Texas lawmakers met Wednesday for 10 hours to discuss criminal justice reform in the Texas House Committee on Corrections hearing. One main focus of discussion was the state jail system – and if it’s working the way it’s intended.
Dallas Morning News reporter Lauren McGaughy says the state jail system is different than county jails that people are more familiar with. These jails were created in the mid-1990s to house those convicted of lower-level, non-violent crimes like vehicle theft and non-violent drug offenses. McGaughy says the state jail system was meant to deter people from committing such crimes, but it hasn’t been very successful. Today, there’s about 7,000 people in state jails.
“The lawmakers have known for a while that [the state jails] are not really doing what they were meant to be doing, which was discouraging people from committing these same kinds of non-violent crimes again,” McGaughy says. “People are kind of going through a revolving door of sorts, in and out of these state jails, which means they’re not getting any better, and crime in that arena might not be dropping.”
The meeting also focused on whether to air condition facilities in the criminal justice system. Texas has fought installing air conditioning, claiming retrofitting one facility in Navasota – the Wallace Pack Unit – would cost $20 million. After settling a class-action lawsuit with prison inmates earlier this year, the state will provide air conditioning at that facility. It’s also lowered its cost estimate for installing air conditioning in that facility to $4 million.
“That is a dramatic reestimation of how much it’s actually going to cost,” McGaughy says.
The committee says it also plans to spend $2 million to add air conditioning to another unit that houses inmates who live with developmental disabilities, McGaughy says.
Looking ahead to the legislative session next spring, McGaughy says criminal justice will likely be a more important issue than usual because of the recent air conditioning lawsuit and because the various state prison and jail facilities have asked for more than $100 million for much-needed maintenance.
“They’re making it very clear that if we don’t do something about these very core issues, these problems now, it’s going to become a public safety problem,” she says.
Written by Caroline Covington.