Faced with a possible $20 billion budget gap, Texas legislative leaders had hoped to discuss closing some state prisons to save money. However, those prisons that for months have had empty bunks are slowly filling back up.I suspect a lot of "unthinkable" thoughts will get thunk before Texas finally gets serious about how enormous a $20-$30 billion shortfall really might be (something that may not happen until March or April), so I doubt this seasonal bump in inmate numbers will take prison closures off the table. There's also a chance the increase may be short-lived; Ward notes that "Parole rates historically drop during contested elections for governor."
And while officials are split about the reasons, most agree that if the trend continues, it could make decisions about slashing state spending even more difficult when the Legislature convenes in January.
Full prisons can't be closed without releasing convicts, a politically unthinkable solution. That leaves treatment and rehabilitation programs — two areas where Texas has expanded its funding and has been successful in recent years at reducing its prison population — as the likely targets for cuts that by some estimates could reach 15 percent of current spending.
About $6 billion of the state's $87 billion general revenue fund is spent on prisons.
In any event, Grits has argued repeatedly over the last year that, to actually achieve prison closures at levels needed to save real money at TDCJ, the Legislature must consider actual policy changes regarding sentencing and parole to reduce the number of incoming inmates and safely transition as many as possible to reentry. Front-end diversion significantly affects TDCJ's population numbers, while identifying ways to notch up parole rates by just 3% for the lowest risk inmates (the majority of TDCJ inmates are already parole eligible) would free up thousands of beds
Here are just a few policy changes suggested on this blog in the past to cut Texas' number of inmates:
- Adjust drug sentences downward by one level
- Adjust theft categories for inflation
- Expand funding for (much less expensive) community-based treatment and diversion programs
- Repeal post-'93 "boutique" enhancements passed on behalf of special interests
- Make medical parole more widely available for geriatric inmates (whose healthcare costs are greatest)
- Parole and deport most illegal immigrant inmates after they've completed their minimum sentences.
- Mandate that the parole board apply good-time and earned-time credits against time served in release decisions for certain offenders
RELATED: From Washington Monthly, see "Prison Break: How Michigan managed to empty its penitentiaries while lowering its crime rate."