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Right on Crime: The Texas Model - part II
By Stephen M. Lilienthal
Published: 08/05/2013

Justice aa Jesse Wiese of Justice Fellowship says the the work of the Right on Crime (ROC) initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), is to “kick-start” a movement linking conservative principles, notably “limited government” and “individual responsibility,” to criminal justice reform.

Guiding ROC is Marc Levin, who came to the TPPF in the middle part of the last decade when Tim Dunn, a board member, was expressing interest in restorative justice, a concept in which the offender pays back the victim and community for the crimes committed. Dunn had concern about the high cost of imprisonment for non-violent offenses, and TPPF helped to spur the reform movement in Texas.

Texas’ legislative sessions in 2005, 2007, and 2011 saw passage of a package of reforms on sentencing, probation and parole, and preparing prisoners for reentry.

Gov. Rick Perry, a movement conservative, urged legislators in 2007 to “focus more resources on rehabilitating [non-violent] offenders so we can ultimately spend less money locking them up again.”

Levin asserts, “Texas has turned the tide on the building of prisons” while crime rates have remained low. The state did not have to spend $2 billion by 2012 on new prisons that the state’s Legislative Budget Board had once predicted.

As the state’s prison population has declined, so has crime even though many more offenders are out on parole and probation. The changes started in the 2005 legislative session and have been built upon and sustained in the legislative sessions since then.

Now, Texas devotes greater resources to parole and probation, including use of electronic monitoring, greater emphasis on mental health and addiction counseling, reduced caseloads for parole and probation officers, greater discretion in sentencing by judges, as well as swift and commensurate sanctions for violations of parole and probation that does not mandate returning to prison but can involve increased reporting, weekend jail time, and extending the time being monitored.

Texas has also cleaned up its juvenile justice system, utilizing cameras to help to ensure the staff of juvenile facilities do not abuse their power, setting up an office of Inspector General to guard against abuses in the Texas Youth Corrections department, and ensuring non-violent juvenile offenders who’ve committed low-level crimes avoid being incarcerated with violent juvenile offenders. Greater emphasis is placed on community service and vocational training.

Even before ROC’s formation in 2010, Levin was consulting with other organizations and justice officials around the country. Around the same time, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organizations for conservative legislators of both parties, was rethinking its own previous tough on crime stance. (A comprehensive look at the changed thinking within the conservative movement can be found in the November/December 2012 Washington Monthly article, “The Conservative War on Prisons,” by David M. Dagan and Steven M. Teles.)

But there is precedent within conservatism for rehabilitation.

Indeed, the tough rhetoric used by Ronald Reagan just before and during his governorship in California against the upheavals of the 1960s is surprisingly softer in 1971 according to a quote Levin cited in a November 19, 2011 presentation “on more cost-effective corrections to the Texas Federation of Republican Women. Reagan credits his state’s rehabilitation policies” with reducing recidivism.

ROC also advocates checking “overcriminalization,” the creep of rules and regulations that criminalize behavior for non-violent transgressions.

Levin’s Power Point presentation, “Thinking Outside the Cell: Ten Truths about Texas Criminal Justice Reform,” available online, details the creep of laws that can turn normally law-abiding citizens into prison inmates. At the time, Levin asserts Texas had 1,700 crimes on the books, but 1,500 were not part of the penal code. A person could commit a felony just by how they gathered oysters.

Extending TPPF’s free market views to criminal justice reform, an April 16, 2013 ROC blog post by Levin colleague Jeanette Moll asks whether occupational licensing requirements serve to protect the public or “established industries.” Licensing commissions considering an ex-offender attempt to obtain certification should take into account whether the “offense...is related to the profession or the situations” the applicant would confront in his profession.

Asked about the future of criminal justice in the country and whether he foresees the possibility of a move back toward the surging crime rates of the 1960s through the mid-1990s and a corresponding move to undo the reforms now being instituted, Levin says the United States prior to that time period had an incarceration rate comparable to the relatively low percentages of western Europe.

Then, came exploding crime rates and a soaring incarceration rate.

“I’d argue that the current reform efforts are returning us to policies that are more consistent with the history of the United States,” Levin claims.

Assessing “the Texas model,” the ROC’s policy paper, “Adult Corrections Reform: Lower Crime, Lower Costs,” contends that “despite there being more parolees [in Texas], the number of new crimes committed by parolees declined 8.5% from 2007 to 2010, contributing to a sharp reduction in parole revocations.”

Citing Texas, Levin notes that the crime rate remained low and the funding for the reforms instituted in 2005 and 2007, which helped lower costs for Texas’ criminal justice system, withstood the economic downturn that impacted the US toward the latter part of the preceding decade.

ROC’s mission is in tune with broader changes in society. A recent article in The Economist on “Where Have All The Burglars Gone?” examines declining crime rates but doubts more imprisonment deserves credit.

“Better policing is a more convincing explanation than bigger prisons: the expectation of being caught undoubtedly deters criminals,” stresses The Economist, citing progress in reforming the Los Angeles and New York City police departments.

ROC argues that better parole and probation systems can help returning prisoners reintegrate successfully into society, protect the public, and save taxpayers the cost of longer imprisonment. Levin adds that reforms need to be implemented with great care, not “overnight.”

Measures such as evidence-based practices, electronic monitoring, and risk assessments should mitigate against renewed drives for “lock ‘em up and throw away the key policies.”

Levin insists, “As long as we continue that, there will be continued interest in pursuing reforms across the country.”

Click here for the first article in this series "Conservative Movement: New Messages and Policies On Criminal Justice - Part I"

A third article in this series will examine this year’s drive to enact criminal justice reform in Oregon.

Stephen M. Lilienthal is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, DC. He is the author of “Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out” which was published in Library Journal earlier this year.

Other articles by Lilienthal


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