This commentary originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on December 10, 2013.

In 2007, Texas became a national superstar in criminal justice.

Legislators responded to a state projection that they would need to spend $2 billion on 17,000 new prison beds, and instead put a smaller amount, about $243 million, into alternatives for nonviolent offenders such as probation, drug courts, and mental health treatment.

In the ensuing years, crime dropped to its lowest rate since 1968, and rather than build these new beds, Texas closed three prisons entirely. One of the closed facilities was the Central Unit in Sugar Land.

Policy wonks that follow criminal justice reform were delighted to see academic theory vindicated by real-world results in Texas.

It is now common for reformers across the country to point to Texas as a national model.

We have never really known, however, what Texans think of these reforms. Are they supportive of the changes? Would they approve of another round of targeted prison reform?

The answer is yes, according to a new poll of 1,001 likely voters commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said the most important thing when dealing with nonviolent criminals was rehabilitation, punishment, or compensating victims. Only 8 percent said the most important thing was “sending a message.”

Eighty-seven percent said that rather than treating all criminals the same, they would prefer tailored approaches to treating drug and mental health problems in nonviolent offenders.

Among conservatives, the strongest support for reform was found among those who affiliate with the Tea Party.

These are important findings for candidates who think that a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” message – regardless of costs and results – is attractive to voters.

In fact, voters oppose an escalating game of one-upsmanship wherein candidates promise to incarcerate offenders for just a little bit longer than the last officeholder.

The poll suggests that instead of seeking to be as punitive as possible, when it comes to nonviolent offenders, candidates should advance policies focused on making victims whole and promoting public safety through reducing the likelihood of criminal re-offending after release from prison.

Three components are critical for achieving these goals: rewarding counties based on their ability to reduce recidivism, improving re-entry for ex-offenders, and strengthening probation monitoring.

Rewarding counties for reducing recidivism is hardly a new idea. In 2009, the Legislature approved “Grant C,” which rewards counties financially for successfully treating juvenile offenders in local programs rather than sending them to far-off, costly state facilities. This principle that has worked well in the juvenile sphere could be logically extended to the adult sphere.

For example, counties could be given a share of the state’s savings from recent prison closures if they establish programs like Fort Worth’s SWIFT Court, which uses random drug testing and immediate short-term jail stints (not lengthy bouts of incarceration) to hold offenders accountable.

Improvements to re-entry could be directed at Texas’s troubled state jail inmates, who are released without supervision and, unsurprisingly, have a notoriously high recidivism rate.

Split-sentencing, in which offenders serve a portion of their sentence behind bars, but serve a portion under community supervision – while monitored to ensure they are maintaining steady employment, providing for their family, and avoiding drugs – would address this problem.

Finally, probation could be enhanced. Seventy-nine percent of Texans favor mandatory probation for first-time, nontrafficking drug offenses.

This is a sensible idea but will only be effective if probation has teeth and offenders are referred to proven treatment programs with monitoring to ensure compliance with probation terms.

Texans – the ultimate tough-on-crime voters – understand that holding an offender accountable for obtaining gainful work, making victims whole, and staying off drugs is tougher than just having him sit in a cell.

Our elected officials have supported meaningful criminal justice reforms in the past.

Given the public safety gains and savings to taxpayers associated with prior reforms and the strong support from Texas voters, policymakers can confidently take the next steps to improve our state’s criminal justice system.


Vikrant P. Reddy is policy analyst for the Center for Effective Justice with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, free-market research institute based in Austin.