Grits certainly agrees with the goal of expanding parole for qualified inmates and closing the Dawson State Jail and the pre-parole facility at Mineral Wells, which are in fact all suggestions this blog has championed in the past. But I see no particular benefit to simply downsizing rural units instead of closing more of them. The impetus for prison closures is mainly cost (coupled with declining crime), and closing units eliminates overhead costs that the state still must pay if it simply reduces the number of inmates per facility.Hello Scott,As a reader of your Blog from time to time and a major criminal justice reformer, I would like to propose Option "D" in regards to your blog on the Statist view on correction officer pay.I have never advocated the growth of TDCJ. This last legislative session I pushed for the closure of two private prisons and the Central Unit to offset funding for the employees insurance, along with other cost saving measures. Unlike California's CCPOA union that supported the three strikes laws, I have taken a more progressive approach supporting the reforms started by Former Rep Jim McReyonolds.This next session I will seek an increased parole of an additional 4,000 inmates. I will also seek the closure of Dawson State Jail and Mineral Wells. These prisons are extremely dangerous and are only being kept open to satisfy the greed of the private prison industry. Down sizing rural units (not closure) is a real option and one that will face no resistance. With increased funds available, I would like to see those funds retain a better more professionalized criminal justice force. This is option "D."Keep up the good work by keeping the wheels of reform turning. I promise you won't find much resistance by the union. We look after our own and need more revenue to take care of our members families. Increasing the prison industrial complex is insane and we know that.Sincerely,Lance L LowryPresident AFSCME Local 3807Texas Correctional Employees
I agree that savings from de-incarceration could be used to "retain a better more professionalized criminal justice force," but to me that goal would be better served - and more money would be made available for the task - if the state closed a handful of rural prison units instead of reducing populations at some larger number of them. As for whether Mr. Lowry supports expanding TDCJ, my point was that the union's proposal for higher across-the-board pay would expand TDCJ's budget, though perhaps closing two private units and expanding parole would partially make up for the extra cost. In any event, I appreciate him clarifying the nuances of his group's position that weren't captured in Grits' earlier post.
Grits should also acknowledge that Lowry's correct about the differences between Texas' prison guard union and their much more powerful and regressive counterpart in California. Texas guards are underpaid and in a GOP-run state, public employee unions are unlikely to command large wage hikes comparable to what California guards have experienced. So prison guard reps in Texas are more open, generally, to de-incarceration because it improves safety and working conditions for union members who lack the political clout of their Golden State brethren.
Lowry's suggestions for which units should be closed are particularly notable and worthy of further discussion. He has identified two private units, one of which (Mineral Wells) has one of the worst contraband problems in the state and the other of which (Dawson State Jail) that the Chamber of Commerce crowd in Dallas would like to get rid of in order to facilitate a long envisioned Trinity riverfront development. Those wouldn't be bad choices, but they're not the only possibilities. As Grits has described before, there are several criteria by which the state could select which prison units to close.
- Private facilities which can be decommissioned more rapidly and with less expense than state facilities.
- Older facilities, especially those built prior to 1920, which can cost more than twice as much per inmate to operate than newer units.
- Rural units with staffing levels habitually below 75%. (I'd start with the Connally Unit and the one in Dalhart.)
- Units with the worst records on interdicting contraband.
- Units with the most heat-related deaths and/or hospitalizations.
- Units located in areas with water shortages.
- Units previously built in rural areas which are now in suburban growth corridors with higher property values so that operating a prison is no longer the highest, best use of the property. (The Central Unit, which the Lege closed last session, fell into this group.)
Also, Lowry focuses on parole as the primary means of de-incarceration, but Texas' recent probation reforms have shown that front-end diversion can work equally well. Similarly, increased programming aimed at reducing revocation rates for parolees has paid big dividends. Grits would hate to see community supervision funding de-prioritized under the false assumption that an uptick in parole rates in and of itself would sufficiently reduce incarceration rates. That may be true in the short term, but the outcome would not be stable long-term unless more resources are devoted to community supervision and structural changes are made to Texas sentencing regime. Here's a partial list of potential reforms (compiled in this Grits post) to give a sense of potential policy options for reducing incarceration levels enough to close more prisons:
- Index property offense thresholds to inflation
- Ratchet down drug offenses by one category across the board
- Relieve the parole board of discretion to disregard earned-time credits
- Boost funding for state hospitals, competency restoration, community-based mental health treatment
- Reform 'fiscal note' process to reflect actual cost of new crimes, enhancements in state budget
- Boost parole release rates at the margins for low-risk offenders
- Give credit for time supervised on parole on certain offenses
- Repeal post-'93 "boutique" enhancements passed on behalf of special interests
- Enact a moratorium, explicit or de facto, on creating new crimes or "enhancing" existing ones
- Expand use of medical parole for elderly, sick inmates who pose little threat
- Spend at least 1% of juvenile justice funding on programs for at-risk youth
- Require inmates set to be released on “flat discharge” for serving their entire sentence to be placed in a community-based, supervised program for nine months to decrease their likelihood of recidivating
- Expand mandatory probation for first-offense drug felony to 1-4 grams of a controlled substance
- Expand and for some offenders mandate use of intermediate sanctions
- Cap time in prison for property and drug offenders revoked on technical violations to no longer than 12 months
- Reward successful probationers with early termination of probation or dismissal of their case (an even stronger incentive because it reduces collateral consequences).
- Reduce reliance on life and life-without-parole sentences to avoid high future costs.
In any event, thanks to Mr. Lowry for the note clarifying his group's position.