Prison populations in Texas — and the rest of the country— dropped slightly last year.
Counting all prisoners under the legal authority of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state's prison population fell by more than 2,200 inmates, or 1.3 percent, between 2013 and 2014, according to new data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The decline was slightly larger than the national drop of one percent.
When 2014 ended, 166,043 prisoners were in TDCJ custody, the lowest number since 2002. It was the state's fourth largest annual decline in more than 35 years. (The largest drop came in 2012, when the population fell by nearly 6,000 prisoners from 2011.)
The small downward shift continues a trend that began in 2010, when the number of men and women held in Texas prisons peaked at 173,649. Doug Smith, a policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the 1.3 percent change is significant.
“There’s nothing normal about decreases in prison populations in Texas,” Smith said.
Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s law school and an attorney who has worked with criminal justice policy for decades, pointed to a “very concerted effort” by the Texas legislature to get the number down.
That included a series of diversionary treatment programs, drug courts and halfway houses launched in 2007, after lawmakers balked at spending $500 million to build and staff another 17,000 prison beds to accommodate rising populations.
Still, Texas remains the state with the largest prison population, and the fourth-highest rate of incarceration in the country — for every 100,000 adult Texans, 792 are in prison — behind Louisiana, Oklahoma and Alabama.
“Is it going down fast enough or far enough? Not at all,” Deitch said. “But we’re no longer on that same growth curve. You’ve got to see the bigger picture here.”