Lt. Governor David Dewhurst says he thinks Texas needs to build more prisons because of "population growth." It sounds to me like he's been listening to Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who is the only person I've heard spouting such foolishness.
I would have thought it a little early for Gov. Dewhurst to make such pronouncements. His Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire and House Corrections Chair Jerry Madden haven't even revealed the details of their alternative yet (that's coming next week at a Jan. 30 hearing).
In the meantime, though, let's debunk this absurd notion right now that Texas needs more prison beds because of "population growth." The argument that prison building hasn't kept up with the population is only justified if you accept the most short-sighted possible analysis. Here's a quick comparison I compiled of Texas prison and population growth rates over the last century:
|Year||Prison Pop||% Change||Texas Pop (in millions)||% Change|
Sources: Prison stats from Handbook of Texas and Texas Politics, except 1985 (letter) and 2004 (LBB report). TX population stats from the Texas State Library.
So yes, over the last five years or so Texas prison growth hasn't kept up with that of the entire population. But let's not kid ourselves: Texas would have PLENTY of prison capacity if population growth were the issue. Indeed, if Governor Perry hadn't vetoed SB 2193, which received broad bipartisan support in the Senate in 2005, Texas wouldn't be renting extra prison beds right now. (UPDATE: See this post summarizing table results.)
It's fine to have a debate about whether more prisons should be built, and it's certainly true that the Legislative Budget Board has projected that current policies would require more prison building. But let's not pretend current policies are Texas' only option. Besides, Texas can't find enough prison guards to staff current prisons. If we're 3,000 guards short now, how are we going to hire enough guards for three more maximum security units? Bottom line, we can't.
It's time for Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to undergo the same reality check that drove Chairmans Whitmire and Madden to seek new approaches. It's almost irresponsible to suggest that Texas build three new prisons. We're talking about big bucks here, not chump change. Dewhurst estimated three units might cost $50 to $75 million in annual debt charges, and the Sunset Advisory Commission said another $75 million per year would be required in staffing and operations costs.
Can you think of anything you'd rather the Lege do with $250 - $300 million per biennium?
Meanwhile, more than 400,000 people are supposedly being "supervised" by a broken-down nag of a probation system that Chairmans Whitmire and Madden want to strengthen. And thousands of parole-eligible non-violent offenders sit in prison after being refused parole in defiance of the parole board's own guidelines. (Sunset Commission testimony revealed that if the parole board followed its own release guidelines, there would be no Texas overincarceration crisis.)
Indeed, most people in Texas prisons are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. A few years ago the Justice Policy Institute calculated the memorable statistic that "Standing alone amongst the states, Texas' non-violent prison population represents the second largest incarcerated population in the country (after California), and is larger than the entire prisoner population (violent, and nonviolent) of the United Kingdom - a country of 60 million people - or New York, the nation's third largest state." (emphasis added)
That's nothing to be proud of. I'd encourage Gov. Dewhurst to embrace some of the reforms proposed in the past year by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and others who watch the system closely.
Big prisons are Big Government's crowning epitome. Texas tried the Big Government/Nanny State approach to crime for the last half-century, as the above chart indicates, yet our crime rate remains worse than states that incarcerate much smaller portions of their population. Why not try something besides throwing money at the same, failed approaches?
UPDATE: Kuff thinks the money would better be spent on enrolling more kids in CHIP. Vince says CHIP could use the cash.