The House Corrections Committee on Monday heard legislation from state Rep. Alma Allen, HB 2352, that along with legislation proposed by state Sen. John Whitmire, would significantly reduce Texas' prison population and reduce caseloads for the parole board by removing one of the grounds for setting off offenders for release on "mandatory supervision." (Watch the hearing here, beginning at the 1:04 mark.) The bill doesn't apply to so-called "3G" or serious, violent offenses, and the parole board could still deny release if they determine that "the inmate's release would endanger the public." According to the Criminal Justice Impact Statement,
Requiring the automatic release of offenders is expected to result in decreased demands upon the correctional resources of the State due to shorter terms of confinement in prison. In fiscal year 2010, 8,594 offenders were discharged from prison and after removing from that group those ineligible for release to mandatory supervision, 5,506 of those offenders would be subject to the provisions of the bill. Of the 5,506 offenders subject to the provisions of the bill, 805 offenders accrued no good time and would still be subject to discharge release leaving 4,701 offenders released to mandatory supervision and serving shorter terms of incarceration (approximately 3.21 years). It is likely a substantial number of currently incarcerated offenders would be released as a result of the bill but the number would be contingent on the amount of good time accrued and time served by these offenders on the effective date of the bill, and the ability of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to process offenders for release.Keep in mind, of course, that even if they're "set off" another time or two, most of these folks will be getting out soon, anyway. In fact, if they serve 100% of their time, when they leave there is no state supervision at all upon reentry. About 72,000+ prisoners leave TDCJ each year, about half of them with no community supervision by parole officers at all.
Marc Levin from the Texas Public Policy Foundation pointed out that changing this policy would allow TDCJ to better use its pre-parole programming because it would provide more certainty regarding who would be released when, at least for a certain class of offenders. And since parole board members currently spend about 90 seconds per file before making a decision, Levin said, anything that can reduce their caseload and let them focus on more serious cases makes a lot of sense. Also, he pointed out, the parole board would still set release conditions in all these cases, and suggested using risk-assessment instruments to identify those who may need additional scrutiny by the parole board. Since the law still requires the parole board to consider whether "the inmate's release would endanger the public," perhaps such a risk assessment would be exactly the ticket. (See this related, recent research.)
In any event, going forward this legislation would decrease demand for prison capacity by thousands of prisoners each year (10,000+ annually by the 4th and 5th year) who have not been determined to "endanger the public." Chairman Jerry Madden laid out the legislation in Rep. Allen's absence, declaring that, if the state must reduce its prison population as a result of cuts in HB 1, this is one of the safest ways to do it. The fiscal note says Allen's bill would save $124 million over the next biennium, and much more in the out-years. Combined with Sen. Whitmire's legislation, the two bills would save more than $270 million over the next biennium - much more in the out years. Still not as much as needed to make all the budget numbers work, but a good start, if they'll do it.