Texas operates the largest criminal justice system in the world. One in 22 people are under some form of felony supervision and each of them will retain a felony conviction on their record making it difficult for them to transition back to their communities. Felons are regularly barred from employment, housing, and accessing necessary social services. In addition, they are often politically and socially disenfranchised and their voice is collectively left out of the political discussion.
The number of people affected by the criminal justice system in Texas is staggering; the prison population alone is roughly 155,000 people. This does not include the half million other individuals who are currently under community supervision either through parole or probation. Each of these individuals will face numerous difficulties in returning to society due to their felony records that will limit their ability to get jobs, secure housing, or take part in the political process.
Since the 1980s, Texas has increased its prison beds five-fold and filled them to capacity. Much of the prison expansion is due to increasing prison and probation sentences, as well as to an increase in the number of felonies – now topping 2,300 – mandated by state law. Our massive prison system consumes over $6 billion dollars every biennium, representing a significant portion of the general revenue in the state budget.
Of the 155,000 Texans currently in prison, approximately 45% are serving time for a nonviolent offense, many of whom are incarcerated for a drug offense including possession of trace amounts of drugs. Race figures heavily in the prosecution of drug offenses in our state. Each year, approximately 70% of the Texans who are sent to prison for drug offenses are African American, while national studies continue to affirm that whites use and sell drugs in the same proportion.