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Setting the Record Straight on Texas “Prison Reform”

Has the “Texas Prison Model” reduced the number of people the state incarcerates? And, has it substantially reduced racial disparity? If we take a closer look, it’s clear the answer to both questions is no.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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The recent surge in dialogue about criminal justice reform by President Barack Obama and presidential hopefuls consistently refers to Texas as a model for reform.

The Texas Prison Reform Model is a national bestseller, topping the charts of state-based criminal justice reform and grabbing the praise of politicians from Rick Perry to Corey Booker. News reports from across the political spectrum — and now even Obama — congratulate Texas for saving money, increasing public safety and reducing prison populations.

But before other states or the feds buy into the Texas Model, lawmakers ought to check the facts.
Has the Model reduced the number of people Texas incarcerates? And, has it substantially reduced racial disparity? If we take a closer look, it’s clear the answer to both questions is no.

Since the establishment of the prison reform model in 2007, Texas has failed to reduce the number of individuals it incarcerates. In 2013, the state actually increased the number of people living behind prison bars, despite decreased incarceration in several of the nation’s most populous states. Today, Texas separates more families through imprisonment than any other state.
Texas has also not attempted to decrease stark racial disparity. African Americans are imprisoned at higher rates and for longer terms than their white counterparts who commit the same crimes. In Texas, intentional targeting of African American communities has led to a shameful and devastating result: African Americans comprise 35 percent of prison populations despite comprising only 12.4 percent of the state’s population.
So why has the Texas Model failed to address some of the most important criminal justice problems?
The Texas Model was developed to save taxpayer dollars. The Legislative Budget Board in 2007 projected a need to spend about $2.5 billion over five years to construct and staff 17,000 new prison beds. Instead, the Legislature chose to avoid spending more money on projected prison expansion, which is almost always confused as saving money and reducing incarceration but it isn’t.
Cost savings is a compelling component of prison reform, but fiscal austerity reform designs fail to address the underlying drivers of mass incarceration such as harsh sentencing, racialized law enforcement, and lack of opportunities and services in low-income communities of color.

Texas brought this voracious system to life, nurturing it with the lives and hopes of entire communities.

But what Texas started, so too it can end.

Texas must stop incarcerating for technical violations of probation and parole that can be as simple as missing curfew. State authorities should increase average monthly parole release rates. And Texas should come to terms with the undeniable reality that its stubborn and failed drug war and systematic criminalization of low-income communities of color have produced casualties that will affect hundreds of thousands of Texas families for years to come.

For starters, Texans should call for racial impact statements for all criminal justice policies, practices and proposals.
Reinforcing a national narrative that celebrates the success of the Texas Model spreads harmful misinformation about the ability of fiscal austerity designs to substantively reduce incarceration and racial disproportionality.

Genuine reform is possible in Texas, but it will require bold leadership, vigilant attention to ending racial disparity and a willingness to address the underlying causes of mass incarceration. This effort is best led by the experts — those who have experienced incarceration themselves, together with their families. It’s time to set the record straight on the Texas Prison Reform Model. Other states would be wise not to follow in the footsteps of Texas.

Caitlin Dunklee and Rebecca Larsen are researchers for the Institute of Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star Telegram and the San Antonio Express News.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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