Texas' state jails were the first and largest system of state-run lockups in the nation targeted to use intensive rehabilitation to steer burglars, petty thieves, and low-level drug offenders away from becoming hardened felons in prison and living a life of crime. It hasn’t turned out that way, says the Austin American-Statesman. Gradually, the programs were downsized, and many newly classified “fourth-degree” felons were diverted to other community-based programs and specialty courts. Today, the 20 state jails have a higher recidivism rate than state prisons: 33 percent of jail felons are convicted of new crimes, compared with 26 percent of regular prisoners. The jails have fewer treatment and rehabilitation programs than many regular prisons — the opposite of the original goals. As they have almost since the start, the lockups hold more “regular prison” felons than state jail felons.
“You might ask yourself why we still need them,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, who adds, "I don’t think we ought to do away with state jails, but I don’t think it’s practical to go back to the original concept, either. A lot has changed in our criminal justice system since 1995 — not the least of which is that we’ve recognized the importance of treatment programs for our regular inmates. That’s been very successful.” Legislative leaders are debating a makeover for the state jails to get what was once a national model for correctional programs back on track. Some proposals likely to be considered during the upcoming legislative session include requiring all state jail felons to be sentenced first to community supervision rather than incarceration; restarting intensive drug- and alcohol-treatment programs; and instituting post-release aftercare and supervision programs, including parole.