Monday, December 05, 2011

TDCJ adds 2,000 beds as agency deals with consequences of budget cuts without policy reform

At the Austin Statesman, Mike Ward has a piece today ("Prison cuts prove fleeting") on the predictable outcome from reducing incarceration budgets without simultaneously enacting policies to reduce the number of prisoners locked up. The story opens:
Last summer, when tough-on-crime Texas closed its first prison ever, legislative leaders were jubilant over downsizing one of the nation's largest corrections systems by more than 1,000 beds. It was a first big step, they said, toward saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in coming years.

Meanwhile, prison officials were adding bunks to the other 111 state prisons, which house more than 156,000 convicts. By last week, Texas had about 2,000 more prison bunks than it did a year ago, thanks to a state law that requires the prison system to maintain some excess capacity as a cushion against crowding.

Because those beds will likely fill up — empty prison beds almost always do — Texas taxpayers could be in line for some whopping additional costs come 2013.
At least TDCJ didn't add additional beds by contracting with private prisons, which was an option the Lege had left open. But cuts to probation programming made it all but inevitable that recent reductions in the incarceration rate won't be replicated over the next biennium. Even the Legislative Budget Board predicts (pdf) the number of Texas prisoners will rise beyond capacity before the 83rd session in 2013.

The problem, as regular Grits readers are well aware, is that the state incarcerates too many people for penny ante offenses. Virtually nothing is a misdemeanor anymore. Everything is a felony, or else somebody, somewhere thinks it should be. As Ward's sources put it:
"This is the adult discussion that the Legislature is going to have to have," said Scott Medlock, an Austin attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. "Ultimately, the problem is that we're incarcerating too many people for too long."

State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who for more than a decade has headed the committee that oversees prisons, echoes the sentiment:

"At some point, because of the costs, we have to recognize that we don't need to waste one dollar incarcerating one person that doesn't really need to be behind bars. We're at that point."

To significantly reduce the number of people in prison, state laws could be changed to reduce penalties for some crimes or to limit local judges' discretion to mete out long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes — both of which would be unpopular politically.
I'm actually not sure it's true those things "would be unpopular politically." That's an assumption among the political class, but given the bipartisan tuff-on-crime consensus it's a largely untested one, and recent polling doesn't support it. In a Texas Tribune poll last year, 66% of respondents placed prisons last when asked to rank budget items based on "how important it is to you that their current funding levels are preserved." In the same poll, just 2% of Texans ranked "crime and drugs" as their top priority.

We can see empirically that the "tuff on crime" hammer is losing some of its heft. At the Lege, few critics besides police unions and prosecutors oppose reform bills: Most of the public input legislators receive on reform legislation is supportive, including from traditionally conservative groups. The smart-on-crime approach also dovetails nicely with the desire among movement conservatives to cut the budget: "There's nothing the state can do to limit its costs (for prisons) if we keep sending more and more people to prison, if we keep expanding the capacity," Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation told the paper.

You can further see via election outcomes that "soft on crime" accusations are losing their political potency. After GOP House Corrections Committee Chairmen Ray Allen and Jerry Madden, consecutively, passed reform legislation to reduce incarceration rates, both were challenged by opponents who tried to label them soft on crime because of reform bills they passed, but both were able to win reelection. (In the interest of full disclosure: I helped Allen's campaign with opposition research in that 2004 race, one of my last clients as a professional opposition researcher.) Governor Perry has endorsed radical cuts to the prison budget and signed a raft of reform legislation that would make a Massachusetts liberal blush, but none of that has hurt him at all (his problems lie in other areas). And Newt Gingrich, the current leader in GOP primary polling, has backtracked from earlier views to endorse the Right on Crime campaign, whose guiding principles call for downsizing the justice system. (I'd love to see somebody ask him about that in a campaign debate.)

So why should we assume that smart-on-crime incarceration reforms will be "unpopular politically"? What spotty evidence we have, IMO, points in the other direction.

There are many different ways to reduce prion numbers, but Ward identified a few being seriously discussed behind the scenes:
Among other budget-savings proposals being pushed:

• Parole to their home countries some of the 8,000 nonviolent criminals who are not U.S. citizens, a plan that was enacted into law last spring but has yet to see significant results.
• Allow counties to benefit financially for sending fewer convicts to state prison, through new state funding for local corrections programs that advocates insist would be less costly for taxpayers — and probably more effective in cutting recidivism. A bill to do this died in the Legislature last spring.
• Reform sentencing laws, and limit the amount of prison time a judge can give some nonviolent offenders. Past proposals for sentencing guidelines have died in previous legislative sessions amid opposition from elected judges and prosecutors who say it would illegally limit their authority to dispense justice based on community mores.
While more than a dozen other states have recently enacted or are seriously considering such changes, legislative leaders say they are not sure Texas is quite ready to go along.
Again, I don't see why not. It's true that the Texas Senate this year was a killing field for reform legislation, while the session before quite a few reform bills died because of "chubbing" in the House over voter ID. And it's equally true that police unions and prosecutors carry disproportionate weight in the process. Not to mention, the task becomes more difficult from losing long-time reform champions like Jerry Madden, Pete Gallego, and Scott Hochberg from the Lege.

But desperate times call for desperate measures and if this is the only way to cut the budget, will all the new Tea-Party aligned conservatives really vote against it? Debates over TDCJ's budget are fundamentally constrained by reality in a way that election rhetoric is decidedly not. You can't reduce health care funding by 9 figures without reducing the number of patients served. Reducing food budgets at a time when food costs are rising requires reducing quantity, quality or else the number of people eating. Cuts to diversion programs that cost a few dollars per day don't (or shouldn't) count as savings when they result in more revocations to prison for probationers and parolees, boosting their (average) cost to $44 per day. These are immutable facts. When a judge or jury sends a prisoner to TDCJ - until they serve their full sentence or are released by the parole board - they must be fed, clothed and supervised. When they are sick they must receive healthcare. When they are elderly and disabled they receive the equivalent of nursing-home care. Those things cost money.

We have passed the point where TDCJ can find savings by cutting "waste." The only way to reduce the budget further is to change policies. But for whatever reason, in 2011 that wasn't seriously on the table. As described by a Grits headline summing up the session: "Texas budget ditches 'smart on crime' approach, reverting to old priorities."

It should be mentioned that the list of suggestions offered by Ward for reducing the inmate population is far from exhaustive. Grits can imagine many other ways not suggested in the story:
That's not an exhaustive list, either, but it shows there are a lot of different methods for reducing the prison population if the Lege can muster the will to make its policies match its budgeting preferences. Whether that's possible, I don't know. But the takeaway lesson from 2011 is that the prison budget can't be effectively cut without reducing the inmate population. We've traveled beyond the point when it's possible to tell TDCJ, "Do more with less."


Prison Doc said...

I'm not citing it as a great source, but lately I've watched a few episodes of "Alaska State Troopers" on National Geographic Channel. Almost everyone they arrest is packing heat and carrying dope. The interesting thing is, NOBODY GETS ARRESTED. Everyone gets a citation and sent on his way. I hope Texas will pick up on that lesson.

Of course that move will cost my small town its newspaper...the only thing they have to print now is minimal drug arrests, most of whom get thrown in jail.

Lee said...

"Unrestrained and uneducated" Was this just John Bradley's lame attempt to get back at you for all tht is his fault?

Cleverly Disguised said...

I confident that the Lege will come up with some additional felonies and enhance a few others to pick up the slack on the decline of the prison population....Why after all stop at 2400+ ?The John Bradleys and the "wannabes" will gladly serve up their suggestions for more felonious fish and oyster offenses.

Anonymous said...

"The problem ... is that the state incarcerates too many people for penny ante offenses."

Penny ante crimes like what?
How many Oyster felons are taking up a bed space?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

low level drug possession comes to mind, 4:21, you could start there.

Kevin Stouwie said...

Another excellent article! As indicated, there are many ways to reduce the prison population without making the judges feel like their power has been taken away. Since the "smart on crime" approach seems to coincide with budget cuts everywhere, the politicians would be well advised to do a little of all, or at least many, of the ideas suggested in this piece. If they trimmed at the margins in a comprehensive way, the inmate population would not go up, and might even go down a bit.

My only concern is that politicians may not have the courage to see that many people who are convicted of crime really do get the message and learn from their mistakes long before they are released. $22,000 per year per inmate is an awfully expensive lesson to teach. Meanwhile we have bright kids who cannot afford to go to college. Insane.

DEWEY said...

To Anon 4:21:
"Penny ante crimes like what?"
How about "failure to register as a sex offender"? Offhand, I can name at least 3 people serving TEN YEARS for not registering, two of which were told they didn't have to register. No new crime, just didn't register.
I could add many more "penny ante" crimes, and take up the whole page, but won't.

Stephanie said...

Need to pass the restorative justice legislation that failed the last three sessions. RJ initiatives are less expensive, show reduced recidivism, greater victim satisfaction, and greater likelihood of restitution payment.

Anonymous said...

"...Penny ante crimes..."

The problem is that too many people fail to choose to respect the rights of others by living within the laws of the land. Tough on crime is not a failing approach, it only fails when you have to let folks out for all the wrong reasons. ie - budget cuts, partisan politics, so on and so on. The only reason a criminal should be let out before full term is when behavior has been modified or your debt to society has been paid. As far as the costs for prison, that is the penalty society and communities pay as a reminder that they have been sitting on their ass with hands over their eyes instead of investing in the communities they live in before someone becomes a criminal.

I think it is time that all of the leftist sympathizers realized that a change of guard is around the corner. AND get used to the idea that in TEXAS, if you victimize/pose a threat to the public, your stupid ass will probably end up in prison.
If you don't like prison, start acting right.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:00 writes, "As far as the costs for prison, that is the penalty society and communities pay as a reminder that they have been sitting on their ass with hands over their eyes instead of investing in the communities they live in before someone becomes a criminal."

Huh, so society is to blame for the criminals' actions therefore average citizens deserve higher taxes? Let's hope the tuff-on-crime crowd is turning to you for messaging advice, that argument's a real winner!

Leave aside for a moment the fact that the states with the highest incarceration rates tend to have the highest crime rates, so it's a fallacy that the "tuff" approach reduces crime more. In the current budget environment, "spend more, money is no object" is neither a practical, realistic approach nor a viable political message.

RSO wife said...

To Anon 4:21 - One more "penny ante" crime. Failing a polygraph and getting probation revoked and serving 3 years in TDC because the person giving it didn't like the answer. Not because the answer was a lie, but just because he didn't like it. Add to that the fact that the judge in the case had you mixed up with somebody else and would have lost face if she had admitted her mistake. Want me to keep going?????

Anonymous said...

I said this on another post but for all the little non-violent crimes committed the county that convicted them and so sorely wanted them in prison should pick up the tab for them. Then maybe the county voters and tax payers would send them a clear message. Everyone wants tuff on crime until it comes home to them or their family. I always wondered about this thought process. It is kind of like both politicians and inmates alike when they always seem to find Jesus just at the right time.

Arce said...

I am with anon at 10:31 am. The people who elect the tough on crime DAs and judges should pay the freight for the costs they bring about. That would promote rationality in the DAs and judges.

In Waco, we had a lady get 30 years for murder and a man get 40 years (reduced from 90) for have sex with a 16 year old (seduced, not coerced). The we got the post card about a man who brutally raped a small child and is now back in the community having served 4 years. We need sentencing guidelines that make sense.

So, do you think a man who is having sex with a 16 year old in the future is more or less likely to end the threat of her telling by deadly violence?

Is "grandoid", the word verification today, a robotic grandparent?

Anonymous said...

It is hard to understand why Texas doesn't adopt a mandatory sentencing guidelines that improves upon what the Feds use?

That would quickly and efficiently save not only prison costs, but legal fees as well and speed up the court process.

DeathBreath said...

The following comments reflect my personal beliefs, feelings and opinions. They are not a statements of fact:

I cannot believe what I've been reading about the Texas legislature & the solutions they've been hatching. The majority party, GOPigs, have made a fine mess of things in order to appease their porcine constituents.

Let's talk about the "get tough" policy on crime. Those who support this position seem to have negative hallucinations, not positive ones. That is, they seem be blinded by the presence of the many who have been locked up as a function of their obvious break with reality.

What's wrong, Bubba? Have you run out of options? What buffoons we have in Austin.

I know, why don't you hold another prayer rally to address these important issues. I would pray for mana in the form of edible dollar bills. While you're at it, you might want to pray for Jesus to take all of those prisoners to another holding cell of your choice: pergatory; heaven; or hell. Then, you might have more room!

I've noticed how John Whitmire, the Mensa candidate from Texas, has been ejaculating his stupidity in the news as of late.

I have also seen where the Austin American Statesman has disallowed comments for the more controversial articles they have recently published.

What's wrong, isn't there enough cyber storage? Or, is the newspaper being pressured by political slugs with very thin skin? Have you caved from political pressure?

The newspaper in question has printed some pretty bold articles about TDCJ-ID, UTMB-CMC & psychiatrists with "issues." But, no comments? Come on! Pussies!

I've seen more common sense from those diagnosed with substandard intelligence.

How many times did Reagan raise taxes during his administration? I ask that because he is often cited for having sound political decisions, even in the presence of his organic condition.

But, there is little hope for Texas with the simpletons we have running the state.

Pretty Boy Perry has done a fine job of representing his constituents and the citizens of Texas. Yeee Haawwww.