Tuesday, April 19, 2011

False debates on corrections budgets ignore savings from deincarceration

Diane Jennings at the Dallas News has a feature on prison-related budget cuts to prison programming and employee benefits that will interest to Grits readers, though most of the discussion covers familiar ground. However, one comment in the story from Robert Worley, a criminal justice professor at Texas A&M Central Texas, struck me as flat-out wrong-headed regarding TDCJ employee turnover. Jennings wrote that:
Worley doesn’t expect high [employee] turnover in the weak economy.

“They’re going to be some of the highest quality guards that have ever been hired,” he said. “You’re going to have people with college degrees that can’t find jobs — they’re going to be correctional officers.”
He's half right. TDCJ has been getting more people applying with college degrees, but turnover remains absurdly high despite the recession. That's in part because Texas prisons aren't located in urban areas where most job seekers live, but instead were built out in the boondocks as mostly failed rural economic development engines. Now, those rural areas are depopulating and prison jobs aren't attractive enough to draw urbanites to live in Palestine or Huntsville, much less some of the newer, more far-flung units like those in Dalhart and Fort Stockton. Complicating matters, those who do apply don't stick around. TDCJ must hire five new guards at the CO I level to get one permanent, long-term employee because 80% of recruits wash out. Worley just couldn't be more wrong about the turnover issue, which will become even more acute if the Lege follows through on plans to reduce guard pay, eliminating a 7% raise given in 2009 aimed at improving employee retention.

There was another oddity in the story: The line, "Legislators don’t expect the number of inmates to rise, because the prison population is not expected to grow." Huh? That runs precisely counter to predictions by the Legislative Budget Board, which have Texas' inmate population rising slightly after a brief dip. (See "Adult and Juvenile Correctional Population Projections: 2011-2016" pdf.) Perhaps Ms. Jennings is anticipating passage of some of the pending legislation to reduce inmate numbers, but it's much too early for any chicken counting on that score.

Otherwise, the story contains various laments from inmate families and union officials decrying particular cuts, but regrettably, to me what's more important about the debate being described is what's not being said. In January when the House and Senate budgets came out, Grits argued that the competing budgets set up a false debate:
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.
Criticisms of the budget described in Jennings' story are limited in precisely that fashion, focusing on cutting corrections in areas that make up just a tiny portion of TDCJ's budget while ignoring much greater potential savings from deincarceration. TDCJ has successfully limited the debate over corrections costs, essentially, to whether to shift expenses to inmate families, prison employees, or counties. What's not being discussed openly is whether to reduce Texas' overall incarceration rate to simply lock up fewer people and operate fewer prisons. Doing that while expanding community corrections funding is the only rational way to make nine-figure cuts in TDCJ's budget, but that option so far simply hasn't made it onto the table, and if the agency has its way, it never will.


Katia said...

they should all read this article...very great insight!

Anonymous said...

"Legislators don’t expect the number of inmates to rise, because the prison population is not expected to grow."

WTF? They pass more and more laws to entrap an ever increasing group of citizens to fuel their jail economy in the state and then something like this statement is pulled out of someone's ass??

Seriously are we, the voters, really that stupid?

Worley should seriously return to the classroom as a stupid to come up to date on what is REALLY going in here, instead of using some thought that might have been present in the 1960's/70's as a basis to report figures. Honestly, it takes a person of far less schooling than someone on his level to look up stats from not only the state but the fed to see that our corrections complex is a self feeding animal that will entrap well over 50% of the population in the next 15 years.

Anonymous said...

*as a student.. Freudian slip??