On Thursday, February 20, a reporter from the Texas Tribune contacted me for comment following the announcement by Senator John Whitmire that the state plans to close two prisons. The closure is a result of the prison population’s decrease from 145,402 to 141,549 people between January and December 2019, despite projections by the Legislative Budget Board that the incarcerated population would remain at or above 145,000 through 2024. Shuttering two prisons is a sign that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice does not anticipate a rise in the population back to projected levels.
Advocates puzzled over the sudden 3,853-person decrease in the prison population. We wondered whether it could be attributed to the influx of “progressive prosecutors” at the local level or the institution of new diversion programming. These may have played a small role, but the primary change during that time period was an increase in parole approval rates.
Generally, parole approval rates hover at about 34%.1 Mandatory supervision, a separate and smaller category of parole release based on the accrual of flat time and good time, tends to remain stable at about 47%. Between January and December, however, the rates had increased as high as 41% for parole and 54% for mandatory supervision. These increases in approval rates account for a 3,335 decrease in the prison population during that time period.2
We spoke to the Board of Pardons and Paroles about the sudden increase in parole approval rates, and they shared some of the changes they’ve made over the past year. They indicated that they are placing more people into rehabilitative programming (as a condition of parole release) rather than keeping them incarcerated. Also, they hired new parole commissioners who are committed to seeing people rehabilitated and returned to the community.
It’s important to note that the upticks in Texas parole approval rates over the past decade have coincided with a 25 percent decrease in recidivism.3 Increases in parole approval rates, when coupled with rehabilitative programming, lead to less re-offending.
These are very hopeful strides toward a system that is focused on rehabilitation and accountability versus harsh punishment. And we anticipate that, with ongoing implementation of the Board’s new strategies, we will see parole rates continue to sit above 40% without public safety ramifications.
But there is more we can do to reform the parole system to significantly reduce the size of our massive prison system. These reforms include:
- Implementing “Second Look” to provide earlier parole consideration to people sentenced to extreme terms for crimes they committed as children.
- Changing the risk assessment system to give weight to factors that are truly associated with risk of re-offense.
- Closely linking progress on each person’s Individualized Treatment Plan with parole approval.
- Providing more substantive opportunities for family members to speak directly with voting members of the Parole Board.
- Offering clear feedback to people denied parole about the reasons for parole denial, as opposed to blanket reasons such as “nature of the crime.”
These reforms continue to be necessary because, today, Texas’ incarceration rate is 600% higher than it was in the 1960s, the last time that crime rates were as low as they are today. Furthermore, people are being sentenced to longer and longer terms in prison. Low parole approval rates keep prison populations high even when crime goes down. Low rates also result in an aging prison population, driving up health care costs. So in addition to tackling front-end drivers to the justice system, the state must implement additional, meaningful strategies to reform the parole system and address Texas’ still-bloated prison population.
Since January 2020, we have seen a 2% reduction in the incarcerated population. While that’s great news, we’re still a long way from creating a system of accountability in Texas that makes us safer while not tossing away human potential.
1Data derived by reviewing the number of parole and mandatory supervision cases considered and cases approved during the two years prior to January 2019. Data can be obtained at: https://www.lbb.state.tx.us/Documents/Publications/Info_Graphic/812_MonthlyReport_FY2019.pdf and https://www.lbb.state.tx.us/Documents/Publications/Info_Graphic/812_MonthlyReport_FY2018.pdf.
2Data derived by: (1) calculating the number of people released and the parole approval rate between January and December 2019; (2) calculating the difference between the number of people released and the number of people who would have been released had the parole approval rate been 34% percent; and (3) summed each month for the total population reduction that can be directly attributed to increases in parole approval rates.
3Legislative Budget Board, Statewide Criminal and Juvenile Justice Recidivism and Revocation Reports, dating back to 2011.