Skip Navigation

Follow the Texas Model

In his essay for Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, Rick Perry calls for states to follow Texas’ example and offer treatment instead of prison for those with drug and mental health problems, in order to “eliminate our incarceration epidemic.”

April 28, 2015

For too long, fear has dictated Amer­ica’s crim­inal justice policy. Citizens, afraid of the grow­ing viol­ence brought on by the drug wars of the 1980s, deman­ded harsher penal­ties and longer sentences. Politi­cians, afraid of look­ing soft on the issue, eagerly obliged.

But policy driven solely by fear — absent the equally power­ful motiv­a­tion of human redemp­tion — has failed us. States across the coun­try spent billions lock­ing up kids for the most minor of offenses. In jail, these kids learned how to become hardened crim­in­als. Out of jail, they often repeated their crimes. The result was a signi­fic­ant fiscal burden for taxpay­ers, a less safe community, and a segment of soci­ety shut out from hope and oppor­tun­ity.

I saw this firsthand in Texas. While arrests for viol­ent and prop­erty offenses remained fairly steady through­out the 1990s, drug-related arrests had increased by one-third. The amount Texas spent on pris­ons and parole had ballooned to nearly $3 billion a year in 2007 — and it was nowhere near enough. Projec­tions called for an addi­tional 17,000 prison beds, at an addi­tional $2 billion, just to sustain the system for another five years.

Some­thing needed to change. No polit­ical party has a mono­poly on good ideas, includ­ing my own. Over the course of my career in public service, I have never been afraid to borrow good ideas, regard­less of where they come from.

That’s why, when Judge John Creuzot, a Demo­crat from Dallas, shared an idea that would change the way Texas handled first-time, nonvi­ol­ent drug offender, I listened. As the founder of one of the first drug courts in Texas, Judge Creuzot argued that incar­cer­a­tion was not the best solu­tion for many low-risk, nonvi­ol­ent offend­ers. It bene­fits neither the indi­vidual nor soci­ety at large, and can even increase the odds that offend­ers will commit more crimes upon release. And, just as import­antly, by treat­ing addic­tion as a disease — and not merely punish­ing the crim­inal beha­vior it compels — Texas could give new hope to people trying to get their lives back. The evid­ence he presen­ted was compel­ling. Recidiv­ism in his program was 57 percent lower than tradi­tional state courts, and every dollar he spent saved $9 in future costs.

So in 2007, with broad support from Repub­lic­ans and Demo­crats alike, Texas funda­ment­ally changed its course on crim­inal justice. We focused on divert­ing people with drug addic­tion issues from enter­ing prison in the first place, and programs to keep them from return­ing.

First, we expan­ded our commit­ment to drug courts that allow certain low-level offend­ers to stay out of prison, if they agreed to compre­hens­ive super­vi­sion, drug test­ing, and treat­ment. We added drug courts to more counties, increased fund­ing, and expan­ded the types of crimes that allow a defend­ant to enter drug courts. Rather than languish­ing some­where in a cell, first-time, nonvi­ol­ent offend­ers will­ing to confront their drug addic­tion are connec­ted with coun­sel­ing and undergo intense super­vi­sion, includ­ing weekly random drug tests and meet­ing with a proba­tion officer. These programs work. The National Asso­ci­ation of Drug Court Profes­sion­als found that about 75 percent of people who complete drug court programs do not recidivate.

Second, we reformed our approach to parole and proba­tion. We focused finan­cial resources on rehab­il­it­a­tion so we could ulti­mately spend less money lock­ing pris­on­ers up again. We inves­ted $241 million to create treat­ment and rehab­il­it­a­tion programs to address drug addic­tion and mental illness for people on parole and proba­tion. Rather than imme­di­ate re-incar­cer­a­tion for minor viol­a­tions of parole or proba­tion condi­tions, we intro­duced a system of progress­ively increas­ing punish­ments, or “gradu­ated sanc­tions.” If people commit­ted viol­a­tions because of drug or mental health issues, we addressed those issues instead of simply lock­ing them up again. We added more resid­en­tial and outpa­tient beds for substance abuse treat­ment. We added more beds in halfway houses provid­ing reentry services. And we provided more substance abuse programs in pris­ons and jails.

A key shift was a focus on outcomes rather than volume. We offered finan­cial incent­ives to local proba­tion depart­ments: they could win addi­tional state funds if they reduced the number of proba­tion­ers return­ing to prison by 10 percent by adopt­ing the gradu­ated sanc­tions approach. Most depart­ments accep­ted this chal­lenge, and the number of new crimes commit­ted by proba­tion­ers substan­tially decreased across the state. These types of finan­cial incent­ives are proven to work. Govern­ment should be fund­ing what works — not blindly funnel­ing money into broken pris­ons.

The results have been remark­able. Texas imple­men­ted these reforms in 2007. By the time I left office in 2015, Texas had expan­ded the number of specialty courts in the state from nine to more than 160. We reduced the number of parole revoc­a­tions to prison by 39 percent. We saved $2 billion from our budget, not to mention the count­less lives saved. We did all this while our crime rate dropped to its lowest point since 1968. And for the first time in modern Texas history, instead of build­ing new pris­ons, we shut down three and closed six juven­ile lock-ups.

Taxpay­ers have saved billions because of our new approach to crim­inal justice, and they’re safer in their homes and on the streets. Fewer lives have been destroyed by drug abuse, and more people are work­ing and taking care of their famil­ies instead of languish­ing behind bars. That may be the most signi­fic­ant achieve­ment of all: By keep­ing more famil­ies together we are break­ing the cycle of incar­cer­a­tion that condemns each subsequent gener­a­tion to a life of lesser dreams.

Our new approach to crim­inal justice policy is all about results. This change did not make Texas soft on crime. It made us smart on crime. There is noth­ing easy about our diver­sion programs. Our drug courts provide an oppor­tun­ity to those will­ing to work hard to regain control of their lives. They are often much tougher than tradi­tional programs. What they get in return is a chance to minim­ize the damage they have done to their lives. And for some people, a chance is all they really need.

I am proud that in Texas, crim­inal justice policy is no longer driven solely by fear, but by a commit­ment to true justice, and compas­sion for those shackled by the chains of addic­tion. My hope is that all states will do like­wise. States across the coun­try can follow the success­ful example of Texas. By off treat­ment instead of prison for those with drug and mental health prob­lems — upon entrance and exit from prison — the United States can elim­in­ate our incar­cer­a­tion epidemic.

A big, expens­ive prison system — one that off no hope for second chances and redemp­tion — is not conser­vat­ive policy. Conser­vat­ive policy is smart on crime.

I am reminded of the words of the 20th century social activ­ist who co-foun­ded Volun­teers for Amer­ica, Maud Balling­ton Booth: “There is a sunshine that can force its way through prison bars and work wondrous and unex­pec­ted miracles . . . and a genu­ine change of heart where such results seemed the most utterly unlikely and impossible.”

We must remem­ber that when it comes to the disease of addic­tion, the issue is not help­ing bad people become good, but rather help­ing sick people become well.

Click here to read the entire book, Solu­tions: Amer­ican Lead­ers Speak Out On Crim­inal Justice.