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Championing Change: The Lone Star State Brightens Way for Criminal Justice Reform

by Sandra Farzam, UC Berkeley class of 2015

Within the past five years, the Lone Star State’s imprisonment rate has decreased by 10% and crime there has fallen 18%. Texas is leading the way in bipartisan support for liberal prison policies and much of its success has inspired reforms to the prison systems of other states.

The reason why mass incarceration rates in Texas continue to shrink is mostly because such reforms have been prioritized by state legislators. When, in 2007, state leaders estimated that 17,000 new prison beds were needed which would cost an approximate $2 billion to state taxpayers by 2012, the legislators refused to allocate the money toward that expenditure and instead devoted a portion of those funds toward rehabilitative efforts that would increase community-based options for the offenders, including evidence-based drug treatment, court mediation, and probation, for example. In fact, these lawmakers consisted of a bipartisan coalition led by Republican state Representative Jerry Madden and Democratic state Senator John Whitmire. These major criminal justice reforms emphasized reducing the number of nonviolent drug offenders within and outside of the state’s prisons. The result of such reforms were that taxpayers saved $2 billion in planned construction costs and they also led to the closure of 3 prisons. Additionally, there has been a significant and substantial declines in recidivism rates within Texas’s prison population. Legislators there are in talks to close another few facilities as well since less beds are currently needed.

Texas continues to be a site of polarizing policies on issues such as education and abortion and yet, all kinds of political activists have rallied for support in reforming the criminal justice system there. Although Texas has a reputation of being very tough on violent crime, other similarly right-leaning states have, in recent years, begun to adopt similar prison policies to Texas’s. Several lawmakers and governors within other red states including Mississippi and Georgia, have effectively passed and implemented successful criminal justice reforms similar to those in Texas. Many leaders within these states have attributed their passage and implementation to seeing the success in reforming the corrections system that has transpired in Texas.

Seeing the success of these Texan policies instituted, many Republicans across the nation have also hopped on board to support measures that would lower the national prison population. If Texas has been able to reduce its prison population with bipartisan support, can Congress do so too?

 

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