Maintaining basic state services over the next two years will cost Texas almost $84 billion, $3.7 billion more in general revenue than the state expects to raise during that period, according to the Senate budget introduced Tuesday.However, a proposed 20% pay hike for adult prison guards and parole officers didn't make it into the draft budgets, nor did security improvements aimed at reducing contraband flows:
Among the budget increases proposed for Texas' prison system were $22.2 million for pay raises for correctional and parole officers, and $10.4 million in bond funds to repair the Hurricane Ike-damaged prison hospital in Galveston.
The proposed pay raises were far less than the $453.4 million sought by prison officials, and the budget did not address the $176 million needed for cost increases this year and the $66 million sought for security upgrades.
It's not at all clear TDCJ could safely operate without a much larger portion of the increases they've requested because past agency decisions to underpay staff, skimp on healthcare and ignore needed security improvements have backed officials into a financial corner. TDCJ's cost per prisoner in recent years has been artificially low and cannot be sustained at current levels.
I've said before, given TDCJ's understaffing crisis (they're around 3,000 guards short of minimum staffing), perhaps it's now time to consider actually reducing the size of Texas' Prison Nation in order to stave off rising incarceration costs.
If you add up every Texan currently in prison, on probation, on parole, or sitting in a county jail, it totals slightly more than the number of residents living in Austin - about one out of every 21 adults. At more than 737,000 people, they would make up the fourth largest city in the state after Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Indeed, that's more than total 2004 populations of Washington, D.C. and four US states: Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.Can we really afford for the corrections system to supervise the equivalent of a major Texas city? According to TDCJ's official budget request, the agency needs around $1.2 billion extra over the next biennium to safely house the same number of prisoners it has now.
Other states facing budget crises are looking to reduce prison populations to save money, and if Lone Star legislators won't pony up enough to safely guard the 112 prison units TDCJ operates, Texas should do so, too. It wouldn't be that hard, since fully 2/3 of Texas prison inmates are parole eligible.
Alternatively, a bipartisan group of judges from Houston recently suggested another way to diminish new prison entries - reducing to a Class A misdemeanor charges against low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who possess less than a gram of a controlled substance. There are quite a few ways the Lege could skin that cat.
The Texas Legislature should at least ask the question: How many fewer prisoners would we have to have for the Department of Criminal Justice to a) live within its means and b) still provide adequate security and staffing?