A coalition of the state’s major metro counties has an agenda to convince legislators that a sea-change is needed in rehabilitating jail and prison inmates.
The Offender Re-entry Council has been working to lower costs of criminal justice, reduce recidivism, and improve public safety, but in the early- to mid-90s, the talk around Texas was of jail overcrowding and building more prisons.
"We have an incarceromania, is what I call it," said Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who said that when he heard the correction committee chairman say Texas had a problem it could not build its way out of, a light bulb turned on for him.
"We just kind of felt like throwing people in jail was helping create a safer environment," he said. "When in fact, we found out it wasn't doing that at all. It was just costing a ton of money and it wasn't correcting a single soul. And to this day, it's not doing a whole lot more than that."
Adkisson met with re-entry council leaders from Dallas, Tarrant and Travis counties, and this year, he said, Harris County joined the discussion.
The national re-entry council has said that one of the barriers to rehabilitating former inmates involves policy changes. The group devised a list of eight initiatives to address policy barriers that keep previously incarcerated people from re-entering the workforce.
These policies include:
- Changing penalties for various misdemeanor offenses
- Addressing mental illness as a public health issue
- Conducting pre-trial mediations with some crime victims
- Tracking effective parole officer and re-entry coordinator practices
- Ease licensing restrictions for successful adjudication in some cases
- Reducing employer liabilities
- Allowing record expunction for former inmates who have completed successful adjudication programs
"Every 400 inmates is $8 million to the county, and we've regularly had about 3,700," said Adkisson.
When you add to that the costs of putting people on unemployment after incarceration and re-training them for other jobs, and Adkisson says it becomes apparent that better programs on the front end of the system can help both the inmates and the communities to which they return.