"Must one smash their ears before they learn to listen with their eyes? Must one clatter like kettledrums and preachers of repentance?"
The Texas Senate Finance Committee released its own draft budget yesterday, and according to initial reports it was more generous overall than the starkly sparse House budget. (See the Legislative Budget Board for all the relevant documents.) The Senate draft, like its House counterpart relying mostly on suggestions from agencies, continues to focus most cuts at TDCJ in community supervision instead of suggesting more prison closures (with the exception of the Central Unit, which is slated for elimination in both), but it does restore some of the treatment and diversion funding proposed for deletion in HB 1.
According to a summary provided to Grits by a local probation director, while the House bill would cut 21.7% of state funding for local probation departments (or $122.9 million), the Senate version would "only" cut 12.8% (or $72.7 million). Basic supervision, diversion programs, community corrections, and treatment alternatives to incarceration would all be slashed under the senate draft, but with less severity than what the House proposed. Also suggested for elimination was drug treatment funding for probationers from the Department of State Health Services.
Regular readers know I think even this level of cuts to community supervision is a mistake, particularly when the budget envisions closing just one of the state's 112 prison units, which soak up the vast majority of TDCJ's budget. If Texas is going to close schools and even community colleges (the House draft would close four community colleges; the Senate's kept them funded), TDCJ can damn well suck up and accept more prison closures. That's the only way to safely cut TDCJ's budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, which is the level of savings required under both budgets. And to reduce incarceration safely, the state must both change its policies and increase investment in precisely the programs targeted for cuts. The resultant savings from closing a half dozen prison units or more would be greater, even, than the paltry savings from eliminating probation funding, which is less like rational budget cutting and more like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
I'm incredibly frustrated by these first two proposed budget drafts because they set up a false debate regarding criminal justice funding: "Should we cut community supervision programs more, or less?" That's the wrong question because it ignores the third, more sensible option: To save much more money, both in the short and long term, by expanding community supervision funding, emphasizing evidence-based diversion programs and progressive sanctions, and to take all the budget savings out of prison closures, with the added bonus of revenue from land sales in addition to reducing the number of state employees.
To do that, however, would require changes in policy to reduce incarceration levels in addition to lowering TDCJ's budget. In this recent post Grits suggested a number of policy changes that would help them achieve that goal:
- 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
Ironically, this morning I noticed a couple of stories about a delegation from Florida who visited Texas yesterday to learn about our community supervision and diversion programs, hoping to emulate the state's investments to avoid more prison building the Sunshine state cannot afford. Of course, those are precisely the programs the House and Senate budgets place on the chopping block, despite warnings from their own number crunchers that doing so would increase overall incarceration costs.
See related, recent Grits posts:
- Whither Texas prison healthcare with 24% budget cuts?
- Adult probation cuts detailed from just-filed House budget bll
- Texas corrections budget at second glance
- Corrections budget cuts concentrated in community supervision, set TDCJ up to fail
- Sugar Land anxious to get rid of 'unwelcome neighbor'
- Justice solutions offered at TPPF orientation
- Texas budget shortfall dwarfs corrections budgets