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Rumpf: Public Rewards Criminal Justice Success with Strong Support

Commentary

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on December 9, 2013.

Public safety is one of the few policy areas where liberals and conservatives agree that government involvement is necessary. The key is whether the particular methods the government employs to keep us safe are actually effective. Fortunately, Texas is on the right track, and we have reason to be optimistic for even more improvement.

The strong Texas economy has come hand-in-hand with explosive population growth, which can create public safety challenges. In 2007, the Texas Legislative Budget Board presented the Legislature with a projection that we would need 17,000 new prison beds over the next five years, at a staggering cost of $2 billion. Instead, the Legislature passed reforms that diverted carefully screened nonviolent offenders into prison alternatives, including drug courts and strictly monitored probation.

These reforms were fully supported by the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, succeeding beyond even our most optimistic projections. Not only did Texas avoid building new prisons, the prison population decreased enough to close three prisons. Crucially, this was accomplished without any detrimental effects on public safety. In fact, since 2007, the crime rate in Texas has fallen almost 20 percent. Texas is now a national model for criminal justice reform, with numerous other states enjoying similar successes with their own reforms.

We are well aware that popular opinion is an important factor in the political viability of any additional reform work. However, other than positive anecdotal feedback, we lacked real data that could tell us what Texans thought about our criminal justice system.

To remedy this, we commissioned a statewide poll of 1,001 likely voters, to find out their views of our criminal justice reforms and what support we might expect for additional reforms. The poll showed not only overwhelming support for the type of reforms enacted in 2007 but that this support carries across all demographic, ideological and partisan lines.

For example, 79 percent of Texans favor sending nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison, and analyzing the responses by party affiliation, 81 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of independents are in support. Looking at ideological and demographic classifications, 80 percent of conservatives, 90 percent of moderates and 89 percent of liberals support the reforms, as do 84 percent of white voters, 80 percent of Hispanics and 90 percent of African-Americans.

The poll also illustrated strong backing for other criminal justice reforms we support. By more than a 2 to 1 margin (62 percent to 27 percent), Texans believe spending money on education and treatment programs is more effective than building more prisons. Likewise, 77 percent agree that before nonviolent offenders are sent to prison, they should have the opportunity to rehabilitate their behavior, and 82 percent believe they should have the opportunity to repay their victims for any damages caused by their crimes.

With a great record of success and across-the-board support for reform, where do we go from here? Clearly, the answer is not to return to the failed “lock ’em up and throw away the key” rhetoric of the past, but rather to continue the focus on rehabilitating nonviolent offenders that has proven so productive. Accordingly, we would encourage rewarding counties based on their ability to reduce recidivism (repeat criminal behavior by previous offenders), improving re-entry programs for state inmates and strengthening probation monitoring.

We already have an excellent model in the “Grant C” program the Legislature approved in 2009, providing financial incentives for successfully treating juveniles in local county programs instead of more distant and costly state facilities. This keeps offenders closer to their families and communities, further improving their odds of successful rehabilitation, and could easily be adapted to yield similar benefits for adult offenders.

Effective monitoring programs are crucial for improving recidivism rates, as shown with the improvements already seen in Texas’ probation programs. These efforts should be expanded and extended to state jail inmates, who have an unacceptably high recidivism rate due to the lack of post-release supervision. A major step in the right direction would be implementing split-sentencing, in which offenders serve part of their sentence in jail and part under strictly monitored community supervision, which requires them to maintain steady employment, provide for their families and pass drug tests.

The Legislature has served the people of Texas well with their leadership in criminal justice reform. Considering the public safety improvements and savings to taxpayers from previous reforms, added with strong public support shown by our poll, legislators should feel confident in pursuing further reform efforts.

Rumpf is the strategic communications manager for Right on Crime, an initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice.