Much of what was discussed will be familiar ground to Grits readers, so rather than recite chapter and verse, I'll simply record the impression that - especially among the legislators, in presentations from TDCJ and local adult probation departments (CSCDs) in Dallas, Corpus Christi and Lufkin - the consensus was pretty clear on the need to sustain recent funding for strong probation and diversion programs. (Unfortunately, no one strongly pressed the point with TDCJ director Brad Livingston on why nearly all his suggested budget cuts came from the probation and treatment side.)
Local probation officials were particularly insistent on two critical points: The need for accurate assessment tools, which the Dallas chief emphasized must be used immediately when the offender enters the system (not months down the line), and the need for focusing limited resources on supervising medium and high risk offenders in the first two years of their terms. After that, they all said, intensive supervision usually wasn't worth the bang for the buck, not because the offenders absolutely would not recidivate but because maximizing supervision in that early part of the process generated the best crime-reduction results, with rapidly diminishing returns after the initial supervision period. A large and compelling body of research, the committee was told, supports those conclusions, which were backed up by the individual directors' experiences.
There was no substantive disagreement with those sentiments expressed while I was there, nor in a brief conversation with the three local directors in the lunchroom, which was heartening. While they identified a few glitches - e.g., the Lege may have overinvested in treatment beds and underinvested in (less expensive) outpatient treatment - there seemed little dispute that recent investments are working. However, two things struck me overall.
First, it's clear there needs to be further investment in the 2007 strategies to maximize their potential. That became evident when a critical subtext briefly emerged that will inevitably become a greater source of concern down the line: The reliance of local probation departments on fees for nearly 1/3 of their budgets (ranging from $25-$60 per month, by statute). That creates a long-term unstable situation if probation departments successfully reduce their caseloads, which would the net result of focusing resources earlier and letting offenders earn their way off supervision with good behavior.
One probationer who testified said many offenders considered long probation stints a scam to squeeze fees out of them, and in a sense it's fundamentally true that CSCDs are structurally reliant on that income, giving them an institutional incentive not to reduce caseloads too greatly. To fully implement a strong-probation strategy where offenders are encouraged to earn their way off supervision early through good behavior, those funding mechanisms need to be restructured.
In the big picture of TDCJ's $3 billion per year budget, that shouldn't be an obstacle for reform if prison cutting were on the table (the same could be said, for that matter, of the much-discussed refund shortfall), but if the agency insists that all the cuts have to come from the community corrections side, as was the case in their 5%-cut plan submitted to the Governor, all of a sudden those lost probation fees become a pretty big deal.
Chairman McReynolds said at one point that, although Texas' massive projected $11 billion deficit hadn't yet made its way into budgeting reality, as it inevitably would in 2011, whatever solutions they enacted then they should be thinking about now. With that, I completely agree; I just think the gaping budget hole will be much bleaker and more immediate than the agency is pretending if it's true we'll see an $11-$15 billion gap.
That's why I've been harping on the need to plan now to shift money from prisons to stronger probation. The goal is to save money by changing approaches; budget cuts are only a fortunate byproduct but it doesn't mean they'll stop spending money on corrections. Under that scenario, in adult probation they'd need to spend more. But since 80% of TDCJ's budget goes to prisons, there's also just a lot more room there to cut. Somebody needs to make TDCJ produce a "Plan B" that involves reducing prison capacity before they get too much further into the process.
Judging from the discussion Tuesday, corrections shouldn't be exempted from budget cuts, as TDCJ has requested, but instead budget writers should view TDCJ as the one big state agency where it's possible to cut smartly. On some of the other big ticket items like education, pensions and healthcare, the solutions aren't so obvious.
My second overall impression was that the extent of the seeming consensus by officialdom was remarkable, suggesting that perhaps it's time to re-examine some of the money-saving options from the original legislation that were left, as they say in Hollywood, on the cutting room floor back during the original
The history of Texas' recent probation reform legislation began in 2003, when then House Corrections Chairman Ray Allen passed a bill mandating probation on the first offense for less-than-a-gram drug offenders, a move which diverted up to 4,000 offenders per year from state jails. Then in 2005, a strong bill prepared during the interim was gutted with amendments forced on the House floor by then-Reps Terry Keel and Robert Talton, who eventually convinced the Governor to veto the legislation entirely. Rep. Madden, who'd worked on the legislation for two years with Sen. John Whitmire, amended his bill to make it apply to a much smaller number of offenders after Keel predicted on the House floor, in bombastic, over the top language, that a massive, inevitable crime wave would ensue if the bill was passed. In 2007, with Keel gone, the Lege re-passed virtually the same (post-amendment) bill, and the Governor signed it rather than spend $1 billion to build and staff three new prisons.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that all those dire predictions turned out to be wrong and the folks testifying Tuesday told the committee the changes were working well. What's more, the main critics of the legislation are now out of office, and Texas has gained national acclaim on the topic.
That suggests to me that 2011 might be a great time for the Corrections Committee (or Sen. Whitmire's Criminal Justice committee) to go back and re-file portions of the original 2005 bill that were stripped off in the House. It'd be the legislative equivalent of picking up a spare, and would build on the remarkable successes of the 2007 reforms. The consensus statewide among judges and probation officials about the wisdom of the approach is much stronger than it was back then. (There weren't nearly as many vocal, CSCD directors coming out to support reform in 2005 or 2007.) Combined with reconfiguring state drug laws, those policy changes would further shift corrections' focus from incarceration to probation, fulfilling myriad public policy goals, from budget cutting to reducing crime.