According to that quarterly data source, there were 146,968 inmates locked up in TDCJ as of June, down 3,816 from the end of FY 13. That's plenty for TDCJ to shutter at least one or two units. And the easiest method would be to let a private-prison contract or two expire.
There are four state jails whose contracts expire Aug. 31, 2017 which conceivably could be targeted for closure if current incarceration levels continue to decline. All four are operated by Corrections Corporation of America:
- Bartlett State Jail (1,049 beds)
- Bradshaw State Jail (1,980 beds)
- Lindsey State Jail (1,031 beds)
- Willacy State Jail (1,069 beds)
That would be a big enough reduction to let all these contracts expire. LBB estimated such a change would save $105 million in the first two years and $314.4 million over five years. The Lege could share some of the savings to bolster local probation departments - who would henceforth be supervising both more probationers and more needy ones - while still logging substantial near-term savings.
TDCJ has been asked to cut a quarter-billion dollars, so $105 million over two years is just 40% of that. It's significant, but not enough to cover the budget cutting goals laid out for the agency by the state leadership. It'd be a good faith start, though, and well worth the effort.
When Texas last faced a major budget crunch in 2011, TDCJ chickened out and pretended they could cut prisoner healthcare, food, and other core costs that really weren't viable solutions. Former executive director Brad Livingston didn't have the guts to tell the Lege, "the only way you can cut nine figures in our budget is to incarcerate fewer people." And so the politicians ended up cutting the wrong things. And they still imposed prison closures on the agency, only against its will instead of with its cooperation. (I seriously doubt the Central Unit would have been high on the agency's closure list, for a variety of historical and logistical reasons, for example. But TDCJ removed itself from that debate by refusing to contemplate prison closures, therefore its opinions were excluded from many of those conversations.)
This time, let's hope TDCJ brass tells the Legislature the hard truth: You can't reduce spending by those amounts without reducing incarceration. Then they should offer realistic suggestions that would do the trick. The union would support them. And there are several units the agency could close which have been nothing but headaches for TDCJ management (with the Connally unit perhaps topping the list).
In 2011, TDCJ's appropriations request adamantly refused to suggest viable solutions and thrust the problems back on legislators. This time, they should learn from their mistakes, cooperate with legislators and help them govern by giving them a realistic path to achieving sustainable cuts, not a guided tour through some Potemkin village that dissipates when supplemental-appropriations time comes around at the beginning of the next session.
* Making .02-4 grams a Class A misdemeanor, going a little further than Chairwoman Thompson, would be Grits' preference for changing the law in 2017. Current Texas law makes possession of less than a gram a state jail felony and 1-4 grams a third-degree felony. But up to four grams is still user-level possession and most people convicted in that range are addicts, not dealers. The amount of drugs possessed by a user when arrested isn't a reasonable way to distinguish punishment between those two cohorts of defendants. And going this route would save quite a bit more money, particularly in the out years. Meanwhile, when there's less than .02 grams of evidence (trace cases), agencies should be forbidden from seeking charges because, after the state does its labwork, there's not enough left for the defense to re-test under Sixth Amendment "confrontation" requirements.