ANGRY over not getting an $8 discount on a marijuana purchase, a parolee with five previous felony convictions started a fire in an apartment building that killed two people and left more than 80 homeless.
Another man, sentenced to 12 years in prison for robbery and sexual assault, was released in less than four because of credit for good behavior. Months later, he raped and
murdered a kindergarten teacher.
All-too-common cases like these from Texas have citizens wondering why the criminal-justice system puts dangerous convicts back on the street after they have served but a fraction of their sentences.
The answer is supply and demand: too many criminals, too few prison beds. Texas is tackling the problem from both ends, with the most ambitious prison-building program in United States history and, what may prove more significant, by addressing the drug and alcohol addictions that play a role in most crimes.
As the Texas crime rate has risen, so has the state's incarceration rate.
There were 128 jail inmates per 100,000 Texas citizens in 1970. The rate rose to 210 a decade later, and reached 297 last year. If you take into account the backlog of convicts stranded in county jails awaiting prison space, 1992's rate per 100,000 soars to 408 - more than triple the level of two decades past.
Fed-up citizens have clamored for tougher punishment, and the courts have responded. Between 1985 and 1991, the median prison sentence lengthened by 20 percent. In 1991, ironically, the median time served in prison for all offenses was only 13 percent of the sentence handed down, a dizzying drop from 33 percent just six years earlier.
Violent offenders had 4.2 months chopped from their median stay, serving only 26 percent of their sentences. Those convicted of property crimes spent 3.5 fewer months behind bars, serving 12 percent of their sentences. Drug offenders were released 1.2 months earlier, after clocking just 11 percent of their sentence.
Lack of space is the reason. Every day in Texas, 185 criminals are sentenced to a prison system that can only accommodate 125 per day. Since 1985 the state has simply not transferred excess prisoners from the county jails where they are being held. Today the backlog of prisoners stands at 22,100 - to the displeasure of
counties who have to bear the cost of incarcerating them.
The state parole board makes way for new offenders by turning loose floods of prison inmates. The number of paroles rose 226 percent between 1985 and 1991. Last April, the board was reviewing almost 20,000 prison inmates - twice the usual caseload - for possible parole in order to ease crowding.
But it's a revolving door: The number of parole violators rose 715 percent between 1980 and 1990. Three out of four people entering Texas prisons are probation or parole violators. Four of 10 offenders who are released will be back behind bars within three years.
Critics say that the state is freeing people who are more dangerous than the ones locked up. Last March, Texas Gov. Ann Richards created the Governor's Fugitive Squad to track down Texas's Ten Most Wanted - composed exclusively of parolees wanted for new crimes.
Sentencing laws have been toughened. Starting in September, those convicted of violent crimes must serve 50 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole, up from 25 percent. And violent criminals are no longer eligible for mandatory release, under which good behavior earns several days' credit for each day served.
An obvious remedy to releasing violent criminals because of prison overcrowding is to build more prisons. Texas is doing so: 13,400 new beds in 1987 at a cost of $302 million; 15,600 beds in 1989, for $438 million; 25,300 beds in 1990, costing $643 million; and 33,000 more beds authorized by the legislature this year for $581 million.
Today, Texas prisons house 60,205 inmates. In three years the system will be able to hold more than 130,000. Some 22,000 of them will be in less-expensive, less-secure "state jails." This new kind of facility will contain fourth-class felons, a newly created category of nonviolent offenders serving two years or less without possibility of early release. The aim is to make room in more secure prisons for truly dangerous criminals.
Despite all the construction, eliminating early release is not an option. To do so would require an additional 184,000 beds costing $5.5 billion to build and $3.3 billion a year to operate. As it is, the state is spending $3 billion on public safety and corrections in the current two-year budget, an amount that will rise 36 percent - more than any other item - in the next budget period.
State leaders realized several years ago that Texas could not build itself out of the prison crunch. So they are also attacking the problem by addressing a major cause of crime: drug abuse, including alcohol.
It's about time, says Robb Southerland, president of the Crime Prevention Institute. "Why isn't the Texas prison system accountable to the taxpayer?" he asks. "Failure in the criminal-justice system is breaking us."
Mr. Southerland says that addiction affects 4 out of 5 criminals, of whom 65 percent will become repeat offenders. "The symptom is, a guy sticks a gun in your back so he can get money for drugs," he says. End that dependence, and the criminal behavior will end as well, he maintains.
Southerland had served for five years on the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse when Governor Richards was elected in 1990. "She brought with her to the governor's office this priority: With as many addicts as we've got in the criminal-justice system... we're going to treat them." Richards, Southerland, and Lieutenant Governor Bullock, old friends who all call themselves recovering alcoholics, understood from personal experience that addiction can be controlled.
FTER Richards took office, solid data became available that showed how prevalent drug and alcohol abuse was among Texas convicts, and how negligibly prison restricted their access to such drugs.
Texas lawmakers decided in 1991 to dedicate 2,000 new prison beds to addiction-treatment programs for current inmates, and 12,000 beds for nonviolent new offenders.
"The feeling is that this is the way to go," says Tony Fabelo, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Council, an independent research agency. The council is monitoring the results of the program and will present an evaluation to the Texas Legislature in 1995, Dr. Fabelo says.
Texas prison officials initially were dubious about "coddling" criminals, so in January 1992, Richards took a group to visit New York's Arthur Kill facility. Since 1978, an in-prison treatment program there called Stay-N-Out has reduced prison recidivism (returned convicts) to 1 in 5.
In May 1992 the New Vision Chemical Dependency Treatment Facility in Kyle, Texas, opened its doors exclusively to substance-addicted inmates who are within a year of parole eligibility. With 500 beds, the Kyle unit is now the world's largest in-prison therapeutic community. It offers 12-step programs to fight addiction (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous), plus education and life-skills training.
"If we're successful with half of them - with a third of them - this will more than pay for itself," says John Bonner, the warden at Kyle. Granted, the program is new, but the program's success rate so far is encouraging: Only 1 ex-convict in 10 has gone back to jail.
At $44 per inmate per day, the program is also less expensive than a typical prison stay, where the cost is $50 per day. "Disciplinary problems drop to nothing, as do grievances, conflicts, and sick calls," Mr. Bonner says, and that saves money.
Between reform school and prison, Gene Hackett has basically been locked up since he was 10. It was in prison that he first met his father, who managed to have his son transferred from another prison to share a cell with him. Hackett's last visit to the free world lasted only three days before he was rearrested for attempted murder.
"I sniffed everything you can think of," Hackett says, referring to drug "highs" from inhaling glue and other fumes. But in the New Vision program, "I've made more progress than I've ever made in my life."
"To arrive is not important. What's important is to travel in the right direction," he says. Now 33, Hackett has trained to become a drug-abuse counselor upon his release.
Richard Cain has spent 25 of his 38 years in disciplinary institutions for such crimes as aggravated robbery. Since he turned 17, he has been free for only six months.
His mother, Cain says, was a prostitute and drug addict. "We used to visit my father in prison," he says. "My cousins and uncles were in prison. I was a criminal before I ever heard of drugs and alcohol. We didn't come out of a middle-class neighborhood."
At Darrington, his previous prison, Cain kept busy dealing alcohol and other drugs 18 hours a day. "We'd just rock and roll," he says of those days. He transferred to Kyle, not for the program, but for the air conditioning and what he thought would be an easier life than working cattle and picking cotton, potatoes, and watermelons at Darrington.
"They don't work us like dogs here," Cain says, yet he fought to be transferred back to Darrington. Typical of new arrivals, he denied his addiction and resisted treatment. Gradually, New Vision has transformed Cain. He has completed the program, as well as training to become a substance-abuse counselor. ("Who better to work with us than us?" he says.)
"In a lot of ways I've lost what made me `me' by coming here," Cain says. "I hated myself. I loved everybody that hated me the way I hated me, because that made me right."
"I like myself a lot better," he adds. "I'm not who I hope to be, but I've learned there is a road and I'm on it." Asked about the difference between his previous prison experience and here, he says
"In prison, they kick us out the door. Here, they're not abandoning us. I guess that's a weird way to look at it." Kyle's ex-convicts can call a toll-free number if they need help, for instance.
Ron Ferguson heads the education program at the Kyle Unit. "A lot of our residents are frozen in time," he says. They have the education and attitudes of six-year-olds. "We believe that reading is a key to life's successes." Inmates work on obtaining a high-school equivalency degree.
Robert Shearer, who teaches a graduate course on in-prison rehabilitation programs at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, warns that corrections history is full of "less than authentic programs" deprived of money and competent staff. But he says program like New Vision will work "if we maintain our integrity."