First, the portions reducing the number of inmates. The biggest reductions would come from using "shock probation" for technical violations. Mike Ward was the first to report on the:
plan to expand the use of "shock probation" sentences with limited prison time, to charge imprisoned felons more for their medical care, to study hiring additional private companies to run state jails and transport convicts between prisons, to consider releasing some critically ill convicts to save on medical bills and to begin selling over-the-counter medications to convicts rather than giving them away.
A fiscal note on the proposed changes says they could save nearly $13.5 million in two years, according to a copy of the document obtained by the American-Statesman. But House leaders said they expect that the savings could be at least twice that.
"We think this is a way to save money, lots of money, without endangering public safety," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, who said he will unveil the specifics of the changes in House Bill 3386 at an afternoon committee meeting today .
"The biggest piece of this is that instead of sending low-level probation violators to prison to finish their sentence, which can be years, we will send them to prison for up to a year as shock probation," Madden said.
"This may produce the most savings for taxpayers of any single bill this session in this area."I haven't seen the committee substitute, which is not yet online, but judging from the discussion the language is permissive, creating alternative revocation procedures that let judges send probationers to TDCJ for one year on technical violations, then gives them the option to let them let them back out on supervision. Long-time readers know the Legislature has been targeting technical violators, with only limited success, for reduced incarceration via recent probation reforms. This would make it much more explicit, while still leaving judges discretion in individual cases, that the Legislature does not intend for probationers to be sent to prison long-term for technical violations alone.
Paroling illegal immigrants
An amendment by Rep. Erwin Cain would expedite release of 2,057 "parole-eligible criminal illegal aliens" who did not commit violent crimes or sex offenses. Cain suggested prioritizing their parole would save $76 million over the biennium. Brad Livingston said the amendment would cause a "one-time spike in number of offenders who are paroled and ready for ICE custody," after which those paroles would presumably be expedited. Those targeted for release make up about 58% of the total parole-eligible illegal aliens in the system (roughly 3,500).
Livingston emphasized that HB 1 leaves 4,000 beds unfunded, so the Lege must cut inmate numbers by at least that much before anyone can talk about "savings."
Mulcting inmate families
Other provisions of the bill would mulct revenue from inmate families and potentially employees at state jails whose jobs may be privatized, their salaries reduced, benefits eliminated, etc.. Amendments direct the agency to study privatization of both state jails and inmate transportation. Ward describes the extra costs proposed for inmate families:
The revised bill also calls for each imprisoned convict to be charged a $100 annual fee to cover the cost of their health care instead of the current charge of $3 per visit to a prison doctor.I'm at least glad to see them raising money from phones by increasing minutes instead of hiking the price. Somewhat humorously to me, in California the availability of contraband cell phones has become a minor budget issue because they're so common inmates are using the landlines less. But taking money from inmate trust accounts and making inmates pay at the commissary for over the counter medication amounts to passing on costs not to inmates but their families. And unlike with increased phone minutes, there's no marginal benefit to families in return. After a certain point, families will stop putting money there; you can't get blood from a stone.
That change could bring in about $13.5 million over two years, according to an internal memo.
While an earlier version of the plan did not detail how the fee would be collected, the revised bill allows prison officials to take the $100 from inmates' trust fund accounts — either the full amount if it's in the account, or half of any deposits into the account until the $100 is paid.
At present, prison officials said that more than half of the state's 154,000 convicts have trust funds containing more than $100.
The revised bill will also double the number of minutes prison convicts are allowed to use prison pay phones each month, from 240 minutes to 480. Madden said that change, if approved, is expected to raise $2.9 million more per year than the nearly $6 million expected under current rules.
The rewritten bill would also allow some over-the-counter medicines — aspirin, ointments and other medications for upset stomach and pain relief — to be sold through prison commissaries for the first time.
Under current policy, prison clinics dispense the over-the-counter drugs for free to convicts.
Potential privatization would save on employee pay, benefits
The other group from whom legislators want long-term savings are employees at 15 state-owned and operated state jails. Amendments to the bill would require TDCJ to study privatization of both state jails and inmate transportation (the latter of which would seem to raise some security issues).
Rep. Cain says privately run jails offer the "same or better services" as state-run facilities, but the main source of savings, he said, is that privatization would "reduce state exposure to pension and healthcare costs" in the long term. TDCJ chief Brad Livingston added that salaries at private facilities are lower than state-run units, raising the specter of state employees being fired and offered their old jobs at lower wages, no pension, etc.. Cain's amendment doesn't privatize immediately. He would commission a study by TDCJ in which they solicit and evaluate competitive bids from private vendors.
TDCJ presently has 20 state jails, according to testimony - 15 state-owned and operated state jails, and five state-owned units operated by private companies. Livingston said that while it's difficult to compare apples to apples, private operators are cheaper than the state by roughly $7-8 per inmate per day because of lower salary and benefits. Bottom line: Private vendors pay their staff less money and have a less favorable benefit package than state employees. Also, it's still not a true apples to apples comparison, said Livingston, because if offenders become disruptions, have significant discipline problems, or require extra healthcare services, they're transferred back into the state system. So the privates really do only house the lowest-cost, lowest-risk, best-behaved inmates. They cost less mainly because they cherrypick the least expensive inmates, not because their model is inherently superior.
The issue of privatizing prison transportation raises a lot of vexatious questions. Some of TDCJ's recent escapes have involved transportation scenarios, so it's not an area where you want to skimp on security. And the big drivers on transportation costs are a) the price of gas and b) the distant location of rural units. Focusing on privatization is arguably a too-narrow way to address rising transportation costs. They should also be considering the impact of changes like closing rural units or releasing inmates directly from the facilities where they're housed that would reduce the number of miles covered. There's likely minimal savings to be had from privatization because everybody pays the same gas prices.