The Right Solutions to Prison Problems: How Texas’ good policy is spreading across the nation

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By Representative Jerry Madden, TX

For more than two decades, the motto shaping our criminal justice programs had been “tough on crime.” It is the mindset that led legislatures across the country to pass harsher sentencing laws, and led the United States to the highest incarceration rate in the world. With more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., policymakers around the country are asking, “What does it really mean to be tough on crime?”

“Tough on crime” now means holding programs accountable by funding the ones that get results and holding offenders accountable to higher standards. Policymakers are in search of new solutions, and as a Texas Representative that implemented evidence-based solutions in the notorious “tough on crime” state, and as the Public Safety and Elections Task Force Chair at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), I can tell you that solutions exist.

With many states facing substantial fiscal dilemmas, it is important to examine where state funds are allocated and how taxpayer dollars are being spent. It quickly becomes clear that the unsustainable growth in state and local spending is heightened by skyrocketing prison populations and the increasing costs of the criminal justice system. This added pressure to state budgets has resulted in corrections spending comprising the fourth largest category of states’ collective spending, only behind education, Medicaid, and transportation. Unfortunately, these significant investments have failed to yield equally positive returns.

It is not surprising, therefore, that even prior to the economic crisis policymakers have considered it necessary to tackle these numbers through corrections and sentencing reforms. As a Representative from the state of Texas, I successfully led a bipartisan effort to avoid new prison construction. In doing so, I saved my state $2 billion. The crime rate is now lower than it has been since 1973.

ALEC is a nation-wide force of legislative leadership that has also been at the forefront of creating and supporting solutions that preserve public safety while reducing prison populations. I Chair both their Public Safety and Elections Task Force and their Corrections and Reentry Working Group to develop a smart-on-crime platform. We began by asking, “What can we do to safely reduce prison populations?” The result was the development of model policies that will achieve costs savings for the states, maintain public safety, encourage offender rehabilitation and victim restitution, and avoid new prison construction. Policies like the ones we worked on in Texas.

These policies would not threaten public safety. Instead, it reforms offenders that the public generally agrees belong in treatment programs and prevents a wasting of tax payer dollars. ALEC’s platform encourages putting the right programs in place to get non-violent offenders back on their feet so that they may become law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who contribute to their state’s economy. We have championed such reforms in Texas. Now they are championed by ALEC and its legislators.

Prisons are absolutely needed to protect us from dangerous criminals. But there are better alternatives to the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach when it comes to many non-violent offenders. If it worked for the tough on crime state, then odds are it will work for yours. And I’m betting on ALEC legislators to provide those solutions.

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