The reason they're considering the idea is purely economic, hoping to defray high gasoline costs. But I particularly like the idea of creating regional release centers if they could be used to coordinate and deliver re-entry services, not only to make sure they're releasing the right person.
For years, most Texas prisoners have been taken to Huntsville when they complete their sentences before being discharged.
But now, officials are quietly considering a plan to begin releasing them at regional prisons, a historic policy shift that could save money and thousands of miles of crisscrossing bus rides across the Lone Star State.
At a time when fuel prices are squeezing the state budget, officials at the prisons agency concede the change could save big money. Officials so far haven't estimated the potential savings, but the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has budgeted $11 million for fuel for fiscal year 2008, and officials already expect they'll spend at least $16 million.
"No decisions have been made, but yes, we are looking at that concept," said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the department. "The idea is that, by using regional release centers, it would be a way to release them closer to their final destination."
Under current policy, most freedom-bound convicts travel by prison bus to the vintage, high-walled Huntsville Unit — the state's oldest prison — where they are processed out and given $100 and a voucher good for a bus ride to anywhere in Texas.
Many go to nearby Houston, in what at times has been a controversial policy when recent releases commit new crimes.
"Taking everybody back to Huntsville to release them is one of the nuttiest policies I've ever heard of, and one that I've been trying to change for years and years," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee.
A switch to regional releases has been proposed several times in the past two decades, to save money and increase operational efficiency of the prison system. But each time, it has been derailed for all but just a limited number of convicts, out of concern that prisoners need to be eyeballed with their records, including their mugshots, in Huntsville to make sure no one is mistakenly released. There have also been behind-the-scenes protests from local officials who would rather the ex-cons go live someplace else rather than return home or get released in their community.
Several years ago, women, state jail "confines" — generally lower-level criminals — and prisoners in some drug treatment and rehab programs started getting released at their lockups, rather than solely in Huntsville, Lyons said.
But of the 41,808 convicts who were released between September 2006 and August 2007, 33,655 gained their freedom in Huntsville, state statistics show. On average, 448 convicts per week are released there, according to Lyons.
Under the proposal, prison officials said the Robertson Unit in Abilene could be used as a discharge point for convicts from West Texas. If the program proves successful, prisons in other regions could also begin discharging convicts.
Friday, May 30, 2008
Gas prices driving TDCJ to consider regional release of prisoners
With gas at $4 per gallon, the idea of releasing Texas prisoners from their own facilities or "regional release centers" instead of driving them all back to Huntsville is picking up steam, reports the Austin Statesman ("Texas considers regional prison release plan," May 30):