By Justin Wingerter
Jerry Madden, a conservative Texas House member, was called into the office of another conservative Texas House member, Speaker Tom Craddick, one day in 2005.
Craddick told Madden that despite his lack of experience with criminal justice matters — Madden is an engineer by trade — he would be the next House corrections chairman. When Madden asked what he should do as chairman, he was given an eight-word directive that changed Texas and made criminal justice reform a conservative issue.
“Don’t build new prisons, they cost too much,” Craddick told him.
It was both a simple statement of fact and a radical departure from Texas’ notorious lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach. From 1989 to 1996, the state built $2 billion in prisons to house 103,000 new inmates. In 1994 and 1995, when 75 new prisons were built nationwide, 43 of those were in Texas. No state personified America’s tough-on-crime 1990s better than this one.
By 2007, however, the state had reached a tipping point. Facing the fiscally untenable prospect of building three new prisons, it chose another course.
Eight prison facilities have been closed in the past seven years. Crime rates have dropped to a 50-year low. Criminal justice reform, long considered a liberal issue, became bipartisan, then conservative. All the while, Texas was creating a political playbook for other unsparing Republican states that face prison overcrowding, Oklahoma included.