Tuesday, November 24, 2009

As 2011 budget crisis looms, should most expensive prison units be closed?

It's always good to recognize when it's time to leave, and given the economic headaches facing the state, I think I understand why Texas Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden decided this was a good time to call it quits and let somebody else drive the car over the cliff in the 82nd Legislature. According to an item at the Texas Tribune by former deputy comptroller Billy Hamilton:

The last five months are the worst string of sales tax months since the tax was enacted in 1961 and are much worse than during the 2002-03 recession when collections fell by “only” 1.1 percent in 2002 and 1.7 percent in 2003.

State revenue forecasters have noticed national conditions, and the state’s current budget assumptions were built on projections of weak sales tax growth in 2009 and 2010. Weak growth, but still growth. Unfortunately, the tax declined by 2.7 percent in fiscal 2009 (the state fiscal year ends in August), and it is down by better than 12 percent so far this year. Results like those are guaranteed to produce heartburn aplenty for revenue forecasters.

The rest of the tax system isn’t providing much reason for comfort. Motor vehicle sales tax collections were down 22.5 percent in October. Oil and natural gas taxes have been down all year, although state forecasters saw that one coming after the price spike in 2008. Hotel taxes are sagging. Motor fuel taxes are down. The newly reformed state business franchise tax has underperformed projections from the start. Only alcohol and cigarette taxes are up right now. Given the economy, it figures.

The revenue situation could pose real problems for budget writers in 2011 if there isn’t some improvement soon. The state will already be without the federal stimulus dollars that filled a lot of holes in the current budget. Deteriorating revenue conditions could add to what already promises to be a tough budget year.

We're not alone, of course. Tax revenues are down in 44 states. But Texas was cushioned from the blow this year thanks to high oil prices and federal stimulus money, neither of which can be counted on going forward.

One of many big concerns this raises in the criminal justice arena is that budget cuts might spur lawmakers to scale back recent expansions of community corrections infrastructure, cutting treatment funding and non-prison programming in response to shrinking budgets. However, those programs have been such a great success (and will only fully roll out next spring) that it would be a mistake to shut them down just as taxpayers begin to get a return on their investment. (Funding these efforts, somewhat ironically, is part of Sen. Ogden's legacy as Finance Committee Chairman.)

Instead, given current trends, perhaps it's time to ask if the state could save money by closing one or more of the 112 prison units it currently operates? Just this summer, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) was able to eliminate contracts for 1,900 beds in four county jails because population loads had declined and they were no longer needed. It doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that the state might achieve a similar reduction in the coming biennium, assuming all the new diversion tools available are fully utilized at the local level.

Though staffing shortages have improved, TDCJ is still more than 1,000 guards short systemwide, so such cuts could likely be achieved without eliminating existing jobs, and with the added benefit of improving staffing and safety in other units.

In past meetings of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Chairman John Whitmire has made reference to a list in his possession detailing cost-per-prisoner at each TDCJ unit, a number which apparently varies quite widely, especially on the high end. Given the looming 2011 budget gap - and the likelihood that some will propose cutting diversion programming when money gets tight - I hope during the interim that legislators and the agency seriously consider how many fewer inmates they'd need to close the top one or two most expensive units on the list.

In lean budget times, state leaders must set priorities, and it's important to know when it's time to walk away from a bad deal. From the taxpayer's perspsective, it's a bigger priority to build on recent diversion successes than to prop up TDCJ's most antiquated, expensive units.

RELATED: Data on TDCJ Unit Age and Cost

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dumbest idea yet.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Try at least trolling in complete sentences. Complete a thought. Why do you say so?

If the department is required to shave even, say, 5% ($250 million-ish) off its biennial budget, how should it be done? If revenue declines continue, that's not at all out of the realm of possibility. Or would you rather have your taxes raised?

It's easy to nay say without suggesting alternatives.

Texas Maverick said...

Anonymous 10:18am -Just finished another reading this morning in which the following was in the header -
Don't want to read anything!
Don't want to know anything!
Don't want to discuss anything.
"I've made up my mind, please don't confuse me with the facts."
IT'S TOO LATE TO BE AN OSTRICH.
The next legis. will have to look high and low for enough money and just because programs have been legislated doesn't mean they will ever be funded. Sounds good in the reelection sound bites though. Grits proposal should be given serious consideration. It might be feasible. Keep an open mind and maybe, just maybe rational decisions will be made.

Anonymous said...

Why is it liberals can only think in one direction: leniency. And they can't even be honest about it. Now, they couch their liberal tendencies in the language of saving money. Really, they just can't stomach punishment.

Anonymous said...

I just saw TRICK PERRYS latest AD and according to him TEXAS HAS MILLIONS IN SURPLUS MONEY. in a rainy day fund. IT REALLY AMAZES ME WHEN IT IS A YEAR THE LEGISLATURES MEET ALL YOU HEAR IS HOW THE STATE IS BROKE AND DON'T HAVE ANY MONEY. THEN A FEW MONTHS LATER WHEN IT IS AN ELECTION YEAR YOU HEAR HOW MUCH MONEY THE STATE HAS SOCKED AWAY. DO THINGS CHANGE THAT MUCH IN JUST A FEW MONTHS? I'VE WACTCHED THE SAME OLD SONG AND DANCE FOR THE LAST 40 YEARS HOW DO THESE PEOPLE LIVE WITH THEMSELVES FOR ALL THE LIES THEY TELL.

Anonymous said...

I think the real question is how do these LIARS keep getting re-elected?

Anonymous said...

Most of us are for big government and are OK with the federal government spending trillions on expanded health care and bailouts. We are OK with raising taxes and putting these trillions on our Chinese credit card. We are OK with printing more and more dollars and letting the value of the dollar drop. It's no big deal that states are going broke and people are moving out of these high tax states.

Of course, we want to economize when it comes to spending for corrections.

Anonymous said...

Estimates are that between 28% and 50% of prison populations in most states are carrying a primary confining offense of a drug charge. If we stopped using incarceration as a drug control strategy -- we could free up a substantial number of prison and jail beds. It would probably take decades before additional prison capacity were needed.

But perhaps that makes too much sense.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with a meth lab down the street? We should free up a substantial number of prison and jail beds and let them sell meth to our sons and daughters. We are all liberal. Drugs are cool man.

sunray's wench said...

You can't close prisons without reforming the parole process, the two should go hand in hand. And before everyone starts shouting about how liberals want to let all inmates go free, that is NOT what I am advocating.

Having a parole system that encourages good behaviour, maintains family bonds, puts eligible offenders back on the streets where they can then earn and pay taxes like everyone else, and a system of monitoring and sensible punishment is surely better for all. The current one works like a lottery and means many inmates serve their whole sentence with little or no rehab and then are thrown out onto the streets with no support and no supervision.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@2:43 and 10:47, We've spent 35 years with BOTH liberals and conservatives pushing higher penalties and more incarceration; that's why critics, both liberal and conservative, are more likely at this point in history to suggest reducing incarceration pressures. The mistake, IMO, is to portray that as some left-wing view.

Here's what you may not see, but which becomes clear working in the political process: In general, liberals who like big government are MORE willing to use criminal laws to solve social problems. Most bills increasing or creating criminal penalties in Texas are carried by Democrats, and it was Ann Richards who successfully won 100K new prison beds back in the '90s. At the national level, the biggest drug warriors in the Senate for 20 years have been Joe Biden, John Kerry and Tom Harkin. So this recurring liberal/conservative characterization really is off base and ignores how these issues play out in the real world, where tuff-on-crime is a bipartisan consensus, not culture-war style tug of war.

Anonymous said...

Gangland senator Whitmire expressed his views in this Washington Post article:

Cutting the Prison Rate Safely
Washington Post
By John Vratil and John Whitmire
Thursday, March 20, 2008

Boyness said...

The way Texas justice operates, we'll all be in white in a few years anyway so no need to close prisons, in fact, better start building MORE. MORE PRISONS MORE PRISONS!

sunray's wench said...

anon 1.07pm's article can be found here:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/19/AR2008031902854.html

Sen Whitmire is still missing the point on what he (and the rest of the media) calls "violent offenders" though. What they actually mean is inmates convicted of violent offences. Those convicted of "non-violent" offences are just as likely to be violent while inside prison, and are more likely to reoffend upon release.

Boyness said...

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with a meth lab down the street? We should free up a substantial number of prison and jail beds and let them sell meth to our sons and daughters. We are all liberal. Drugs are cool man.

11/24/2009 10:47:00 PM
==================================
Until you break the METH cycle with TREATMENT, you will never stop the scurge. Do you hear me idiot? NEVER!!! Prison is a SHORT TERM answer to the meth problem but until the addicted are treated, it will NOT STOP. This is NOT a liberal position, this is the TRUTH!

We have enough people in prison on DOPE charges and the revolving door of incarceration keeps them coming back. Forget prisons...open treatment centers.

TDCJ EX said...

Sunray you are right the label non violent offender is very misleading . In prison , the so called non violent offenders mostly drug offenders caught a lot more major cases than the majority those with a violent conviction . The were also more likely to be violent in prison while violent convicts were less likely over all to be violent in prison There are always exceptions of course .
It is also correct that non violent offenders have the highest recidivism rate


With out a doubt the TX Parole process is in need of not just reform but a major overhaul . That might be provided by a federal court . It needs to be open and realistic those who have earned parole should be paroled when eligible get rid useless feel good laws like ½ of the sentence must be served for 3 g offenses and take a long look at how lifers are paroled if they are . TX should also bring back earning good time that actually means something such as discharging a sentence earlier .

That being said legalize drugs regulate and tax them that in itself would cut down on all crime drastically vast majority of crime . Prohibition did not work in the 1920s it gave rise to the mafia it has not worked for the past 30 years . They mafia called the Prohibition laws The Great Gift

Both political parties have used cops courts and prison to solve all our social problems even though we can see it does not work . It is not liberal or conservative. It is called political pandering to rqais money for elections . Term limits might be part of a solution

Closing prison would certainly hurt tin prison towns such as Gatesville , Huntsville Beaumont , Tennessee Colony and so on. Should TDCJ be the largest employer in TX . Creating voting base that depends on high crime and lost of people lockup for economic viability and employment ?

Anonymous said...

0851.....You are wrong. TYC supposedly had treatment and look at that disaster. You're out of touch w/reality.