How One Conservative State Became Progressive on Prison Reform

Reggie Fullwood
Reggie Fullwood 2

by Reggie Fullwood

Anyone from Texas likes to brag that “Everything is big” in the Lone Star state. Well, everything included the fact that just a few years ago the state led the nation in the number of people being sent to prison.

Texas developed quite the reputation as a “lock em up” state. But what a difference a day or two makes. Now the story is quite different. And what has been a surprise to many, the prison reform efforts in Texas have been a bipartisan effort. That’s right – Dems and Republicans can agree on some major policy issues.

Reform in Texas has been both drastic and well-planned. Legislators from both sides of the aisles agree that reform makes financial and social sense.

Over the past decade Texas has gradually become a national model. The state used evidence-based reforms to improve public safety, control taxpayer costs, and safely reduce prison populations.

Reform is needed for so many reasons. Let’s talk about a few. First, we have always locked people up for the wrong reasons. Here’s what I mean – if a person is a drug addict and most of their crimes are drug related – that person needs more than prison – they need clinical help to fight their addiction. In Texas, they totally changed their approach to dealing with drug related crimes.

The state established programs to treat drug and alcohol addiction and expanded community-based drug treatment programs and created specialty courts. Another key area of reform was to provide additional funding for mental health care throughout the state.
Many people who commit crimes suffer from some sort of mental health challenge. So it is important to any reform effort to improve mental health services, and provide more rehabilitative programs in prison.

Here’s another major area that Texas made great strides in – for those on probation and parole, they expanded intermediate sanctions in lieu of revoking people to prison for non-violent, low-level rule-breaking, and reduced caseloads to enable officers to provide better supervision services. In other words, they stopped sending people back to prison for minor violations of parole/probation.

This was a really big deal.

Conservatives once led the way toward the tougher sentencing rules and other policies that increased imprisonment rates, now some of those same Republicans are leading efforts to shrink prison populations.

Essentially, the goal is not to send people to prison for low-level nonviolent crimes. There are 4.5 million people in the U.S. on community supervision, more than twice as many as there are in prisons and jails. More than one million women are on probation or parole, a figure that has doubled since 1990.

Texas currently has 482,000 on probation or parole — the equivalent of more than half the population of Austin, the state capital. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, nationally, in 2016, eight in 10 probationers and two-thirds of parolees were sentenced for nonviolent crime.

Here’s the bottom line – prison reform saves states and the federal government millions of dollars a year. And it’s hard to actually calculate because you have to take into account not only the actual funds spent on the upkeep of each prisoner, which is usually significantly higher than what is spent on a person sentenced to non-custodial sanctions. There are also the social, economic and healthcare related costs, which are difficult to measure, but which are immense and long-term.

It’s estimated that over $100 billion is spent annually to fund the criminal justice system. In Florida, it costs over $21,000 a year to take care of one inmate. It’s clear that the best way to reduce the rate at which people re-offend, and thereby reducing spending and mass incarceration, is through gainful employment.

Gandhi once said, “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Everyone deserves a second chance.

Signing off from Baker Correctional Institution

Reggie Fullwood

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