Friday, January 11, 2019

Fixing longstanding criminal-justice problems in a black-ink budget year

Comptroller Glenn Hegar gave the Texas Legislature some good news with a black-ink budget projection for the coming biennium, suggesting they may have more than $9 billion more to spend than in 2017. Some of that will go for Hurricane Harvey costs (thought the Rainy Day fund should also contribute to that), some will get gobbled up with increased costs for entitlement programs, and any school finance fix will almost certainly consume the lion's share of the rest.

But it's not inconceivable that the Texas Legislature could use some of that money to solve ongoing problems in the justice system. What might that look like? Here are some ideas Grits brainstormed; let me know in the comments if you think of others:

Eliminate the Driver Responsibility Surcharge: $300 million
Both Texas political parties and every politician under the Pink Dome you ask wishes the Driver Responsibility Surcharge weren't the law. But the program brings in roughly $300 million per year - half goes to the General Revenue fund, half goes to hospital trauma centers - and politically, the surcharge can't be repealed unless the state comes up with the money.

Raise the Age: $45 million
When the 85th Texas Legislature ended, Texas was one of seven states that prosecuted 17 year olds as adults. Today we're one of only four. There's a decent chance that, if the Lege doesn't change the law this year, we'll be the only one when the 87th Legislature convenes in 2021. The Legislative Budget Board estimated making the shift would cost $45 million during the first biennium of implementation, and $70 million per biennium after that, to send youth through juvenile corrections systems instead of the adult side. (There's some evidence these costs are overstated, under-estimating related savings.) The House has passed RTA legislation two sessions in a row, but senators and the Lt. Governor are unlikely to bite without a dedicated allocation in the budget.

Boost reentry funds: $30 million
Increasing funds to prisoners leaving TDCJ from $100 to $300 would cost ~$13 million per year, $26 million per biennium. Tack on another $4 million per biennium to make sure they have driver's licenses or ID cards when they hit the streets, and mandate that DPS issue them based on information provide by TDCJ. Neither of these were in the agency's appropriations request, but they should have been.

Crime labs: $8-10 million
The Legislature either needs to boost funding for crime labs by perhaps $8-10 million per biennium or start charging for services. The DPS LAR only asked for $5.8 million that was taken away from the agency in user fees. But that amount was insufficient to solve the months-long backlogs presently being experienced. Legislators should find out what would be needed to reduce backlogs to a reasonable period then fund DPS crime labs at THAT level. Or, alternatively, Grits supported the user fees the Governor rescinded in the interim and think they're a reasonable way to fund this service.

Prison costs soaring: Cuts needed
TDCJ's appropriations request asked for an increase of more than $700 million beyond what's already a $7.3 billion-with-a-b budget. The LAR suggests the agency needs $247 million over the next biennium to maintain current (low, perhaps even unconstitutional) standards for provision of inmate health care, and another $32 million for probationer treatment funds. They also asked for $156 million for staff raises and $146 million in facility repairs. These are not unreasonable requests, but Legislature should enact further decarceration reforms and close understaffed, rural prison units and those requiring costly repairs to pay for those requests and reduce upward cost pressures.

Indigent defense: Est. $10 million
Counties want the state to pay 100% of indigent defense costs. For reasons Grits has articulated previously, that's a specious and self-interested position that flies in the face of the traditional state-county roles in the justice system. That said, the state would benefit from additional, targeted investments in the indigent-defense system. They should prioritize Texas Indigent Defense Commission grants for public-defender officers, which are the most effective and efficient way to deliver legal services where they're needed most. They should finance a capital defender office to handle indigent death penalty cases. ($1 million per biennium.) They should boost funding for the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs. And they should take Judge Elsa Alcala's advice to fund counsel for indigent defendants filing habeas corpus writs related to ineffective assistance of counsel. Obviously, public-defender grants could be of any size, but $10 million added over the biennium to these priorities would make a big difference.

I didn't include an estimate for upgrades to mental-health services because a) I have no idea how to evaluate costs or need, and b) my sense is the state would be better off if these services were primarily utilized outside the justice system, breaking from past practices. But that's certainly another area in need of investment. And there are probably specific investments to reduce competency restoration waits and to better meet the mental-health needs of incarcerated people that deserved to make this list. The Lege could boost state investments well into the nine-figure range and it still wouldn't be enough.


Unknown said...

User fees are a reasonable way to approach DPS lab funding. Most of the large cities/counties fund their own crime laboratories. Some of them already provide laboratory services to other jurisdictions on a fee-for-service basis. So the model already exists. Right now, citizens of large counties are being double taxed for crime labs - taxed once locally for their own lab. And then taxed by the state for the DPS lab system which doesn't do their work. If DPS were to go to a fee-for-service model, then not only would DPS's funding issue be addressed, but also much work would go from DPS to local labs. If a police department has to pay for crime lab services, then they are going to go the lab that provides the best service to them. Often, that will be the local lab.

Anonymous said...

The $45 mill for RTA has been a number the LBB has consistently published so I think that is a fairly accurate estimate. Many juvenile departments are overloaded right now in an effort to keep kids close to home and out of the state operated facilities, with great success by the way, which has resulted in fewer treatment beds available across the state. There needs to be many more treatment beds opened up to treat the ones with mental issues and the growing population of special ed students dumped into the juvenile system. MHMR's need to get deeper into the juvenile realm. The state will support this change as long as the funding rises to the occasion.