Justice reform advocates, agency officials and lawmakers say the closings are possible because of a combination of factors, including falling crime rates and legislative efforts to reduce the number of people who spend time behind bars.
Texas will close more prisons this year than it has in any single year in history, a response to the state’s tight budget and shrinking inmate population, reports the Dallas Morning News. In the state’s two-year budget, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was ordered to close four prison facilities by Sept. 1. When all four are closed, tough-on-crime Texas will have shuttered eight prisons in just six years. Justice reform advocates, agency officials and lawmakers say the closings are possible because of a combination of factors, including falling crime rates and legislative efforts to reduce the number of people who spend time behind bars. “This is something we have done incrementally over the last decade,” said Derek Cohen of the Center for Effective Justice at the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation. “We’re not any less safe publicly for that.”
The drop in Texas’ prison population began around 2007, when lawmakers were faced with an expensive decision. The state had spent millions of dollars building hulking prison edifices across rural Texas. Without changing the way Texas operated its criminal justice system, the state would soon be forced to spend millions more to house a rising inmate population. A state known for its lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to crime began to shift its approach. Instead of erecting more prisons, lawmakers invested in diversion programs to help troubled Texans get back on track and avoid incarceration. Crime rates have fallen each year since at least 2012. Inmate population has dropped from 156,000 in 2011 to about 146,000 today. The Legislative Budget Board anticipates the closures will save the state $49.5 million. It’s unclear whether the shuttering trend will continue. Lawmakers this year did not approve any changes that criminal justice reform advocates said would keep the prison population on the decline.