Parole board chair Rissie Owens thanked the committee for additional treatment beds and told them they were responsible for an uptick in parole rates, which is up to 31% this year, she said, and which would be (just barely) the highest rate in recent memory if it's sustained for the rest of the year. In particular, she noted, waiting lists for in-prison treatment beds have been eliminated and there's no lag time when a prisoner is told they'll be released upon completion of required programming.
We talk a lot on this blog about best-practice reforms on the probation side, but I was pleased to learn that the parole board has applied to participate in a technical assistance arrangement with the National Parole Research Center. Before parole, the committee was told, a parole "plan" must be developed, investigated and approved by the department before release. Problems creating the plan were cited as the main reason for delays in release after the parole board had granted approval (followed distantly by subsequent disciplinary violations by the inmate). On average, that process takes 43 days, the committee was told, but in extraordinary cases it can take many months.
Parole not only contributes to the equation regarding inmate population through decisions on releasing prisoners, but also by deciding who to revoke. Owens said that 19,107 parolees were reviewed last year for potential revocation, three-quarters of whom were not revoked. Parole division director Stuart Jenkins described how parole officers now use a "Violation Action Grid" that dictates intermediate sanctions that may include anything from increased reporting or supervision to a stay at an Intermediate Sanctions Facility. There were 7,460 parole revocations in 2009 out of 105,820 offenders supervised, according to the TDCJ's annual statistical report [pdf] - a respectably low ratio of just 7%. One problem facing the department, said Jenkins, is that warrants may be issued by parole officers when violations don't really justify revocation.
Of parolees revoked to prison, the committee was told, 46% committed new crimes, 40% had both a new crime and technical violations, and 14% were technical violations only. All of those revoked for technicals, said Owens, had been through Intermediate Sanctions Facilities at least once and were chronically noncompliant.
Jerry Madden asked about a couple of discrete categories of offenders, questioning in particular whether parole eligible inmates who are eligible for deportation should be prioritized for release. He said there were hundreds of DWI offenders so situated who'd been denied parole. Madden also asked about a promising pilot program he'd authored (HB 3226) to let TDCJ pay for free-world housing for parolees if they're eligible for parole but have no place to go and the cost of paying their rent is less than the cost of incarcerating them in TDCJ. Jenkins said the program had maxxed out at just more than 300 parolees and currently was only being done for 155, but that providers in all the major counties had agreed to participate.
Chairman McReynolds questioned Owens lightly about low medical parole rates, but you can tell they'll be revisiting the issue when the state begins to talk seriously about budget cuts. The Chairman said his committee had recently visited TDCJ's "cancer wards" and were told that 40% of TDCJ's $800 million healthcare budget was going to pay to care for frail, elderly inmates. That's $320 million to care for a small (but growing) fraction of TDCJ prisoners. As costs for elderly inmates increased, however, the parole board has become less willing to grant medical releases. From their annual report (pdf, p. 23), here are the total number of medical releases over the last several years:
2005: 174McReynolds said he wanted to talk with Owens going forward into the session about how the Legislature could "help" the parole board increase approval rates for medical parole, saying that caring for frail elderly inmates is a "huge budget driver" for the agency. Owens said that Thomas Leeper - who is a former City Attorney from Huntsville and former Assistant City Attorney in Bryan - heads the three-member review panel in Huntsville that considers medical parole. She added that on July 7 she, Mr. Leeper and TDCJ's medical director will be meeting to discuss the subject. Leeper only joined the board last year, according to the parole board's annual report (pdf), so he can't be blamed for any failures to use medical parole in years past. Perhaps their meeting next week will spark a welcome change in the board's direction on medical parole.
I've been talking about policy changes that could allow the state to close several prisons next year to save money in the budget, but the parole board could accomplish the same task with just a minor uptick in parole rates for nonviolent and low-risk offenders.
UPDATE: Parole attorney Bill Habern emails to say that "In our office we still have clients who have been long approved for parole waiting 9 months and more to even get into sex offender treatment." Fair point: I think mostly the "treatment" discussion on Wednesday revolved around substance abuse.