Read more of an extended Q&A with John Whitmire and Jerry Madden.
It was a large funding request but not an unusual one, at least not for Texas. Over the course of the previous decade, Texas had more than doubled the number of people behind bars, increasing its inmate population from roughly 64,000 in 1993 to 154,000 in 2007. Now the Texas Department of Criminal Justice wanted the state Legislature to provide $523 million in additional funding for three new prisons, which would allow the prison population to grow to more than 168,000 by 2012.
The department had good reasons to expect a positive response. The chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, John Whitmire, was a conservative Democrat from Houston and the author of Texas' famously tough penal code. His counterpart in the House was a conservative Republican from Plano, Jerry Madden. Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst were on board.
But instead of OK'ing the request, Whitmire and Madden did something unexpected. They teamed up to convince the Legislature, governor and lieutenant governor to spend $241 million on treatment, mental health and rehabilitation instead. Three years later, the state that once put the "t" in tough is widely seen as a model of corrections reform.
Whitmire and Madden's emergence as corrections reformers is the story of an unusual partnership between two very different men. Whitmire is one of the Legislature's most colorful members. Being with him "is like being with a hurricane," says Tony Fabelo, research director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center and a self-professed friend. Hyperactive, brilliant and fun, Whitmire was first elected to the House in 1972. But in the winter of 1992, the legislator once known as "Boogie" had an experience that set him on a different path: Pulling into his garage one evening, Whitmire, his wife and their 9-year-old daughter were accosted by a masked gunman. "I literally begged him not to shoot me," recalls Whitmire.
The gunman left, but the experience left Whitmire badly shaken. The following year, Whitmire led a successful effort to revamp Texas' penal code and corrections system. At the time, Texas had 60,000 inmates in the state prison system and another 24,000 inmates locked away in overcrowded county jails. Whitmire's legislation created a network of state jails to relieve the overcrowding, provide resources for rehabilitation and establish some of the toughest penalties for violent crime in the nation. While the measure relieved the overcrowding, it also doubled the state's prison population.
Madden's path to corrections reform was more indirect. In 2005, House Speaker Tom Craddick made Madden chairman of the House Corrections Committee and gave him an order-no more costly new prisons. Being the engineer that he was, Madden began to look into the system. He and his staff also started talking with Whitmire, who by 2005 was dean of the Legislature. The two men identified numerous initiatives supported by both liberals and conservatives, including more resources for rehabilitation and more secure beds for treatment. They believed that these initiatives would hold the prison population steady, improve outcomes and save Texas $2 billion over the course of five years. More remarkable still, the two men teamed up to sell the Legislature, governor and lieutenant governor on their plan.
Three years later, Texas' prison population has declined rather than risen by 15,000 inmates as projected, and probation recidivism has fallen by nearly one-quarter. It's not surprising that states such as Ohio and South Carolina are beginning to follow Texas' example. In a bitterly partisan environment, corrections reform, done Texas-style, may be the one sweeping reform lawmakers from both parties can agree on.
"This is not a Republican or Democratic issue," Madden says. "It's about what's smart for Texas."
— John Buntin
Photos by Darren Carroll