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.