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For more than a decade now, politicians and policymakers — from Barack Obama to Donald Trump — have lauded Texas as a model for criminal justice reform. Right on Crime emphasizes framing mass incarceration as a dollars-and-cents problem for taxpayers. Its supporters call for pragmatic, bipartisan solutions focused on the bottom line and not on the racial, economic and social inequities that built the carceral state and sustain it today. About one-quarter of a million people are incarcerated in jails and prisons in Texas — more that the total of prisoners in Germany, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.

If Texas were a country, its incarceration rate would rank eighth in the world, just behind Oklahoma and six other Southern states. If you add up all the people in prisons and jails and on probation, parole, or some other form of community supervision in Texas, it comes to overpeople. That amounts to about one out of every 30 adults in the state. Only five other states have higher proportions of their residents under state control. Texas operates some of the meanest and leanest prisons and jails in the country.

Two meals a day on weekends during budget shortfalls. Cellblocks without air-conditioning, fans or even enough water to drink in triple-digit heat.

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Understaffed, overwhelmed, and unsafe lockups in isolated rural areas. Instead, lawmakers enacted modest changes in probation and parole to divert some people to community supervision. They also restored some funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment that had been slashed a decade earlier. Although the changes may have headed off a surge in new prison construction, they did not spark a major contraction of the penal system or in state spending on corrections.

Nor did they propel a large drop in crime rates, which had been steadily falling in Texas and in much of the United States since the mids. Numerous criminal justice reform proposals — none of them radical — have been beaten back in the Texas legislature sincethanks to the fierce opposition of the TDCAA, the bail industry, the for-profit prison sector, police unions, and individual legislators, some of whom have been hailed as criminal justice reform crusaders.

Furthermore, public officials and policymakers in Texas have not availed themselves of the potent discretionary powers they possess — including greater use of executive clemency, parole, and compassionate release — to reduce the prison and jail population and improve the conditions in penal institutions. Claims that Texas has been a model of criminal justice reform are based on a highly selective reading of incarceration figures and trends that does not fully for everyone who is under lock and key in Texas.

These claims also rest on crediting the legislation rather than other more ificant factors for the slight decline in the of incarcerated people. Specifically, emphasizing trends in the of people in state prisons rather than in the total of people confined in state prisons and county jails paints a rosier picture. So, too, does relying on official figures from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice TDCJwhich undercounts how many people are locked down under its authority, rather than the yearly state-by-state figures on the of people confined to state prisons compiled by the U.

Tracking the total of incarcerated people is more of a shell game in Texas than in many other states. As part of the measures, the state increased the of prison beds — it just did not call them that.

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Texas legislators expanded the of beds in locked-down facilities deated for substance abuse treatment. Inthe Texas Department of Criminal Justice reportedpeople in state prisons. This averages out to a decline of about 17 people each week in the Texas state prison system, which ed more than facilities over this period. If we use the U. Between andthe total of people held in state prisons and county jails in Texas fell from abouttoAn examination of trends in the incarceration rate — rather than the year-to-year totals in the of people in prison and jail--paints a more favorable picture.

But it is hard to credit the measures for this drop. The incarceration rate had already been falling for several years prior to after reaching a high plateau of about 1, perresidents between and The onset of the COVID pandemic spurred an epic contraction of the incarcerated population in Texas, but it is not clear if that drop will be sustained. Between March and September last year — the first six months of the pandemic — the state prison population declined by 21, — or about twice the total drop for the dozen years.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an advocacy group, attributed the decrease to factors directly related to the pandemic, including plummeting crime rates, declining activity in felony court due to emergency restrictions, and a backlog of sentenced defendants in county jails waiting to be transferred to state facilities.

The TCJC warned that the decrease might be short-lived. Indeed, in October the state prison population began rising again. As for the county jail population, it plummeted in the first three months of the pandemic but then began to rise steadily most months thereafter. In its latest biennial budget request, the TDCJ cited official projections that the people incarcerated in state prisons and serving parole and felony probation would remain steady over the next five years.

Furthermore, while the of incarcerated men in Texas has inched downward, the of incarcerated women has continued to grow, as it has in many other states. Its female incarceration rate now ranks fifteenth from the top in state-by-state rankings. Bythe state had fallen just one spot to be tied with Arizona for seventh place. Zealots of the Texas model have exploited the widespread myth that criminal justice reform is so much harder to engineer in Texas because it is a deep red state in the heart of Dixie, saddled since the days of the Alamo with an unforgiving, eye-for-an-eye political culture of frontier justice.

This mythology has diverted attention away from closely examining the specific political factors that spurred the prison boom in Texas and the ones that stand in the way of anything more than cosmetic reform today. For all the talk about crimson Texas, the Lone Star State was actually a late entrant in the race to build more prisons, which took off around much of the country in the early s. Until the s, its incarceration rate trailed far behind that of California, Arizona, and much of the South.

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Politicians in both parties then sought an electoral advantage by entering the law-and-order race to see who could be toughest on people who ran afoul of the law. Once law-and-order politics were unleashed in Texas, penal hardliners in both parties faced little resistance because they operated in a political system that at the time had low levels of political and civic participation. In the s when Texas was under federal court order to ease prison overcrowding thanks to the settlement in the Ruiz v.

Estelle case, parole release rates shot up. Once the prison-building spree was at full throttle, the parole board rapidly curtailed parole releases. This drop helped spur a near doubling of incarceration rates for state prisoners in just five years between and Since the purported big bang of criminal justice reform legislation inTexas has yet to enact any landmark measures to slash the of people in prison and jail or improve penal conditions. The average sentence length of people incarcerated in state prisons in Texas has remained unchanged at 19 years over the last decade, according to an analysis by the ACLU.

This figure would be even higher if it factored in people who have been sentenced to life or life without parole. Sincelawmakers have created hundreds of new crimes and dozens of enhanced penalties, including making cheating or lying about the size of a fish caught in a tournament a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to new draconian criminal penalties to stem environmental activism.

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As the legislature has busied itself creating new crimes and stiffening penalties, the constitutional right to legal representation for criminal defendants in Texas has continued to erode. Once a pioneer in indigent defense, Texas now lags far behind in providing low-income defendants with adequate legal assistance.

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The state ranks third from the bottom in state government funding per capita on indigent criminal defense. It is an open secret that many incarcerated people in Texas state prisons can let themselves out of their cells using simple tools like a bar of soap, a shoelace, or a domino because so many locks are decrepit. The racial and ethnic disparities in Texas state prisons are below the national average. But this is not necessarily something to boast about or celebrate.

Texas has some of the lowest racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration because it has some of the highest incarceration rates not only for African-Americans and Hispanics but also for non-Hispanic whites. The incarceration rate for white people in Texas is extraordinary, surpassing that of any other state.

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The Prison Policy Initiative calculated that the combined jail and prison incarceration rate for white people in Texas is perwhite residents. In short, when it comes to locking people up, Texas is, like many other Southern states, more of an equal opportunity incarcerator compared to states in other regions. Furthermore, its analysis is based on data from the census.

The war on drugs rages on in Texas, which has yet to reduce the penalties for even low-level drug crimes, let alone more serious offenses. Inthe of new misdemeanor cases fell to its lowest level in decades. But the of new felony cases filed in Texas reached an all-time high, thanks largely to the growth in drug possession cases, according to the annual report of the Texas Judiciary. In the current legislative session, which opens on January 12, Texas lawmakers once again appeared unlikely to enact even modest drug-penalty reductions.

In the last session two years ago, the Texas House overwhelmingly approved a measure to lighten up on marijuana offenses. But this bill died in the Senate, thanks to staunch opposition from Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, law enforcement groups, and Senator John Whitmire D-Houstonchair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and widely hailed as a top criminal justice reformer in Texas and nationally.

But inTexas lawmakers unwittingly decriminalized marijuana — sort of — thanks to a measure to legalize hemp and hemp-derived products like CBD that sailed through the legislature. The new law changed the definition of marijuana based on THC content. Many prosecutors stopped pursuing marijuana cases, saying they did not have the technology to test THC content. Police departments got the message, and arrests for marijuana possession plunged.

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Texas has lagged behind many other states in embracing harm reduction strategies to address substance abuse problems and to stem the mounting devastation of the opioid epidemic. Until recently, it was one of only about a dozen states — and the only large state — that had no officially sanctioned needle exchange program. Texas is also one of just five states that does not have a Good Samaritan law that provides some legal protections for people who call for help in the case of an unintentional drug overdose.

InRepublican Governor Greg Abbott vetoed a Good Samaritan law that had overwhelming support in the legislature. As Texas was garnering a national reputation as a leader in criminal justice reform, thanks to the hype over the measures, the state was becoming more punitive by several key yardsticks. UntilTexas was one of the few states that did not have a life without the possibility of parole LWOP statute, preferring the death penalty for serious crimes. Since then, Texas legislators have sanctioned LWOP and expanded the list of crimes punishable by it, including certain sexual assaults, as support for capital punishment has waned.

The of people serving life sentences in Texas has exploded even though serious crime is at its lowest level in decades. As the of life sentences has exploded in Texas, the state has not entirely lost its appetite for capital punishment. Although the annual of executions is way down in Texas, the state continues to operate the most active death chamber in the United States, by far. The U. Supreme Court had forced this issue in Texas after intervening not once but twice in vacating the death sentence of Booby Moore, who has an IQ of about 70 and had been sentenced to death in Virginia ruling that executing intellectually disabled people was cruel and unusual punishment.

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