This development is long overdue. I think most people are unaware of how rapidly prison spending has grown in the last few years. (See good data on the subject from the Council on State Government's Justice Center.) Texas finds itself in a relatively unique position among states, both because our economic base has been hit less hard by the national financial crisis and because the state had already begun significant reforms to stem overcrowding.
"Prior to this fiscal crisis, legislators could tinker around the edges — but we're now well past the tinkering stage," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration.
"Many political leaders who weren't comfortable enough, politically, to do it before can now — under the guise of fiscal responsibility — implement programs and policies that would be win/win situations, saving money and improving corrections," Mauer said
In California, faced with a projected $42 billion deficit and prison overcrowding that has triggered a federal lawsuit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to eliminate parole for all offenders not convicted of violent or sex-related crimes, reducing the parole population by about 70,000. He also wants to divert more petty criminals to county jails and grant early release to more inmates — steps that could trim the prison population by 15,000 over the next 18 months.
In Kentucky, where the inmate population had been soaring, even some murderers and other violent offenders are benefiting from a temporary cost-saving program that has granted early release to nearly 2,000 inmates.
Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is proposing early release of about 1,000 inmates. New York Gov. David Paterson wants early release for 1,600 inmates as well as an overhaul of the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws that impose lengthy mandatory sentences on many nonviolent drug offenders.
"These laws have neither curbed drug use nor enhanced public safety," said Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Instead, they have ruined thousands of lives and annually wasted millions of tax dollars in prison costs."
Policy-makers in Michigan, one of four states that spend more money on prisons than higher education, are awaiting a report later this month from the Council of State Governments' Justice Center on ways to trim fast-rising corrections costs, likely including sentencing and parole modifications.
"There's a new openness to taking a look," said state Sen. Alan Cropsey, a Republican who in the past has questioned some prison-reform proposals. "What we'll see are changes being made that will have a positive impact four, five, six years down the road."
Even before the recent financial meltdown, policy-makers in most states were wrestling with ways to contain corrections costs. The Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project has projected that state and federal prison populations — under current policies — will grow by more than 190,000 by 2011, to about 1.7 million, at a cost to the states of $27.5 billion.
"Prisons are becoming less and less of a sacred cow," said Adam Gelb, the Pew project's director. "The budget crisis is giving leaders on both sides of the aisle political cover they need to tackle issues that would be too tough to tackle when budgets are flush."
Not long ago, Texas' Legislative Budget Board estimated Texas would need 17,000 adult prison beds and at least three new medium security prisons by 2012. But probation revocations declined in most large counties (Bexar is the notable exception, but their probation director has other worries) thanks in part to $237 million in new probation grants aimed at implementing intermediate sanctions regimens and reducing probation officer caseloads.
So in many ways, thanks to truly visionary work by Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Jerry Madden, Texas is a lot better off than other states struggling with high prison costs. Even so, the Department of Criminal Justice will ask the Legislature for a more than $1 billion increase in its biennial budget, including for pay hikes designed to stem high turnover and deter corruption among prison staff. That's $1 billion extra just to manage the same number of prisoners. This in part is because Texas' prison costs historically have been artificially low and we've reached the point where it's time for our politicians to pay the piper, having already relished the dance.
One suggestion I've not heard publicly would be to follow the lead of these other states and at least debate whether to reduce TDCJ inmate populations instead of spending $1 billion more to house the same number. After all, roughly two-thirds of TDCJ inmates are already parole eligible.
How many fewer inmates would TDCJ need, one wonders, to give officers raises, spend what they need to in order to keep prisons secure, and still operate under its current budget?
TDCJ operates about 112 units statewide, but some are much more expensive to operate than others. Though I've not seen it, at a committee hearing last year the legislature was given a list of the 20 most expensive TDCJ units in terms of per-inmate cost, and the differences were quite staggering. How many inmates would we be talking about to close the most expensive ones? It's worth asking the question.
In Dallas and Sugar Land, local development interests want the agency to close existing units. Talk so far has been about finding another spot for those units, but what if we just closed them (along with the most expensive facilities) and managed more low-level offenders in the community?
How could that be done? Shortening probation and parole lengths is part of it, since that reduces revocations and focuses more supervision resources on the most likely offenders. Schwarzenegger's proposal to eliminate parole is too radical, but reducing its length and making it easier for offenders to earn their way off supervision makes lots of sense from both fiscal and safety perspectives. On the front end, Texas' ten-year probation terms are among the longest in the nation, while most people who re-offend do so in the first 2-3 years (if not the first six months).
Another idea comes from State Rep. Harold Dutton, who filed a bill that would significantly depopulate state jails (like the one in the way of Dallas' Trinity development) within a two year stretch: HB 287 would reduce the penalty for possession of less than a gram of illegal drugs from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor.
There are lots of other ways to skin that cat.
In other states these decisions are being forced down officials' throats because reduced tax revenues are pitting prison expenses directly against schools, health care, and other societal priorities. It looks like Texas may be buttressed temporarily from the harshest of those economic winds, however with oil prices declining, it's likely the gale will be blowing full force by the time the 82nd Legislature meets in 2011.
I'd rather see legislators pick and choose their policies thoughtfully based on economic and public safety priorities than get backed into a corner as has happened in California and now many other states. Perhaps the debate should start now about what it would take for TDCJ to live within its budget instead of only debating how much more to spend every time the Legislature is in town?