Considering Texas' astronomical prison growth in recent decades and where we were just a short time ago, this is important news.
At the Statesman's blog, Mike Ward attributes the revised projections to a "slowdown in the number of new felons, a slightly increased parole rate, fewer revocations to prison from probation and parole and the projected impact of new treatment and rehabilitation programs approved by the Legislature last year." Those few tweaks combined to make a substantial difference:
Details: The report predicts Texas’ incarcerated population will average 156,364 this year, and rise to 158,470 in 2012.
That’s much less than projected a year ago. Then, the state was estimated to be more than 17,000 beds short by 2012, at growth rates at the time.
Officials have always said that the declining parole rates and longer sentences are the main cause of prison overcrowding. While that latter remains a problem, the former has improved. Projections last year indicated that if the parole rate for low-level, nonviolent offenders rose just 4%, it would resolve the current prison overcrowding crisis. Lately that's been happening; though I've not seen recent data, anecdotal evidence indicates such cases are getting paroled more quickly than in the past.Parole rates for low-level offenders and revocation rates for probationers are both policy matters that are largely within the control of actors in the system. By contrast, I'm interested to read of the "slowdown in the number of new felons." I wonder what accounts for that, and whether it's explained by an overall crime reduction or a change in the types of offenders being prosecuted?
Voters approved bonds to construct three new prisons last year, but LBB must certify that the prisons are necessary before construction can begin. This makes me think the agency's number crunchers might not provide prison builders the fodder they needed to begin new construction in the near term, though no final decision has yet been made.
One nagging, back of the mind concern: Texas' prison overcrowding crisis has been the main cause spurring a variety of positive criminal justice reforms in the last few legislative sessions, and I'm hopeful these new figures won't lead anyone at the Lege to believe the problem is "solved," the way some of them went back to their districts after session last year to say that TYC was "fixed."
Texas has made impressive first steps toward rationalizing its justice system, but if the state stopped implementing new reforms now we'd be right back where we started a few years ago. The prisons are still full, and TDCJ still can't find enough guards to staff prisons we've got. This news just means that Rep. Jerry Madden and Sen. John Whitmire merely have bought the state enough time to seek long-term solutions.
That's still an enormous accomplishment, though, and both men deserve taxpayers' gratitude for staving off the wave of new prison entrants who would have surely overwhelmed an already flooded system.