Thursday, January 19, 2012

Florida to close 7 prisons, why couldn't Texas?

Florida recently announced they will close seven prisons and four work camps under a gubernatorial plan from Republican Rick Scott that's being tarred by Democrats and prison-guard unions as soft on crime and evidence of an "extreme Tea Party agenda." The state was able to close the units because of declining prisoner populations: “No inmates will be released early as a result of this decision, and there will remain adequate bed space to accommodate projected prison admissions, which have steadily decreased since FY 2007-08,” the corrections department said in a statement.

Regular readers know Grits believes Texas could have realized similar savings in the 82nd Texas legislature last year (we have more prisons and prisoners, by a longshot, than the Sunshine State) with just a few key policy tweaks, but the Lege instead cut funding, mostly for prisoner healthcare, without doing anything to reduce the inmate population. Within months, the state was paying $5 million per month over budget in an interim contract for healthcare costs with UTMB. When 2013 comes, if they want to cut TDCJ's budget they'll have to reduce the number of people incarcerated there.

Last week the Texas Public Policy Foundation held a panel at their annual policy conference (thanks to Marc Levin and David Guenther for the invite) featuring outgoing House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, chief Harris-County judicial cat-herder Caprice Cosper, House Rep. Marisa Marquez, and Adam Gelb from the Pew Center on the States.

Gelb's presentation focused on five "myths" about crime and punishment, but one of them spoke directly to the fallacy that "crime rates drive incarceration rates." In fact, he said, policy changes are the primary driver where states have reduced incarceration. That's how Texas avoided new prison building throughout most of the last decade, and it's the only way to reduce costs now.

Much was made at the event, and rightly so, of Texas 2007 investments in probation and diversion programs which have been oft-credited with keeping TDCJ's population 17,000 prisoners lower than had been projected five years ago. But in the "what have you done for me lately?" category, protecting those investments was the main accomplishment claimed for 2011.

In the Q&A section, I got to ask the panel why the Lege hadn't enacted more policy reforms to reduce inmate numbers and prison costs, "doubling down" on their earlier success to actually empty out and close prisons, as is happening in Florida. Madden replied that recidivism studies take three years and in 2011 they didn't have enough data to judge outcomes from the 2007 investments. While it's clear they worked overall, he said, the 2007 budget investments financed an array of different programs, and the Lege needed to wait on data to see which worked and which didn't to decide how to proceed.

That's a fair point, but in some ways the answer dodges the central conundrum facing the state on corrections spending. After all, the Lege slashed healthcare spending at TDCJ utterly without forethought or regard for reality, while failing to pass legislation that reduced the number of prisoners (particularly the sickest and/or elderly prisoners who cost the most money) commensurate with the smaller budget. Now, for this biennium, TDCJ will be coming in nearly nine-figures over budget, if the $5 million per month premium to UTMB continues, with 2013's budget expected to be even tighter. Last year they cut prisoner food, bled prisoner commissary accounts, reduced programming and educational opportunities, and likely cut all they reasonably can without addressing the elephant in the room: How can they change policies to reduce incarceration costs?

For the most part in 2011, that didn't happen, and there are few signs it's being seriously considered now (though one of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's interim charges asks them to study diversion programs in part with an eye toward "reductions in correctional populations"). Tight budgets, though, have a way of forcing radical decisions on legislators that no amount of external advocacy could ever persuade them to make. At a minimum, it'd be helpful for TDCJ to reduce inmate numbers enough to end some of its contract arrangements with private-prison companies instead of paying for each marginal, extra inmate on a per diem basis.

As Chairman Madden pointed out on the TPPF panel, in the near future TDCJ's Sunset process is the most likely vehicle for enacting such fundamental reforms. Grits hopes the Sunset reviewers evaluate the agency and make recommendations with an eye toward revamping TDCJ to correspond to these new budget realities, strengthening probation and parole while seeking creatively ways to emulate Flordia, New York, Michigan, and other states which have reduced incarceration and shut down prisons. That's the recipe for budget stability in Texas corrections - a lot of insiders already know it - and really the question becomes more one of political courage than budget sense. In that context, tight budgets could force legislators to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, letting them scale back mass incarceration without paying the same kind of political price one might pay, say, from closing neighborhood schools, by pointing out that's the tradeoff. Caprice Cosper echoed that sentiment, saying the budget crunch was an opportunity to think creatively.

Time will tell. Texans like to boast, I commented to the panel, and Madden was right to boast about the 2007 budget reforms - they were a great accomplishment. I'm glad this session they were mostly protected. But it's time to acknowledge that their effects have pretty much played out and more will need to be done in 2013 to actually cut the budget, much less avoid new prison building (or expanding use of contract beds) by the end of the decade.


Anonymous said...

Oh hell no! Texas won't shut down any prisons! If anything Texas will build 7 more so they can continue whoring to the prison industry and lobbyists. The Gov'na is full of scat with all his "stop lobbying in Texas" B>S.

Just take a look at all the lobbying for prison and jail expansion policies last session.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

They shut their first one ever in 2011, fwiw.

Don said...

Right. They closed Central and allocated most of the savings to private prisons,on a PRN basis. The thinking, I guess, was to make a token pass at pretending to face reality and appeasing the small part of the public, such as Scott and me, that want them to seriously stop trying to incarcerate every f'ing body and their f'ing uncle. Plus, at the same time, keeping their private prison lobbyist friends shelling out the getus. It is sickening when, after all, Florida is almost as full of tough on crime hypocrites as Texas.

Anonymous said...

No arguing the fact that "a prison was closed." But look at all the new offenses that were created and many of the policies put in place that will ramp up incarceration rates rather than reducing them.

Closing a prison while at the same time planning for and allocating funds for private prison is not cutting prison or prison costs. In fact, if money is about to be funneled to privatizing prison Texas is about to spend even money.

Matthew Brames said...

Why do we waste crops every year ? That could help TDCJ food costs. The line never turn out. The Wardens say they are short staff. The Farm manager tells them a month a head. Still millions of dollars are just disked under. What a waste of tax dollars. Just check all units who have edible crops. We could give that food to schools or sale to the public

mitch bradshaw said...

Why do we have so many horses not being used ? The line never turns out anymore. The inmates have a petting zoo. Put those CO's back in the building. Save money on feed and hay sell those horses. At Jester III, the line has not been out in two years.

Jimmy Ragsdale said...

TDCJ get ready for a big lawsuit. The vans that transport inmates are unsafe to drive. Allot have 200K miles on them. They are very worn out. With budget cuts they are not being replaced or repaired. Front ends are ready to fall off. The public will suffer the cost.

Winstead said...

TDCJ kills sick pigs with a sledge hammer. Seeing a inmate chase down a pig with a sledge hammer. What is wrong with this picture ? USDA does not allow this. Texas Animal Health does not allow this. Sick cows are shot by the farm manager with his personal gun around inmates watching. Then drug out in the pasture.

A Texas PO said...

This is interesting considering Florida's Lege passed a budget that made it easier to privatize their prisons and turn over felony probation and parole to private firms. I sincerely hope none of the yahoos in Austin get that idiotic idea in their over-inflated heads.

Lance said...

Closing down prisons!!!!! Great ideal.

The following units can be shut down tomorrow:
Bridgeport (Bridgeport)
Cleveland (Cleveland)
Diboll (Diboll)
Estes (Venus)
Kyle (Kyle)
Lockhart (Lockhart)
Moore, B. (Overton)
Bartlett (Bartlett)
Bradshaw (Henderson)
Dawson (Dallas)
Lindsey (Jacksboro)
Willacy County (Raymondville)

Unlike Florida, the officer's union will support the closure of these units and reducing the offender population.

DeathBreath said...

As long as we have self-righteous Christians, we will always have full prisons.

Kevin Stouwie said...

This post raises many important issues, IMO. However, one very simple way to keep the inmate population from swelling, that seems to be overlooked is to go back to making Mandatory Supervision mandatory again. It's now an oxymoron known as "Discretionary Mandatory Supervision". Approximately 70% of the offender population who are eligible for this type of release actually receive it.

Remember, DMS is not even eligible for those incarcerated for the worst offenses, and those who receive DMS accumulate good time credit towards the release date. Therefore, DMS represents less serious offenses and is given earlier to those who behave themselves while incarcerated. Sounds like making DMS release available to 100% of those eligible. That should help alleviate the crowding and allow for a few potential prison closures.

Hook Em Horns said...

Because Texas L-O-V-E-S Prisons! Period!

Anonymous said...

Texas wants to downsize inmate population? Then get tougher on inmates make them work, not stay in the dayroom watching tv,playing dominos,etc. Go back to being a prison and not a adult daycare resort!!! They could go back to farming, raising their own beef, poultry,pork that would help cut cost alot. Texans are gonna have to get tougher inside the prison environment to deter crime, not just in the courtrooms.