State Policy Network
Criminal Justice Reform in Texas: Pioneering state-based reforms that are transforming federal policy

In the early 2000s, the Texas prison population had ballooned to more than 150,000 prisoners. While there were many reasons why incarceration had escalated so much, one thing was clear: it couldn’t continue.

In 2007 according to estimates, Texas would need to build multiple new prisons to hold the expected 17,000 more inmates the state was on pace to incarcerate. It was a problem for taxpayers and Texas families wrapped up in the state’s criminal justice system.

In 2005, partly as a response to this incarceration crisis in Texas, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) launched Right on Crime, a national campaign championing “solutions for reducing crime, restoring victims, reforming offenders and lowering taxpayer costs.” 

TPPF and Right on Crime conducted the research necessary to show how the state would have to spend an additional $2 billion tax dollars to add those 17,000 prison beds and keep up with their prison population growth. The research also revealed that a different and more compassionate path not only made moral sense but would save taxpayers money. By showing lawmakers opportunities to rehabilitate and educate offenders, TPPF and Right on Crime shifted the debate around criminal justice reform from “how can we best lock prisoners up?” to “how can we ensure justice is served and offenders are rehabilitated?”

The Texas Legislature listened, and by 2007 Texas was a national model for prison reform. Since then, eight Texas prisons have closed, the prison population has decreased by 30,000 and the crime rate has reached its lowest point since 1967.

Texas-inspired criminal justice reforms have since made their way to numerous states, including Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Now, flash forward to 2018 and thanks to TPPF and Right on Crime, these innovative criminal justice reform solutions are making national impact.

On December 18, 2018, the US Senate passed the First Step Act, a set of criminal justice reforms that will improve the ways we help offenders re-enter society and reduce the likelihood they return to prison. The First Step Act represents the most sweeping criminal justice reform in the last 30 years. Along with federal policy changes, it empowers states to improve their criminal justice systems by learning from and adopting solutions that are working in states like Texas.

In many ways, the First Step Act is a culmination of all the reforms and innovations TPPF has championed for over a decade. The bill offers inmates vocational training, academic classes, and substance abuse treatments that better prepare them for life after prison—and helps reduce their sentences in prison. This was one of the first initiatives that TPPF championed.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has fought for—and won—criminal justice reforms in Texas that have changed the lives of many Texas inmates, ex-offenders, and taxpayers. But TPPF has taken this work an amazing step further and fought for those reforms nationwide. Across the country, criminal justice reform has been made better by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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Organization: State Policy Network