By Steve Ramos
It seems things really are bigger in Texas. In 1983, there were 36,769 inmates in the state’s 26 prison facilities. By 2012, the number of inmates swelled to 152,303, a 314 percent increase. The number of prisons grew by 327 percent during those years. Today there are 111 of them spread across the state, an almost ubiquitous symbol of Texas’ claim to the largest prison system in the United States.
When you add the number of men and women on parole and community supervision, the number of people in Texas who are under some kind of judicial authority shoots up to 671,886. If the Texas prison system was a business, its growth over the past 30 years would be cause for celebration.
Not surprisingly, the housing and supervision of that segment of Texas’ population gobbles up a large portion of the state’s money. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice posted a $3 billion budget in fiscal 2011. While Texas is reported to spend about $51 per day on each of its inmates, it allocates only $8 per day on educating each of its students. The state grew its prison population to occupy the No. 1 spot in the U.S., but it slipped to the No. 49 spot among the states and the District of Columbia in what it spends on education, according to the National Education Association. In 2012, Texas spent $8,400 per student. In comparison, No. 1 ranked Massachusetts spent $13,361 per student.
The statistics continue to raise eyebrows. While the prison population grew drastically, it doesn’t match Texas’ resident population growth. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the state’s population increased only 61 percent from 1983 to 2013.
“The state’s resident population has increased, but this growth nowhere near matches the growth in the prison population,” the Justice Center report says. “No portion of the increase in the Texas prison population can be attributed to an increase in crime.”
Crime in Texas declined 1.9 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to the Justice Center. However, during those years, there was a 29 percent increase in the number of felony convictions in the state.
“No data exists that fully explains the increase in felony convictions,” the Justice Center reported.
The data is complicated by the many revisions to the state statutes that govern the criteria used to determine convictions, sentencing and parole. The implementation of mandatory supervision in the 1980s boosted the prison population. In the past, if an inmate’s good time and flat time, or calendar time, equaled his sentence, he was discharged. His sentence was completed, and he wasn’t required to report to any parole authority.
The state did away with that. Today, for example, if an inmate is given a 10-year sentence, and while serving five calendar years, he accumulates five years of good time, he will be discharged under mandatory supervision. The five years of good time, however, is taken away from him at the time of discharge, and he must serve those remaining five years under supervision. An inmate can actually spend 30 years serving that 10 year sentence if his mandatory supervision is revoked a couple of times. Each time his supervision is revoked, he loses all the time he spent on the streets, and he’s left with only the time he served in prison. He starts all over. Complicated, yes. Prison message boards are filled with comments from the inmates’ family members trying to make sense of the system.
So, mandatory supervision isn’t parole, although it is.
“Mandatory supervision is the state’s way of keeping more people in prison,” said Justin Locke, a Dallas attorney who specializes in parole matters. “Parole is early release. An inmate has demonstrated he’s a candidate for parole by maintaining good conduct and participating in the various educational and rehabilitative programs. He’s released early, before his sentence is completed, with the understanding he will complete his sentence under strict parole supervision. Mandatory supervision, however, takes an inmate who has, in all actuality, completed his sentence while in prison, and puts him under supervision. It’s important to understand that the inmate completed his sentence, but the state came up with a way to keep him under supervision. Mandatory supervision is one of the leading causes of the state’s huge increase in prison population.”
Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said he isn’t surprised that Texas has become No. 1 in prison population, according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
“With Texas being such a large state, that’s not terribly surprising,” he told the Star Telegram. “Texas has always been a law and order state, and the prison system has been known as a tough system. Texas prisons are not for rehabilitation.”
Moore County supplies its share to the prison population. Currently, 198 men and women from Moore County occupy prison beds in TDCJ. Nearby Hutchinson County has 98 people serving time, and Dallam County has 40.
Surprisingly, drug and theft convictions are not the leading cause of incarceration. Drug convictions account for only 9 percent of Moore County’s felons in prison. Sex crimes top the list at 29 percent, and most of the people serving time in TDCJ for sex crimes were convicted of assaulting a child. According to TDCJ, 12 people from Moore County are serving life sentences – six of them for violent sexual assaults.
If a society can be judged by its incarceration rate, the U.S. is in dire straits, according to Jim Webb, a former Virginia senator who was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism in Vietnam and served as Secretay of the Navy under President Reagan. Webb crunched the numbers and reported the U.S. is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, but only 5 percent of the total population. He also found that Japan imprisons 63 people per 100,000 citizens, compared to the United States’ 743 per 100,000.
“Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the U.S., or we are doing something drastically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice,” he told Newsweek magazine.