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Texas Takes California Title as State With the Most Behind Bars

Prisons: Under Gov. Bush, parole policies have tightened while the inmate population has soared. Tough rules strain system but are seen as smart politics.


AUSTIN, Texas — Under Gov. George W. Bush, the Texas prison system has now surpassed California's to become the nation's largest, a milestone reached in large part through his administration's denial of parole to the vast majority of eligible inmates.

This parole crackdown and the accompanying explosion of the prison population are causing a host of problems, but supporters and detractors alike agree that the policies of Bush's handpicked parole board are popular--and smart politics.

Bush, of all people, knows what one parolee gone bad can do to a political career. His father bludgeoned rival presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 with the infamous reference to Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a Maryland woman and assaulted her boyfriend while on furlough from a prison in Massachusetts, where Dukakis was governor.

Clamping down on parole is a national trend, but, as with many criminal justice issues, Texas stands at the continuum's furthest end. It has the nation's busiest execution chamber and its prison sentences are among the nation's longest. Its rate of incarceration is second only to that of Louisiana. And the odds of getting approved for parole are close to the country's longest.

"The reason our prison system is so large is, first, our recidivism rate," said Gerald Garrett, chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. "But secondly, people in Texas like to lock up fellow Texans, and for a long time."

But even the official who supervises Texas' tightfisted parole system says the Bush-era crackdown has further strained the state's corrections system. Texas now faces tough choices on building new lockups and better handling nonviolent offenders, Garrett said.

Because Bush was the first Texas governor to win back-to-back terms, he also is the first to have a parole board consisting wholly of his appointees. His 18-member board has rejected parole requests from more than three-fourths of eligible inmates.

Texas paroled an average of 22% of eligible inmates in the 1999 budget year. That number slowly has inched upward in recent months; about a quarter of parole applicants were approved last month. Most other states have a parole rate of between 40% and 60%, said Jim Austin, a George Washington University criminalist hired by the state to update its guidelines for returning inmates to society.

In 1998, two-thirds of inmates entering the Texas prison system had violated the terms of their parole or probation. But only about half of them had committed new crimes. The rest were imprisoned again for technical violations, such as missing meetings with parole officers, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that advocates alternatives to prison.

At the same time, the Texas prison population has climbed to 163,190. California, which for years had the nation's largest prison system, houses 163,067 inmates, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. California has nearly twice as many residents as Texas.

Guards' Pay Among Nation's Lowest

Though they agree that Texas' get-tough parole system has been popular, critics call it a time bomb of restive inmates, big spending and chronic staff shortages. The state has found it increasingly difficult to recruit and keep guards because Texas now ranks 46th in what it pays its correctional officers.

The pressures have heightened since Bush, in one of his first acts as governor, signed a bill eliminating mandatory release laws. Those allowed automatic parole for inmates who had served a certain portion of their terms and had accumulated credit for good behavior. Since 1996, however, good behavior guarantees only a parole board review after a portion of a sentence is served.

Garrett said that change, along with tougher sentencing laws during Bush's tenure, not only are helping fill the prisons but also are discouraging good behavior behind bars.

"You get people who know that it's going to be 20 years before they're even considered for parole--for 10 years, they're going to be pretty surly," he said.

Prison administrators also complain that cutting good behavior incentives has robbed them of a key management tool at a time when Texas prisons are desperately struggling to find more than 2,000 new guards. The overall crackdown has helped foment security problems, including several riots, increased assaults upon guards and at least two prison breakouts that have been linked to staffing problems, said Houston attorney Bill Habern, a specialist in parole and post-conviction issues. In 1999, there were 2,044 reported inmate attacks on correctional officers nationwide, compared with 153 a decade ago, according to state corrections officials.

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