America’s mass incarceration problem is taking a huge toll on individuals, families, communities and taxpayers across the nation. Texas is at the center of the problem because it incarcerates more people than any other state: 163,703 in 2016.
Since about 1980, we have been incarcerating more people even as crime rates have dropped to historic lows. Mass incarceration unfairly affects people of color. Many of those in prison are now aging and pose little threat to society.
We are not stuck with the system as it stands. We can reduce the prison population without negatively impacting public safety. Moreover, implementing reforms that would reduce incarceration could also make the system fairer for everyone.
By 2025, Texas could reduce its prison population by nearly half
The ACLU has been developing blueprints for each state that would reduce prison populations by half by 2025. It has carefully evaluated the demographics and offenses of those in our prisons and developed a plan to release those who pose a low level of threat to society. According to the ACLU’s blueprint for Texas, the state could reduce its prison population by 71,722 people by implementing a few common-sense reforms.
Implementing these reforms would save the state more than $3 billion. That money could be used for other priorities such as drug treatment, education, social services or even crime-reduction programs. At the very least, we could save $3 billion that we’re currently spending keeping people locked away from their families and society, often for no good reason.
The War on Drugs
Unsurprisingly, the War on Drugs played a major role in the mass incarceration problem. Indeed, almost a quarter of new admissions to Texas prisons involve drug offenses — the majority simple possession.
Mass incarceration unduly affects African-Americans
People of color are far more likely than whites to be imprisoned in Texas despite similar crime rates. By 2014, Texas had the 10th highest incarceration rate in the nation for African-Americans. In fact, African-Americans are incarcerated at four times the rate of whites.
Although Blacks make up only 12 percent of Texas’s overall population, in 2016 they accounted for 34 percent of Texas’s prison population.
A rapidly aging prison population
Research has long shown that people are most prone to commit crimes when they are young — below 30, for most offenses. Yet we continue to sentence people to terms that will keep them in prison long past the time they are a threat to society — on the taxpayer’s dime.
Currently, people aged 50 and older make up 22 percent of the prison population, a substantial increase in recent years.
Four reasonable reforms to consider
The ACLU recommends four reforms that many people can agree on. These and a few others would allow us to reduce our prison population by over 70,000 in just a few years. The recommendations include:
- Choosing to use alternatives to incarceration to solve problems like drug or alcohol addiction and mental illness
- Granting judges the authority to choose an option other than incarceration for certain crimes rather than requiring prison for every offense
- Reforming severe sentencing enhancements and mandatory minimum sentences that deny judges the authority to hand down a sentence that seems just
- Setting parole and release policies that ensure more eligible inmates are released earlier. These could include, for example, a presumption that an inmate with a certain number of trouble-free years is eligible for parole
You can get more detailed information about the proposals by reading the full report. In the meantime, would you support reforms that would reduce the number of people Texas imprisons each year?