By BILL HAMMOND
Since the beginning of 2013, the Texas Association of Business has been involved in the movement to reform our criminal justice system. Some might wonder why the business community cares about this issue.
There are three main reasons.
We spend somewhere between $2.5 and $3 billion a year incarcerating more people than any other state. Almost 140,000 people are in Texas prisons, another 11,000 are in state jails. That doesn’t count the 1 million admissions to county jail every year. In excess of 45 percent of those who are in prison are there for a non-violent and non-sexual offense. That population of non-violent offenders costs taxpayers $3.4 million per day. Since the business community collectively pays the majority of taxes, business owners will certainly pay attention to a big ticket item like this one.
Secondly, business owners are Texas residents too, and they care about public safety. They care particularly about being able to operate businesses in communities that are safe and secure.
The third reason is the availability of workers. Our emphasis at TAB is ensuring that, when appropriate, judges consider probation first for non-violent offenders, especially first-time non-violent offenders.
Probation offers a cost effective solution, $3 per day versus around $50 per day for incarceration. It also allows someone to continue working, paying bills, taxes, keeping up with child support and maintaining other financial and personal commitments.
Probation is not a walk in the park; in fact some people choose a short time in jail rather than probation because it is a long-term commitment under strict supervision. People on probation are subject to random drug testing, strict reporting requirements to a probation officer and the prospect of going to prison if they violate the terms of their probation.
This issue boils down to separating those we are mad at from those we are afraid of. Those whom we are afraid of, violent offenders, should be sent to prison and removed from society for a long time. We have always supported that. Those we are mad at, non-violent offenders, should be given the chance at probation first.
For some crimes, we advocate that if offenders are successful at completing their probation that they should have the opportunity to have their record wiped clean. Many times an offense that most would consider a youthful indiscretion or a simple mistake would render an individual unable to get numerous jobs or obtain a commercial driver license.
We should reform the parole system as well. A bus ticket and $50 isn’t the answer. We know now that the chances of someone who is released from prison re-offending and being sent back there are pretty high. We must do a better job reintegrating parolees into society and making them productive.
The biggest challenge for parolees is finding a place to live, because few will rent to them. We favor limiting landlords’ liability for simply having rented an apartment to parolees, with some exceptions. This would not include people who have been paroled for violent crimes and sexual offenses.
We feel people who have made a mistake, served their time and are truly repentant should be given the chance to have a meaningful life. That mistake should not forever limit their chances to make a living, support their family, stay off government assistance, do good work, pay taxes and make a positive difference.
By Bill Hammond is president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business.