Monday, October 16, 2006

Sunset Commission: Prison Boom Leaves Texas At 'Crossroads'

A 500% increase in Texas' incarcerated population in recent years has led the state to a crisis point, said TDCJ's Sunset report confirming some of Grits' past analysis. “We can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem,” said Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Executive Director Ana YaƱez Correa in a press release today responding to the report. “It’s time for a change in direction.”

"TDJC’s Sunset Report recognized what many of us have said for so long,” said Correa, “the state’s criminal justice efforts may not deter recidivism unless offender rehabilitation needs are properly met.”

Grits has described before the massive bout of prison building in Texas in the last couple of decades, but here's the exact stat from the report: "Between 1980 and 2002, the State increased TDCJ’s total capacity by 127,000 beds." That's an amazing figure - it means Texas' prison system expanded five-fold in the last 25 years. As a result, says the Sunset Commission:
The State’s criminal justice system is at a crossroads. After the huge building cycle just more than 10 years ago that tripled the size of the prison system to more than 154,000 beds, the State can expect the prison population to exceed capacity by more than 11,000 beds in less than five years under current conditions and projections.

To house and deal with these offenders, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is requesting funding from the Legislature both to build new prisons and to expand rehabilitation and diversion programs with the hope of reducing future incarcerations. The Legislature will need to decide how far in either direction it wishes to go.
Three new prisons built with bonds, says the report, would cost taxpayers 711.5 million total to build and $72 million more annually to operate, for a total of $2.151 billion over 20 years. Private prisons might be part of that equation; I was unaware that "TDCJ’s LAR anticipates that the State would operate two of the three new prisons and contract with a private vendor for the third." But that's more expensive than if the state runs the facility ourselves, plus private prisons have their own public safety problems. Indeed, as I've said before, even if Texas builds new prisons, it cannot staff them. We're nearly 3,000 guards short right now, and will be unlikely to find enough guards to staff new prisons. Reports the Sunset Commission:
Recruiting, hiring, and retaining enough employees to run several new prisons will be difficult for TDCJ. Currently, TDCJ faces significant staffing shortages at many prisons. In July 2006, the TDCJ officer shortage was 2,746 officers, down from a high of 3,406 in October 2001. TDCJ’s LAR anticipates that the State would operate two of the three new prisons and contract with a private vendor for the third. If the State runs two of the three new prisons, it will have to hire an additional 1,050 employees. Since TDCJ cannot fill existing vacancies, the agency would likely have difficulty filling newly created positions.
For you fiscal hawks, the Sunset Commission offered this sage advice. Increasing funds for rehabilitation programs and community supervision is cheaper than incarceration and more effective at preventing future crime:
Reducing recidivism through treatment and supervision is highly cost effective for the State. Programs to reduce recidivism keep people out of prison, reducing the need for new prisons, while also protecting the public by reducing crime. They also help offenders become contributing members to society, maintaining jobs and paying obligations such as taxes, restitution, and child support. Community based treatment, particularly treatment in response to parole or probation violations, can allow offenders to learn skills while remaining out of prison, at considerably lower costs than if they were incarcerated.
“The report concludes that building prisons without investing in treatment programs is not the most cost-effective or sustainable solution to prison population growth,” said Correa. “That’s exactly right. We have to change our priorities if our goal is to reduce crime.”

Correa said the Sunset review process provides a much-needed opportunity to re-evaluate Texas' misplaced criminal justice priorities. “The Sunset Commission looked closely to see what works and doesn’t work,” she said, “and they said we need greater spending emphasis on rehabilitation programs and stronger supervision of more serious offenders on probation and parole.”

“We want to thank the Sunset Commission staff for their hard work on this report,” said Correa. “They obviously worked hard to identify options for legislators who may not support endless prison building. Now it’s up to the Legislature to decide what to do.”

Suggestions by the Sunset Commission must be approved by legislators, but they've provided the state's decisionmakers with a clear-eyed view of the problem before them, and suggested some viable solutions. Maybe this report will change the mind of those, like the the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who think Texas can afford ever-more prison building.

See the staff report (pdf) from the Texas Sunset Commission on the Department of Criminal Justice. See also the agency's self-evaluation (pdf).


800 pound gorilla said...

Yeah, but it makes ya feel soooo good lockin' up the baddies! You don't wanna be "soft on crime" do ya? Besides, if ya lissen to the GOP, taxpayers don't fund prisons cuz when they talk about cutting gubmint, they never mention prisons or the military. Clap if you believe in the prison spending fairy! Clap again if you believe in the military spending fairy! I'm certain that is in the background at GOP national conventions before the news media flashes to a whole bunch of Republicans in a standing ovation.

Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting to see this covered in the MSM. Glad you're on it.