Friday, December 03, 2004

Harris County Driving Incarceration Train

The Texas prison system is full to the brim. Our prisons will exceed "operational capacity" in fiscal year 2006, meaning starting next fall, according to the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Interim Report (pdf).

An internal study last year, cited under Charge 2 in the report (p. 12) explained why:

  • Prison release rates declining by 10%
  • Parole revocation increasing by 14%
  • Probation revocation increasing by 4%
  • Pretrial felons in jails increasing by 10%
Bottom line: Texas is revoking more people off of parole and probation, and letting fewer people out of prison. Now the prisons are full, and the state must either build a new prison (estimated cost: $350 million), contract out to expensive private prison systems, or find some way to reduce the number of people under control of the criminal justice system.

The Legislative Budget Board's Criminal Justice Data Analysis Team parsed the numbers for the committee. As usual, Houston is driving the train. They found that Harris County's community supervision caseload (the number of people on probation and parole) declined 22.4% over the past decade, compared to 3.5% in Tarrant (Fort Worth) and 6.2% in Bexar (San Antonio). In lay terms, that means a greater number of people are getting "off paper," or ending community supervision. Sounds good, right? Problem is, the committee reports, statewide about 46% of probation cases end with revocation and incarceration, with revocation more likely in the big cities: 49% in Harris County, 54% in Dallas County, and 64% in Tarrant. So half or more of the time, depending on where you live, offenders wind up incarcerated anyway.

The main culprit? The committee's review "found that revocation of felons for technical violations has grown by 95% during the period from 1994 to 2003." That means the offender was sent to prison for missing meetings with the probation officer or submitting a dirty urinalysis, not for committing a new crime. Revocations for a new offense increased just 14% over the same period.

Since probation terms can last up to ten years, that leaves a lot of time and opportunity for a probationer to slip up. A committee recommendation to let successful non-violent probationers get "off paper" after two years was killed by prosecutors in the closing days of the 78th session.

That leaves the committee faced with the choice of spiraling incarceration costs or finding smarter solutions: "The occurence of increasing prison population and decreasing [probation and parole] population defines the environment that will confront the 79th Legislature.
Legislators will be required to provide resources to house a larger prison population, redirect portions to alternative programs, or in some other manner provide for the public safety in processing the growing offender population." (emphasis added)

For Grits readers not schooled in bureaucratese, what that says is this: Raise taxes or stop all this tough on crime foolishness, especially for non-violent and drug offenders.

The Senate Committee's lengthy interim report contains many other items of interest that Grits will try to sort through in the coming few days, but these passages give an idea of the big-picture dilemma faced by the 79th Legislature driving the need for criminal justice reform.


Papa Ray said...

It is not just the state of Texas that has drug enforcement problems and prison problems. It is almost every state in the union.

The prevailing attitude of locking up drug users and street dealers is bankrupting states and costing the taxpayers billions of dollars.

We stop a two million dollar shipment at the border, they just ship a four million dollar shipment the next week to make up for it.

The use of drugs is what keeps the market growing and the drugs flowing.

There has to be a better way. Other countries have differing ways of handling drug offences. It is time that the U.S. started looking for a different and better way of spending our money. A way that has a real impact on solving the addiction problem and the "cash cow" that drugs have become for our poor and jobless.

The drain on employee and employer is in the billions also. Addicted employees are not good employees and the employer pays for their time on and off the job.

This is my post

Papa Ray
West Texas

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Papa Ray. It's not just Texas, but we lead in percent of population incarcerated among states, and our ex-governor is nationalizing Texas' policies.

I notice looking back at this post that I failed to congratulate Sen. Whitmire (D-Houston), the committee chairman, and his staff who compiled this report. It's a really great resource, and shows they've thought through the subject, now, from every angle. I learned a lot reading it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Oh, and Sarah, I should have mentioned earlier that I'm pretty sure we used some of that study to argue for reforms in the 78th session, especially Ann.