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Getting smarter about crime, state prison edition

Some good news on the criminal justice front.

Texas has a new swagger that comes from a recently released U.S. Justice Department report showing the growth of the state’s prison population is slowing to the extent that three new prisons slated for construction have been scrapped. At the same time, the state is becoming the unlikely new role model for a prison reform movement spreading across the country.

State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, and state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, worked across partisan lines to implement the “reinvestment movement” in 2007, which they say is just starting to show results. The program invests state funds in drug, alcohol and mental health programs to treat offenders rather than just prisons to house them.

“Texas is showing the rest of the country that if you look at research you can find ways to cut costs and crime at the same time,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center’s public safety performance project, a nonprofit think tank. “Just this week the work that Texas has done was featured prominently at the national conference on state legislatures in San Diego. States are learning that they just can’t build their way out of crime.”

There’s still an incredibly long way to go on this, as we still lock up almost 30% more people per capita than the nation as a whole, but it’s a very good start, and a lot of credit is due to Rep. Madden and Sen. Whitmire for their leadership on this. Others like State Sen. Rodney Ellis have done good work as well, but have run into a roadblock in the Governor’s mansion. As with many things in this state, there’s going to need to be a change at the top before any real progress can be made.

I wish the article touched on what all this meant in terms of costs and savings to the state, but perhaps that data isn’t available or conclusive yet. Given the recent efforts in Harris County to do something about the level of incarceration here, all of which comes at a good time to be talking about smart ways to economize, I believe that an emphasis on the cost benefit analysis of programs like these will have traction. It would be real nice to have some momentum on this going into the next legislative session.

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