In its legislative appropriations request for fiscal year 2008-2009, the Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) called for the biggest expansion in prison building in over two decades. Whether legislators have the political will to commit to spending at least $520 million on construction is another matter.Whaddya know, they're singing my song! (Two minor corrections: California's prison system actually has slightly more prisoners than Texas, though fewer per capita, and Texas' last major prison expansion occurred in the early '90s on Ann Richards' watch.) For those who haven't waded through all Grits' writing on strengthening the probation system, the article supplied a good description of proposed legislative changes to probation to keep from building more prisons.
TDJC’s plan envisions three new prisons and 5,080 new beds, 500 of them for a DWI treatment center. The plan also recommends 850 beds for special drug treatment prisons, substance-abuse treatment centers for parole-ready inmates, halfway houses, and community-based treatment programs for minor offenders.
So far, legislative response has been lukewarm at best. Texas is already home to the largest prison system in the country. Building more prisons seems an unlikely option given the state’s current fiscal situation. With an expected tight budget next year and a projected $20+ billion shortfall in the out years, there won’t be much wiggle room in the budget.
Rep. Jerry Madden (R-Richardson) and Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) have vowed to reintroduce legislation next year that would reform the state’s probation system. According to TDCJ, Texas’ probation term is 67 percent longer than the national average. Madden and Whitmire would shorten minimum probation terms for nonviolent felons from 10 years to five while also expanding community supervision and treatment programs. A similar bill the duo passed last year was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. Madden and Whitmire hope next year will be the charm.Word is getting out.
According to the Legislative Budget Board (LBB), probation revocations are a significant driver of the increase in the prison population, accounting for 30 percent of prison admissions annually. In 2004, according to Whitmire, more prison sentences resulted from probation revocation than from direct sentencing by the courts. In fact, more than half of the 26,239 felony probationers were sent to prison due to technical violations such as failure to keep appointments with probation officers or to perform court-mandated community service.
“We do make it, in many instances, impossible for a probationer to succeed,” said Whitmire at a recent public policy forum at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. ...
Changing probation terms for low-risk individuals from 10 years to five would reduce probation officers’ caseloads and allow for increased supervision of those who really need it, argue Madden and Whitmire. Judges would also have more discretion as to extending probation terms beyond five years.