A recent article in The Economist argues that conservatives can call for criminal justice reform without appearing to be tough on crime. The Lone Star State is held up as a prime example of conservative politicians turning away from mass incarceration:
Texas began tackling these problems in the last decade. In 2003 it started mandating probation rather than prison for first-time offenders caught with less than a gram of hard drugs. Two years later it gave the probation board more money to improve supervision and treatment programmes. In 2007, faced with predictions that it would need over 17,000 new prison beds by 2012, requiring $1.13 billion to build and $1.5 billion to operate, Texas allocated $241m to fund treatment programmes. Since 2003 crime of many kinds has declined in Texas. Between 2007 and 2008, Texas’s incarceration rate fell by 4.5%, while nationally the rate rose slightly. Both juvenile crime and the number of juveniles in state institutions have declined.
Over at Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson isn’t convinced. The 2011 legislative session cut the Texas Department of Criminal Justice budget by a measly $29.1 million, but most of the programs on the cutting block are from the community supervision and diversion programming side of the budget; the budget for incarceration is only being cut by $5.5 million.
At the same time, Texas is cutting $71.5 million from the budget for Correctional Managed Health Care services while adding only $12.7 million to a grossly underfunded substance abuse treatment budget.
Budget categories traditionally associated with the tuff-on-crime policy for which Texas is famous are getting a boost: $36.8 million more for correctional security, $16.1 million more for contract prisons, private state jails, and residential parole facilities, and an additional $15 million for contracted temporary capacity.
All of this has left Henson frustrated and angry. “Instead of making plans to incarcerate fewer people,” he writes, “the Lege chose to shift incarceration from public to private facilities with virtually no resultant savings. These priorities amount to an abandonment of the smart-on-crime reform approach for which Texas has recently received national praise.”
Meanwhile, Henson notes, Texas has made multi billion dollar cuts to education and Medicaid.
An aggregate $5.5 million cut to spending on incarcerating adult offenders is a downright offensively paltry sum at a time when education and Medicaid will experience multi-billion dollar cuts. Faced with a choice between funding schools or prisons, in other words, the Texas Legislature decided it values prisons more. I see no other way to explain the outcome except as an expression of (misplaced) legislative priorities.
Are conservative politicians in Texas leading the charge against mass incarceration? Not if this years legislative session is anything to do by. Texans have become financially dependant on the prison industry. Politicians are free to argue that we’re spending too much money on the prison system, but until actual prisons are closed and substance abuse and community supervision budgets explode dramatically we’re dealing with the same old Texas.