Gritsforbreakfast, a Texas criminal justice blog known for its fearless reporting, recently analyzed Texas parole and prison population statistics between 2006 and 2018. It noted that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (Board) has adjusted parole rates to keep the prison system full, but not overcrowded. The blog concluded that for Texas to achieve any significant reduction in its prison population – let alone the 50 percent decrease that some advocate – it must increase the rate of parole so the number of prisoners released significantly exceeds the number entering state prisons.
The data showed that prior to 2012, the number of prisoners received by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) exceeded the number released. In 2012 – the year TDCJ closed its first prison ever – there was a brief spike in releases that exceeded incoming prisoners by a small amount. After 2012, the number of incoming and released prisoners were virtually identical. This can hardly be coincidental. Instead, it shows the Board was adjusting parole rates to keep the prison system full but not overcrowded. These statistics disprove the Board’s claim that it ignores prison population data and simply releases prisoners when they are ready to be successful on parole.
The problem is not a lack of parole-eligible prisoners. At the end of FY 2018, 79,552 TDCJ prisoners were eligible for parole – about 55 percent of the total prison population. Almost 10,000 of TDCJ’s 145,000 prisoners are over 60 years of age and thus unlikely to commit a new crime. Another 18,564 are between 51 and 60. These older prisoners are the fastest-growing age group in Texas prisons despite the fact that they have very low recidivism rates and are costly to incarcerate due to much higher medical costs than younger prisoners.
Gritsforbreakfast suggested that the Texas legislature look at the “objective-parole” law passed by Michigan. That law requires parole decisions to be based on forward-looking risk factors rather than unchanging historical criteria such as “nature of the crime,” which is the most common reason for parole denials.
Ironically, the blog noted that the total number of people under correctional supervision has drastically decreased in Texas, dropping from one in 22 adults in 2008 to one in 41 a decade later. That included people in jail, on probation, in prison and on parole. But the reduction has not been driven by a decrease in the number of state prisoners, which is slight, or on parole, which increased slightly, or in jail, which fell from 69,397 to 64,537. Instead, the driving factor is a significant reduction in the number of people on felony or misdemeanor probation, which dropped from 429,689 in 2008 to 232,278 in 2018 – a 46 percent reduction.
A large portion of that decline is recent. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of people on felony and misdemeanor probation fell by 38 percent. Doug Smith with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition explained the reduction as driven by a large drop in misdemeanor probation; he believes this is due to a reduction in theft cases, which, in turn, is attributed to an adjustment to property theft thresholds set by the legislature in 2015. But one would expect a threshold adjustment to result in more, not less, misdemeanor cases. The decrease in probationers is not due to misdemeanor drug cases, which increased one percent from 2017 to 2018.
Between 2012 and 2017, misdemeanor theft cases declined by 41 percent, led by a 76 percent reduction in theft-by-check charges. Traffic and parking tickets dropped from 12.1 million in 2006 to 5.5 million in 2018. Juvenile cases fell from 53,000 in 2008 to 29,153 in 2018.
The only possible conclusion is that there are fewer crimes being committed despite an increase in the state’s population. The fact that there has not been a corresponding reduction in Texas’ prison population is an indication that the Board is not releasing qualified prisoners who are eligible for parole.
“Texas currently has 482,000 on probation or parole – the equivalent of more than half the population of Austin, the state capital,” said former state Rep. Jerry Madden. “If we are to continue to make inroads into our correctional populations, we need to address the size and scope of probation and parole. Shrinking the community corrections population by reducing sentence lengths and examining who needs to be on supervision would reduce caseloads allowing officers to concentrate on those who need more help and pose the highest risk to public safety. It would also allow people who have been held accountable to move on with their lives. And for Conservatives like myself, it would help ensure legitimate use of government power and funds by emphasizing public safety and wise use of taxpayer funds.”
Sources: gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com, thehill.com
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