If you read this Guardian article and your mouth does not drop like mine did, check your pulse.
In Texas, the land of “convict at all costs”, maxi-prisons, and an appalling Death Row population, they’re no longer bowing to the interests of corporations that want to make big bucks off building and staffing yet more prisons. Instead, they’re taking the title “Department of Corrections” seriously. In the process, Tea Party sympathizers are adopting the philosophies of liberals who for decades have decried the easy, “slam ‘em into the slammer” ethos of America’s third-largest state.
Why this change?
Money. It costs Texas $50 per day per imprisoned inmate. The state no longer has that kind of money. When Republican Jerry Madden was appointed to head the Texas corrections committee, his mandate required him to build no new facilities for incarceration. So he had to think outside the big box.
Lo and behold, he turned to programs which liberal interests had been pleading to use for years. They pointed to other states, with lower incarceration rates than Texas, but also, oddly enough, lower crime rates. What were those states doing right that Texas could imitate?
What Texas found, it has copied: Personalized rehabilitation. An understanding that some people are poorly parented from birth. (“We are trying to provide 18 years of parenting in one year of drug court.” ) Small groups, so a judge overseeing them can tailor the approach to individuals. The knowledge that if offenders break parole, use drugs, don’t show up, they will be back in the system.
Rewards for those who turn their lives around.
There are many who do. They set aside drugs, get jobs, change their friends, learn to respect themselves. They also learn what went wrong in the past and how to prevent it happening again. The title of this blogpost is a quote from one man who, ten years ago, would have been speedily shuffled toward prison. Instead, he got the opportunity to re-create himself.
From the Guardian article: “At the root of the reforms is an idea alien to many on the right: to understand more and condemn less. ‘The people we are dealing with are not like you and me,’ Judge [Robert] Francis told me. ‘I found this a shock. I grew up in a house with married parents, both of whom had college degrees. I thought this was normal, but now I know it isn’t.’ The vast majority of people parading through his court come from broken homes, failed to graduate from school, began using drugs in their teens and had children before they were 20. ‘These people are preconceived to have a harder path through life than the likes of us,’ he said.”
For those who question whether this isn’t just softly-softly mollycoddling that will lead to more crime, Texas now uses “. . . sophisticated risk-analysis tools that have cut the number of low-risk offenders who reoffend within a year from 26% to under 1%”. That makes sense. Like profiling for airline flights, it takes what is known about an individual and plugs that information in to achieve a more refined and accurate judgment than simple “gut feeling”.
Considering that “Texas has freed 41 wrongly convicted inmates through DNA since 2001 — more than any other state”, it’s more than time to shout enough! Prosecutors and candidates running for state office in Texas have always garnered votes by claiming to be tough on crime. In the future, they’ll be required to amend that claim with a promise to spend less money on incarceration and more on correction, as well as vowing to put no defendant behind bars without thorough scrutiny of the DNA evidence.
In some US prisons, meditation is offered – even to lifers – as a way for them to achieve better mental health. There’s even a movie on one state program.
Still, wouldn’t it be healthier and less costly to make sure fewer people enter the prison system in the first place?