Author critiques Texas justice system

Lauren Giudice

Since the 1960s, Texas’ criminal justice system has become a blueprint for other states’ prison reform efforts — a trend that author Robert Perkinson said leaves the public no safer and wastes its money.

Perkinson, an American studies professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, discussed his new book “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire” on Monday in the Sheffield Room at the UT School of Law.

“Right now, Texas could be having a positive effect,” Perkinson said. “Right now, we spend way too much money on locking people up. We do a lot of harm with all of that money we spend to communities and to the people themselves, and we don’t actually enhance public safety very much by doing it.”

Northern states focus on prisoner rehabilitation, while Southern prisoners face a more control-oriented model in a harsher environment.

“From the 19th to the 20th century, progressives and penologists [prison management experts] alike believed, during all of this long period, that plantation punishment was destined for the junk heap of history — that Southern penalty would evolve and that the South would become like the North,” he said.

Instead, Northern states have adopted many prison practices in the South, including cutting rehabilitation services specifically for juveniles and women. Historic ties to African-American slavery and plantation work also informed the ways in which Southern prisons operate.

“People thought black prisoners cannot be reached through educational programs,” he said. “They must be physically punished and work on plantations.”

Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said Perkinson’s work is one of the most important contemporary books on prison reform issues in the United States.

“He is writing about a national issue that is directly relevant to Texas,” said Deitch, who also teaches at the law school. “He’s arguing that Texas’ approach to running its prisons over the last century-and-a-half has kind of set the tone for running incarceration for the rest of the country.”

As a criminal defense attorney in Travis County, Stefanie Collins said Perkinson’s research is consistent with the cycle of incarceration she sees at work, with petty and nonviolent offenses often resulting in jail time.

“Once you’re in that system, you face other burdens on the other side of it that make it so much more likely that you are going to go back,” Collins said. “That also leads to an increase overall in how many people we have locked up here.”