AUSTIN — When it comes to crime, Texas has a reputation.
Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Texas has executed more convicts than the next six states combined. More than 1 in 10 prisoners in the United States are incarcerated in the state, with the prison population there nearly tripling since 1992.
Tough on crime talk never went out of style here. But now Texas is drawing the spotlight for a very different incarceration trend.
A series of reforms implemented seven years ago has reversed the explosive growth of the inmate population. Now, the home of the most active death row in America is the model other states are looking to for ways to reduce their crime rate.
The genesis of all the good news came from a very grim time.
The number of inmates in Texas prisons skyrocketed during the 1990s and 2000s, when the war on drugs was in full swing and crime rates were high. The population grew from about 50,000 in 1990 to a peak of 173,000 in 2010, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a 346 percent increase. At the same time, the U.S. prison population doubled, to 1.5 million.
Texas couldn’t build prisons fast enough to accommodate the growing number of inmates. The state began shipping some to county prisons. Private, for-profit prisons sprang up to handle the overflow.
During Gov. Ann Richards’s (D) administration, the state built 100,000 new beds. But by 2006, even those beds were full. That year, Texas Department of Criminal Justice director Brad Livingston approached state legislators with a problem: Outside observers were projecting the state’s prison population would grow by 15,000 inmates in the following six years. He would need $523 million to build a sufficient number of prison beds to house those new inmates.
Livingston had strong relationships with the men he was asking for money.
State Sen. John Whitmire (D), the longest-serving member of the Texas legislature, had authored the penal code that sent the inmate population soaring in the 1990s.
State Rep. Jerry Madden (R), Whitmire’s counterpart in the House, was known as a conservative good ol’ boy with an affinity for law and order.
But Whitmire and Madden knew that the appropriations request would lead down an expensive road. The new prisons would have to be staffed, an ongoing expense added to an already bloated prison budget that was eating up huge amounts of state revenue.
Then-State House Speaker Tom Craddick (R), too, wanted an alternative to the seemingly endless expansion of beds.
So instead of authorizing the new prisons, Whitmire and Madden called in a third expert, Tony Fabelo, a 20-year veteran of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council whose job had been eliminated three years earlier by Gov. Rick Perry (R).
Fabelo, a native Cuban and Ph.D., knew more about the Texas criminal justice system than just about anyone in the state.
Craddick gave them an unlikely mandate: Bend the growth curve downward. In a time before Twitter, in a sleepy state capital, Whitmire, Madden and Fabelo were given the privacy to build their plan behind closed doors.
Fabelo, who was working without pay, recalled late-night meetings in Whitmire’s and Madden’s offices.
In the end, they asked for about half the amount TDCJ wanted.
And instead of building new prisons, the trio built a treatment system. To counter the huge number of former inmates who returned to jail after violating parole, they created hundreds of new beds in drug treatment programs with names like the In-Prison Therapeutic Treatment and Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities.
Some probation violators could be sent to intermediate sanction facilities, a step lower than prison, aimed at getting an offender’s attention without locking them up.
More slots were set aside in outpatient treatment programs for criminals sentenced to probation.
Pre-trial diversion programs for those suffering from mental illnesses, overseen by officers who specialize in mental health and drug treatment helped more people avoid jail.
Crucially, the reforms gave prosecutors who recommend sentences and the judges who impose them a third option besides prison or parole — and it gave them confidence in TDCJ’s ability to impose those alternative penalties.
“In order for the judges and prosecutors to have confidence in that system for the long haul, you have to have the resources. You have to have the outpatient substance abuse resources, you have to have intermediate sanction facility resources,” Livingston said in an interview.
There was a “deliberate decision,” he said, to have a range of programs that would reduce the likelihood released inmates would make a return trips to prison.
The final package ran into its share of political hurdles.
Madden, Whitmire and Fabelo knew they couldn’t change sentencing laws, a poison pill that would have opened legislators to accusations of being soft on crime. And Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R), who nurtured his own future ambitions, inserted a rider that would have required new prisons to be constructed if the number of inmates continued to rise.
Seven years later, that rider has not been triggered. The number of inmates has dropped from its peak, down to 168,000 in 2013. In 2011, the state legislature voted to close a prison in Sugar Land, near Houston, the first time Texas had shut down a prison in 166 years.
And the state’s crime rate has fallen dramatically. Even recidivism is down, from 28 percent before the reforms took effect to 22.6 percent, according to the most recent data.
Those involved in the reforms, and public policy analysts watching the results, say no one program is responsible for the improvement.
“None of these things by themselves will have a huge impact,” Fabelo said in an interview. It’s the combination of multiple reforms, he said, that’s created a stable system – an approach that’s saved the state an estimated $3 billion to date.
“They funded programs rather than prisons,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Some criminal justice experts say that while Texas is off to a good start, it’s far from finished fixing the deeper structural problems caused by so much incarceration.
Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, says lawmakers will need to revisit sentencing guidelines after all.
“The prison population is determined by two things: How many people go in the front door, and how long they stay,” Deitch said. “I think we need to be asking ourselves why we still feel this pull toward incredibly long sentences.”
Tackling sentencing guidelines will be politically difficult in a state where a reduction in the prison population isn’t automatically viewed as a winning message: Perry didn’t mention the lower crime rate or the reduced prison population at all during his 2012 presidential campaign.
But after years of explosive growth, the early returns suggest the tantalizing prospect that the growth curve is bending downward. Other states are starting to pay attention — and the fact that Texas was the first state to invest so aggressively in reforms can give legislators in other states the cover they need to tackle their own reforms.
“The Texas story has resonated loudly across the country,” Gelb said. “There is a deep, visceral reaction to the fact that Texas has taken a different path when it comes to crime and punishment.”