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Justice Reinvestment Initiative Eliminates Texas Prison Overcrowding

by Matt Clarke

Despite a massive prison-building program in the 1990s, in 2007 the Texas legislature had to deal with an overcrowded prison system. Some lawmakers proposed including $523 million in the biennial budget for prison construction. Surprisingly, the legislature decided to reject that plan, instead appropriating $241 million for a Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) project.

The JRI, developed with the assistance of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments and the U.S. De-partment of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, emphasizes the expansion of substance abuse, mental health and intermediate sanction programs. The focus of the JRI is to assist people on probation or parole who are in danger of being sent to prison. The results in Texas were dramatic.

From 2007 to 2008, the state’s prison population increased by a remarkably low 529 prisoners. The projected population increase for that time period was 5,141 prisoners. During the same 24-month period, probation revocations resulting in re-incarceration dropped by 4% and returns-to-prison due to parole revocations declined 25%, while the parole approval rate rose from 26% to 31%.

In 2007, the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) had projected an increase in the prison population of 17,000 prisoners by 2013, necessitating $2 billion in new prison construction. Based on the LBB’s estimate, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) submitted a FY 2008-09 biennial budget request that included $523 million for building new prisons and $184 million in “emergency” funds for contract bed space in county jails. As it turned out, the $523 million wasn’t needed and the county jail contracts have been canceled. The state’s prison capacity is now expected to be sufficient until 2013.

“Our prisons were increasingly filled with people sentenced for substance abuse problems, mental health issues, or technical violations,” said state Representative Jerry Madden. “The result has been a huge burden on our state budget and fewer beds for serious, violent offenders. We needed to be smarter about how we spent taxpayers’ dollars on public safety while ensuring that we continued to be tough on those offenders who pose the greatest risk to our communities.”

The JRI program began with an investigation into the causes behind the historic growth of the state’s prison population. The investigation was conducted by a bipartisan group of legislative leaders led by state Senator John Whitmire, Chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and Rep. Madden, who chairs the House Corrections Committee. They requested assistance from the Justice Center, which identified three main causes of prison growth: 1) Probation revocations resulting in re-incarceration had increased 18% between 1997 and 2006, despite a 3% reduction in the number of people on probation. 2) A decrease in funding for community-based mental health and substance abuse services in the 2003 legislative session had caused many of those programs and facilities to close, leaving insufficient capacity. Over 2,000 people were on waiting lists for placement in such programs. 3) Parole grant rates were lower than the lowest rates recommended by parole guidelines. Merely paroling low-risk prisoners at the lowest suggested rate would have resulted in an additional 2,252 parole releases in 2005.

Based on these findings, the legislative group and the Justice Center developed JRI policy options for cost-effective and safe management of TDCJ’s prison population. The JRI was adopted by the legislature and signed into law by the governor in May 2007; it increased treatment program capacity and expanded prison diversion options for parole and probation revocations. A total of 5,200 new treatment slots and 4,500 new diversion beds were funded. Impressively, this was accomplished at a savings of $210.50 million in FY 2008-09 compared to the proposed cost of expanding the prison system through new construction.

“Ten years from now, I expect that we will look back and realize that these policies marked the most significant redirection in Texas’ criminal justice policy history and that we have been all the safer for them,” said Rep. Madden.

One aspect of the JRI was not as successful, as it met with community opposition: the creation of Transitional Treatment Centers (TTCs) to provide residential treatment programs for newly-released prisoners. Both a lack of certified counselors and a “not in my backyard” attitude among local residents prevented the construction of a sufficient number of TTCs.

The TDCJ requested a net biennial budget of $6.85 billion for FY 2010-2011, which includes full support for all pro-grams adopted in the 2007 legislative session. Further, the state legislature continued the trend started with JRI, passing the following bills in its most recent session, which have been signed into law:

• SB 1940 establishes a Veterans Diversion Court Program for veterans charged with criminal offenses who can prove their conduct was affected by brain injuries or mental illness resulting from military service. Qualified defendants are diverted from prison, and upon completion of the program their record may be expunged.

• HB 3226 establishes a housing voucher program for new parolees.

• HB 93 provides for the restoration of good conduct time lost in prison disciplinary proceedings.

• HB 963 allows some people with felony convictions to be eligible for certain occupational licenses.

• HB 1711 requires the TDCJ to establish a reentry and reintegration plan for releasees that includes educational, vocational, like-skills and life-management programs, encouragement of family interaction, assistance with obtaining identification documents upon release, and help with finding post-release housing.

• HB 2161 provides for the issuance of a personal identification certificate by the TDCJ to current or former prisoners, which can be used to obtain a state identification card or driver’s license.

It is encouraging to see Texas make serious efforts to keep people out of prison. However, most of the JRI programs are aimed at diverting criminal defendants and former prisoners from future incarceration, and do little to help current TDCJ prisoners who did not have the benefit of such programs when they received prison terms.

The Justice Center is presently working with ten other states in regard to criminal justice reform efforts, including Kansas. According to testimony from Kansas Dept. of Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz, the state’s parole revocation rate has dropped by 48% since 2003 and its prison population has declined by 7.5% since 2004, in large part due to assistance from JRI programs and prison risk management strategies.

Sources: “Assessing the Impact of the 2007 Justice Reinvestment Initiative,” Council of State Governments Justice Cen-ter, March 2009;

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