on Saturday an amendment by conservative Weatherford Republican Phil King will require the department to prioritize closing the most costly private prisons over less-expensive ones (in a “cost-benefit analysis,” as King put it).That vote on its face seems to contradict the decision by House budget writers not to close prisons this year and in fact to purchase an extra unit the state doesn't need. Chairman Parker's call for closing "at least two facilities" makes Grits optimistic that the conference committee on the budget will side with the Senate side to close two prisons.
Quite a few Republicans have embraced a smart-on-crime approach and believe that mass incarceration, especially of nonviolent offenders, is not only fiscally irresponsible, but doesn’t reduce crime. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound), chair of the House Corrections Committee, said, “It is our intention here to be fiscally responsible. … I believe it is very important that we close at least two facilities, if not more.”
“Thankfully, it’s a good situation that we find ourselves in Texas, that crime is on the decline,” he said.
Rep. King's amendment, I suppose, could complicate which units get closed. Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire has argued for closing the Dawson State Jail in Dallas and a pre-parole facility in Mineral Wells. There are several elements to consider when judging which units to close: Not just cost is important but also the ability of the agency to adequately staff the unit (many rural units are chronically understaffed), which units deliver inadequate medical care, which ones have the most heat-related deaths, whether the unit has suffered chronic contraband or corruption problems, and whether there are higher, better uses for the surrounding property, among others. There's nothing wrong with using cost as guidance but it shouldn't be the sole factor. To me, closing Dawson and Mineral Wells should be a foregone conclusion and by now we should be discussing which units to close next.
(MORE: From the Texas Tribune, which reported that the amendment would put off prison closures for two years. That's more consistent with what was in the House budget. AND MORE: From AP.)
Not all went smoothly yesterday, though. The El Paso Times has the story of another amendment that regrettably didn't get on in a blog post titled, "House doesn't want to know about mentally ill in solitary." Here's the gist:
Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, proposed an amendment requiring the department to report the cost and other informaion regarding prisoners in solitary. The amendment failed 59-68.RELATED: A plea to Texas budget conferees: Close two prison units, don't buy empty cells we don't need.
Clearly outraged, Marquez told her colleagues that solitary confinement is one of the most expensive, least effective ways to treat mental illness. Didn't legislators realize that these same inmates are being released into their constituents' neighborhoods - usually with no assurance that they're getting care they need, she demanded.
After the vote, Marquez fumed that so many of her colleagues claimed to be fiscally conservative, yet they didn't want to know more about a major expenditure by a prison system that is the third-most expensive item in the state budget.