Many criminologists and others in the field say that groundbreaking work on drug and alcohol counseling and community supervision has proved so effective that it has prevented another Texas prison-building boom. But they fear that could change if lawmakers cut diversion programs as they tackle a projected $18 billion budget shortfall.I couldn't agree more that slashing diversion funding would be penny wise and pound foolish. The Legislative Budget Board in June released projections that Texas' prison population had leveled off for the time being, but would increase again if diversion programming was cut. Closing prisons while doubling down on community supervision and probation funding is the only realistic way for the agency to cut 10% without harming public safety. If the state just slashes treatment and keeps all its prison units open despite declining inmate populations, there's little doubt they'll fill up and overflow again with breathtaking rapidity.
"We've saved money, kept the public safe, and we're not getting the state in such a situation where they're having to just open the doors of the prison and start pushing people out," said Teresa May-Williams, assistant chief of probation in Dallas County, which has been a leader of Texas' big push to treat nonviolent offenders' addictions.
But the state's incarceration rate would be "going straight up again – and it would be fast" if cuts were made, she said.
The diversion programs' uncertain future demonstrates a potentially recurring problem: Cuts that lawmakers make now to prevention efforts – whether aimed at disease, child abuse, high school dropouts or ex-cons' relapses into drug abuse – could cause long-term woes that cost more to address. The cuts also could cancel lively experiments praised by criminal justice experts around the country.
Texas' offender population has decreased slightly since 2007, when the Legislature began investing more money in treatment, diversion and lower caseloads for local probation officers. State analysts project it to stay essentially flat at nearly 155,000 adults through 2015.
"It is reasonable to conclude those actions are largely responsible for the decline," said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the state criminal justice department.
Lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry have ordered all state agencies to identify 10 percent in spending cuts over the next two years, preparations for tackling the budget gap next year. While the department has a few more weeks to fine-tune its cuts list and isn't tipping its hand, backers of the treatment and diversion initiatives fear the worst.
Monday, August 09, 2010
Incarceration rates headed "straight up again" if Texas cuts diversion programming
At the Dallas News, Robert Garrett reports on a concern I've expressed here on Grits that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to focus budget cuts on treatment and diversion programs while keeping the prison budget whole ("Addiction program for offenders too valuable to lose, proponents say," Aug. 9). Wrote Garrett: