AUSTIN, Texas -- The people of Texas should be gearing up to pitch a fit come January.

They want us to pay for more prisons. MORE prisons. We just finished the biggest prison-spending spree in history. Starting in 1991, we spent billions to more than double the number of beds in the system. They promised us that we wouldn't have to build another prison for at least a generation. And now they want more.

And there's one other point. This. Is. Not. Working.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that Texas has more of its people imprisoned than any other state -- 163,190. That's more than California, which has 13 million more people than Texas does.

The study, released this week by the Justice Policy Institute, not only finds Texas with the highest incarceration rate in the country -- it also finds the incarceration rate among young African-American men 63 percent higher than the national average. Nearly one out of three young black men is under some form of criminal justice control in Texas.

BUT -- our crime rate has NOT dropped proportionately to crime in other states that did not expand their prisons and that incarcerate far fewer people.

We're spending more money, imposing far harsher punishment and getting worse results. This. Is. Not. Working.

The Justice Policy Institute says Texas has led the nation since 1990 with an annual average prison growth rate of 11.8 percent at a time when crimes in all categories are going down. Nearly one in five new prisoners (18 percent) added to the nation's prisons were in Texas.

No one comes remotely close to our record on the death penalty -- 227 dead so far since 1982 -- more than the total of the next five death-penalty states combined. If this were working, Texas would have the lowest crime rate in the nation.

"As of the end of the year 1999, there were 706,600 Texans in prison, jail, parole or on probation, five percent of all adult Texans, one out of 20 are under some form of criminal justice supervision," says the Institute report. "The scale of what is happening in Texas is so huge, it is difficult to contrast the size of its criminal justice system to the other states it dwarfs. There are more Texans under criminal justice control than the entire populations of some states, including Vermont, Wyoming and Alaska."

The majority of Texas prisoners are serving sentences for non-violent offenses. They never hurt anyone. "Just by itself, Texas' non-violent prison population is the second-largest prison population in the country, after California," according to the report called "Texas Tough."

Our prison population has tripled since 1990, rising more than 60 percent in the past five years. Between 1995 and 1998, the percentage drop in the overall number of index crimes in Texas was half the percentage drop in the number of index crimes nationally, and the lowest of the five largest states. The Texas crime rate also had a slightly lower percentage decline than the national average and was again the lowest of the five largest states.

"Texas Tough" compares Texas to New York because the state's populations are relatively well-matched. While Texas had the fastest-growing prison system in the '90s, New York had the third slowest-growing prisoner population. Through the decade, Texas added five times as many prisoners as New York -- more than New York's entire prison population. Since 1995, the percentage decline in overall crime in New York was four times greater than the drop in Texas, and New York's crime rate dropped twice as much as Texas'.

This is a question of where the state is going to put its resources. We know what conditions produce crime. Texas has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the country -- we could put some money there.

Steve J. Martin, former general counsel for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and probably our most respected prison expert (author of "Texas Prisons: The Walls Came Tumbling Down"), uses even more telling statistics. There are twice as many blacks in Texas prisons as are enrolled in our public universities. In contrast, the ratio for Anglos is five university students for every prisoner.

Suppose we just set as a goal to reverse the statistic for blacks. Because unless we start spending smarter, this is going to get nothing but worse. Columnist William Raspberry, writing about this same study, said: "Too-quick reliance on incarceration not only turns out to be bad criminal justice policy, but it also has a devastating impact on minority communities, exacerbating the very problems -- of poverty, rage, joblessness, family breakdown and societal disaffection -- that produce a lot of the crime to begin with."

The single greatest predictor of who will wind up in prison is whether his father was in prison. We will have to trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.