AUSTIN – The Sunset Advisory Commission that evaluates the effectiveness of Texas state government agencies wants the public to weigh in on the state's criminal justice system. After sweeping cuts to its $4 billion prison budget, bipartisan momentum is growing for reducing the number of people put behind bars.
Rather than cutting services and rehabilitation programs, according to Dr. Ana Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the state could save a lot more by steering its non-dangerous prisoners toward community-based supervision and treatment.
"Making sure that we're not locking up people that we're just mad at. We cannot continue to spend billions of dollars on a strategy that's not producing a lower crime rate and stronger communities."
She describes the key as "breaking the cycle of incarceration" by targeting the root causes of criminal behavior. Judges and prosecutors, she adds, need more training in "evidence-based sentencing" - choosing the smartest options, not just the toughest.
Fifty-five-year-old ex-prisoner Jorge Renaud is now a graduate student in social work at the University of Texas. Convicted of multiple crimes, including aggravated robbery, he admits he once belonged behind bars, and says he'd likely still be there if it weren't for the educational opportunities available in prison.
"It gave me insight into myself, my behavior, and my history. It allowed me to understand that I bore quite a bit of responsibility for my actions."
Renaud believes it's short-sighted to try to save money by cutting rehabilitation programs.
"Ninety-seven percent of all prisoners are going to get out. If you don't give them the tools to re-examine their behavior, I think you're basically saying, 'I'm okay with you going out and doing what you did again.'"
Ana Correa says the state has made progress in recent years finding alternatives to incarceration, but this year's budget cuts were a setback. The Sunset Review, she thinks, is an opportunity to strengthen probation, parole, and rehabilitation programs proven to help lawbreakers.
"So that they will become assets to society. Be able to pay child support, be able to get that job, be able to just be part of society in a way that's going to be constructive."
Correa urges anyone who has been involved with the criminal justice system - either directly, or through family - to provide confidential feedback in an online survey on the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's website. The group will present a report on its findings to the commission in early January.
See the TCJD questionnaire at bit.ly/sAi5Ch. State questionnaire is at bit.ly/tqAARK