Back in July, prison systems throughout the state of Texas saw its lowest headcount in the span of five years despite the population of the state itself growing. Based on numbers released by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, there are currently just over 154,000 inmates, as opposed to approximately 156,000 prisoners residing in the state’s 111 prisons one year ago. Texas now ranks in fourth place for state prison populations after being in second place only two years ago. Traditionally, this state held the distinction of being the highest for incarceration rates in the country.
Prison population is decreasing in other states, according to various experts. However, it’s hard to determine whether or not this is something that’s the start of a long-term trend or just a dip in what we expect to see in the numbers.
The change seems to stem from the fact that judges in Texas, as well as other states around the country, are sentencing more and more offenders to rehabilitation programs, and other forms of alternative treatment, that may be more effective in addressing the root problem of what leads to criminal behavior, instead of prison. Some judges believe that as a result of their decisions, taxpayers will experience safer neighborhoods, and a reduction in the number prison facilities that need to be operated. Judges also hope that offenders will take advantage of these types of programs to help them escape various addictions and return to the population as law-abiding citizens. In contrast, experts say that factors such as demographic changes, crime rates decreasing, and an aging state population all also play a role to keep prison beds empty throughout Texas.
In the early 1990s, former Texas Governor Ann Richards opened up brand new drug treatment centers throughout the state, all of which focused on rehabilitating criminals. Continuing to back the former Governor’s initiative, conservative Republicans are helping to drive additional reforms to the criminal justice system. According to the Center for Effective Justice, various states are adopting policies and starting programs for non-violent offenders that are much more cost-effective. Many conservatives are on record as saying that these types of policies are the right way to go because of tight budgets and knowing that these programs can work.
Further changes will be up for debate when the state Legislature reconvenes next year, including the following:
*Proposals to change drug sentencing in order to provide more treatment instead of going to prison
*A push to fund a law from 2011 allowing counties throughout Texas to limit how many felons are sent to state prisons in exchange for additional state funding for corrections programs for local communities
The idea is that they are going to take a serious look at what works and what doesn’t. Many legislators are already aware that rehabilitation and treatment programs can work, while prisons should be reserved for the worst in our society, such as murderers, violent offenders, and sex offenders. It will be interesting to see what the politicians come up with during the next session.
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