Marc Mauer: The TT Interview

The national criminal justice expert on how other states have handled controversial prison closings and reduced criminal justice costs and how the Right On Crime Movement might give lawmakers the political freedom to be more than tough when it comes to crime.

 Justin Dehn

States across the nation are beginning to look to Texas for the first time in decades as an example of how to reduce crime, cut prison populations and spend less money. At the same time, some of the very programs that have changed the state's "tough on crime" reputation are at risk as budgeteers take a machete to the biennial budget, which is some $15 billion to $27 billion short.

Texas lawmakers are considering cutting education, treatment and rehabilitation programs that have helped to keep prisoners who leave the system out in the free world longer. They're pondering drastic cuts to community-based mental health and substance abuse programs that help keep people who are ill and/or addicts functioning in society. On top of those cuts, lawmakers are also considering closing some prison facilities for the first time in the state's history.

The Tribune sat down recently with national criminal justice expert Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based reform advocacy group The Sentencing Project, to get his advice about how Texas can continue on its so-called "right on crime" path even as lawmakers slice millions from the state budget. Mauer, who was in Austin for the Barbara Jordan Symposium at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, talked about how other states have handled controversial prison closings and reduced criminal justice costs and how the Right On Crime Movement — with support from conservative leaders like Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich — might give lawmakers the political freedom to be more than tough when it comes to crime.

An edited video and a transcript of the interview follow.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

TT: What are other states with budget woes doing to control criminal justice costs? 

Mauer: A number of states are implementing so-called back-end responses, basically moving up parole eligibility dates by 60 or 90 days, things like that. Kentucky has been doing that the last couple of years, and basically the idea there is rather than have someone spend three years in prison, if they spend two years, nine months in prison and then are paroled, you save that three months' worth of incarceration costs. And, realistically, some people are going to make it and some people are not going to make it, and that extra three months is not going to be what makes the difference. So a number of states are looking at that. I think it’s a relatively short-term solution to these problems, but nonetheless it does result in some downsizing.

A number of states are looking at dealing with the issue of parole revocation. What doesn’t get a lot of attention is that an increasing source of growth in the prison system over the last 20 years has been people out in the community, out on parole. States like Kansas, Michigan and others are now saying we need to give some oversight to the parole officers in how they handle those situations, and we also need to develop a system of graduated sanctions, where the first response is not necessarily to send somebody back for two years. But how do we have tighter supervision, deal with some of the underlying problems so that we have sort of a step-ladder before someone is sent back to prison and try to deal with revocations that way. And we’ve seen impressive results in some of these states by making more options available, by having oversight. It can really make a difference in how many people are admitted to prison.

TT: What are some budget-cutting pitfalls Texas should avoid?

Mauer: It’s common to say that it costs something like $25,000 a year to keep someone locked up in prison. But if you let one person out of prison, you don’t necessarily save $25,000 because of the fixed costs of running a prison. If you have a 500-person prison and now you have 499, you still have the same number of guards, the same number of administrators, the same number of health care workers and all that. So it’s not until you close a whole prison or a whole wing of a prison before you save any substantial amounts of money. And a number of states have been reducing populations but have found a lot of resistance from prison towns across the country, often in rural areas, that don’t want their prison closed. They’ve come to depend on it as a source of employment. So it’s a difficult problem. But if policymakers want to save money, they have to figure out how they’re going to handle that problem.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The second problem potentially in the budget cuts is that many executives are now looking at saving money on prison costs sometimes by letting people out of prison earlier than they might have otherwise gone out, but without increasing services and supervision on the outside. So, if you take a person who’s been locked up for a few years, had poor connections to the world of work before he or she went into prison, difficulty finding housing, unless they have some good support on the outside, their chances of making it are not great.

So if we cut drug treatment programs and employment assistance and other services like that, it’s a real risk of becoming a revolving door. We seem to save money at first by releasing people from prison, but so many people are going to fail it’s not going to get us very far. So what we need to do, I think, is to take some of those savings and target that to community services and community supervision to increase the odds that people who are released can remain safely in the community, can get reconnected to the community. That’s the way to really save money in the long run.

TT: How have other states coped with the controversy of shutting prisons?

Mauer: In the 1980s and '90s there had been a massive prison building program in small-town, rural, upstate New York. Many of those small towns had come to believe that building a prison was their only hope at economic salvation essentially. The research around the country on rural prisons is actually not very encouraging. Towns that build prisons for a whole variety reason actually don’t necessarily improve their per-capita income and reduce unemployment compared to other alternatives they might have chosen. Nonetheless, once they’ve got a prison there and they’ve got however many employees working there, they’re very reluctant, very resistant to letting that go. And they often have a lot political clout in state legislatures. So it’s with a lot of push and pull that the governor of New York is starting to close some juvenile institutions and some adult institutions.

I think the real challenge in some ways is pitting low-income communities in urban areas against low-income communities in rural areas. The bulk of the prisoners are coming from urban areas in disadvantaged communities and now they’re going to upstate, rural prisons that are disadvantaged also. So we really need to look at what forms of economic development would be appropriate in both of those communities both to prevent crime in the first place, to create opportunity and not to make a community dependent on a prison as a means of economic development.

TT: How do cuts in other areas of the budget affect prisons?

Mauer: Criminal justice is sort of the end of the line basically. After a whole set of social institutions in far too many cases have sort of failed to provide opportunity, failed to deal with problematic behavior, as well as individuals making bad choices, then the criminal justice system comes into play.
The war on drugs is approaching it by and large as a criminal justice problem rather than one that should involve prevention and treatment. Now, there are significant initiatives in prevention and treatment. But they’re very limited compared to the scope of the problem. And it’s much more expensive to deal with the problem as a criminal justice problem. You’ve got the cost of police, courts and corrections that kick in then. It’s extremely expensive to deal with it that way.

As we see some of these kind of programs, treatment programs, prevention programs being cut, it just sort of exacerbates that whole problem. It sort of forces more of the problem to be dealt with down the road as a criminal justice problem.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

TT: What are your thoughts about the national “right on crime” movement?

Mauer: Its most important contribution may be the symbolic affect that it has on the political environment. It’s not that we have such a shortage of ideas about how to approach public safety in better ways. We could always use more ideas, but there’s been a lot of people looking at these things for a long time. I think in many cases we know how we could be doing things better. The problem has really become a political one. Far too many political leaders of both parties are very nervous, very scared that if they’re somehow portrayed as being soft on crime — whatever that might mean — they’re political career is going to be in jeopardy.

And so what we need to do I think is to give political leadership a sense of comfort that they can do the right thing and at the same time not suffer any political consequences for doing so. So the right on crime movement by having very high-profile, very conservative leadership as its public face helps to send the message that yes, you can be conservative, you can be concerned about cost-effective approaches to public policy. And if you are concerned about those things then actually doing public safety in a different way, dealing with mass incarceration, looking at community building, looking at different approaches to how we get at problems of substance abuse and other kinds of crime actually makes sense.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.