Crime and Punishment in Texas in the 1990s

Studies | Crime

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


Lesson: Punishment Works

Figure II - Estimated Median Sentence Served in Texas for Selected Crime%2C 1991%2C 1994 and 1999

The Texas crime statistics tell an amazing story about the ability of punishment, even of a mild variety, to reduce crime. It's almost a controlled experiment in the efficacy of incarceration and punishment.

As the 1980s ended, Texas faced a crisis because crime had exploded. Places like Texas - which has a long border with Mexico, a Sunbelt location, soaring growth and a high-minority, high-mobility, younger-than-average population - have lots of rough-and-tumble people and high crime rates. Texas is not Vermont or Switzerland. 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, while the serious crime rate in Texas was average.

"In the early 1990's Texas nearly tripled the number of prison beds."

But during the 1980s, federal court orders to end prison overcrowding, combined with a tight-fisted legislature, resulted in no growth in imprisonment and a severe 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 - no surprise - the serious crime rate had climbed to 33 percent above the national average.

Turning Things Around. Something had to be done - and it was. Voters overwhelmingly approved prison bond issues in 1989 and 1991. The subsequent building boom nearly tripled the number of prison beds to 150,000. In a dramatic turnaround, the 1990s saw the serious crime rate in Texas drop faster than in the nation as a whole. Data through 1999 show that the rate of violent crime - murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault - and burglary dropped 42 percent in Texas, compared to 34 percent in the nation. Much of the overall drop in serious crime can be traced to reductions in the rates of murders, robberies and burglaries. During the 1990s, as Figure I shows:

  • The murder rate fell by 57 percent in Texas, compared to 38 percent nationally.
  • The rape rate fell by 26 percent, compared to 22 percent nationally.
  • The robbery rate fell by 44 percent, compared to 41 percent nationally.
  • The burglary rate fell by 48 percent, compared to 38 percent nationally.
  • However, aggravated assault fell by only 15 percent, compared to 21 percent nationally.

Why did the rate of serious crime decrease so fast in Texas? Certainly a strong case can be made that tougher policies toward criminals played an important part. More people went to prison and stayed there longer.

  • Texas had 704 prisoners per 100,000 population in 1999, compared to 290 per 100,000 in 1990, a 143 percent increase in imprisonment.6
  • Texas' imprisonment rate is 50 percent above the national rate of 468 and second in the nation to Louisiana.
  • Serious violent offenders released in 1998 served 74 percent of their sentences, compared to only 30 percent in 1990.
  • The state now mandates that convicts serve a minimum of 50 percent of their sentences.
  • Assuming continuation of present release policies, serious violent offenders will serve over 90 percent of their sentences in the future, according to the state government's Criminal Justice Policy Council.7

"In response, the Texas crime rate dropped 50 percent faster that for the nation as a whole."

The Texas Prison Boom. The big declines in crime suggest that incapacitation and punishment work. Among all the tools available to combat crime, the only dramatic change in the state has been the ability of government to imprison criminals (the state's crime code was also overhauled in 1993). Nationwide, it's been called the "Texas solution."8

Figure III - Number of Prisoners Considered and Approved for Parole in Texas
  • In September 1990, Texas prisons had a design capacity of 49,000.
  • With the completion of the construction program in December 1995, the design capacity had increased to 150,000.

"The estimated median time served tripled between 1991 and 1999."

The prison-building surge raised the Texas prison population per 100,000 citizens from average among the states to the second highest in the nation.9 What had been a 30,000-prisoner backlog in county jails changed to a surplus of 10,000 beds.10 County jails now recruit paying tenants from out of state (a program dubbed "rent-a-cell" by some) and house some 12,000 contract prisoners.11

One consequence of the expansion of prison capacity is that Texas now has more criminals under state supervision each day - in prison, a state jail or on probation or parole - than any other state:12

  • Currently, one of every 98 adult Texans (146,180) is in a state lockup - not in a county jail, not on probation or parole, but in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice unit.13
  • Texas also has the largest number of adults on probation and parole, with more than 556,410 under such supervision, followed by California with 446,460.
  • At the end of 1999, one of every 26 adult Texans was on probation or parole.

"Texas now has more criminals in prison, in a state jail, or on probation or parole than any other state."

Effects on Prison Time Served. The expansion of prison capacity has had an effect. Perhaps the most important change was that people convicted began serving substantial prison time for every crime-the revolving door slowed to a crawl.

  • The percent of sentence actually served in prison was 18.7 percent for all inmates released in 1991, but 50.4 percent for those released in 1998.14
  • As Figure II shows, the estimated median time actually served by all inmates convicted of violent crimes and burglary tripled between 1991 and 1999.15

One reason why prisoners are spending more time in prison is that far fewer prisoners considered for parole are actually paroled. Figure III compares parole approval in 1991 with 1998.

  • Of 71,074 prisoners considered in 1990, 56,442, or 79.4 percent, were paroled.
  • Of 69,472 considered in 1998, only 14,065, or 20.2 percent, received approval.
  • The parole approval rate for serious violent criminals was even lower at 8 percent in 1998.

"Parole approval fell from 79 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 1998."

Historically, the Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted paroles to about 25 percent of eligible cases that came before it. But under pressure of federal lawsuits over prison crowding, the board increased its approval rate to 79 percent in 1990, releasing more prisoners than it kept behind bars. With the new prison capacity and tougher sentencing laws, approval rates have fallen below historic levels.16

Debate Over the Results. The state government's criminal justice research agency, the Criminal Justice Policy Council, has questioned the cause-and-effect relationship between greater imprisonment and the reduction in crime. In an October 1995 report, the council labeled Texas "the most punitive state in the country," suggesting that "the case for more incarceration...made on the basis crime reduction" is weak.17 "Texas continues to have one of the highest crime rates in the nation," Dr. Tony Fabelo, the executive director, wrote, "in spite of a dramatic increase in the incarceration rate." Dr. Fabelo argued that "most offenders are incarcerated after their criminal career has peaked, limiting the impact of more incarceration on the crime rate." He speculated that "perhaps funding meaningfully early interventions in the juvenile justice system...will achieve better returns on lowering crime for each new dollar spent."18

That conclusion seemed to contradict the council's opinion, expressed only 10 months earlier, which praised expanded prison capacity. At that time Dr. Fabelo wrote, "Policies adopted by the legislature since 1987 are having a positive outcome in reducing crime, increasing time served in prison for violent offenders and providing adequate correctional capacity to meet demands for tougher penalties."19

Of course, reducing the crime rate is not the only reason for punishing those who commit crimes. There is a powerful feeling in society that predators and other criminals should be punished on principle. Law is an entirely appropriate instrument of organized retribution. There is strong evidence that tougher policies on crime have produced much larger gains in public safety than Dr. Fabelo and the Criminal Justice Policy Council admit. By contrast, while the rehabilitation and prevention strategies he proposes may appeal to our best instincts, the evidence for their success has been meager.20

Faced with the familiar problem of too many prisoners compared to cells again, the Texas Pardons and Parole Board is researching better ways to evaluate nonviolent inmates so that a greater percentage may be paroled. Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who serves on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, is calling on the parole board to go slower on returning parolees to prison for minor violations of the conditions of their release.21 Parole decisions are discretionary today instead of compulsory and have not been capacity-driven since the early 1990s. Arguably, conditions for nonviolent offenders to gain release from Texas prisons are too restrictive now; this is discussed further below.22

How does the expansion of prison capacity affect the decisions of people who are considering committing a crime? And how do we know that the increased risk of imprisonment has not been offset by some other change? To answer these questions, we need a full accounting of all of the factors that affect the "expected punishment" for committing a crime.


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