The Washington Post tells the story of how reforms started in Texas seven years ago reversed the explosive growth of the inmate population, which reached 173,000 in 2010. Back in 2006, with a projected growth of 15,000 inmates over six years, State Sen. John Whitmire, House Speaker Tom Craddick, and Rep. Jerry Madden called in Tony Fabelo, a 20-year veteran of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council whose job had been eliminated three years earlier by Gov. Rick Perry. And instead of building new prisons, the men proposed a treatment system. To counter the huge number of former inmates who returned to jail after violating parole, they created hundreds of new beds in programs with names like the In-Prison Therapeutic Treatment and Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities.
Crucially, the reforms gave prosecutors who recommend sentences and the judges who impose them a third option besides prison or parole — and it gave them confidence in the state’s ability to impose those alternative penalties. The number of inmates has dropped from its peak, down to 168,000 in 2013. In 2011, the state legislature voted to close a prison near Houston, the first time Texas had shut down a prison in 166 years. The state's crime rate has fallen dramatically. Even recidivism is down, from 28 percent before the reforms took effect to 22.6 percent, according to the most recent data. Fabelo said it is the combination of multiple reforms, that's created a stable system, an approach that's saved the state an estimated $3 billion to date. “They funded programs rather than prisons,” said Adam Gelb of the Public Safety Performance Project at Pew Charitable Trusts.