As Texas prison programs go, this one was tiny. Just a few hundred ex-cons would be eligible for housing vouchers those who had been approved for parole but were stuck behind bars because they had no place to live, either because their families didn't want them or they had no place to go.Certainly nobody intended this statute to authorized essentially unsupervised halfway houses, but it was probably inevitable there'd be some NIMBY backlash when it was implemented, no matter what. Humorously (to me, anyway - I'm sure not to them), Ward's story also includes grumbling from prison officials who defended the program and think legislators are butting into their business:
It was also supposed to save taxpayers money, since the housing would cost less than a $47-a-day prison bed.
Instead, state records show, the 8-month-old Temporary Housing Assistance Program appears to have accomplished just the opposite. In some cases, parolees have been moved into state-rented homes from less expensive halfway houses. ...
Earlier this month, 98 parolees were living in taxpayer-paid housing across the state — most of them in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Their crimes included homicide, aggravated robbery, failure to register as a sex offender, driving while intoxicated, drug possession and escape.
One home in Dallas housed eight paroled felons — six from halfway houses, two just out of prison — until the author of the law demanded they be removed, officials said. In Houston, plans to house several felons at a site just a few blocks from an elementary school were scratched after neighbors complained.
"This program was not being operated as I intended, not even close," said an angry state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, the author of the law. "I've told them to get it fixed, and get it fixed now.
The controversy is the latest of a string in which legislators have publicly challenged how the state corrections system is being operated — including lingering questions about lax security and an abrupt, and later canceled, downsizing of a drug treatment program.Texas releases more than 70,000 prisoners per year, so this squabbling over a few dozen at the margins hardly merits sounding the alarm too loudly. Ward notes that:
That has left some corrections officials insisting privately that they are being unfairly micromanaged, a complaint that highlights simmering tensions between the agency and lawmakers.
Prison officials defend the housing voucher program and seem somewhat surprised at the criticism. They say the parolees who are being assigned to the homes are screened. Most are getting out of prison anyway and could live wherever they choose since they have no restrictions to stay away from schools or children.
"This is a program that's working," said Stuart Jenkins, the state parole director whose division oversees the housing vouchers. "As we're growing with the program, we're making some changes, as you would with any program. We haven't had any significant issues so far."
Even so, after complaints from Madden and others, parole officials ordered nearly a dozen felons removed from several residential homes where the state had been paying to rent rooms — including the Dallas house — and mandated that no more than two felons can live at any one location until further notice. Jenkins said officials are also reviewing the payment rates in the program and whether felons should be moved from cheaper halfway houses into more expensive housing assistance sites.
At the time Texas lawmakers approved the law in 2009, more than 300 parole-ready convicts were sitting in cells with no place to go.Since their sentences are up and the alternative is to cut the offender loose to live wherever they want, this doesn't seem like a bad solution to transition folks out of prison and reduce the pre-parole population at the margins. If they're placing 6-8 people at the same address, I've no doubt neighbors will complain. But as long as it's happening at an individual level and the living quarters don't violate conditions of parole (prohibitions against living near schools, etc.), I tend to agree with Jenkins the agency out to be given enough leash to implement the brand spanking new program and work out the kinks.
Under the law, the state can pay for housing for those new parolees for up to 90 days at a price not to exceed the daily cost of a prison bunk. In some cases, officials said, they can extend the housing payments up to 180 days.