Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) chief Brad Livingston described to senators the budget crisis facing Texas' prisons. (Watch the hearing here; Livingston's testimony begins at about about the 2:40 mark.) First and foremost, he said, overincarceration threatens to swamp TDCJ. According to the Legislative Budget Board, Texas will need 11,200 beds by 2011, assuming no policy changes - we'll need 7,400 beds before the end of the next biennial budget cycle.
Livingston said he'd prefer not to build more prisons, but TDCJ's budget request proposes building three new facilities based on LBB's projections. The alternative would be to rent "contract beds" from county jails to house the projected 7,400 increase next biennium (the Texas Legislature meets every two years, thus agencies have a 2-year budget cycle). If those projections changed or if policies change to reduce the number of people entering prison, Livingston would prefer to see the trend going "in the other direction."
TDCJ already will require additional emergency appropriations of $60 million - $30 million each for utility overruns and healthcare costs - before the end of the current budget year. That's just for facilities we've got now. They'll need a lot more than that if the prison system continues to expand.
Demands by the Governor that agencies plan for a 10% budget reduction don't affect prisons, but they do apply to probation and parole. Probation would lose $45 million and parole would lose $20 million under those 10% reductions, Livingston said, boosting caseloads and diminishing access to programming for offenders. Drug treatment would lose $7 million, under that scenario - there is already a 6-12 month waiting list for drug treatment beds to open up. Even sex offender treatment would be cut. Livingston also said that utililties, especially gas and electric, would add $83 million to current projections, and those "administrative" costs could not be diminished by 10% if we plan to keep the prisons running.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire pointed out that 24,000 people last year went to prison for revoked probation, about half of them for technical violations. Whitmire said that if every probation officer revoked one fewer offender to prison per year it would solve Texas' overincarceration problem.
Another challenge to prison building: Even if you build new prisons we can't staff them. TDCJ remains 3,000 prison guards short, and the gaps are being filled through overtime pay. It's becoming increasingly difficult to hire guards, he said, in the Panhandle, in Huntsville and Palestine - there just aren't enough warm bodies willing to take the jobs for the available pay.
Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden was the only member on the dais who seemed interested in more prison building, while Chairman Whitmire stressed repeatedly how the system could be tweaked to avoid new prison construction. Said Ogden:
I appreciate your testimony and options you’ve laid out, and look forward to the discussion. I will just say from the standpoint of someone who’s up for reelection, I’ve never had a constituent approach me and say, “Gee senator we need more people on probation or I wish you would parole more felons. Not a single constituent. They want to be safe and want the criminals off the street. And I’m looking for programs that work. But at least for the people I represent I perceive they are willing to pay in Texas what is necessary to basically fulfill the decisions our judges and juries our making.”Can that be true? Sen. Ogden's NEVER heard from a constituent who supports probation reform? Really? Readers in his district should fix that! It seems unlikely. I know people from his district who visited his Senate office in Austin last year to support stronger probation. Maybe his staff didn't pass along the message. I'll bet you even prison guards in his district don't think prison building is a good idea - they know we don't staff the prisons we've got.
Perhaps it's true that Sen. Ogden's constituents don't care how much he raises their taxes. My guess, though, is that they'd prefer lower taxes to incarcerating ever-more non-violent offenders.