Savings from prison reforms in Texas top $3 billion, crimes rates hit lowest point since 1968

"By being more intelligent about who you send to prison, being more selective in that, and putting resources into drug treatment, mental health treatment, and things that keep people out of prison, you can lower your costs and make the streets safer," Pat Nolan, Director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, told FreedomWorks of the groundbreaking justice reforms implemented in Texas in a recent video. The reforms, dubbed the "Texas model," have become a blueprint for other, mostly Republican, states to cut prison costs and reprioritize spending or reduce the burden of taxpayers.

Facing $523 million in construction costs to build new prisons that would house the growing number of convicts entering the prison system, in 2006 and 2007, Texas implemented sentencing reforms — such as probation, drug treatment, pre-trial diversion programs, and intermediate sanction facilities — to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.

The reforms were aimed at lowering offenders’ risk of committing crimes in the future, which, if successful, would lower prison costs. As a result of this innovative approach to justice, Texas scrapped its plans to build three new prisons and closed three existing prisons. The reforms should not be measured only by how many prisons were closed, but also by how effective they are. Texas has seen reductions in crime rates and the rate of repeat offenders has also fallen.

Former state Rep. Jerry Madden (R-Plano), who chaired the Texas House of Representatives’ Corrections Committee when the reforms were initially implemented, took to the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday to explain the overwhelming success of the Texas model. "With comprehensive and serious reforms, we were able to avoid massive expected prison population growth and create a new mindset about criminal justice in Texas. Instead of throwing money at the problem, Texas made the system more efficient and effective," Madden wrote. "To date, the state has saved taxpayers an estimated $3 billion and Texas has its lowest crime rates since 1968." (Emphasis added.)

The tremendous success of the initial reforms has allowed Texas lawmakers to pursue new avenues that will lower prison costs and crime and repeat offenders rates. In the 2015 session, for example, the Texas Legislature passed SB 1902, which would allow low-level, nonviolent offenders to seek an order of nondisclosure from state courts. An order of nondisclosure provides these offenders with an opportunity to live productive lives — such as when they apply for a job or fill out a college application — without the burden of past mistakes hanging over their heads. Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 1902 into law in late June.

Other Republican states have taken notice of the success in Texas, where the steps to change the culture of corrections have strong support from voters, and legislators have sought to repeat it by adopting similar innovate reforms to reduce prison costs and ensure public safety by focusing on treatment instead of incarceration. Though these reforms are fiscally conservative, they have found bipartisan support in state legislatures and outside organizations.

"After decades of assuming that locking up more people was the best way to reduce crime, states across the country have figured out that they can scale back imprisonment and still protect public safety. In 2015 alone, Utah, Alabama and Nebraska have all passed comprehensive sentencing and corrections reforms; West Virginia took steps to reduce incarceration of juveniles in their state for misdemeanor or status offenses, and Alaska began major work on a second wave of reforms," Madden notes. "The list goes on — Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi — and while each state tailored the reforms to fit its system, they have looked to Texas for inspiration."

Some adherents to the "lock ’em up and throw away the key" mindset may say that these reforms are "soft on crime," but the Texas model should be judged by its results. With now $3 billion saved and lower crime and repeat offender rates in Texas, this innovative and fiscally conservative approach to justice reform has proven to be exceedingly more effective at disrupting the cycle of crime than the approach taken in the 1980s and 1990s. Which is why so many states are seeking to emulate the Lone Star State.