Why Texas Is Shutting Prison Doors

Texas isn’t exactly known as a bastion of social progressivism. The state goes consistently bright red in elections, has mounted an escalating war on choice and women’s rights, and famously gifted the nation with George W. Bush. Yet, something remarkable is happening in the Texan criminal justice system: Texan authorities are closing prisons.

In a country that incarcerates 6.3% of its population (the United States accounts for nearly 25% of the global population of incarcerated people), with radical racial inequalities in terms of prison demographics, Texas is instituting a huge move for prison reform, and one that could pave the way for the rest of the nation. If Texas can do it, so can other states; not only can they, but they should.

The U.S. justice system is labyrinthine, complex and unfair at almost every turn. People of color are racially profiled by police, low income people can’t afford good representation, both groups of people (and those who experience both aspects of identity) are often profiled by prejudicial juries, and unequal sentencing laws leave an imbalanced prison population. Large numbers of people are incarcerated in prisons and jails, along with federal facilities, while still more are under parole supervision. One of the key problems with the U.S. justice system is that it is in fact penal in nature rather than being geared towards rehabilitation, improving living conditions, and creating better public safety.

In its “Right on Crime” initiative, Texas is releasing prisoners and consolidating prison populations, but it’s also driving a rehabilitation-focused mode of justice. Researchers noted that when offenders, especially minor ones, went to prison, they often came out worse than they had been before. Upon exit from prison, the risk of recidivism was high, and the nature of the crimes committed by such prisoners tended to be more severe. To counter this, officials started exploring possibilities like educating prisoners, setting up community-based mentorships, and using other rehabilitative tools to get prisoners invested in their communities and prepared to work in and contribute to the outside world upon release — or, in some cases, to be released into rehabilitation programs rather than being kept in prison.

While such a program might sound like something straight from the mouths of bleeding heart liberals, it’s actually not. The origins of the plan lie with Texas Republicans, who started “Right on Crime” because they were concerned about the financial cost of maintaining a huge prison population. Just as the state’s republicans have led the way on mandatory sentencing reform, they’ve now taken up the baton for prison reform, working to save the state millions of dollars. Their drive towards fiscal conservatism is being backed by Democrats interested in meaningful social reform, creating an unexpected accord across the aisle. Surprisingly, prison guards are even getting involved, arguing that the policy changes will make their jobs safer and will protect the interests of prisoners as well.

The program, notes State Senator Loni Hancock of California, is effective. Texan parolees are more likely to have jobs and to contribute to their communities when contrasted with those in California, illustrating that a rehabilitation-based model of corrections provides a significant social benefit. When released prisoners have difficulty finding work or trouble integrating back into their communities, it can increase the risks that they will turn back to crime for lack of better alternatives. By creating those alternatives and encouraging inmates to pursue them upon release, Texas is lowering its crime rate and saving substantial sums.

This allegiance between Republicans and Democrats illustrates that it’s possible for the two parties to cooperate on progressive social policies, and that no matter what the motives, sometimes policies can be made appealing to everyone in surprising ways. For Republicans, this may have been about money and crime rates, while Democrats may have been concerned with prisoner rights and what happens to prisoners after release. Approaching the situation from a new angle satisfied all these concerns, while creating new opportunities for prisoners.

Will other states follow suit?