Monday, May 07, 2007

Fabelo: No new prisons needed to solve Texas' overincarceration crisis

The question of whether Texas will build new prisons and how much to expand treatment capacity will be decided in the next few weeks. Plans differed in the House and Senate versions of the biennial budget, and like many budget issues the question must now be hammered out by a conference committee. The conference committee members are:
  • House: Chisum, Gattis, Turner, Guillen, and Kolkhorst
  • Senate: Ogden, Zaffirini, Whitmire, Duncan, and Williams
Tony Fabelo, a consultant who for many years ran the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council before Governor Perry abolished it in 2003, was hired with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to assist the Legislature to plan new prison alternatives and diversion programs. Regular readers may recall me discussing his earlier suggestions in February.

Now Fabelo has come out with a new report (pdf) analyzing the House and Senate versions of new prison and treatment spending, clarifying further the issues facing budget conferees here in the closing weeks of the session. Bottom line: The House budget expands TDCJ's budget by $331.2 million over the biennium, while the Senate would expand its budget by an eyepopping $695.3 million. Here's Fabelo's top-topline summary:
The Senate and House budgets both incorporate major elements of the original Whitmire/Madden Plan. The Senate budget adopted a higher level of expenditures for diversion and treatment alternatives than did the House budget. The Senate budget includes an appropriation of $228.7 million for elements of the Whitmire/Madden Plan; the House appropriation for elements of the Whitmire/Madden Plan is approximately $128.9 million.

The House budget includes no funding for new prisons, whereas the Senate budget funds three small prisons (so-called Hobby Units, each with 1,330 beds, or 3,990 beds, total) at a General Obligation bond cost of $233.4 million and a bond debt service General Revenue cost for the biennium of $34.5 million.
The reason the Senate budget only allocates $34.5 million for the bond debt is that it will take time to spend the money and build the prisons. But once they're constructed, these three new "so-called Hobby Units" will cost $34.5 million per year in debt service, and another $72 million per year in staffing and operations costs, according to the Sunset Advisory Commission.

So the decision to build three new prison units, while only adding $34.5 million to THIS biennial budget, will add and additional $212 million or more per biennium for the next twenty years! And that's in addition to hundreds of millions in treatment and diversion spending.

What will Texas get for these investments? The Legislative Budget Board has predicted Texas may be as many as 17,000 prison beds short by 2012. Will these proposals resolve Texas' immediate overincarceration crisis? According to Dr. Fabelo they can. The House plan, he says, would need a little help from the parole board to avoid a prison bed shortage. Wrote Fabelo:
The House budget is lower primarily because it does not include any funding for new prisons. The House plan will reduce the projected 2012 prison bed shortfall from over 17,000 to 4,442 beds assuming the maintenance of the FY 2006 average parole rate of 26%. If the parole rates increases to 28%, the prison bed shortfall under the House plan could also be eliminated by 2012.
In recent months the parole rate has been closer to 30%, so there's some hope the House plan might avoid new prison building by itself, even spending $100 million less on diversion programs than the Senate. But the real eyepopper came with Fabelo's evaluation of the Senate plan, whose higher level of treatment funding comes closer to what Fabelo, Whitmire and Madden mapped out at the beginning of session:
assuming that the new prisons authorized in the Senate bill are not constructed, the projected impact of the plan is to eliminate the prison bed shortfall projected by 2012.
So there you have it - the Senate's prison diversion programs, say Fabelo, would completely eliminate the need for new prison spending. Fabelo also identified key legislation (p. 12), all of which has been discussed on Grits, that would supplement and contribute to the success of new funding.

I was at the capitol this morning and here's the scuttlebut on the likely outcome in conference committee: Apparently both the House and Senate conferees are standing firm and refusing to budge on new prison spending. Lt. Governor Dewhurst is holding Chairman Whitmire, the rumor goes, to a commitment to new prison building in exchange for the larger Senate treatment budget. On the House side, Chairman Chisum and other conferees appear committed to a budget without new prison spending.

Looks like a showdown.

It's too soon to read tea leaves on either the bills or the budget, but maybe Dr. Fabelo's statistical demonstration will convince Lt. Governor Dewhurst and Governor Perry that the legislation and funding in Whitmire and Madden's plan can work without spending an extra $106 million per year on prisons Texas doesn't need.

See Fabelo's report for more details.


JT Barrie said...

What I'm awaiting is the aftermath of the Afghanistan opium harvest and the inevitable meltdown from US soldiers stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan coming home with PTS and no jobs. That double whammy will manifest itself in heavy self-medication and higher crime. We've already trained these guys in the way of violence and then messed up their lives with abuse and neglect.
We will get a new crime wave and it will be self-inflicted. The very same people who decided on our illegal occupations and neglect for the soldiers are the same people who want more prisons and longer prison sentences. Amazing!

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