A new report argues that state jails aren't meeting their goal of helping to reduce crime by intensively treating short-term, nonviolent inmates, and it recommends that judges no longer be able to sentence felons to state jails without a rehabilitation planReport author Jeannette Moll wrote that, "state jails are universally failing in their objective." costing nearly as much as full-blown prison cells with higher recidivism rates and little opportunity for rehabilitative programming. A key legislator, though, wasn't willing to go quite so far.
The report, published Monday by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, says that those convicted of nonviolent felonies and normally sentenced to months in a state-operated jail should instead be released with community supervision. That can include treatment programs, community service, strictly enforced probation conditions and the threat of incarceration if certain conditions are violated. The report's suggestions were based on recent data concerning the number of felons who commit crimes after being released from state jails.
[Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John] Whitmire says that the proposal echoes much of what he and other lawmakers envisioned in 1993 and that he's open to legislation to address the high levels of reincarceration. “Something between what we do now and what they propose would make sense,” he said.For Grits' part, IMO the "practical implications" of Moll's suggestions run the other direction: If Texas reduced state jail incarceration rates enough to close one or two of them, that money could be much more effectively spent on community corrections programs and to beef up local probation departments (or at least stem the bleeding). It's much cheaper to supervise offenders on probation than in prison, so much so that supervision could be significantly boosted and programming expanded to handle the additional caseload and likely still have money left over. The only way the proposals would harm local probation departments and courts would be if the Lege cut the state jail budget but failed to shift any of the savings to community supervision. (Prison guards would like that money to go to staff raises and prison health care was dramatically underfunded last session, so there will be competition for that money.)
But he cautions that there are many practical implications on the rest of the criminal justice system to consider before changes can be made. Increasing the number of people on probation will increase the workload for judges and community supervision departments.
It's worth mentioning that the Lege has adjusted state jail sentences in the past without undue harm to probation departments or courts: In 2003, the Lege passed HB 2668 which mandated probation instead of incarceration on the first offense for less-than-a-gram state jail felony drug crimes. First filed by then-Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen, a religious conservative, the legislation successfully diverted thousands of offenders from state jails annually, significantly relieving pressure on the system. Grits has long favored doubling down on that probation-first strategy - not just for drug offenses but other state jail felons - and it's gratifying to see a prominent conservative think tank endorse the suggestion.
Meanwhile, the Trib also has a story by Brandi Grissom echoing a report on Grits last month about the prison guard union's push to close two private facilities - the Dawson State Jail in Dallas and a pre-parole facility in Mineral Wells. The former has been accused of providing inadequate health care while the latter has among the worst contraband problems of any Texas prison unit. The main, new information in the story was Sen. Whitmire's supportive comment regarding additional prison closures.
Grits has written previously that, while private prison units might be the simplest to shutter (and I've long agreed those two should make the list), 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 70%. (I'd start with the Connally Unit in Kenedy County and the facilities in Lamesa and 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.)
Normally one thinks of conservatives and public employee unions as inherently at loggerheads, but it's fascinating to see how these proposals dovetail: Implementing Moll's suggestions would reduce incarceration pressures and make the union's goal of closing units and consolidating staff far more palatable.
RELATED: See a fact sheet (pdf) from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition related to Texas' state jail system.