Prison Overcrowding, Rising Costs Prompt Surprising Reforms

Republican Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden has become one of country’s leaders in corrections reform. (AP)

BOSTON — The old political debate about law and order used to be about being soft on crime or hard on crime. But now some Republicans and southern states are touting themselves as being “smarter” on crime, not harder.

Prison overcrowding and soaring costs have prompted some surprising reforms in other states, though not Massachusetts.

The GOP Changes Its Tune On Prison Reform

“It is new thinking, it’s different thinking, it’s not being soft versus being hard,” said Newt Gingrich in 2011.

These are heady days on the Republican right. One leading conservative is calling for “zero prison growth,” while Gingrich wants to divert low-level drug offenders away from prison and into alternative treatment and job training.

“They have real evidence in a number of states that if you do the right things and you do it the right way, you save lives, you reduce the crime rate, and you save the taxpayer money,” he said.

Twenty percent of prison inmates in Massachusetts are serving time for drug offenses. And another 20 percent are serving time for property crimes committed to support their drug habits.

Hard to imagine liberals going un-criticized for this kind of talk in the “old” days, but then again it’s hard to imagine South Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas being called the “new” leaders in prison reform. But according to Len Engel, a policy analyst at the Crime and Justice Institute in Boston, they are.

What’s driving the change are budget crises.

“You’re seeing the costs of corrections increasing three-fold, four-fold, six-fold in some states,” Engel said.

In 2008, the 50 states spent $52 billion on corrections, almost all of it on prisons. It’s become the second fastest growing segment in most state budgets, even as the crime rates have consistently declined.

And what’s driving the budget crisis in corrections is the explosion of inmates and the longer sentences they now serve.

Your Average Prisoner

“My name is Brian. I’m in Middleton Jail. And I’m here for drugs.”

Brian Gibson of Boston is an average inmate in the average American jail and prison. He belongs to the fastest growing segment of America’s 2 million lock-ups.

“I have a drug problem and it’s beatin’ me. It’s really beatin’ me,” he said.

Twenty percent of prison inmates in Massachusetts are serving time for drug offenses. And another 20 percent are serving time for property crimes committed to support their drug habits.

If you’re part of the old, “hard-on-crime” way of thinking, you can blame Gibson and the non-violent inmates like him for the soaring costs of keeping them behind bars that states can no longer afford to build. But Texas tangled with this reality a few years ago and came out with a solution that is proclaimed as a national model.

A Leader In Prison Reform

Republican Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden has become one of country’s leaders in corrections reform. When the Texas speaker of the House picked him to head the Committee on Corrections, Madden got saddled with the job of figuring out what to do with an oncoming herd of prisoners.

“We started our 2007 legislative session with a forecast that said we were going to need 17,000 and a few hundred additional prison beds by 2012,” Madden said.

That meant that in five years Texas would have to build eight new prisons.

“The cost of a prison in Texas is somewhere around $200 million to build, roughly,” he said.

The Texas State House in Austin, Texas. (fusionpanda/Flickr)

The math comes out to $1.6 billion. Big even for Texas. And Madden, who was a greenhorn on corrections, had one big question.

“Mr. Speaker, what do you want me to do as chairman of the Corrections Committee? He told me, ‘Don’t build new prisons. They cost too much.’ ”

How to reduce the state’s rabbiting prison population without compromising public safety? Study teams and think tanks pointed Madden to all those non-violent offenders in Texas prisons, people like Gibson back here at the jail in Middleton.

Madden came to join a growing current of thought, expressed here by Engel:

“Prison is not a place to get good substance abuse treatment. It’s not a good place to get good mental health treatment. It’s not a place to get good employment and skill development,” Engel said. “Not to mention all the research suggests that locking people up is going to increase their criminality.”

At the Texas State House, Madden focused on diverting low-level drug abusers and mentally ill convicts into intensive, community-based treatment programs. He aimed at building halfway houses and treatment centers instead of prisons. And he pushed for increased supervision of inmates upon release.

But remember, Madden was riding the range as a Republican. And he had to sell this “softer” approach in a state that prided itself on its tough-as-rawhide reputation on crime.

For anyone who wondered if Madden had traded his cowboy boots for a soft pair of Guccis, he had this to say: “We’ll save you money and you’ll be safer.

“One thing we have in prison: They get free room, free board and free health care, at the public’s expense,” Madden said. “And if we put them out there as a person who has a job and working and living with their family, they may end up paying taxes.”

With both parties in favor, Madden’s bill won approval. Texas built no new prisons. It saved money. The crime rate dropped. And so too did the number of inmates committing crimes when they got out.

“It was a perfect storm that said this was the perfect time of opportunity,” Madden said.

In this latest budget crisis, Madden has a message for Massachusetts: get smarter, not harder.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • Neil Cronin

    It’s about time! Time to decriminalize Cannabis, tax it and regulate it. If we combine the projected taxes that could be collected on Pot legally sold (maybe in “Coffee Shops” like Amsterdam), and the massive savings that could be attained by keeping Pot smokers out of the Criminal Justice system; we’d probably be talking about some $200 Million Dollars per year, in Massachusetts alone – which would be available for other budget demands. Putting low level drug offenders into the Criminal Justice System, also often takes that individual out of a job (sometimes a good paying job) and starts a painful “domino effect” on that person’s family, sometimes leading to foreclosure on the family home, leading to divorce and shattered lives; all of this unnecessary and excessive. Non-violent drug offences, should be treated as a healthcare issue and lead to proper treatment and if necessary, counseling. Helping people put-down a harmful habit, should be the goal. Putting good people into jail and mixing them with violent criminals for extended periods of time, creates more criminals and seldom addresses the reason the non-violent Drug Offender is there in the first-place. Cannabis smokers are not criminals. Legalize it and watch the crime rate plummet and tax collections soar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/markcorreia Mark Correia

    What about all those who invested in prison companies? Oh, I know, they’ll pay for commercials that say things like “So and So wants to put criminals on your streets, YOU have the right to vote”. Anything to keep me in champagne dreams and caviar wishes :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darla-Anderson/100001694895752 Darla Anderson

      You got it!!! Follow the money, folks!!! Follow the money. But, don’t stop there. Do all you can to perpetually inform and teach voters what is going on. Be a force of nature; be a voice for those imprisoned that should not be there, or that, in spite of no rehabilitation by the departments of correction in each state, that they have rehabilitated themselves.

  • Correctken25

    There are plenty of non violent inmates in mass. Not only drug crimes but white collar crimes where the inmates did not have the money to hire expensive lawyers so end up in jail for years. There are pharmacists, Doctors, Lawyers who I know are ready to be released and can not re commit their crime because they have lost their licenses. These guys are in here for years when they could be working and actually out there contributing to society. They have been punished and definitely rehabbed but just sit in here with free health care, food etc. Thjere is no way they would hurt anyone. I would actually prefer to spend time with them than many on the outside now that they have been taught their lesson.


    • Locke

      Yes there are many non violent crimes but just because they are non violent does not change the fact that they are convicted criminals

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darla-Anderson/100001694895752 Darla Anderson

        you’re a tool….

  • Steve

    To David B – Not on the subject, but on your choice of words: you used the term “rabbiting.” I know what you mean from context, but I don’t see any definitions or uses of this word (doing a quick Google search) that mean “increasing.” Did you mean to say “racheting” or was this intentional?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darla-Anderson/100001694895752 Darla Anderson

      I took it to mean that they were greatly increasing in number. I do not think that we should describe human beings convicted of offenses as herds or as rabbits/rabbiting, or any other animal. We should remember that they are human beings, that they are made in the image of our Creator, that their lives are precious, that forgiveness is a divine command, and that love covers over a multitude of sins. Further, I would like to take this opportunity to say that many state and federal “crimes” are not considered crimes by Yahuwah Elohim, our Creator.

  • Dboeri

    To Steve
    David B here. Good eyes. No, I didn’t mean “rachet” and yes, I did mean rabbit. In the context of exploding populations (to wit: “they’re multiplying like bunny rabbits), I made a verb out of a metaphor, ie. “to rabbit” as in to multiply quickly, which is what we’ve had with a, get this, 700 percent increase in the population of inmates since 1972. That’s a rate to impress even people who’ve owned rabbits.

  • Nick Knight

    When will the Republicans learn that their Trickle Down has been just as bad a failure, as their prison plan.

    • Johnlaxer

      its not the republicans that are spending all the moneyraising the debt in the US look at the bang up job obamas done yay we got ben-laden that is what democrates like.

      • Nick Knight

        No its GOP wars, and Mega wealthy tax breaks, that are driving up the debt. Save your fairy tales for the Tea Party meeting.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darla-Anderson/100001694895752 Darla Anderson

        Stay on topic, please. We are talking about prison reform, the senseless sentences that low-level offenders are given, smarter agendas that save the taxpayers money and give the offenders a real second chance, while making every effort to keep them united with their families, producing an income, and paying their share of the state’s taxes.

  • Johnlaxer

    i think gays r weird

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darla-Anderson/100001694895752 Darla Anderson

    I like it!! Yay, Madden!! If I was a Texan, I would nominate you Gov’nah!!! I certainly know that anyone I vote for here in Cali better be smart on crime and HUGE on forgiveness and restoration back into their communities. They better know that they are ripping fathers away from their children. They better see prison as the last resort, not the first. They better have a bigger heart than a bank account. I don’t car how large their bank account is, as long as they are not profiting or helping other entities profit from citizens being herded off to prison for a seemingly unending stay or a revolving door agenda.

  • Dave Koch

    Almost all of the data that I have found regarding prisoner recidivism are the statistics pertaining to the failure rate – not to the rate of community reentry success.

    Anyone who has succeeded in almost any productive endeavor knows that you will always get what you focus on.  If you focus on problems, those problems will likely remain unresolved.  However, if you identify problems, formulate solutions and then focus on those solutions, problems and challenges then begin to vanish.  This holds true for individuals who face challenges on both sides of the bars.

    Let me introduce myself.  My name is David Koch, I am an entrepreneur of 56 years located in Columbus, Ohio.  My professional background includes having severed as President, CEO and Chairman with several corporations, I have been distinguished twice on the Inc 500 List of America’s Fastest Growing Companies, Entrepreneur of the Year finalist, Best in Business and a host of other achievements.  I have served as a professional pilot, I hold an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate with type ratings in the Learjet, Cessna Citation Fanjet and Israeli Westwind, and I am fluent in several computer programming languages.

    All of the aforementioned achievements were attained after I was convicted of numerous felonies and served both federal and state time (Circa 1977).  

    I was the President and CEO of Fiber Network Solutions (FiberNet), which I co-founded during 1995.  FiberNet was one of the companies that built the infrastructure of the Internet in North America.  After selling the company during 2003, I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch that discussed the challenges people have with making a successful community reentry post incarceration, or simply dealing with the felony label post conviction.

    Since 2003 I have been speaking in jails and prisons, and at community reentry organizations.  I share the fundamental nuts-and-bolts principles for making a successful long-term community reentry.  I share these principles from the standpoint of someone who has walked the walk for thirty-plus years.

    Over a period of a couple of years, I was encouraged to write a book that included many of the life experiences people can embrace if they choose to transition from a tax consumer to a societal contributor – the critical and intentional conversion from offender to ex-offender.

    Many ex-offender re-entry programs are attempting to facilitate “re-entry” of a person into a culture (the culture of civilized society) that is many times foreign to the culture of the person.  Because of the barriers to re-entry (real or perceived), the person is branded as foreign to the culture into which they are expected to re-enter.    Ex-offenders need to follow a path whereby they become culturally synchronized with mainstream society.

    The book I wrote is deliberately written and titled to appeal to persons who might be members of what you and I could conceive as a nefarious culture.  Fundamental to effecting change in people is appealing to them within the culture that they currently situated, and then providing a path whereby they can become culturally synchronized with mainstream society.

    The book is now in its second edition, and it has become the foundation for the reentry programs at a number of correctional facilities – both male and female.

    Many of the community reentry organizations in the United States seem to be populated by people who were in prison, however very few of those people have actually pursued a livelihood in a mainstream profession, which is what they are expecting from their constituency.  

    There are many books that have been published by people released from prison – suggesting that they know the way to success.  It is problematic for someone to write a “guide to success” when the only thing they did was commit a crime, serve time in prison, walk through the gates when they were released and then write a book.  That demographic never conquered the challenges and achieved any goals or significant events in their lives within the societal structure that all ex-offenders are expected to reenter.  

    Statistically, the national recidivism rate is 68%, depending upon the source of the data.  Nevertheless, this suggests that roughly thirty-two percent of individuals released from prison never recidivate.  Over many decades, this continuing annual percentage has resulted in an enormous number of people.  These people are the authorities on reentry – the people who were released from prison and achieved a life of normalcy, became a professional in one trade or another and genuinely reentered mainstream society.  

    The difference between those who get out and write a book, and those who get out and methodically move forward with their life as a member of mainstream society is profound.

    When I find a reentry program that I see has promise, I offer to donate copies of the book, and to appear for a speaking engagement if it is feasible with my travel schedule.  

    You can review excerpts and testimonials of the book at:


    If you would like a review copy of the book, please let me know.  You may also be interested in a newsletter that I publish, which can be duplicated and redistributed.  It can be downloaded in PDF format at:


    I will be traveling the States of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona throughout the months of February and March, and I will be making myself available for speaking engagements with offenders and ex-offenders, and staff who work with this demographic.  

    Should you find any of the foregoing of interest, please feel free to contact me through the website – http://www.selfreinvention.org.

  • Brett Baylis

    Another reason to live in Texas,besides the busty cowgirls!!!!The elites have,after two generations,realized the futility,if not the moral and human rights failure of mass incarceration.

Most Popular