This commentary originally appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on August 31, 2015.
By Marc Levin and Ana Yáñez-Correa
Texas prison populations are not shrinking as quickly as the price of oil, but the trend is equally dramatic.
In July, another 734 unneeded Texas prison beds were taken off-line. Since 2007, due to bipartisan leadership, Texas has shuttered three adult prisons and eight juvenile lockups.
At the same time, Texas’ index crime rate has dropped 21 percent, exceeding the nationwide decline.
New laws taking effect Tuesday will lay the groundwork for continued reductions in both incarceration and crime, though more work remains to be done.
In 2007, lawmakers made a historic break from the previous three decades that saw a six-fold increase in incarceration.
Confronted with an official projection that Texas would need to add another 17,000 prison beds by 2012, policymakers instead adopted a justice reinvestment plan that included more drug courts, treatment programs and halfway houses.
This funding eliminated nearly all waiting lists for diversion, in-prison and post-prison programs that in many cases left prosecutors, judges, probation officers and parole officers little alternative other than incarceration even for low-risk, nonviolent offenders.
Lawmakers also overhauled the state’s juvenile system, including eliminating the placement of misdemeanor offenders in state lockups.
Other reforms have followed, such as a provision allowing state jail inmates to earn credits by completing programs that reduce recidivism. The state also has reduced the likelihood of probation revocations by cutting probation terms for certain offenses from 10 to 5 years.
At the end of 2007, Texas had 154,766 adult prison inmates. Today that figure is 147,866.
The adult incarceration rate has fallen by 12 percent.
On the juvenile side, the population in state lockups has fallen from 4,866 in 2007 to 1,302 today.
There are also 3,000 fewer people in Texas county jails today than at the end of 2007.
Though not complete, the right-sizing of Texas’ corrections system has proven sustainable.
Significantly fewer probationers and parolees are committing new offenses than in 2007, which has contributed to the sharp drop in Texas’ crime rate.
Although probation costs taxpayers less than $2 a day compared to more than $50 a day for prison, sufficient resources are crucial to outcomes.
Research has shown that manageable caseloads are necessary so probation officers can keep track of those they are supervising and apply swift and certain sanctions and incentives. They must also be able to send probationers to mandatory addiction and mental health treatment.
In the 2015 session, lawmakers preserved the funding for alternatives to incarceration and adopted numerous new laws that will continue Texas’ progress.
In addition, the most significant juvenile justice legislation since 2007 will redirect even more troubled youths from costly, remotely located state youth lockups to community-based programs that have proven more effective, saving taxpayers $80 million over five years.
Key priorities for lawmakers during the interim must include diverting more low-level drug offenders from prison into treatment; ensuring people who pose no risk to the public are not detained for long periods prior to trial; reducing the number of people revoked from probation for minor violations such as missing an appointment.
Lone Star State policymakers must continue to focus on sustainable reforms that reduce both crime and incarceration, while also making the system more fair and just.
MARC LEVIN IS POLICY DIRECTOR FOR RIGHT ON CRIME, AND ANA YÁÑEZ-CORREA IS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE TEXAS CRIMINAL JUSTICE COALITION.