Now ten conference committee members - five each from the House and Senate - will decide whether Texas invests in new prisons or in treatment alternatives. Here's the list of conferees:
- House: Chisum, Gattis, Turner, Guillen, and Kolkhorst
- Senate: Ogden, Zaffirini, Whitmire, Duncan, and Williams
Some I've talked to assume Rep. Gattis, a former Williamson County prosecutor, will automatically back more prisons because his old boss is DA John Bradley, who's leading the DA lobby effort to reject drug treatment and stronger probation and build more lockups. But Gattis is a smart fellow, and his own man. It wouldn't surprise me if he backed the Madden-Whitmire proposal once he's looked at the facts.
If the House conferees stand firm, then Senators Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and Duncan (R-Lubbock) appear to be the key swing votes on prison building. Sen. Williams is an ardent backer of prison building, while Steve Ogden has said he believes they should be built as a "contingency." Whitmire was strong-armed into agreeing to new prisons and has repeatedly said he prefers the approach he crafted with House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, which is basically the House proposal.
If those positions hold, then the Senate's final stance on new prison building comes down to whether Duncan and Zaffirini support issuing a quarter-billion dollars in bonds and committing to more than $100 million in new annual debt and operating costs. In the end, I bet both of them can think of lots of things on which they'd rather spend the money. At least, I certainly hope so. Even corrections officers oppose new prison building.
The truth is, we don't need new prisons nearly as badly as we need better policies. As Grits calculated previously:
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst says we need more prisons because of "population growth." But from 1978 until 2004, the Texas prison population increased 573% (from 22,439 to 151,059), while the state's total population increased just 67% (from 13.5 million to 22.5 million).So between 1978 and 2004, Texas prison growth outstripped population growth by a factor of 8.5 to one! And yet, crime declined less here than it did in states with much lower incarceration rates. With Texas' population booming, it's impossible to sustain a growth rate in incarceration 8 times higher, especially since Texas can't staff the prisons we have now.
Something's got to give.