Rick Perry’s entrance into the race for the Republican presidential nomination could continue to push the justice-reform debate further into national politics as candidates from both parties try to stake their claims on these vital issues.
It could not come at a better time, with discussion over sentencing reform ramping up on Capitol Hill.
Perry may seem like an unlikely advocate for justice reform. Texas was once known as a “tough on crime” state, where politicians locked up even nonviolent criminals and threw away the key.
But in 2007, under Perry’s leadership, the Lone Star State began fundamentally changing its approach to sentencing and incarceration. The state’s prison population had grown dramatically, jumping from a little more than 50,000 inmates in 1990 to nearly 174,000 in 2010, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Over the same period, the incarceration rate grew from 293 inmates per 100,000 residents to 652.
The costs of incarceration, as one might imagine, was significant. Rather than continuing expensive policies that expose nonviolent offenders to very violent prisons, however, Texas got “smart on crime” by focusing on rehabilitation and work-training as a way to reduce costs and encourage offenders to become productive citizens.
“My administration started treatment programs and drug courts for people who wouldn’t be served well by sitting behind bars. We made sure our parole and probation programs were strong,” Perry said earlier this year. “Most of all, we evaluated prisons based on whether they got results. Did an ex-offender get locked up again? Did he get a job? Is he paying restitution to his victims?
“In Texas, we believe in results,” he added.
The results are hard to ignore. Texas saved $2 billion in planned prison construction costs, according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime project, which played a major role in the reforms. The state actually closed three prisons.