Criminal Justice & The 88th Legislative Session
This upcoming legislative session, Texas legislators will be faced with the ever-present question — what are you going to do about crime? For those who have never been impacted by the criminal justice system, this question commonly stems from a place of fear — fueled by every violent incident that makes headlines and every policymaker who chooses to make it a point of non-negotiation on their platforms. Then there is the flip side of this coin represented by the countless, nay, millions of Texans who are currently beholden to their record of involvement with Texas’ legal system. From arrests to dismissals to convictions, if you have had a run-in with the law, you are on record. And for these individuals, their families, and even their victims, the pressing question is not “what are you going to do about crime,” but “what are you going to do about the criminal justice system?”
For the past decade, the recidivism rate in the state of Texas has remained stagnant, and while it is good news that it is not increasing, this also means that nothing is effectively being done to ensure that recidivism is decreasing(1). To do so would mean that the justice system would have to address the underlying issues causing people to reoffend (e.g., lack of access to legitimate employment opportunities, education, housing, and mental health resources). Texas criminal justice agencies often use the words “rehabilitation” and “promoting positive change in offender behavior” to describe what they do. But, without the necessary resources to help someone change their behavior or address their circumstances, the implementation of this concept looks, sounds, and feels a lot like punishment. It is important to note that a punitive approach to criminal justice is not a rehabilitative one and the two are not synonymous. Given the way in which we administer “justice” — strapping Texans with lifetime barriers due to a criminal record, regardless of their charge; locking up non-violent low-risk individuals, ultimately exposing them to higher risk individuals and thus increasing the likelihood of continued crime; criminalizing and penalizing people for behaviors and social matters that we refuse to understand, such as substance abuse, mental health, and experiencing homelessness — it has become abundantly clear that in this state, our system is defined by the latter.
That is not to say that people should not be held accountable for the harm that they have caused. It is unfathomable to think that any wrongdoing or harm inflicted on another can be easily dismissed without holding that person accountable for their actions. However, when the system that is charged with “correcting” one’s behavior (albeit violent or not) relies heavily on counterproductive techniques — such as long periods of isolation without any programming or ineffective programming — then the system itself plays an active role in that person’s continued disconnect from society; and does nothing to repair the harm endured by the victims or the community at large. In fact, researchers have found that more than half (52%) of the population that represent victims of violence believe that imprisonment makes people more likely to commit crime, while the majority (62%) prefer holding people accountable through options beyond prison(2).
Will Texas legislators heed this note? Or will they continue to walk us backwards into the ‘80s and ‘90s, when “tough on crime” rhetoric dominated policy platforms and resulted in countless communities and families being fractured and torn apart. The myths of “juvenile superpredators” and “nothing work[ing]” regarding rehabilitation have long been dispelled(3). Additionally, let us not forget that there has been a lack of empirical support to suggest that the current way in which we are approaching “justice,” with a strictly punitive and carceral hand, works. In other words, incarceration does not have the effect that people think. It does not deter one from committing crime, though it has been shown to increase one’s future criminality(4). Why do we do this? Why do we continue to invest in a system that only perpetuates harm? Texans deserve better.
At Texas Appleseed we believe incarceration and monitoring should be a last resort; that justice should not hinge on one’s race or wealth; and that the legal system should not be used as a tool to inflict long-term negative consequences on people’s lives. To this end, we support policies and practices that are data-driven and have been shown to be effective; are in line with best practices; and are written and implemented in a manner that promotes equity and justice for all Texans. We value a criminal justice system that is effective, equitable, non-violent, humane, and transparent. This upcoming session, we will be putting Texans first and promoting policy changes that not only aim to move the system towards these values but ensures that people who can be served outside of the system remain in their communities and are supported in a manner that benefits everyone involved.
We ask that you join us in our efforts to make a safer and stronger Texas!
(1) Legislative Budget Board (January 2021). Statewide criminal and juvenile justice recidivism and revocation rates. Retrieved from https://www.lbb.texas.gov/Documents/Publications/Policy_Report/6293_CJDA_Recidivism-Revocation.pdf; Legislative Budget Board (January 2019). Statewide criminal and juvenile justice recidivism and revocation rates. Retrieved from https://www.lbb.texas.gov/Documents/Publications/Policy_Report/4914_Recividism_Revocation_Rates_Jan2019.pdf ; Legislative Budget Board (January 2017). Statewide criminal and juvenile justice recidivism and revocation rates. Retrieved from https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/85R/handouts/C2002017022310301/5ecda132-5786-453d-a1be-3948fefc04a5.PDF ; Legislative Budget Board (February 2015). Statewide criminal and juvenile justice recidivism and revocation rates. Retrieved from https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/84R/handouts/C2002015022608001/d630aa4f-a397-4535-bf77-fbd993857c11.PDF
(2) Alliance for Safety and Justice. Crime survivors speak: The first-ever national survey of victims’ views on safety and justice. Retrieved from http://allianceforsafetyandjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/documents/Crime%20Survivors%20Speak%20Report.pdf
(3) Becker, E. (February 9, 2021). As ex-theorist on young ‘superpredators,’ Bush aide has regrets. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/09/us/as-ex-theorist-on-young-superpredators-bush-aide-has-regrets.html ; Cullen, F.T. & Gendreau, P. (2007). From nothing works to what works: Changing professional ideology in the 21st century. In Roesch, R. & McLachlan, K. (Eds.), Criminal Psychology and Law (pp. 231-257). Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351161565
(4) Loeffler, C.E. & Nagin, S. (2022). The impact of incarceration on recidivism. Annual Review of Criminology, 5, 133-152. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-criminol-030920-112506