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Texas Prison Reform Model Maintains Mass Incarceration and Racial Disparity

by Matt Clarke

In 2007, Texas asked the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments to recommend ways it could reduce incarceration and criminal justice expenditures, then enacted most of the recommendations. This package of reforms became known as "The Texas Model." In recent years, the Texas Model has received much praise for reducing imprisonment and criminal justice expenditures. However, an analysis of the Texas Model reported by The Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis of the University of Texas at Austin has shown that the Texas Model has actually increased the number of prisoners and maintained the gross racial disparity of the prison system.

The reforms were based on "Justice Reinvestment," which, according to the Justice Center, is "a data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending, and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and reduce recidivism." The Justice Center recommended Texas adopt sentencing reform, prison-diversion programs, special courts and parole reform. The legislature enacted reforms in all of the recommended areas except parole reform.

The Texas Model included the funding of new outpatient substance abuse treatment beds used to divert defendants from prison as well as increased substance abuse treatment for prisoners and parolees. It also included the establishment of special courts such as drug courts, family courts and veterans courts. The special courts had prison diversion options not available to regular criminal courts. Finally, the model included the establishment of intermediate sanctions centers where parolees could be incarcerated up to 90 days without having their paroles revoked or being returned to prison.

The Texas Model received great praise in such mainstream media outlets as The Daily Beast, The Washington Post and U.S. News. The praise included claims that the Texas Model reduced the number of people Texas incarcerates. However, the Institute's report shows no decrease in the Texas prison population between 2007 and 2012 and a slight increase in 2013. Despite steady and steeply declining crime rates, "Texas continues to lock up more people than any other state, and has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country and the highest among the most populous states."

The Texas Model has also been praised as placing treatment ahead of imprisonment. However, the report concludes that "[a]ssertions that Texas prioritized treatment over incarceration are inaccurate. As of 2012, Texas ranked 49th for per capita spending on mental health. ... Mental health treatment in TDCJ prisons is completely inadequate and often inaccessible."

Texas incarcerates a disproportionate number of its black citizens and the Texas Model did nothing to improve this racial disparity. According to Census Bureau estimates, Texas was approximately 44% White, 12.4% Black and 38.4% Hispanic in 2013. However, the Texas prison system was 31.5% White, 35% Black and 33% Hispanic. The gross over-representation of Blacks in the Texas prison population was not even addressed by the Texas Model.

Since 2007, three sessions of the Texas Legislature have refused to pass proposed parole and sentencing reform bills. Instead, 33 new crimes were created and 20 bills lengthening sentences for existing. crimes were passed.

"The Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) trumpets Texas's 'success' and the Texas reforms were a success in one sense: Texas is one of our toughest-on-crime states, so any progress on criminal reform is an accomplishment. However, if the metric is reduced to corrections populations and costs, the Texas JRI program must be viewed as a failure."

Source: Examining the Texas Prison Reform Model: How Texas is Maintaining Racial Disparity and Mass Incarceration, Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis, University of Texas at Austin, May 14, 2015


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