Texas State Jail Felony System Needs to be Revised

Criminal defendants in Texas are often sentenced to the state jail system if the crime is possession of cocaine, heroin, or more than 4 oz. of marijuana as well as numerous other low level felonies. The Texas State Jail Felony System was established in 1993.

Purpose of The State Jail Felony System

According to the Criminal Justice Policy Council, Texas reformed its sentencing laws in 1993 to more effectively deal with low-level drug and property offenders. As a result, a system of state jail facilities was created to house and incarcerate people convicted of non-violent crimes. The goal was to separate these offenders from the general prison population, rehabilitate them and reduce the chances that they would return to the system.

Though advocates tout the success of state jails, critics have begun to question the effectiveness of this program. Recently, some lawmakers have suggested that the system needs an overhaul and are searching for alternatives.

Higher Recidivism Rates for State Jail Offenders

In a report in the American Statesman, House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, notes that the recidivism rates for state jail offenders are higher than those for regular prisons. According to McReynolds, state jail inmates who leave without any supervision will reoffend at a rate of 34 percent, compared to those in regular prisons who revisit the system at a rate of 28 percent. He cites this as evidence that the state jail model may have outlived its usefulness.

Supporters of the system, however, note that state jails were designed to house and treat offenders, with the emphasis being on rehabilitation. They argue that funding for the rehabilitative aspects of the state jail facilities has been repeatedly cut over the years, undercutting the purpose and effectiveness of the program.

Lawmakers Consider Reforming State Jail System

McReynolds is discussing the idea of changing the model with local prosecutors and members of his committee. He suggests that a system similar to Intermediate Sanction Facilities may be the better approach.

According to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, an Intermediate Sanction Facility (ISF), "is intended to afford a sanction for an offender who fails to comply with the terms and conditions of release to parole or mandatory supervision."

The goal of an ISF is to both punish the offender for violating the terms of his or her release and to rehabilitate. Low risk offenders who have no current charges pending are typically housed in ISFs for anywhere from 60 to 180 days.

Defendants Often Prefer to Be Sentenced as a Third Degree Felon Rather Than a State Jail Felony

Defendants sentenced to a state jail facility are usually confined to a facility that only holds other state jail inmates. This has some advantages and many disadvantages.

Many criminal defendants prefer to be incarcerated as a third degree felon rather than as a state jail felony. Defendant's often calculate their likely period of incarceration and come to the conclusion that they will do less time as a third degree felony than as a state jail felony. This is because a state jail felony will require that a defendant serve all of his time, with no time off for good behavior, while a third degree felony sentence may only require that a fraction of the sentence be served.

State jail felony inmates do not have an incentive to comply with orders or to take part in rehabilitative or educational courses. This is because they will have to serve their entire sentence without any chance for early parole even if they are model prisoners. Inmates sentenced to felonies other than state jail felonies have incentives to behave and take educational as well as rehabilitative courses because they will likely be paroled early after only serving a fraction of their sentence if they are model prisoners.

This disparity in the availability of parole, where state jail inmates cannot be paroled early, results in an atmosphere at the state jail facility where there is no reason to behave. Therefore, fights as well as other aggressive behaviors occur too often; while in the general prison system, the aggressive behavior may be minimized by the hope of an early release.

The lack of early parole makes the current Texas State Jail Felony System more dangerous and less rehabilitative than necessary.