Lawmakers might scrap or revamp state jail system
High recidivism rate prompts talk of making modifications
When Texas’ network of state jails was established by lawmakers in 1993, the goals were simple: Nonviolent drug offenders, thieves and first-time offenders would be housed in separate lockups with treatment and rehabilitation programs to cut their risk of returning to a life of crime.
Now some legislative leaders are considering a plan that might do away with the Lone Star idea that once attracted national headlines.
“I think there very well may be interest in changing the current state jail system,” House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, said Tuesday. “The recidivism rates for state jail inmates are higher than for our regular prisons. … We need to consider modifying the original model. They may have outlived their usefulness.”
At the same time, two architects of the state jail system, which holds more than 12,000 of Texas’ 155,000 convicts — those sentenced for fourth-degree felonies, the most minor type — warn that doing away with the special breed of prisons would be a big mistake.
“Tell (McReynolds) it ain’t gonna happen,” said Senate Criminal Justice Committee
Continued from A1 Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who authored the state jail law. “We created this system to take all the low-level drug offenders and property criminals out of state prisons so we’d have enough room to keep the violent offenders behind bars longer. The system has worked well.
“It would be a disaster to do away with state jails.”
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who served as a liaison for prosecutors and law enforcement groups when Texas’ criminal laws were rewritten to create the state jail system, agreed.
“Instead of considering doing away with it, the state should be considering renewing its commitment to the state jail system.”
At a committee hearing last week in Houston, discussion of perhaps modifying or doing away with state jails surfaced in public testimony — a move that surprised many state corrections officials.
McReynolds said Harris County prosecutors, judges and others tentatively supported the idea, underscoring questions about the system that he has heard for some time from other officials and lawmakers.
McReynolds said he asked members of his committee to poll local prosecutors and officials in their districts about perhaps changing the state jail concept to be more like special lockups called Intermediate Sanction Facilities, which house mostly parole violators.
He said state jail inmates leave jail “with no supervision, no intensive treatment or programs, and their recidivism rate is as high as 34 percent, compared with about 28 percent for the inmates coming out of regular prisons.”
“That doesn’t seem to make much sense on its face. I think we can do better,” he said.
McReynolds and others said they want to examine whether fourth-degree felons should be eligible for parole and other treatment programs, which they now are not.
Tony Fabelo, a national criminal-justice consultant who was the head of Texas’ Criminal Justice Policy Council when state jails were established, said those statistics are misleading.
“Those offenders who we put in state jails had recidivism rates in the 60-percentages, and they were filling up prison beds that we needed for the violent offenders,” he said. “State jails were supposed to be heavy on treatment and education, and over the years the funding for those programs had been cut again and again.”
By the time the first state jail opened in 1995 in Houston, the Legislature had begun making the first of several changes in state law that proponents of the system argued at the time would impair its effectiveness.
State jails were set up to house only lawbreakers convicted of state jail offenses. Within two years, they were also holding other prison convicts to save the state money.
While probation for state jail offenses was supposed to be automatic, with violators to be locked up for up to two years if they violated the rules of their freedom, Republican George W. Bush lambasted Democratic incumbent Gov. Ann Richards, insisting she had been soft on crime in supporting the state jail law. Lawmakers subsequently changed it to mostly drop the automatic probation.
Rehabilitation and treatment programs were cut, one after the other, as state finances dipped into the red in 2003. Orange jumpsuits that were supposed to separate state jail inmates from other prisoners soon gave way to the regulation “prison whites.”
Even the designation of state jail inmates as “confinees” rather than “inmates” was dropped. Several years ago, top prison officials who never had been much enamored with state jails merged the separate Top offenses committed by state jail confinees Property offenses Drug offenses Violent offenses Other offenses Top five cities, by state jail population Houston Dallas Fort Worth San Antonio Austin 2,778 934 855 814 533 state jail division into the prisons division.
Whitmire said state jails are worth keeping because they’ve relieved a system that was clogged with low-level drug offenders.
“Say what you want, but state jails kept us from having to build 200,000 prison beds that we couldn’t pay for,” he said. “It allowed us to stop the revolving door that justice was in Texas in the 1990s.”
Rather than scrap or change the concept of the state jail system, Bradley and other supporters suggest that lawmakers who are considering changes might want to first renew the state’s commitment to the original concept — at a time when prison treatment and rehabilitation programs seem in great favor at the state Capitol.
“The state jail system has a good, basic core idea,” said Bradley, who has a reputation as a tough-as-nails prosecutor not given to anything soft on crime. “I still support the concept.”