Texas Closes First Prison Thanks to Falling Crime Rate, Rise in Rehabilitation

In what signals a welcome trend, Texas is closing down its first prison. Not only will the state close down the Central Unit in Sugar Land, but it will also shutter three juvenile detention centers. The reasons have to do with budget cuts, as well as a shift from prosecution to rehabilitation for drug use.

In 2005, Texas began to make changes to its sentencing procedures, shifting money the from tough-on-crime approach to rehabilitation and prevention programs. This slowed the number of incarcerations and led to a 12.8% drop in the number of violent crimes since 2003. Since then, the state has seen its crime rate drop to a 38-year low and has saved $2 billion that would have otherwise been spent on building new prisons.

By closing Central Unit and the juvenile detention centers, Texas has become part of a national trend of prison closure. The Central Unit closure in particular has a special significance. Opened in 1909, it was made famous in the folk song “Midnight Special” sung by inmate Huddy “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Lyrics include “you’d better walk right” or else “Benson Crocker will arrest you, Jimmy Boone will take you down” and “you’re Sugar Land bound.” Since Central Unit’s opening, the surrounding farmland has been replaced by suburban neighborhoods. Since prisons and suburbia don’t mesh, the prison’s days were numbered. Lawmakers finally decided to close it to save $25 million over two years.

It is exciting to see that Texas’s new approach is paying off. A Texas criminal defense attorney knows how frequently clients’ freedom can be taken away based on trivial crimes. The state and federal sentencing guidelines have traditionally been tough on repeat offenders, even for nonviolent crimes. Texas’s juvenile justice system has often served young people poorly, ignoring constitutional protections and punishing them harshly for minor crimes. Furthermore, prison time is hardly the deterrent that many tough-on-crime advocates believe it to be. People who go to prison often become hardened and are highly likely to return to crime once they are released. Meanwhile, prison conditions can be highly dehumanizing. In Brown v. Plata, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of federal judges who found that California’s overcrowded prisons violated the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. These judges had ordered the release of 46,000 inmates. While no one has suggested that Central Unit’s conditions were so brutal, the prison’s age was making it more expensive to maintain. Its 900 inmates have been transferred to other facilities.

There has been so much dismal news about criminal suspects — usually about how their rights have been chipped away little by little. To hear that Texas is making progress by using a less punitive approach is very welcome news indeed. Coupled with the news that states across the country are rethinking their sentencing guidelines, maybe it is finally safe to say that lawmakers are turning away from the tough-on-crime approach for good. That is something that in the long run could benefit Texans and the country as a whole.