Texas Crime and Punishment in the 1990s
After "The Simpsons" ran a "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" episode, baby Maggie was revealed as the assailant. Worried question: "They don't execute babies, do they?" Answer: "No. Well . . . maybe in Texas."
Such is the harsh image of Texas justice. Texas governor George W. Bush got tangled up in this image when he waffled about whether he used illegal drugs in his "young and irresponsible years"--stark contrast to his "serious consequences for bad behavior" policies as governor. But what is Dubya's real record on crime?
During this decade, serious crime has dropped 33 percent in Texas, versus 27 percent in the nation. (Serious crimes are defined as murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and burglary.) The Texas advantage stems primarily from steeper drops in murder and burglary. Since 1990, murder has declined by 52 percent in Texas versus 33 percent nationally, while burglary dropped 47 percent in Texas versus 31 percent in the nation. The remaining three crimes dropped by similar percentages in Texas and the nation.
Did Bush Make a Difference?
Can these differences be attributed to tougher policies in Texas than in the nation during the 1990s? Perhaps. Certainly Texas has run up its prison population much faster than the nation.
The state's imprisonment rate surged from 290 prisoners per 100,000 population in 1990 (slightly below the national rate of 292) to 724 prisoners per 100,000 population in 1998. That gave Texas the second highest rate in the nation, after Louisiana's 736, and a rate 57 percent higher than the national average of 461 per 100,000 population. Drug offenders make up 22 percent of Texas prisoners, a rate that stayed the same throughout the decade.
Despite the huge prison boom in Texas, the odds of imprisonment increased slightly more in the nation than in Texas. The overall probability of prison for the five serious crimes rose 26 percent nationally since 1990, but only 20 percent in Texas. Most studies find that increasing the probability of prison for committing a serious crime is a more effective deterrent than lengthening time actually served.
What about prison sentences? At the national level, there has been a moderate increase in time served for serious crimes during the 1990s, about 12 percent. But in Texas, prison time served has more than tripled during the decade. It's now almost impossible to get paroled there.
Texas inmates in 1990 were serving less than 16 percent of their sentences because of federal court orders against overcrowding. After a prison-building boom nearly tripled capacity during the 1990s--a boom the voters authorized well before Bush became governor--the revolving door stopped revolving.
With more beds available, Texas inmates now serve nearly half of their sentences--about the national norm--and violent offenders serve as much as 90 percent. Time served in Texas prisons now triples the national experience for prisoners released during the last two years. For example, the median term served by murderers nationally is under six years, while it is nearly 15 years in Texas.
An Added Push
Many of these results would have occurred independent of Dubya's policies. As a Texas corrections department spokesman, Glen Castlebury, says, "It was the cops on the street who were pulling these guys in and the district judges who were thumping them in jail. It would've happened if I'd been sitting there as governor." Not only was the prison expansion already in place before the governor took office, but the state's criminal code was overhauled in 1993. Bush took office in January 1995.
Bush, however, deserves credit for steady leadership on crime-fighting and for toughening the treatment of juvenile offenders, appointing tough-minded people to the parole board, and signing the shall-issue concealed carry legislation into law.
Unfortunately, our much-needed debate over drug policies never got started, despite the stimulus of the Bush-drugs controversy. But it's coming. Once we surpass 2 million inmates--more than one of every 100 adults-- in the next few years, harsh drug sentences will come under scrutiny as the need for more prisons increases.
Meanwhile, the Texas experience supports the proposition that prison works, especially long prison terms. Yet the state's justice policies probably should shift toward increasing arrest and conviction rates and reducing recidivism through corrections experiences that really correct.
Morgan Reynolds is director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analysis.
For more information ...
The Problem of Lemons. Juvenile crime records should be retained, not destroyed. (Cato Journal, September 1998, 9pp.)
Request PolicyBot document #1340403