Texas Breaks its “Tough-on-Crime” Reputation: Crime Rates Fall, Prisons Close

Texas has a long-standing reputation for being tough on crime. The state is known for locking inmates away and throwing away the key, but the state began a recent path toward an emphasis on rehabilitation amid a budget crisis caused by bourgeoning inmate populations and ever-filling prison cells. For decades, Texas invested millions of dollars in an effort to expand prison systems, but in 2007 lawmakers began to re-think their strategy as they were faced with impending budget cuts and a staggering number of incarcerated criminals flooding the Texas prison system.

In 2007, lawmakers began an initiative to focus on rehabilitation over punishment, and they began to see a steep decline in crime rates. Between the years 2012 and 2016, crime rates fell over ten percent, and direct correlations were shown between sentence reductions and falling crime rates. For example, Texas held a policy for many years which punished larceny as a felony, and since reducing it to a misdemeanor convictions have dropped dramatically. Since 2010, larceny rates have fallen by fourteen percent, enough to all but prove a correlation.

In light of reduced sentences and a drop in crime rates, Texas lawmakers have mandated that four Texas prisons be closed by September 1st, 2017, a record in the state’s history. In the past five years, Texas has already shuttered four prisons. Agency officials and criminal justice reform advocates alike cite policy changes and falling crime rates amid a laundry list of factors that have led up to the closing of several prisons.

This optimistic move by the state has raised some concerns with citizens, including concerns over how public safety could be affected by a reduction in cell-space. Officials are optimistic, however, and Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John Whitmore quelled the public’s fears in a statement: “The senate workgroup is recommending this plan, yes. The state has excess [prison] capacity at this point, so we can do this without affecting public safety at all.”

While the decision to close four prisons by September of 2017 has been finalized, committees are still meeting and analyzing budgets, data, and statistics to determine which prisons should be closed and when. Harris County and Dallas County are strong possibilities to receive cuts due to their size. What’s resoundingly clear, however, is that because there are 10,000 less inmates entering the prison system in Texas annually than there were ten years ago, prison closings have become necessary and are highly anticipated by both citizens and officials. Prison cuts will affect more than just the inmates, as it’s estimated that over 400 state employees’ jobs will be affected, but state officials have promised that many employees will be offered positions in nearby prisons.

This decision rides the tails of a federal decision in 2016 to end federal funding to five private prison facilities in Texas. The end to these federal contracts come as p part of a national initiative to phase-out private facilities, because private prisons have a documented history of having higher rates of contraband usage and inmate discipline issues than their public counterparts. There are fifteen private lock-up facilities in the state of Texas.

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