Friday, September 6, 2013

The Cautionary Instruction: Texas a model for downsizing prisons?

Matthew T. Mangino
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
September 6, 2013

The Texas based blawg Grits for Breakfast estimated that 3.7% percent of Texas adults are in prison, or under community supervision based on data from a recent Texas Criminal Justice Coalition report. That's about one in 27 adult Texans; still a large number, but down from one in 22 just a few years ago, when the state justice system supervised about 4.6 percent of Texas adults.

Recently, Texas has been lauded for closing down prisons and keeping violent crime rates in check. The reality is that Texas was incarcerating, and continues to incarcerate, more people than any other state and most foreign countries.

It was not long ago that America was stunned by the ever expanding size of the nation’s prisons. In 2008, more than one out of every 100 adults in America was in jail or prison. The data documented by the Pew Center on the States, confirmed America's rank as the world's No. 1 incarcerator. At the time, there were 2.3 million Americans in jail or prison.

The report found that the nation spent more than $49 billion a year on corrections, up from less than $11 billion in 1988. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending, the report said.

A year later, a record 6.9 million adults were under the supervision of state and federal corrections systems — incarcerated or on probation or parole — according to a Justice Department study.

Put another way, about 3.2 percent of the adult U.S. population, or 1 in 32 adults, were incarcerated or on probation or parole at the end of 2009.

Although those numbers were astounding, they pale in comparison to Texas. In fact, Texas and California alone accounted for about 1 million incarcerated or supervised offenders.

Now, Texas which still incarcerates more people than any other state is being held out as a model for downsizing prisons. Why -- all of a sudden -- are states and the federal government so anxious to downsize prisons?

Prisons cost American taxpayers about $60 billion last year.

The Obama administration had to request $6.9 billion for the Bureau of Prisons in fiscal 2013. The federal prison system only houses about 14 percent of America’s prisoners.

According to the Washington Post, “The rapid growth in federal prisons was putting a serious strain on the Justice Department’s budget. The number of federal inmates has quadrupled since 1980 and now surpasses 218,000. Housing all those prisoners isn’t cheap.”

That strain is being felt by state lawmakers as well and when it comes to slashing costs prisons are easy targets.

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