sure sanctions, which today are widely used to increase probation compliance, reduce drug use, and break the cycle of criminality among low-level offenders. This works because offenders are forced to accept immediate consequences for their misbehavior while on probation, such as increased reporting, electronic monitoring, drug treatment, or even spending the weekend in county jail.

State jails, as a part of the community supervision system, would have filled the same role. With either “up-front” time in a state jail, or as punishment for probation violations, state jails would have been the stick that made probation work for state jail offenders.

Unfortunately, Texas never was able to realize the fruits of this visionary system. Before the first state jail even opened its doors, later Legislatures removed the requirement of community supervision from state jail sentences and greatly reduced rehabilitative programming within the state jails.

With these changes, state jail offenders are now directly sentenced to a term of six to 24 months in a state jail, with little or no focus on rehabilitating them away from a life of crime and no supervision upon reentering society.

More than a decade later, we are faced with the results of this decision. State jail felons now prefer state jail over probation since it is “easier.” Probation entails years of rules, meetings, drug tests, and living crime-free. State jails carry no such requirements upon release. In addition, state jails, intended to be a cheaper alternative to prison, now cost just a dollar or two less per day than prisons.

But worse yet are recidivism rates for state jail offenders, which are actually worse than in Texas prisons. Fully 22 percent more state jails felons are re-incarcerated after three years than those released from prison, and 32 percent more of those released from a state jail were rearrested than those coming out of prison.

Texas taxpayers should find these results to be unacceptable. With hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year on state jails, and outcomes worse than prison, state jails are in dire need of reform.

The 1993 Legislature had the right idea: make state jails part of the community supervision system, and use the state jails as a punishment for probation violations, while strongly emphasizing rehabilitation. State jail felony offenders who are career criminals or have prior, more serious felonies would remain subject to prison, not jail, as under current law. However, by reforming the sentencing statutes to require community supervision, state jails can be reinvigorated as a tool to break the cycle of criminality in low-risk offenders.

Fewer state jail offenders spending full terms in a state jail will result in substantial fiscal advantages; but far more importantly, fewer state jail offenders recidivating will mean Texas streets are safer than ever before. This session, the Legislature should prioritize state jail reform to keep Texas citizens safe.