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As Texas's Prison Population Experiences Five-Fold Growth Since 1980, Urban Centers Contend with Influx of Former Inmates

Document date: March 19, 2004
Released online: March 19, 2004

Contact: Stu Kantor, (202) 261-5283, skantor@ui.urban.org
Latricia Good, (202) 261-5709, lgood@ui.urban.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 19, 2004—The Texas correctional system released 55,183 inmates from its prisons and felony jails in 2001, five times the 10,636 men and women who returned to society in 1980, according to a new analysis from the nonpartisan Urban Institute. Nearly six in ten went to just five counties: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, and Travis. Harris County, home to Houston, took in one-fourth of the former prisoners.

Texas accounted for one in nine state prisoners released throughout the United States in 2001. The state's increase in exiting prisoners parallels the five-fold jump in its prison population, which climbed from 28,543 in 1980 to 152,577 in 2001, largely as a result of longer prison stays and more admissions. In 2002, 53 percent of all Texas admissions were because of parole and felony probation revocations. By the end of 2002, Texas held the second highest state prison population in the nation and the third highest incarceration rate.

"More prisoners nationwide are returning home having spent longer terms behind bars, exacerbating the already significant challenges of finding employment, managing health and substance abuse problems, and reconnecting with family," Urban Institute senior fellow Jeremy Travis, a coauthor of the study, points out. "In Texas that challenge is greater, since prisoners there spend 37 percent more time behind bars than their counterparts around the country."

Jamie Watson, Amy L. Solomon, and Nancy G. La Vigne cowrote "A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Texas" with Travis. Their study examines the policy context surrounding reentry, the characteristics and geographic distribution of returning prisoners, how prisoners are prepared for reentry, the process by which they are released, how they are supervised once released, and the social and economic climates of the neighborhoods that house the most returning prisoners. Data came from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, Criminal Justice Policy Council, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Department of Public Safety, Houston Police Department, and Houston's Planning and Development Department.

A Profile of Returning Prisoners

Of the 55,183 prisoners released from Texas Department of Criminal Justice custody in 2001:

  • 84 percent were male; 18 percent were married.
  • 44 percent were non-Hispanic blacks, 32 percent were non-Hispanic whites, and 24 percent were Hispanics.
  • The median age at release was 34, and 70 percent were under 40. The youngest prisoner was 17 years old and the oldest was 97.
  • 39 percent had been incarcerated for drug offenses, 33 percent for property crimes, 17 percent for violent offenses, and 11 percent for other infractions, including driving-while-intoxicated and weapons offenses.
  • The average prisoner served 3.3 years in state correctional facilities.
  • 60 percent were released through nondiscretionary means, such as the end of a court-ordered sentence; nearly all the rest were released through the approval of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
  • 59 percent were subject to parole supervision or felony probation supervision after release and had to abide by such conditions as having a job or participating in drug or alcohol treatment.

Where Do They Go?

Immediately following release, the vast majority (99 percent) went to a Texas community, with 58 percent returning to five of 254 counties. None of the remaining 249 counties received more than 2 percent of the returning prisoners.

Twenty-six percent returned to Harris County, which includes Houston. Fifteen percent went to Dallas County, which encompasses the city of Dallas. Eight percent headed to Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, and 6 percent returned to Bexar County, which includes San Antonio. Travis County, which includes Austin, received 4 percent.

Of the 23,177 prisoners released to community-based parole or mandatory supervision, the largest share (23 percent) returned to Houston. Within the city, 26 percent returned to just seven neighborhoods facing high levels of poverty, crime, and joblessness: Alief, East Houston, East Little York/Homestead, Kashmere Gardens, Trinity/Houston Gardens, Third Ward, and MacGregor. Each neighborhood received between 196 and 538 supervised prisoners, more than many entire Texas counties.

Adding to the challenges faced by these neighborhoods, the researchers observe, few programs designed to aid ex-prisoners with employment, housing, substance abuse treatment, and other services are located in or around most of the areas.

"A well-designed reentry system," says Jamie Watson, the study's lead author, "can make neighborhoods safer, slow the revolving door leading back to prison, control corrections spending, and help prisoners secure a place in the community. In the end, everyone wins: returning prisoners, their families, and their neighbors."

The "Returning Home" Initiative

"A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Texas" is part of a larger Urban Institute initiative entitled "Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry." The initiative is documenting the critical stages of reintegration into society; the role of life events, family support, community context, and state sentencing and release policies; and what steps can lead to successful post-prison adjustment and lower recidivism. Additional Texas research will be published in 2005. Similar research is being conducted in Ohio and Illinois. Maryland served as the project's pilot study site.

"A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Texas," by Jamie Watson, Amy L. Solomon, Nancy G. La Vigne, and Jeremy Travis with Meagan Funches and Barbara Parthasarathy, was prepared under grants from the JEHT Foundation and the Houston Endowment. It is available at http://urban.org/url.cfm?ID=410972. Ohio, Maryland, and Illinois portraits can be found, respectively, at http://urban.org/url.cfm?ID=410891, http://urban.org/url.cfm?ID=410655, and http://urban.org/url.cfm?ID=410662.

These studies are part of the Urban Institute's ongoing research on crime and justice issues. For more on this subject, go to http://urban.org/r/crime.cfm.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice

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