Politics

04.12.14

Prison Reform is Bigger in Texas

The Lone Star State has led a surprisingly progressive overhaul of its incarceration system. The story behind the bipartisan push that GOP contenders may be extolling come 2016.

It appears Rick Perry is going to run for president again in 2016. 

Perry, 65, will leave the governor’s office next January after serving for 14 years, beginning in 2000, when George W. Bush resigned to prepare for the presidency. In recent months, Perry has appeared in both Iowa and South Carolina. At South by South West in Austin last month, Perry told Jimmy Kimmel “America is a great place for second chances.” 

As he creeps back onto the national stage, Perry—who has overseen the executions of 268 people—more executions than any other governor in United States history—has brought with him an unlikely Lone Star State success story: prison reform. 

In Texas, funneling money to special courts (like drug courts or prostitution courts), rehabilitation, and probation in an effort to make sure current offenders don’t reoffend, instead of continuing to make room for more prisoners, has resulted in billions saved and dramatically lower crime rates. In just the last three years, Texas has shut down three prisons. 

The conservative movement to reform prisons is not new. Republican governors in Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio have all made efforts in recent years to address growing incarceration rates. But it has largely remained on the periphery of the mainstream—the stuff of columns and local reports that do nothing to sway the general public. 

That very well might be changing now that it appears it could be a series of talking points for a mainstream Republican presidential prospect.

But prison reform in Texas has been a long time in the making, and despite what it sounds like, Perry was not the one leading the way. 

The Dean of the Texas State Senate, John Whitmire, is one of the architects of prison reform in the state. “It’s kind of strange to hear him,” he said to me of Perry’s prison-reform talk on the national stage. “I don’t know what his agenda is.”

***

John Whitmire entered the Texas House of Representatives in 1972 as a 22-year-old dropout from the University of Houston (he went on to graduate and go to law school). Whitmire, a Democrat who says things like “I’m not some old cracker” and was once alleged to have gotten a bartender fired for not serving him a second scotch while he was drunk, had an encounter with a criminal that would change Texas forever. 

“You can’t go into the state legislatures and say ‘Hey, they did this in Vermont!’ and everybody would go ‘Oh, jeeze, they’d do anything in Vermont!’ But in Texas, they go ‘Oh, they’re serious about crime in Texas and they’re not weenies, they’re not goo-goos. They did this, it works, wow, OK.’”

In his deep drawl, Whitmire recalled being with his wife and 9-year-old daughter when they “pulled in our garage on New Year’s Eve in ‘92.” Then, “my wife screamed.”

“I was getting out of the front of the car, and she was getting the dishes out of the back of the car, and she let out this blood curdling, gurgling scream.” He raised his voice an octave, “‘Oh, no, no!’ 

“I ran the length of the car, and the guy put the gun in my face.

“He was doing that for his drug habit… He got 25 years for holding me up; he ended up doing 12 of them… As I look back, I think that had a profound impression on me.

“Of course, I still think about it every night I pull in my garage. I always look around,” he laughed.

In 1993, with Ann Richards as governor, Whitmire, who is today the longest-serving member of the Texas State Senate, was asked by Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock to join the criminal justice committee as chairman. 

The appointment couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for Whitmire. “It only makes sense to me that if you lock somebody up for armed robbery because they’re supporting their drug habit, hopefully you get rid of their drug habit before you let them out… I was very motivated to fix the problem of bad guys robbing you in your garage for drug money,” he told me, although he still had some reservations.

When he assumed the chairmanship, Texas prisons “had a revolving door. We had been caught off guard, or by surprise, by the influx of crack cocaine. It was kind of a phenomenon that overtook the country.”

In the early 1980s, an oversupply of cocaine powder in the Dominican Republic and Bahamas caused the price of the drug to drop by 80 percent. Dealers in America responded by a selling solid, smokable form of cocaine—crack—in small quantities for as little as $2.50. By the mid-’80s, the cheap drug had spread like wildfire, and crime—particularly violent crime—rose sharply. 

From 1985 to 2005, the number of prisoners in Texas increased threefold, to 152,000 from 37,281, giving Texas the second-highest incarceration rate in the country. 

“In ‘93, we had 60,000 inmates in our prison system and 30,000 were backed up in the county jails, sleeping on the floor,” Whitmire recalled. There were too many criminals and not enough space, so “you only served about one month for every year that you were sentenced.” 

During his first few years as chairman, Whitmire said, “I kind of surrounded myself with a lot of smart people. Prosecutors, judges, crime victims, defense attorneys. The first thing we did—we came up with state jails. We needed some capacity real quick. State jails were for low-level offenders, [and they are] heavy on rehabilitation. We built about 14,000 of them, and [they took] care of our nonviolent offenders,” leaving room for violent offenders in maximum-security prisons. 

The progress Whitmire and the committee was making came to a screeching halt when George W. Bush became governor in 1995. Bush, a recovered alcoholic, didn’t believe that money should be going to rehabilitate addicted criminals. “[He] came along… and said ‘we don’t need that because I quit drinking on my own,’ which honestly was foolish, because he didn’t have that bad a drinking problem or he wouldn’t have been able to stop on his own. He started cutting back on some of our treatments.” During his governorship, Bush oversaw the construction of 38 prisons. 

Bush Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, formerly a Democrat who served as a state representative, assumed the governorship in 2000, but Whitmire’s luck still didn’t improve. As late as 2003, he told me, his efforts were being undermined by budget cuts, which slashed rehabilitation funding. 

It would take Whitmire joining forces with an unlikely friend for the Texas criminal justice system to change.

***

The same year Whitmire became chairman of the criminal justice committee, Jerry Madden joined the Texas House of Representatives. 

Madden, an engineer originally from Iowa, grew up in a political family. “My mother was a longtime elected clerk of a municipal court in Iowa, so I sort of got my first tests in politics very early with my mother, going out and walking door to door and getting petitions signed when I was a little kid.” 

Madden moved to Texas in 1971, became his precinct chairman in 1972, his county Republican chairman in 1984, and when redistricting opened up a seat, he ran for the legislature in 1992. 

“In January 2005, the Speaker [Tom Craddick] calls me in and says, ‘Jerry, you’re going to be chairman of corrections,’ and I said what you always say to the Speaker, which is ‘Thank you for the opportunity and it’s a great honor to be chairman of your committee,’” Madden recalled. “But under my breath, I’m saying ‘Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?’”

Madden said he had next to no knowledge about criminal justice. “I’m not a lawyer. I’d never been interested in corrections. My district doesn’t have any prisons in it—it has a couple jails, but no prisons. I had never been on that committee, never had a bill before that committee… I didn’t even know how much a prison cost at that time.” 

“Then, I asked the question that was the second most important question of my life,” Madden told me. “And that was, ‘Mr. Speaker, what do you want me to do? And he gave me the eight words that changed my life. He said, ‘Don’t build new prisons—they cost too much.’” 

(The most important question? “When I asked my wife to marry me.”) 

“I started looking around, and said, ‘Who knows anything about this stuff?’” Madden said. “You’d be shocked to know that in the legislature, there are not very many people who know a lot about the prison system, and that’s true in every state—not just Texas.” 

Madden recalled hearing one name over and over.

“I wandered across the hall one day in late January and sat down with John,” Madden said. “He’s of the other party than I am. He’d been chairman of the justice committee—he’d been at it for a long time. John had a lot of great knowledge on the subject and he and I just bonded absolutely on this issue, just perfectly.” 

They started digging into the facts. How do people get to prison? Where do they come from? “How do I keep from building new prisons?” Madden said. 

They made their first attempt in 2005, with a probation bill that expanded specialty courts (courts specific to certain problems: drug courts, prostitution courts, military courts, etc.), reduced time on probation, and expanded the number of probation offices in the state. “We got it passed out of the Senate, got it passed out of the House—and the governor vetoed it,” Madden said. 

Madden called Perry’s veto, “the best thing that ever happened to us.” Instead of focusing too much on one area, like probation, Madden said they decided to reassess “the whole cycle” to see where they could avoid having violent offenders sent off to prison, released, and then sent right back when they reoffended. 

***

As Whitmire and Madden plotted in Texas, the idea was sprouting roots across the country.

Think tanks like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and people like Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist began to see the flaws in the “lock ‘em up” philosophy of Republicans past. 

“Traditionally, the politics [of prison reform] were that conservatives said ‘tough on crime’ and ‘the longer you put people in prison, the better,’” Norquist told me. “Over time, the cost of prisons, the cost of the judicial system, the length of some of the mandatory minimums that were being thrown out, got to be such that conservatives started saying ‘Wait a minute, if we’re trying to reduce crime, are we doing this in the most cost-effective way? Are there better ways to approach this?’” 

Even Newt Gingrich did a 180. As a congressman in 1992, he promised to take steps to build more prisons.

Now, he sees things differently. In a 2011 Washington Post op-Ed, Gingrich wrote “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential… We can no longer afford business as usual with prisons. The criminal justice system is broke, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.” 

Norquist, who has taken his advocacy for prison reform on the road, adds that the fact that these reforms began in Texas is a unique advantage. “You can’t go into the state legislatures and say ‘Hey, they did this in Vermont!’ and everybody would go ‘Oh, jeeze, they’d do anything in Vermont!’ But in Texas, they go ‘Oh, they’re serious about crime in Texas and they’re not weenies, they’re not goo-goos. They did this, it works, wow, OK.’” 

“The left doesn’t take this seriously,” Norquist mused. “They’ve left the entire area of reform to the right… [the left] can’t talk about prison reform for 15 seconds before [they] want to yell ‘racist’ and [they] want to get rid of the death penalty. Once you say those two things, nobody’s listening to you anymore! People just shut down as soon as you pull that crap.

“This is a zone that is very interesting, where only the right can fight—the left can show up and vote for it, but they can’t be the first movers on it.” 

***

Texas was basking in the glow of an $8.7 billion budget surplus in 2007, when the Legislative Budget Board approached lawmakers with some startling figures. People were moving to Texas in record numbers, and more people meant more criminals. 

It was projected that by 2012, the state would need 17,000 new prison beds (”beds” is the term used to classify all of the expenses for an individual inmate—the actual prison bed, three meals a day, electricity, etc.). The beds would require the construction of three new prisons, and the cost would be about $2 billion. Nobody blinked—nobody, that is, except Whitmire and Madden. 

“I said ‘No, there’s a better way to do it,’” Whitmire recalled. “There ought to be a requirement that you release a better person than the one you receive.” 

Instead of funding the new prisons, they suggested allocating $241 million for treatment programs, both in and out of prison, and the creation of specialty courts. Gov. Perry signed on.  

According to Texas Department of Public Safety statistics, from 2007 to 2008 Texas saw a 5 percent decline in murders, a 4.3 percent decline in robberies, and a 6.8 percent drop in rapes. In those same years, Right on Crime, a conservative think tank devoted to criminal justice reform, reports the number of parolees convicted of a new crime fell 7.6 percent; the number of incarcerations dropped 4.5 percent. 

Madden said when he started as a legislator, “If you’d have said [I’d be a] nationally recognized expert on criminal justice, I’d have laughed at you.” The success of his policies, he told me, are now his greatest accomplishment. 

In September 2011, Texas (facing a budget shortfall) closed Central Unit in Sugar Land, the state’s second oldest prison. 

It was the first prison closed in Texas history. “There’s no doubt there are better uses for that land as development occurs,” Whitmire was quoted as saying at the time. “And there’s also no doubt that if the [prison] population continues to drop, that we may have other opportunities to close other units that are more expensive or are in the wrong place.” 

Two other prison closures have followed the closing of Central Unit. “We’ve shut three prisons in the last three years,” Whitmire told me. “Shut two this last session, and I think we’re still seeing a reduction in our prison population—and no compromise to public safety. We’re still really tough. Hell, we’re executing someone tomorrow again.” 

***

In early March, just outside Washington, Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to talk about criminal justice reform. 

Wearing his now-ubiquitous black-rimmed glasses and a rust-colored tie, Perry caught the CPAC audience off-guard with what he had to say. 

“You want to talk about real conservative governance?” Perry asked. “Shut prisons down. Save that money.” The crowd applauded, but seemed surprised that they were doing so. 

Perry was joined by former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik and Norquist, who noted “you wouldn’t necessarily expect—and certainly the establishment press doesn’t expect—to hear a discussion about criminal justice reforms and prison reform at CPAC. But, in point of fact, this is a big problem, it’s an expensive problem, [and] it’s a problem that creates more expensive problems.” 

Perry, in a somewhat mischievous tone, assured the CPAC attendees that prison reform did not make him soft on crime. “Texas is is still tough on crime. Don’t come to Texas if you want to kill somebody.” 

The conservative politics of prison reform are good almost any way you look at it, because the issue has the unique advantage of appealing to both fiscal and social conservatives. 

Besides saving billions by not constructing new prisons, there are smaller numbers that add up. In Texas, the cost of locking someone up in a maximum-security prison is $50.04 a day; the cost of putting them on probation is just $3.63 a day. 

At CPAC, Perry talked about prison reform as an opportunity to—in a very Christian manner—forgive. “The idea that we lock people up, throw them away forever, never give them a second chance at redemption isn’t what America is about.” 

Lanhee Chen, former policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and a Hoover Institution fellow, told me the subject is “certainly something that’s unique about [Perry] and is going to be an issue that he can talk about, particularly if he can run for president, as most suspect he will again.” The success of Texas’ policies will set Perry apart from other candidates, Chen said, and that is “something that he can use to his advantage, there’s no question about it.” 

“It’s not an issue where everybody is already there,” Norquist explained. “But by the time we get to the caucuses, every single Republican running for president will be versed on this, and largely in the same place…Some guys will be playing catch-up ball, but I do believe that, largely, this will become a consensus issue within the center right.” And, Norquist told me, “Perry has first-mover advantage. Everybody else is playing catch-up.”

*** 

In early April in Lubbock, Texas, Perry received the Governor of the Year Award “for his incredible work to transform the Texas criminal justice system,” from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP). “Under his leadership,” the group said, “Texas has become a national and international model of reform.” 

Although Perry will get credit for it, the reforms were not necessarily his. “He’s supportive much of the time by his silence,” Whitmire told me. “[He’s] supported [prison reform] by signing it [into law],” he said. “He didn’t veto the laws that allowed those reforms to take place… but he wasn’t, like, testifying for it.” 

Representatives for Gov. Perry declined to comment for this article.

The first proposals for reform were vetoed by Perry in 2005. It wasn’t until two years later that Perry signed off. 

“A governor could have easily made the argument that [prison reform] is soft on crime… but he did not say that,” said Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst at Right on Crime. “He said, ‘I think this makes sense, this is worth trying.’ There are so many governors around the country who have for decades been calling those kind of reforms soft on crime, but that wasn’t Governor Perry’s take at all.”

“He’s only recently started talking about it,” Whitmire noted. “Maybe he’s gotten enlightened!” he added sarcastically. 

He laughed. “That’s an oxymoron.”