Changing Direction: A Bipartisan Team Paves a New Path for Sentencing and Corrections in Texas

Expert Q&A

Despite having built more than 100,000 prison beds in the 1980s and ‘90s, Texas was looking at a 17,000-bed shortfall by 2012 at an additional cost of $900 million for fiscal years 2008 and 2009. The huge price tag, combined with its uncertain payoff in public safety, encouraged policymakers to reconsider their reliance on incarceration.

Two leaders in particular, Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Representative Jerry Madden (R-Plano), found that the drivers of prison growth were not the state's increasing resident population or rising crime rates, but rather the state's criminal justice policies and practices. Data analysis revealed the specific culprits: high revocation rates of probationers, a lack of in-prison or community-based treatment and diversion options, and a low parole grant rate.

Tackling these problems, Sen. Whitmire and Rep. Madden helped enact a legislative package that represents a striking redirection of corrections policy in a state known for being tough on crime. The centerpiece is a $241 million network of short-term residential diversion and treatment facilities for low-level substance abusing offenders and additional outpatient drug and mental health treatment resources. The package will save Texas $210 million over the next two years, and an additional $233 million if the programs cut recidivism as expected and help to avert the construction of three proposed prisons.

The two lawmakers spoke recently with Pew's Public Safety Performance Project about their accomplishment and what lies ahead.