How Oklahoma Could Follow Texas' Lead In Reducing Prison Population
OKLAHOMA CITY - This week, the director of the state's prison system asked a Senate committee for $800 million for two new prisons.
Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rates in the country. But in Texas things are much different. They're closing prisons, eight of them in the past six years, and two more are expected to be shuttered this year.
The difference is, in Texas, the focus is on rehabilitation and not incarceration.
Doug Smith of Austin had it all planned out.
"I got my Master’s in Social Work in 2000, because I wanted to change the world," said Smith.
But life had other plans. Battling depression and other psychological issues, Smith turned to prescription drugs, alcohol and crack.
"Within about a year and a half of that, I lost my marriage, I'd lost my job, and I committed a robbery out of desperation for more drugs,” said Smith.
He committed three more robberies before he got caught and found himself facing 15 years in prison. But under Texas law, he opted instead to go into treatment; an option Texas offers non-violent offenders under a 2007 criminal justice reform package.
Former Texas State Representative Jerry Madden crafted that legislation.
"We expanded drug treatment in probation and in parole and in the prisons. So that we treated people...I mean it was a silly thing that we didn't treat people with drug problems while they were in prison,” said Madden.
The solution, Madden said, is taking the money that you would have put into building new prisons and instead investing it in treating addiction and mental illness.
"This is what you call justice reinvestment. You get benefits from not sending people to prison and use that money wisely to keep others from coming to prison,” said Madden.
Judge Bobby Frances runs the Drug Court in Dallas, but you won't see him wearing a black robe and pounding a gavel. Instead, he talks with the people who come into his court, like a caring dad.
"Just try to parent them,” said Judge Frances. “Because many of them haven't had parents for most of their lives. We try to parent them for that year to 15 months to try to get them in a position where they can get a job, take care of themselves, take care of their responsibilities, try to be good parents to their children."
That requires more probation officers really keeping close tabs on parolees. It's expensive, but cheaper than incarceration.
"Don't build new prisons they cost too much,” said Madden. "You gotta do one of two things. You either gotta let 'em out. Or you gotta figure out a way to keep them from coming in."
Smith said it works. These days, instead of serving time, Smith is serving his community.
"I have a good job where I'm part of the solution again,” said Smith. "I serve in my church. But even more importantly, I get to be a father to my daughter."