It’s common to say that it costs something like $25,000 a year to keep someone locked up in prison. But if you let one person out of prison, you don’t necessarily save $25,000 because of the fixed costs of running a prison. If you have a 500-person prison and now you have 499, you still have the same number of guards, the same number of administrators, the same number of health care workers and all that. So it’s not until you close a whole prison or a whole wing of a prison before you save any substantial amounts of money.This is the fallacy on which the Legislative Budget Board hangs it hat when it claims virtually all criminal penalty enhancements are "insignificant" to the budget. It would be true if Texas owned all its own facilities. We do not. More than 11% of Texas capacity comes from leased private beds for which the state pays a per-inmate-per-day rate. Thus smaller reductions in the number of prisoners still save the state money. During the current biennium, for example, the number of Texas prisoners dropped and the state was immediately able to eliminate 1,900 leased contract beds without closing any of our 112 prison units, but still at a substantial savings.
I couldn't agree more the state should close some of its older, most expensive facilities and possibly some in far out rural areas where they've had trouble maintaining staffing. Indeed, because those old units are so much more expensive to operate, doing so would save much more money than eliminating private beds. But it's not accurate that the state won't save money from prisoner reductions until we close state-owned units. Every less prisoner that we contract to house saves the state money, and conversely, the marginal cost of each extra prisoner is the cost of the last private prison bed leased.
There's an attitude in the corrections business, both among reformers like Mauer and the prison-industrial complex types, that the number of people we incarcerate has grown so large that the cost of a few extra prisoners doesn't matter, or that marginal reductions won't really help the budget. But that's not true when you're paying per diem rates to incarcerate people outside state facilities. Then, every extra prisoner represents a real, immediate cost to the state, and every defendant diverted from prison represents short-term budget relief.
While I thought that one comment from Mauer let legislators too easily off the hook, the rest of what he had to say was spot on, particularly about the need to spend part of any savings from reduced prison spending on treatment and community based services. So, let's close the post with this bit of wisdom from the Sentencing Project leader that so far TDCJ bureaucrats and legislative budgeters have failed to heed:
if we cut drug treatment programs and employment assistance and other services like that, it’s a real risk of becoming a revolving door. We seem to save money at first by releasing people from prison, but so many people are going to fail it’s not going to get us very far. So what we need to do, I think, is to take some of those savings and target that to community services and community supervision to increase the odds that people who are released can remain safely in the community, can get reconnected to the community. That’s the way to really save money in the long run.Bingo.