- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2000

This election season keeps putting Texas under national microscopes. Unfortunately, most outsiders fail to see Texas through the lenses.

A case in point comes from the Justice Policy Institute in D.C., an inauspicious place from which to criticize policies in the Lone Star State, especially with the ample flow of crimes, political and otherwise, occurring in our nation's capital. "Despite the simplistic connection drawn by some that harsher crime policies lead to safer communities," the JPI study states, "there is little evidence that Texas' severe correctional system is responsible for the drop in crime."

So what is responsible? The study never tells us. If there are cheaper and more sensible methods that work, Texans would love to hear about it.

Adjectives can be weasel words. Simplistic or "complex," the logical connection between crime and punishment is there. The risk of punishment is not the sole determinant of crime, but incentives matter in criminal activity, just as in all human endeavor. To assert otherwise dehumanizes criminals. Incentives explain why, for example, the cops are never around when you need one (criminals purposely avoid committing crimes in front of a cop) and why prisons full of bad guys run smoothly.

There is ample, not "a little," evidence that criminal sanctions deter crime. In fact, there's a ton of sophisticated studies that show the criminal justice system prevents a great deal of crime. Let's admit that prison is a sad and expensive necessity. Some folks just need lockin' up, for a while or a long time. And if Texans and their criminal justice policies seem tough, maybe it's because its criminals are tough. Texas ain't Vermont.

The Institute study continues, "While crime has dropped in Texas in recent years, as it has done all over the country, a state-by-state comparison shows the Lone Star State to be lagging behind other jurisdictions which have not increased their prison systems as dramatically." Well, yes, you can find particular jurisdictions that have enjoyed larger crime declines with smaller prison expansions (that's called "data mining"), but Texas beats the nation as a whole during the 9190s. Want proof?

Morgan Quitno Press, an independent company in Lawrence, Kans., which "takes pride in presenting facts in a nonbiased, objective manner," currently ranks Texas as the 17th most dangerous state in the nation, down from sixth most dangerous in 1993, based on six serious FBI-reported crime rates. Therefore, let's stipulate that Texas improved on crime relative to the nation, although surely work remains to be done. During the 1990s every FBI-reported crime except aggravated assault declined more in Texas than in the nation, led by the murder rate decline of 57 percent vs. a 38 percent national decline.

But to understand the Texas experience, we really must return to the 1980s. In 1980, Texas was average on crime and had a prisoner rate 50 percent above the national rate. Because of its location and population characteristics, Texas unfortunately requires a high imprisonment rate to maintain average crime rates: Sunbelt, 1,248-mile-long border with Mexico, high minority population, high population turnover, high youth population, and soaring growth. Today, for example, Texas has an estimated undocumented alien population of 1 million.

By the end of the 1980s, Texas was 40 percent above national crime rates and its prison population was 5 percent below the national rate. Prisoners served less than 20 percent of their sentences and 30,000 prisoners were backed up in county jails. Something had to be done and it was. Voters overwhelmingly approved two prison bond issues, and corrections added 100,000 beds and nearly 80 lock-ups.

It has been called "the Texas solution." Is it ideal? No, it would have been better if the wishful thinking of the 1980s had been replaced by prison expansion apace with the crime problem. It's like a parent who suddenly blows up and punishes a child severely instead of maintaining mild discipline every day.

Speaking of youngsters, during the late 1980s and early 1990s juvenile crime shot up, far outpacing adult crime, and Gov. George W. Bush campaigned on tougher policies toward youths. Once again, firmness is working. Juvenile crime fell 16 percent in the last three years while the Texas Youth Commission population has risen 51 percent.

Corrections, of course, cannot do it all. The intact family is the best crime reducer. Yet too many government programs foster fatherlessness. And corrections must do better. Recidivism should be a performance indicator for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, faith-based prisons must be given a chance, and we should have private, wage-earning jobs behind bars.

Morgan Reynolds is the director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analysis.[p]

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