Texas legislators, looking for ways to plug an estimated $15 billion to $27 billion budget hole, are considering proposals that would cut as much as $162 million from rehabilitation and treatment programs meant to help criminals avoid going back to prison. For instance, the $100 Danny Bell received when he was released — the so-called “gate money” handed to prisoners who have completed their sentence — would be cut in half. Financing for Project Reintegration of Offenders, known as Project RIO, which helps released inmates find jobs, would be eliminated. So would money for educational and vocational programs in prisons and for re-entry transition coordinators. Financing for substance abuse and mental health treatment programs would drop dramatically.Grits shares the concerns expressed about cutting the programs that staved off the need for more prison building over the last few years. They'll have to start building again if suggested cuts to probation, diversion and reentry programming are implemented, costing a lot more in the short term than any temporary savings we might enjoy. Dr. Tony Fabelo estimated recently that by FY 2013 - that is, the second year of the coming biennium for which the Lege is now writing the budget - under Texas' House budget as filed the state will be 12,857 beds short; under SB 1 on the Senate side, TDCJ would be 9,634 beds short, all because of cuts to diversion and reentry programming. If all those beds were leased at (for estimation purposes) $17,000 per inmate-year, the cost in the next biennium would run an extra $327 - $437 million - far more than the probation cuts save!
Cuts to probation and diversion programming will incur higher incarceration costs almost immediately, as judges change their sentencing patterns in reaction to the new array of options presented them by the state. If you were around for the cuts to probation and treatment programming during Texas' 2003 budget crisis, you've already seen this movie. Similarly, eliminating employment programs for ex-inmates while refusing to contemplate prison closures is a particularly penny-wise-pound-foolish decision - arguably the exact opposite of where spending priorities should be. After all, employed ex-offenders are a lot less likely to commit more crimes and go back to prison in the future.
The 9,600 to 12,800 extra beds Fabelo says we would need will have to come from somewhere. The state can build more prisons we can't afford. Leasing more beds would cost hundreds of millions they don't have (the House and Senate budgets suggest reducing the number of leased private prison beds by 3,519 and 2,119 beds respectively). Or, the Lege could embrace the opportunity to change policies to incarcerate fewer people. The latter choice looks to me like the only rational one, but so far this session all the momentum seems to be with TDCJ's priority of keeping the maximum number of prisons possible up and running. Time will tell.
Cutting Gate Money?
Another note from the NYT story: I've heard conflicting reports on whether TDCJ is considering cutting "gate money" for inmates, and Brandi didn't source her assertion that it would be cut in half. "Gate money" is the $100 given to inmates when they leave prison, an amount that hasn't changed in many years. As I understand it, if their sentence is complete, departing inmates get the whole $100; if they're on parole, they get $50 and a bus ticket, with their parole officer giving them the other $50 when they show up for their first meeting.
The idea that gate money might be cut was first publicly mentioned in a summary sent to probation directors by TDCJ-CJAD chief Cary Welebob describing cuts in the filed version of HB 1. Notably, though, the cut was not listed specifically anywhere in the filed versions of HB 1 or SB 1. Dave Baab frorm KPFT-Houston's The Prison Show on March 2 asked TDCJ flak Michelle Lyons about the gate money, and emailed me afterward: "According to Michelle Lyons, an unnamed Senator was trying to propose the reduction in Gate Money, and made a bit of noise about it. However, TDCJ did not view this as an option and it was not in the proposed budget cuts listed by [TDCJ Executive Director Brad] Livingston. Lyons stated that the current $100 or 50/50 split was barely enough to see them to their destination with basic necessities and they did not feel that reducing this amount would be beneficial in any manner." Based on that, in my own mind, for now, I've dubbed the cutting-gate-money meme a "rumor" - in this case one printed in the New York Times, but a rumor nonetheless.
UPDATE: While the gate-money cut wasn't included in the budget, a commenter pointed out that on Friday, Rep. John Otto did file HB 3650 which would reduce gate money from $100 to $50. So the issue is in play, but was not included in the filed versions of the budget.