AUSTIN, TX--In testimony today before the Texas House Corrections Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas said that the state's prisons have become too expensive because the system incarcerates too many non-violent offenders who should be home supporting their families.
"In recent years, Texas prison spending grew faster than spending on either healthcare or education," said Will Harrell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas.
"Today, one out of every 100 Texas adults is incarcerated in a state or local facility, and one in 20 is under some type of supervision of the criminal justice system," he added. "That's a higher ratio than any other state and most Third World countries, but it hasn't made us safer. Our crime rate has not declined as much as states that incarcerate significantly fewer people. We need to find a better way."
Harrell said that the revolving penitentiary door has been closed for violent criminals--and rightly so -- but now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
Texas prisons are projected to overflow as early as next month. As lawmakers scramble to address this immediate crisis, few people are taking a step back to consider long-term solutions, the ACLU said.
In his testimony today, Harrell noted that Texas protects the public safety of its citizens when it incarcerates violent offenders, but with non-violent offenders, "we reach a point of diminishing returns when too many people are incarcerated; we continue to throw money at the situation by incarcerating the offender while no longer affecting public safety one way or the other."
Texas today faces its gravest budget crisis in decades, and some lawmakers are looking to Texas prisons for budget savings. If budget cuts must be made, 70 percent of Texans said in a recent poll that prisons should be cut before other priorities like healthcare, education and transportation.
"But clearly the cuts cannot come out of programs, like drug treatment and education, which actually help reduce crime over the long term," said Harrell. "Short-sighted approaches will quickly backfire."
Harrell said that few experts have examined the impact on families of incarcerating non-violent offenders. "We do know that children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely to be incarcerated themselves than their peers. Something must be done to break this cycle."
Many other states like Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky, California, and Michigan recently reduced some drug-related and other non-violent prison sentences and saved money in their state budgets. Harrell said the budget crisis should compel legislators to look closely at how those other states went about saving money without jeopardizing public safety.
The ACLU believes that a considerable amount of money can be saved by reducing sentences for petty non-violent crimes. Texas should focus more on a fair and just system, alternatives to incarceration, and implementing family-focused probation requirements for non-violent offenders.
"When money is tight, we need to be not just tough, but tough and smart about how we deal with crime and punishment," said Harrell. "Texas cannot afford to pay for incarceration when there is no longer a corresponding improvement in public safety."