Crime and Punishment in Texas in the 1990s

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 237
Thursday, November 30, 2000
by Morgan O. Reynolds

Executive Summary

Texas' criminal justice system has been undeservedly criticized, partly for political reasons - the governor is a presidential candidate - and partly by those who oppose the state's whole approach to crime and punishment, particularly on such issues as the death penalty and the right of qualified citizens to carry concealed weapons. Although many of these critics maintain that Texas has the wrong approach to criminal justice, crime fell sharply in Texas during the 1990s.

  • The murder rate is now the lowest since the 1950s.
  • In 1999 alone, the murder rate fell 10 percent.
  • The burglary rate is the lowest since 1968.

The overall rate for what are known as index crimes (seven violent and property crimes reported to the police) fell 37 percent in the '90s, and Texas achieved its lowest overall crime rate since 1974.

While crime has been on the decline across the nation, Texas crime declined more rapidly than U.S. crime during the 1990s. Overall crime in Texas was 34 percent higher than the national average in 1990, but only 17 percent higher by 1999. Every serious crime except aggravated assault declined more sharply in Texas than in the nation.

These changes reflect real improvements in public safety, not just statistical changes. The pair of crimes most reliably reported - murder and motor vehicle theft - fell by the largest amounts, 57 percent and 50 percent respectively, in Texas in the 1990s. Supporting this conclusion, a national survey that ranked Texas the sixth most dangerous state in 1993 currently ranks it 17th.

Still, the battle against crime in Texas has not been completely won.

  • Each year more than 220,000 Texans are victims of violent crimes, of which only half are reported to the police.
  • About 2 million are victims of property crimes.
  • Although the state's index crime rate was below the national average in 1975, today it is 17 percent above the national average.
  • The state's murder rate was still the 18th highest in the nation in 1998.

In 1980, when the nation's crime rate was the highest ever recorded, Texas had half again as many prisoners as a share of the state's total population as did the nation, and the state's crime rate matched the national average. During the 1980s, federal court orders to end prison crowding, combined with a tight-fisted legislature, resulted in no growth in imprisonment and a shortage of prison capacity. By 1990, inmates were serving less than 20 percent of their sentences. Thirty thousand state prisoners were backed up in county jails. The ratio of prisoners to state population had slumped to 5 percent below the national average and the serious crime rate had climbed to 38 percent above the national average.

Something had to be done - and it was. Voters approved two prison bond issues, and the subsequent building boom nearly tripled the number of prison beds to 150,000. The ratio of prisoners to state population rose 143 percent during the 1990s and now is 50 percent higher than the national rate. Serious violent offenders today serve three-quarters of their sentences instead of 30 percent.

In a dramatic turnaround, during the 1990s the serious crime rate in Texas dropped faster than that of the nation as a whole. The tougher prison policies played an important role in this drop. Nationwide, it's been called the "Texas solution." Texas now has more criminals under state supervision each day - in prison, a state jail or on probation or parole - than any other state.

  • One of every 98 adult Texans is locked up in a state prison or jail.
  • Texas also has more adults on probation or parole than any other state, with one in 26 adults under such supervision.

The prison expansion slowed the prison "revolving door" to a crawl. The estimated median time actually served behind bars tripled during the 1990s, driven primarily by an extremely low release rate.

  • Historically, the Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted parole to about one in four eligible cases before it.
  • In 1990, however, the approval rate had soared to 80 percent.
  • Recently, the approval rate has dropped to 20 percent, below historic levels.

Some have questioned the cause-and-effect relationship between greater imprisonment and the reduction in crime, yet there is a wealth of evidence that punishment deters crime.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, the number of police increased sharply. The proportion of violent crimes cleared by arrests increased, the proportion of property crimes cleared by arrests remained constant and the adult drug arrest rate increased 33 percent. More importantly, the probability of going to a state lockup after arrest increased, as did the length of time served in prison. All these factors increased the expected punishment - the prison time one can expect to serve, given the probability of arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentencing - substantially for serious crime.

  • From 1990 to 1999, expected punishment rose 213 percent for murder and 243 percent for rape.
  • It rose 300 percent for aggravated assault, 189 percent for robbery and 40 percent for burglary.
  • Expected punishments now are far higher than they were in 1960, a relatively tranquil period for criminal activity.

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, serious youth crime nearly doubled while adult crime rose only 25 percent. George W. Bush campaigned for governor in 1994 on a theme of getting tough with juvenile criminals. Beginning in 1995, the state's juvenile justice code was overhauled and secure youth facilities were expanded. The result has been a turnaround in juvenile crime, which peaked in 1996 and has declined nearly 20 percent since then. Since 1995 the number of youths annually committed to Texas Youth Commission facilities has risen 51 percent and time served has increased about 50 percent for the average offender.

Contrary to what many experts claim, get-tough policies are popular not just because they feel good but because they are effective. In accord with common sense, the experience of Texas supports the proposition that prison works, especially long prison stays for violent criminals.

The probability of going to prison for a crime did not increase much in Texas during the 1990s. Yet many studies find that increases in the certainty of prison has twice the impact on crime of a similar increase in the severity of punishment. These facts suggest that future efforts toward crime reduction should shift toward increasing the probability of punishment and doing a better job with criminals while they are behind bars.

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