The criminal justice system in Texas could not have grown at such a tremendous rate in the 1990s without significant public support. Voters represent a powerful force that shapes the criminal justice system. Many Texans celebrate the state's reputation for being tough on criminals. This cultural trait combined with increasing popular concern with crime during the 1990s to create powerful political momentum. Candidates for public office - especially sheriffs, district attorneys and judges - ignored "law and order" at their own political peril in the face of public concerns with crime and punishment.
The 2000 Texas Crime Poll, an annual public opinion poll of Texans' attitudes toward crime and the state justice system, showed that by 1994, crime was identified by a significant plurality of respondents (35 percent) as the single, most important problem in the state. Drugs - the illegal use of controlled substances - placed second on the list (cited by 17 percent of those polled). Taken together, these two issues, both crime related, were identified by a majority of respondents as the most important issues in the state.
This was also the period of fastest growth of the Texas prison system. By 2000, education had become the most important issue for the most people. Meanwhile, the number of people most concerned with crime and drugs dropped considerably.
The billions of dollars that Texas has devoted to its prison system during the 1990s (over $2.3 billion alone for prison construction between 1988 and 1997, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice) represent a huge expenditure. These are funds that elected representatives in the Legislature in Austin and in city halls and on county commissions throughout the state have chosen not to spend on other programs.