Thursday, March 24, 2011

Debating, praising Marc Mauer: On reducing state spending through prisoner reductions

Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune yesterday published an interesting interview with Marc Mauer, the head of the national Sentencing Project. I respect Mauer's work and concur with almost everything he said. But there was one part of his commentary that I disagree is applicable to Texas' budget situation. Grissom asked what pitfalls legislators should avoid, and Mauer began his answer:
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.


Anonymous said...

Back in the 90's the Prison System began getting away from the established areas where there already prisons and started building them in just about any county that they could.

This was a boost for numerous counties that were in rural areas which needed more job opportunities.
But....this very dramatically increased the supply line for each and every prison.

When they got away from the aforementioned areas, there was an increase in every aspect of running a prison.

The Prison system could have saved alot of money by building new prisons on land that they already owned. This would have saved an enormous amount of money on fuel consumption alone.
I say shut down the outlying prisons that are not close to Huntsville, Sugarland, Palestine, Gatesville. Do we really need to have a prison in Ft. Stockton? Childress? Woodville? Beaumont?
I don't think so...

Anonymous said...

I guess they could crank up the executions and get them moving along at a faster clip to save money. I mean there is no sense putting off the inevitable...or as the old saying goes:
Don't put off tomorrow what you can do today.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:14, Let's pretend for a moment that death-penalty appeals don't exist and don't cost millions, and Texas executes everyone on Death Row tomorrow. That frees up 314 beds when the state is projected to be 12,000 beds short by 2013. Now what?

The only rational solution is to do what Mauer says: Close prisons and spend part of the savings on less expensive diversion programs.

I realize you think you're being clever, but if you've got nothing more to offer than lame Culture War jabs, why don't you go in the other room and let the adults talk.

Anonymous said...

Well lets free up 314 beds then so we can make room for others.
If you don't want prisoners in prison, maybe you house a few at your place....

I don't have a problem with closing a number of the medical facilities...If they are that ill send them to the house and let their family care for them.

And why does the State feel the need to place prisons in every corner of the State?
Didn't they own enough land around the already established prisons to build further?

How are they to predict 2 years in the future how many people will be sentenced to TDC anyway?
Did they shake the "8" ball to get this answer or what?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:27, your jerkwad efforts to turn this into a death penalty debate are as spurious as they are puerile. Given the reality of the capital appellate process, you may as well argue we save money by feeding the inmates cheese harvested from the moon.

As for placing prisons more centrally, etc., nobody's building any new prisons anytime soon. TX can't afford to keep open the ones we have. Under the Rick Perry administration they're releasing 72,000 inmates per year - that's not my doing, or any liberals, that's the result with all Perry appointees on the parole board. Maybe you should ask Gov. Perry or Rissie Owens to house them at their places?

Meanwhile, Governor Perry has told TDCJ to cut $786 million next biennium, plus the projected bed shortfall that will cost $400 million extra costs for leased beds if diversion programs are cut. Rhetoric won't solve a collective $1.1+ billion budget hole at TDCJ - in the real world where mathematics applies, that requires reduced incarceration.

As for "how can they predict?," it's pretty easy because incarceration numbers are driven by state policy, not crime rates, which have been declining for 15 years. Change state policy and incarceration levels change at fairly predictable rates. FWIW, LBB has actually been quite accurate in recent years predicting the effects of government policies on incarceration rates - more so than I would have expected given all the change in the system from 2003 onward.