One of the reasons you rate me as among the ten worst legislators in the state is because you claim I shifted money from incarceration diversion programs to programs that “weren’t requested, such as $20 million for new cars for the Department of Public Safety.”Burka replied thusly:
If you disagree with the funding decision to give DPS the tools they need to do their job, that is a legitimate political viewpoint. However, there are two major errors in your claim.
First, the funds for the cars were not shifted away from any program. The money my subcommittee spent on this item was a one-time expense from freed-up general revenue as a result of the federal stimulus money. It was one of the last things we funded, and even then only after we fully funded the diversion programs (the same ones you claim I shortchanged) at the levels they were appropriated last session. However, the more glaring error on your part is that those black-and-whites actually were requested by the DPS. In fact, it was one of their top exceptional items, and they backed this up in public testimony on more than one occasion.
Members get on the Ten Worst list because they do public harm. Debbie Riddle writes that the DPS cars were funded “only after we fully funded the diversion programs (the same ones you claim I shortchanged) at the levels they were appropriated last session.” But fully funding them at the same level as last session was not the same as fully funding them at the level TDCJ requested.Certainly it's true that funding prison diversion programs at the same level as last session amounts to underfunding them. Drug court programs in particular were underfunded in 2007 to the point that some counties couldn't meet state mandates, while TDCJ is still short of its needed number of aftercare beds, We've reached the realistic limit of relying on probationer fees and at some point the state must fund these programs if they're going to succeed. The alternative, as Burka points out, is building much more expensive prisons.
The Legislature’s best minds on criminal justice–Sylvester Turner, Jerry Madden, Jim McReynolds, and John Whitmire–have worked very hard to establish programs in the prisons that are designed to reduce recidivism and alleviate the necessity for building yet more prisons. Turner explained that TDCJ releases 70,000 inmates a year, and these programs are aimed at helping these inmates with reentry to life on the outside. They range from substance abuse treatment to adjustments such as job counseling. I interviewed both Madden and Turner about this. Both said that these re-entry programs are the best tool we have to reduce recidivism, and that they appear to be working.
Turner offered an amendment to move money from information resources–he said that Riddle had given TDCJ $12 million more than the LBB recommended in this area–to re-entry programs. TDCJ had specifically asked for it, he said. [Readers may view the tape on the Appropriations debate for amendment 119.] Madden supported him. Riddle moved to table. The House rarely votes against a subcommittee chair in such instances, but the motion to table failed with 57 ayes and 78 nos, and the funding to the programs was restored. Another Turner amendment took away $15 million of the $20 million for DPS cars and shifted it to the diversionary programs backed by Turner and Madden. Riddle wanted to move the $15 million to a wish list, where it was likely to die, and keep full funding for the cars. McReynolds, standing behind her at the back microphone, is seen on videotape shaking his head vehemently.
The problem here is that Riddle gave new cars a higher priority than the policy of using reentry programs to avoid building new prisons — at a cost of $600M per prison. I don’t think for a moment that she is malicious. But she is prideful, and that led her to substitute her judgment for the judgment of the best minds in the Legislature on criminal justice issues. The moment that Turner, Madden, and McReynolds were aligned against her, she should have realized that she was on the wrong track and should work with them to fix the problems she had created.
Burka also could have also mentioned that Riddle was the chief opponent of TDCJ's proposed 20% pay hike for prison guards, or anything close to it - needed, said the agency, to draw workers to dangerous jobs in out of the way areas. TDCJ is about 3,000 guards short of minimum staffing at its 112 units, and has had to close down wings in Dalhart and elsewhere because they couldn't hire enough guards to cover the units. They wound up getting 3.5% raises each of the next two years, which better than a sharp stick in the eye, but not remotely enough to expect the agency to eliminate a 3,000 guard gap. That has safety implications both for prisoners, short-staffed guards and other prison workers, not to mention it makes it harder for the agency to assign staff to interdict contraband.
OTOH, there was some mean-spirited sniping to the TM piece on Riddle, dredging up comments from six years ago, for example, to justify giving her a "worst" tag today. The truth is, though I disagree with her a LOT on criminal justice matters, including the budget debates described above, Riddle has grown a lot as far as her knowledge of criminal justice subjects, about which I think it's fair to say she knew extremely little when she first walked into the House chamber. After several sessions on the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and spending last session on Appropriations, today she's a lot more knowledgeable. Though we often disagree, I don't consider her incompetent, whereas in 2003 I would have been frankly concerned to see her hands anywhere near the levers of power.
Debbie Riddle is a nice, well meaning person, she just has different priorities and a more politicized, partisan approach than the legislators Burka names with more history as leaders on the topic. But she was elected to call the shots as she sees them, so I can't blame her for that. If you want to point fingers, blame Joe Straus for disempowering Jerry Madden and Sylvester Turner at the beginning of session, not to mention Jim Pitts (one of Texas Monthly's Ten Best) for naming her subcommittee chair for Criminal Justice on Appropriations. Anybody could have predicted that replacing Sylvester Turner at that spot with Debbie Riddle would lead to precisely this type of reprioritization.
None of that changes the bottom line, though, which is that the 81st Legislature represents a missed opportunity regarding prison diversion funding, largely because of Debbie Riddle's role. We know the investments made already have worked and we know if further investments were made it would free up even more prison beds, which are a lot more expensive and less effective at reducing recidivism.
If in the next couple of years if we begin to see prison commitments at higher rates than LBB's current projections, it arguably may be because Texas failed to build in 2009 on the landmark work done in 2005 and 2007 by the Lege to expand prison diversion for addiction-related offenses and free up space to house truly dangerous criminals.