Conservative Republican tells Mass. to get smart on corrections
Jerry Madden couldn’t help but acknowledge the oddity of the situation. A conservative Republican who serves as House chairman of the Texas Legislature’s Committee on Corrections, Madden was the featured speaker on Wednesday morning at the annual fundraising breakfast for Roca, a Chelsea nonprofit that works with high-risk young people who have been involved in the criminal justice system or who are in danger of ending up there.
What’s more, he was there to tell a room filled with lots of liberal Massachusetts do-gooders that, when it comes to criminal justice corrections policy, they should take a page from Texas. “I’ve got the really hard job,” Madden told those gathered in the ballroom of the Seaport Hotel in Boston. “I’m the Texas legislator that’s here to tell Massachusetts you ought to do what Texas did.”
But Madden wasn’t selling a Texas-made get-tough approach to criminal justice. On the contrary, he has led the Lone Star State on a reform effort that has put a lid on its once burgeoning prison population and is diverting low-level, nonviolent offenders to community-based substance abuse treatment and other services aimed at keeping them out of jail and on to a more productive path. “Smart on crime” has replaced “tough on crime” as the operating credo in Texas and a number of other states – many of them in the heart of the conservative South.
If the aversion to new prisons seems like an unlikely stance for Texas Republicans to adopt, reining in state spending is perfectly in sync with the fiscal conservatism and limited government Madden’s party believes in, and that has been the lead card played in the reform efforts. It wasn’t just the millions in prison construction costs that Texas leaders wanted to save. The state was on a trajectory to incarcerate more than 17,000 additional prisoners within five years, at $20,000 per inmate annually.
Instead, the state pumped more than $200 million into substance abuse treatment and other services to treat low-level, nonviolent offenders in the community – and keep them out of costly jail cells. As CommonWealth reported earlier this year, early signs in Texas are encouraging, with recidivism down 22 percent.
Madden is an engineer by training, and he said an analytical, data-driven view is what’s needed in corrections policy. “It’s not personal, it’s facts,” he said at the Roca breakfast. “The proper utilization of facts leads to truth. You have to figure out how to keep people out of prison who don’t need to be there. It’s a message that’s going on in a lot of states,” he said of the rethinking Texas has done.
Rethinking corrections in Massachusetts, however, is proving to be hard for state leaders to figure out. Legislators are currently at loggerheads over two different versions of a crime bill. Both branches agree on stiffer sentences for three-time repeat violent offenders but the Senate version also includes loosening of sentences for some nonviolent offenses.With a reputation as one of the country’s ultra-blue liberal states – and with complete one-party Democratic rule over state government – Massachusetts is, ironically, a laggard, not a leader, when it comes to corrections reform. State leaders are petrified of making any move that might be tagged as “soft on crime.” Meanwhile, what’s happening nationally is a classic Nixon-goes-to-China role reversal, in which the states that will never be accused of coddling criminals are the ones out in front on what seem like sensible, cost-saving changes.
Madden’s Austin-to-Boston message to Bay State leaders: It’s time to play catch up.