Skip navigation

PLN gets mention in article on Texas prison population trends, March 1, 2016.

Prison Population Trends in Texas Since 1994

By Tanya Bricking Leach   |   Tuesday, 01 Mar 2016 08:23 PM

The prison population in Texas has been on a downward trend in recent years. But the Lone Star State continues to lead the nation with the largest state prison population. The 109-facility Texas prison system had an estimated 150,400 prisoners in November 2014, down from 156,500 in 2011, according to Prison Legal News.

Being Texas big is a dubious distinction, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told reporters in 2012. "It's disappointing that so many human beings have done something to get themselves locked up," he told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "All of them are somebody's son, brother, daughter, mother, father. We run a sound system, and if we're the largest, it's probably nothing to feel good about."

The prison population trend is down from the boom days of the 1990s and 2000s, "when the war on drugs was in full swing and crime rates were high," The Washington Post noted. The Texas prison population grew from about 50,000 in 1990 to a peak of 173,000 in 2010, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records. That was a 346 percent increase. During that time, the nation's prison population doubled, to 1.5 million.

Since the peak, prison population numbers in Texas dropped low enough for the state legislature to vote in 2011 to close a prison in Sugar Land, near Houston. This is the first time Texas had shut down a prison in 166 years, the Post said.

Texas credits diversion programs, ranging from halfway houses to specialty courts, for contributing to the decline in its prison population. Those programs helped with cases involving mentally ill people and drunken drivers and kept them out of prison, Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2012.

At the time, lawmakers were still proud of the state's tough-on-crime reputation. "Texas has a well-deserved reputation of being tough on crime," State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, told the Star-Telegram. "It isn't a bad or good thing if we're incarcerating the right people. It's a statistic I've dealt with for a long time."

However, Texas, and the country as a whole, have yet to figure out how to make things run even more smoothly, those watching the prison system say. "The prison population is determined by two things: How many people go in the front door, and how long they stay," Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, told The Washington Post in 2014. "I think we need to be asking ourselves why we still feel this pull toward incredibly long sentences."