LINCOLN — Texas has a reputation as bad news for criminals.
It executes more inmates than any other state and has a prison system that rivals the U.S. government's in size.
Then there are those square-jawed state detectives, the Texas Rangers.
But in recent years, the Lone Star State has been changing its image from tough on crime to smart on crime, offering possible lessons for Nebraska as it grapples with overflowing prisons.
Facing the need to build eight or nine new prisons, Texas decided to invest in alternatives instead of new jail cells.
The result: The state has saved $1.5 billion in construction costs and $340 million in annual expenses. Instead of building new prisons, Texas has been able to close three facilities because it has stemmed the inflow of inmates.
With Nebraska prisons overflowing at nearly 151 percent overcrowding, state officials here are looking at places such as Texas and at least 16 other states that have embarked on “judicial reinvestment” programs that have cut costs, reduced the number of reoffenders and improved public safety.
It's a movement that is fueled as much by liberal-leaning groups as tough-on-crime conservatives, who have realized that longer prison sentences don't always translate into safer streets.
“This is the heart of conservatism. It's basically saying 'Don't go out and spend all that money putting people in prison that don't need to be there,' ” said Jerry Madden, a former Texas state representative who helped lead the overhaul effort.
State officials in Nebraska are taking notice, even though some recent efforts to develop alternatives to incarceration were not funded.
State Corrections Director Bob Houston, developing a new long-range plan for the state prison system, is looking at programs in other states to relieve overcrowding.
Houston also is exploring more immediate solutions to ease the glut of prisoners, including housing state inmates in county jails.
State prisons, as of a week ago, housed 4,779 inmates — 1,604 more than design capacity.
Meanwhile, there appears to be available space in county jails. The average daily population in county jails across Nebraska in 2012 was nearly 1,000 below capacity, according to recent state figures.
Two state senators say they are looking at an array of options in a corrections system that has lots of moving parts.
The options include putting more nonviolent drug offenders on probation and in intensely supervised programs such as drug courts, which are designed to end a dependency on drugs that fuels criminal behavior.
Lawmakers also are looking at steps to avoid probation violations that send inmates back behind bars and better prepare inmates for their return to society.
“Right now we're looking at successful models at other states and trying to educate legislators,” said State Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “If we don't come up with something, the only other option is to build a state prison, which is something no one wants to do.”
That committee, in 2010, rejected a proposal to spend $7 million immediately and $3 million annually to hire additional probation officers and launch seven new “reporting centers” where nonviolent offenders on probation go for counseling and treatment.
Mello and Sen. Brad Ashford, the head of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers weren't focused on the overcrowding issue in 2010 because it hadn't reached a crisis level.
The lawmakers emphasized that violent criminals will continue to be locked up behind bars under the changes being explored. But, they said, other states have shown that nonviolent offenders can be treated without going to prison while reducing repeat offenses and cutting crime rates.
In Texas, an analysis of stepping up supervision of inmates on parole showed that despite an increase in parolees, the number of new crimes committed by them declined 8.5 percent from 2007 to 2010. That meant fewer were headed back to prison for parole violations.
“What we want to do is reduce the need for prisons and keep the public safe,” Ashford said, “and I think we can do both.”
So what all did Texas do?
Starting in 2007, before the Great Recession hit, the state hired more probation officers so they could more closely monitor inmates and supervise fewer. Funding for drug courts was raised to handle more convicted drug users.
Electronic monitoring of inmates via the Global Positioning System was expanded. A greater emphasis was placed on mental-health and addiction counseling. Judges got greater leeway to sentence criminals to alternatives to prison.
And when parolees or people on probation violated one of their conditions of release, they weren't automatically sent back to prison. They were sanctioned in other ways to stem overcrowding and keep them on a path toward rehabilitation and eventual release.
It cost Texas $200 million upfront to finance the prison alternatives, but that paled in comparison with the projected $2 billion cost of building and operating new prisons, said Vikrant Reddy, a policy analyst with the Texas Center for Effective Justice, which runs the Right on Crime project.
The crime rate in the Lone Star State continued to drop, despite the decreased emphasis on prison, Reddy said.
“It's pretty clear these things don't harm public safety,” he said.
Reddy was among the researchers hired by the Omaha-based Platte Institute, which put out a report a year ago, “Controlling Costs and Protecting Public Safety in the Cornhusker State.”
The report concluded that “a truly 'conservative' set of policies” would seek a criminal justice system that reduces repeat crimes and enhances public safety, not just one that is “large and expensive.”
Madden, the former Texas lawmaker, said increasing spending on probation and parole paid off.
“They just said 'Send us more money and we'll keep people out of prison,' ” he said. “It was just smarter criminal justice.”
So if the solutions to relieving prison overcrowding and reducing corrections spending are out there, why hasn't Nebraska jumped on them?
Besides money, focus has been an issue.
Juvenile justice change was the higher corrections priority in recent years. The Legislature this year voted to spend an additional $14.5 million and shift another $40 million toward rehabilitation instead of incarceration of troubled juveniles.
Ashford said now it's time to look at adult offenders. He added that the additional treatment services being developed for juveniles can be utilized by young adults.
Ellen Brokofsky, the state's probation administrator, said more “boots on the ground” would translate into the ability to handle more inmates on probation.
The ideal probation officer-to-offender ratio for the most high-risk cases should be 1-to-20, but Brokofsky said the ratios in the Omaha area run 1-to-50 or higher.
The state already has alternatives to prison, she said, but they are filled to capacity and would require more probation officers and treatment options. At $7 a day for such alternatives, compared with 10 times that for a prison stay, the added expense is worth it, Brokofsky said.
“Those people who are dangerous need go to prison and don't need to come out,” she said. “But those people with addictions, and those able to change, we can treat and manage in the community.
“We know that treatment, even coerced treatment, works. We know that,” Brokofsky said.
Nebraska has had some high-profile failures of prisoners on work release or parole in recent weeks. One work-release inmate was driving a van that struck and killed a Lincoln woman, and a pair of inmates (one on work release, one on parole) were arrested for robbing a Beatrice bank.
Brokofsky said assessment tools are getting better to predict who might reoffend.
Madden, the former Texas lawmaker, said there will be some high-profile failures because not all of them can be predicted or prevented, but states need to stay the course on smarter corrections programs. Adopting strategies to reduce prison overcrowding and providing alternatives to prison will be one of the top issues of the 2014 legislative session in Nebraska, predicted Ashford and Mello, who said proposals are already being drafted.
“Medication, education and incarceration are the three biggest drivers in the state budget,” Mello said. “It's going to be a very, very busy four months.”