- - Sunday, February 17, 2013

When I was first asked to serve as Chairman of the Corrections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives, my first reaction was, “What did I do to deserve this?” As an engineer by training, I did not have a background in criminal justice and was not sure where to begin. I got what turned out to be great advice from former House Speaker Tom Craddick, who said, “Jerry, don’t build any more prisons. They cost too much.” So I knew I had to slow down the number of prisoners entering in the first place.

Texas already had a constitutionally independent parole board that properly based its decisions on public safety rather than the prison population. Still, Texas had the largest number of people incarcerated in the country and was about to need more prisons to house all the new inmates. We were going to need 17,000 new prison
beds, which would each cost about $50 a day — or $850,000 a day in taxpayers’ money.

Due to the reforms my colleague Sen. John Whitmire and I passed in the 2007 and 2009 legislative sessions, we were able to actually shut down a prison in Sugar Land in 2011. What I learned, and then enacted through public policy, was that we could be both tough on crime and smart on crime. In other words, we could enact policies that would reduce crime, prioritize victims and protect the taxpayers. We could be right on crime.

The work we did – reforming the probation system in Texas and dealing smartly with juvenile justice issues – led to a reduction in both Texas’ crime rate and in the state’s prison population. The Texas reforms have helped reduce the number of new crimes by those on parole by 11.9 percent, and cut the overall crime rate in Texas to its lowest level since 1968. These were common sense reforms that were done on a bipartisan basis, in a state that is no doubt one of the toughest on criminals in the country. As other states follow the Texas model of criminal justice reform, they too will see a decrease in crime, prisoners and costs to taxpayers.

Most of Texas’ adult reforms involved enhancing the capacity and effectiveness of proven alternatives to incarceration for low-risk, nonviolent offenders, such as drug courts, probation with lower caseloads and real teeth for noncompliance, and treatment programs for the mentally ill and chemically dependent with a track record of success. When we began, judges and prosecutors told us they were sending many low-risk, nonviolent offenders to prison simply because these alternatives were too often unavailable, even though they cost taxpayers much less than prison. While it is also important for states to review their sentencing policies, we initially harvested the lowest-hanging fruit in the policy orchard by ensuring our corrections budget was no longer penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Organizations like Right on Crime, a national campaign of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, encourage criminal justice reform. After 20 years in the Texas legislature, I learned quite a bit about criminal justice reform, and was able to implement policies that actually led to the outcomes we sought. This year, other states — including the good folks in places like South Dakota, Oregon, West Virginia, Georgia and Kansas – are either moving legislation now or are considering it in the near future.

Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending. That means we must demand cost-effective approaches that increase public safety. As with any government program, the criminal justice system must be transparent and include performance measures that hold it accountable for its results: protecting the public, lowering crime rates, reducing recidivism and saving taxpayers money. I aim to help out in this effort more than ever now that I am joining the Right on Crime campaign. We can be successful if we roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Jerry Madden, former Texas House Corrections Chairman, is a senior fellow at Right on Crime.