The SA Express News reports today that the Texas prison system is full as of June 30. But Governor Rick Perry's veto of HB 2193, which would have strengthened Texas' probation system, ensures the prison system will exceed capacity indefinitely into the future. Recent growth in the size of Texas' prison system has been staggering, and increasingly costly:
A quarter-century ago, Texas prisons could accommodate fewer than 27,000 inmates.
Today, with room for more than 155,000 inmates, the Texas prison system is, by design, the nation's largest. California prisons house more inmates — nearly 164,000 at last count — but they were intended for half that number.
Texas prison administrators dislike exceeding 97.5 percent of their available capacity — about 151,400 inmates — for safety reasons. As of June 30, Texas prisons housed 151,553.
The next day, the state began moving 600 inmates to rented space in the Bowie and Jefferson county jails. ...
Prison building, too, is a costly endeavor. A new 2,250-bed unit with a building for administrative-segregation offenders would cost just under $200 million, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
After a prison is built, each inmate it houses costs the state more than $14,600 annually.
"The state can't afford a prison," [Houston state Senator John] Whitmire said, "and I don't think we need it for public-safety purposes."
He's right -- we don't need more prisons for public safety purposes. Governor Perry's veto, however, could make greater prison spending necessary for purely political purposes. Pandering to a few extremist prosecutors (just a handful of district attorneys, mostly from rural counties, opposed the bill), Governor Perry's decision to keep our weak probation system ensures prisons will continue to fill up.
If nothing else, proposals to strengthen probation this spring expanded the terms of debate in Texas leadership circles about what priorities should govern the criminal justice system. For the first time in my memory, prominent lawmakers now openly discuss whether society can incarcerate its way out of its problems:
[L]awmakers are looking for other ways to ease prison crowding. [House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry] Madden wondered whether there's room for change in the state's criminal code.With nearly 2,000 different activities labeled felonies on the books today in Texas, Madden's certainly right that many punishments just don't fit the crime. What an amazing turn of events, though, to have a Republican committee chairman making the arguments. It's a tribute to how egregiously broken the current system has become that conservative leaders would take such a stance. It's about time. It's also particularly gratifying to know there are Texas legislators who care more about responsibly governing the state than making politicized "tough on crime" pronouncements.
Each legislative session, there's a flurry of bills seeking to establish new crimes or stiffen penalties for existing ones. The state has outlawed dozens of activities in the past decade, including installing a tracking device on someone else's car, soliciting a child to join a street gang and filing a false missing-person report.
"Some of the stuff that we criminalize, maybe we shouldn't," said Madden, R-Richardson, although he is not yet targeting any specific offense.
At the end of the day, responsibility for Texas' overincarceration crisis rests squarely with the Governor. In addition to vetoing stronger probation, Perry also line-item vetoed part of the money designated for leasing space from county jails. Given current trends, Texas may not have until the 80th Legislature begins in 2007 to resolve its overincarceration crisis before running out of money.