Courts & Crime

Texas has nation's largest prison population

Texas' prison population has dropped to its lowest in five years, but the decline hasn't been as steep as in some other states, most notably California.

As a result, Texas now has the largest prison population in the nation, surpassing California for the dubious distinction.

"It's disappointing that so many human beings have done something to get themselves locked up," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "All of them are somebody's son, brother, daughter, mother, father.

"We run a sound system and if we're the largest, it's probably nothing to feel good about."

California held the title of housing the most prisoners until a new provision required the state to keep lower-level offenders in county jails, rather than prison. That dropped the overall prison population, pushing Texas to the top.

Texas now houses more than 152,000, compared with about 134,000 inmates in California, according to recent statistics from both prison systems. Florida was a distant third, with about 100,000 inmates as of June.

A year ago, Texas had more than 156,000 prisoners in 111 state prisons.

Though Texas, with more than 25 million residents, has more inmates than any other state, it has fallen from second to fourth place in the number of people imprisoned per capita. Louisiana tops the per capita list.

Texas' prison population has dipped because of diversion programs lawmakers invested in five years ago, ranging from halfway houses to specialty courts that address cases involving mentally ill people and drunken drivers, said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

At the same time, California's prison population dropped from more than 170,000 in 2006, as the state worked to divert nonviolent offenders from state prisons, keeping certain classes of them in county jails. That's not currently on the table in Texas.

A decrease in crime rates, changes in demographics and an aging general population also have a role in emptying Texas' prison beds, experts say.

Whitmire and other lawmakers expect legislation to be introduced next year calling for more changes to continue the downward trend, at least temporarily.

One proposal would change drug sentencing to provide more treatment rather than prison time, and another would push to fund a 2011 law that lets counties limit the number of felons they send to state prisons in exchange for more state funding for local corrections programs.

A June report by the Legislative Budget Board predicts that the Texas prison population will continue to trend downward until 2014, when it will likely begin rising again.

State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said: "Texas has a well-deserved reputation of being tough on crime. It isn't a bad or good thing if we're incarcerating the right people. It's a statistic I've dealt with for a long time."

Cost is a factor in the debate. It costs an average of $50.79 per inmate per day to house a prisoner in one of Texas' facilities, which range from prisons to centers for criminals afflicted by substance abuse, medical or psychiatric issues, Clark said.

"It should be alarming because we're spending way too much incarcerating people who should be on parole," said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. "Back in the '90s, the lock-'em-up philosophy didn't take into consideration how much money it takes to keep people in prison."

Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said he wasn't surprised that Texas has become No. 1 in prison population.

"With Texas being such a large state, that's not terribly surprising," he said. "Texas has always been a law and order state, and the prison system has been known as a tough system.

"Texas prisons are not for rehabilitation, but for punishment to deter people from coming back."

This report includes material from the Austin American-Statesman.