In reporting crimes, arrests, trials, convictions and sentencing, questions often surface regarding the difference between prison and state jail.

Prior to 1993, The Texas Department of Corrections faced a multitude of issues related to record overcrowding. So much so, that lawsuits were filed by inmates, inmate family members and yes, even the federal government.

One suit in particular, Ruiz vs Estelle, led to the entire Texas penal system being placed under oversight of the federal courts and ushered in the beginning of a massive prison-building program to alleviate overcrowding and make beds available to inmates of the future.

The Texas penal system changed its name from the Department of Corrections to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reflect the integration of state jails and the pardons and parole division.

In 1993, Texas reformed its sentencing laws to create a new felony classification, called state jail felonies. This classification was intended for low-level drug and property offenders, not violent offenders. So in addition to felonies being classified as first- through third-degree crimes, for which convicted felons were sentenced to terms of over three years in the prison system, the lesser degree felony of state jail felony emerged to house those sentenced to two years or less.

Additionally, state jails are used to house state jail felons and other inmates awaiting transfer to prison.

As a boon to local communities, select state jail confinees and transfer inmates also participate in an average of 175 community service projects across the state, contributing over 70,000 hours of labor each month. No offender is forced to participate.

As community work hours equate to time outside prison walls, there is no shortage of volunteers. I’m told there is a waiting list.

More than half (53 percent) of state jail felons are serving time for possession or delivery of a controlled substance.

Most (85 percent) tend to have prior arrest records.

State jails are geared for rehabilitation. In that sense, offenders are required to attend six hours of programmed activity daily. These facilities offer educational, vocational and substance abuse programs. A rigorous four to six month substance abuse treatment program was created to provide a therapeutic community approach.

State jail felons serving time in state jails serve their sentences day for day without good time or parole.

Those offenders directly sentenced from courts serve an average of one year in state jails and those serving time for revocation of parole or probation serve an average of one year and four months.

There are 18 state jails in Texas, six of which are operated by private enterprises, but all are under the operational control of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. These facilities house more than 10,000 state jail felons and about 15,000 inmates waiting transfer to prison.

Anyone wishing to locate someone incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice can find them listed at TDCJ.com.

John Vander Werff is a 30-year veteran of law enforcement and a Copperas Cove resident.​

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