By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist
Texas doesn’t need more prisons or jails. In fact, as a recent article by Mike Ward in the Austin American Statesman and the Abilene Reporter News points out, an increasing number of Texas towns and counties have found out that building them is, to put it mildly, economically risky. The takeaway is clear … Texans don’t need any more “jails to nowhere”.
Crime rates are down, cost effective alternatives to incarceration are up, and the “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice is finally starting to be seen as the failure we have long known it to be. Evidence based programs, which – by the way – happen to be much less expensive than incarceration, coupled with government budget cuts have started to get lawmakers thinking that incarceration isn’t always the best solution.
Unfortunately, a number of Texas counties and towns (the article points to Anson, Littlefield, and Angelina, Newton, Dickens and Falls Counties as a few examples) were sold on the idea that mass incarceration was in Texas to stay. According to the article, most of the privately operated county jails sit less than half full, and guess who is left holding the bill? (Hint – it is not the for-profit prison company). In Falls County, officials are scrambling to fill beds in a county-built private prison after the private company announced it was pulling out.
This is just wrong. Nobody should be “scrambling” to find prisoners to fill beds. Imprisoning people should never be a business choice, but only a choice driven by public safety. This is just another example why the for-profit prison model does not work.
The take home message: investing in prisons is a poor investment. In regard to the counties and towns that are currently struggling with the high cost of empty prison beds, Representative Jerry Madden said it’s sad to say, but they made a business choice, and they’re going to have to live with it at some point. Other localities in Texas should be fairly warned and not head down that path – both to protect their economic interest, and for the sake of bringing the discussion back to one of public safety for all, not private profit for a few.