Left and right join forces to push 'smart on crime' measures

Left and right join forces to push 'smart on crime' measures

Texas outdid most of the nation in the high-crime 1990s with a prison-building binge that tripled the incarcerated population by 2000.

The state lives — and tries to live down — that legacy today. Our sentencing patterns have produced one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, 150,000 men and women confined in state lockups and more than a half-million more on parole or probation supervision. State prisons are a $3 billion-a-year industry whose clientele has an average educational attainment of a little better than eighth grade.

It’s figures like that spurring a left-right coalition on criminal-justice reform that has already pulled together an agenda for next year’s lawmaking session. We’re glad to see the early prep work to restoke momentum across the political spectrum for what’s known as “smart on crime” measures.

Consider the allies who lined up together for an announcement about the coalition last week. From the right came the small-government think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation and the high-octane Texas Association of Business. The TAB’s Bill Hammond observed, “We have tried locking people up and throwing away the key, and that isn’t always the best answer.”

From the left came the research and advocacy group Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, plus the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. The ACLU’s Terri Burke noted, “Incarcerating nonviolent offenders and people with mental illness destroys lives and wastes taxpayer money without making us safer.”

There is a consensus theme here: People who don’t pose a threat to society are occupying expensive prison beds, with dim prospects ahead.

More than 40 percent of felons confined by the state are there for nonviolent offenses, typically drug or property crimes. Most of those sent to prison for drugs are there for possession offenses rather than dealing.

The priority items identified by the bipartisan alliance range from prison-based job-training and self-improvement programs to incentives for offenders to complete terms of their probation.

One objective would modify penalties for minor drug possession to keep users out of prison and in counseling. That’s politically tricky territory for many conservative Republicans, who could leave themselves open to charges of being soft on crime.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see the political courage demonstrated last week by Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, chairman of the House Corrections Committee. Parker told this newspaper that it makes no sense to put someone behind bars for six months or a year for possessing a small amount of pot. The sentence accomplishes little, he said, besides teaching the offender how to be a better criminal. And the taxpayer picks up the tab.

Being tough on crime, Parker said, means making sure the truly dangerous people go to the penitentiary.

We hope Parker sets a persuasive example for other lawmakers that it’s possible to be smart and tough at the same time.