Crime and Punishment in Texas in the 1990s

Policy Reports | Crime

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

Other Factors Affecting the Crime Rate

Table V - Full-Time Police Employees in Texas and the United States

Crime and punishment obviously do not operate in a vacuum. Though individuals choose to commit crimes, these choices are affected by a host of political, judicial, social and other influences. This section examines some of these.

"There is little evidence that poverty causes crime."

"Root Causes" of Crime. Sociological factors affecting crime have not changed substantially in Texas, although the economy has strengthened since 1991 and unemployment has dropped. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, there is little evidence that economic factors like poverty, a poor economy, low wages or low income growth and high unemployment cause crime. If anything, the reverse is true: criminal activity causes poverty and economic stagnation. Few of the unpleasant social or demographic facts about Texas have changed: births to unmarried women continue to grow; about 20 percent of adults are not high school graduates; and the number of Texans living in poverty has increased about 20 percent in the 1990s, to more than 3.1 million. Texas' per capita income is 94.5 percent of the national per capita income, the highest since 1985, the end of the oil boom of the early 1980s.46

Law Enforcement Personnel. As Table V shows, although Texas had fewer police per capita than the national average during the 1970s, the number of full-time police employees has increased 53 percent since 1987, from 41,000 to 72,000, pushing Texas to 13 percent above the national average on a per capita basis. Total employment in the courts and correctional system has grown apace. More police do deter crime.47

"Texas has more police per capita than the nation as a whole."

Federal Court Decisions. One key factor that had an impact throughout the 1970s and 1980s was the change in the criminal justice system caused by the U.S. Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court's first landmark decision in 1961 (Mapp v. Ohio) expanding the rights of criminal defendants and making it more costly for police and prosecutors to obtain criminal convictions, a growing reluctance to prosecute and punish criminals emerged.

A series of related decisions followed: Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) required taxpayer-funded counsel for defendants who could not afford an attorney; Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) and Malloy v. Hogan (1964) expanded privileges against self-incrimination, impeding interrogation of suspects by police; and Miranda v. Arizona (1966) made confessions - even voluntary ones - inadmissible as evidence unless the suspect was first advised of certain rights.

The enforcement system was transformed by these decisions. As Justice Benjamin Cardozo wrote in a 1926 case, "The criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered."48 Justice Byron White, dissenting in the Miranda case, warned that the decision would have "a corrosive effect on the criminal law as an effective device to prevent crime."49 It appears that what Judge Macklin Fleming called "the pursuit of perfect justice" has increased the time and effort required to apprehend, convict and punish the guilty.50

Texas Court Decisions. In Texas in 1980, Federal District Judge William Wayne Justice compounded the problem by declaring the Texas prison system unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment." The resulting court orders, federal monitoring and consent decrees in Ruiz v. McCotter prohibited the state from housing more than two prisoners in one cell, forbade assigning inmates to supervise the activities of other inmates, ordered staffing increased to one guard per six inmates (now one per four) and ordered the state to reduce its prisoner population to 95 percent of prison capacity. The state's failure to expand prison space under these costly constraints was a major factor in the decline in length of prison sentences served in Texas during the 1980s.

Under terms of a settlement reached in December 1992, state officials recovered "control" of the state prisons. Yet Judge Justice still has the final word on such matters as size of the inmate population, staffing, medical care and the use of tents to house inmates. This situation could have been avoided if the state had sought termination of the Ruiz suit. The U.S. Justice Department had joined state officials in calling for an end to the suit, and decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court suggested that the state's chances of winning complete prison control were excellent. Despite a 1995 House vote to challenge the Ruiz settlement and other political activism, the suit was never overthrown.

Through its Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas has given criminal defendants even more legal privileges than has the federal judiciary:

In the federal courts, oral confessions can be admitted into evidence in Texas; they cannot unless they are recorded.

If police obtain evidence operating on good faith under a search warrant and the search warrant is later thrown out, the federal courts will admit the evidence under a "good faith" exception; the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will not.51

"Improvements were under way when George W. Bush became governor, but he has provided strong leadership on the crime issue."

The Governor's Role. Since Gov. George W. Bush became the Republican candidate for president in 2000, crime and the treatment of criminals in the Lone Star State have become national issues in the presidential campaign. The state's criminal code had been overhauled in 1993, and prison expansion was already under way before Bush took office in January 1995. As Glen Castlebury, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said, "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."

Still, Gov. Bush has provided strong leadership on the crime issue and on specific actions like toughening the treatment of juvenile offenders, expanding the Texas Youth Commission's residential facilities and appointing tough-minded people to the parole board. Bush's signing into law legislation requiring that permits to carry concealed weapons be issued to qualified persons who complete a training program probably has decreased crime by 5 to 8 percent, according to a study of the effect of concealed carry laws on crime rates.52 When the Criminal Justice Policy Council reported, early in 2000, large increases in prison time served, the governor's office said that "the revolving door in Texas has closed. It [the report] sends a strong message to criminals that if you commit a violent crime in Texas, you'll be locked up for a long time."

Other Social and Demographic Factors. The late 1960s and early 1970s were socially turbulent years - the Vietnam War, the rise of a counterculture, urban riots. Also during the 1960s, males between the ages of 15 and 24 - the highest-crime group - increased from 6.6 percent to 8.5 percent of the U.S. population. The increase continued during the 1970s, with the young male population peaking at 8.9 percent in 1980. This demographic factor undoubtedly helped boost the crime rate nationwide.53

"Texas has a relatively large supply of potentially crime-prone people."

In many racial, ethnic and social dimensions the state resembles the national averages, although Texas has a higher Hispanic population share than the nation as a whole (29.4 percent versus 11.4 percent). However, other factors imply a higher-than-average crime rate for Texas because of a relatively large supply of crime-prone people: Texas has a younger population than the national norm (median age is 32.7 years, 48th among the states, versus a national median of 35.3 years), and as a high-growth state with a warm-weather climate and border location (1,248 miles with Mexico), it has a relatively large mobile and transient population (its annual population change of 14.6 percent ranks Texas as second highest in turnover).54 Texas ranked 44th in a recent study of child poverty and 37th overall in 10 social areas.55 Texas also, of course, is a vast state with a diverse population (nearly 1 million undocumented immigrants), still somewhat influenced by a frontier mentality and a culture of "rugged individualism."

The most successful crime prevention program in America is the intact married family.56 One of the few social indicators improving recently is a decline in the Texas teen birth rate.57

Read Article as PDF