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Texas Lawmakers Want To Fix State Jails By Focusing On Rehabilitation

The visiting area of Buster Cole State Jail in Bonham.
Thorne Anderson for KERA
The visiting area of Buster Cole State Jail in Bonham.

Lawmakers in Austin who oversee the state’s sprawling prison system are concerned about state jails. These middle-tier facilities, which are for low-level felons with crimes related to underlying issues, were set up with the idea that they’d provide an array of rehabilitative services that would prevent future crime.

But state data show that, compared with state prisons, which house more serious offenders, and local jails, which house people who’ve committed misdemeanors, state jails do the worst at rehabilitating people.

“I’ve seen several [people] get released and come back, and released and come back,” says Sandy Wolff, who spent a year in Lucile Plane State Jail for writing bad checks. “There was one girl that came back three times I was there.”

Texas set up state jails in the 1990s, amid a crisis of overcrowding in the state’s prisons and a crackdown on drug crimes, with the idea that they’d be a more suitable place to house people who committed nonviolent crimes that stemmed from issues like addiction or mental illness, mostly property and drug crimes. While there, they’d get an array of services like treatment, therapy and job training in order to go home and be productive citizens.

“The idea was that you don’t want to mix them with a population of hardened criminals we’re truly scared of, where the hardened criminals coach up the emerging criminals,” said Rep. James White, a Republican who heads the House Committee on Corrections. He dcalls the state jail system Texas’ first criminal justice reform.

But that idea never played out as designed, says Derek Cohen from the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“The problem is that we never funded the rehabilitation component, so we ended up making a system of short-term warehousing for offenders that either had persistent drug addiction or low-level felony offenses,” he said.

And these warehouses have revolving doors. The state’s most recent data shows that 31 percent wound up back behind bars in that time period, compared to 20 percent for state prisons. And 63 percent of people released from state jails were arrested within three years, compared to 45 percent of those from state prison.

Most of the women she knew in the state jail left no better off than when they’d arrived, Wolf says. Many women end up in state jails after years of trauma, domestic violence and trafficking. And lot of times, they end up back in those same situations when they get released.

“They just don’t have any hope,” Wolff says. “There’s nothing for them to give them the hope that they can do something better.”

The Texas House corrections committee will have its hearing on a bill to put added focus on diversion programs that offer treatment and services instead of sending people to state jails, and increase re-entry services for folks getting out of state jails.

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.