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Newest Texas Criminal Justice Lobbyist is Powerful Texas Business Group

By Matt Clarke

The most powerful business group in Texas, the Texas Association of Businesses (TAB) has announced its intention to influence the future course of criminal justice reform in Texas. TAB president Bill Hammond said TAB will be lobbying to increase successful rehabilitation and community-based corrections programs and modify state licensing laws that prevent some former prisoners from receiving certification in some trades and professions. TAB also wants to help reform drug sentencing laws to reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs and ensure that more low-level defendants end up in local treatment programs instead of prison.

"We're sending too many people to the slammer," said Hammond. "The taxpayers and the business community are both being harmed." Therefore, the group plans to ask the Legislature to enact changes intended to keep more low-level non-violent defendants on probation and in local treatment and rehabilitation programs, "rather than sending them all to Huntsville."

TAB represents many of the state's largest employers. Its efforts could increase the likelihood of significant criminal justice reforms and act as a counterweight to the victims' rights groups who have dominated the criminal justice debate in Texas for decades, lobbying for tougher sentencing laws.

The move by TAB is part of a national trend of business leaders becoming interested in criminal justice reform as a way to reduce the tax burden on businesses. Heretofore, the interest in places such as Kentucky, Florida and Oregon, has been largely limited to a few issues. The TAB entry may represent the largest business group thus far tackling systemic criminal justice reforms. It also emphasizes a switch in Texas criminal justice philosophy.

About two decades ago Texas began a five-fold expansion of its prison system, costing billions of dollars and making it the largest free-world prison system.

"Strengthening alternatives to incarceration really makes sense, because criminal justice affects the business environment in a number of ways," according to Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a leader of the national Right on Crime campaign to promote community-justice alternatives to imprisonment who is working with TAB on the proposed reforms. "Every dollar spent on prisons that doesn't need to be spent there can't be spent on roads, infrastructure, schools and all the other priorities           that the         state needs to have to have a successful business environment.... An inefficient corrections system hurts business with higher taxes."

In the fall of 2012, TAB voted to support continuing the criminal justice reforms started in 2009, noting that they had already resulted in over $2 billion in prison costs savings while the crime rate dropped 8 percent to a 40-year low.

"TAB supports criminal justice reforms from previous legislative sessions and ongoing efforts to improve public safety, reduce the rate of recidivism, and decrease prison costs," said TAB in its legislative platform. "Such reforms include, but are not limited to, finding cost-effective alternatives to incarceration through the implementation of enhanced probation programs." The platform noted that the cost to the state per day per probationer is $1.40 while the cost per day of imprisonment is $50.79 per prisoner. This means the state is spending $18,000 per year for each of its over 150,000 prisoners, a total annual prison cost of $2.7 billion.

Source: Austin American-Statesman

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