I chose the title for this blog post for one very specific reason; most Texans I have known over the years are very proud to be from Texas, or at least proud that they “got here as fast as they could”, as the t-shirts and bumper stickers proclaim. Accordingly, all of the proud Texans out there need to honestly ask themselves the question asked by the title of this post.
There is a simple reason I believe we all must ask the above question, including every single voter, every politician, every judge, every prosecutor, every probation officer, and even every single police officer who is out there looking to make another arrest and put another person in jail or prison…..
Either we have one of the very worst, evil, and depraved populations on the planet, living right here in the Lone Star State, or, we have perhaps the most punitive combination of laws, courts, DAs, and prison systems in the entire world. I’m sure you can guess which of the two explanations seems more likely to me.
Yesterday’s post at the blog Grits For Breakfast helps to illuminate just how out of whack Texas’ criminal justice system really is. The Grits post references a study done by The Prison Policy Institute that demonstrates how, if Texas were a nation, it would have the world’s fifth highest percentage of its citizens behind bars. Moreover, the only four places that outpace Texas in imprisonment are not other countries around the globe. Instead, they are our neighbors. We need only look eastward, to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia, or to the north, towards Oklahoma. However, since Texas is a pretty big state, with approximately 30 million inhabitants, our prison population is, according to The Prison Policy Institute, bigger than the prison population of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Oklahoma combined.
The introduction to the chart at The Prison Policy Institute, depicting the results of the study, pretty much sums up the logical conclusion of the study:
“The state of Louisiana is often called out for having the highest incarceration rate in the world. But in the global context, how far behind are the other 49 states, really? This report finds that the disturbing answer is “Not very far.”
What was so shocking to me wasn’t that Texas is among the most punitive places around. After all, the “tough on crime” politicians, district attorneys, and judges (all of whom are elected in political elections) love to show the voting public how much they will make those god-awful lawbreakers suffer, when given the chance. Instead, what really stunned me about the study was the difference in the incarceration rates between the United States and the rest of the world. It’s jaw dropping, considering how so many of the people in our country like to believe in the moral superiority of the United States.
Here’s a link to the chart:
As a Texas parole attorney, I’ve now met and interviewed close to one thousand inmates in the Texas prison system. All were convicted of felonies under Texas law. One of the first things that I was really surprised to find when I first began interviewing inmates years ago was that most of the people I interviewed just seemed like pretty normal people who had made some bad choices, or in some cases, really bad choices. True, some of these people and some of their bad choices had to be punished, no question about it. Other situations honestly did not seem like situations where punishment of any sort seemed logical or appropriate. Or, in those cases where some kind of penalty was appropriate, many of these cases called for simple fines or documented warnings.
Perhaps we need to re-think many of our basic definitions of what crime really is and how it ought to be punished. Perhaps it is even more important that we stop ignoring that the politicians, prosecutors, and judges have such sweeping punishment powers. It does not seem, unfortunately, that getting elected in popular elections mixes very well with insightful, informed leadership on how best to deal with improper behavior. Being seen as “soft on crime” is a political risk no intelligent politician, including the politicians on the judicial benches of Texas, will ever take.
If no meaningful reforms are justified, as many claim, and people are going to continue believing that our current criminal justice system is fair, then one of the following two conclusions must be true;
1) According to data taken from around the planet, Texans are, on average, more awful, more savage, more dangerous, more dishonest, etc. etc. than just about anywhere else.
2) Texas (and too many other places in the “Land of the Free”) treats other people more awfully than just about anywhere else.