Wednesday, December 08, 2004

'We could pay for a lot of children's health insurance'

Next spring, the Texas Legislature faces another multi-billion dollar budget crisis, with new court-driven demands for school funding and voter-driven demands for renewing children's healthcare.

So can we afford to pay for more prisons, too?

That's the question posed in a front page
Statesman article by Mike Ward yesterday. The piece confirmed Grits' assertions that the relevant committee chairmen in the Texas Legislature have now grasped the financial dilemma associated with overcrowded penitentiaries: Texas must incarcerate fewer people or raise taxes to pay for new prisons.

Ray Allen, the stridently pro-life Republican chairman of the House Corrections Committee, told Ward it's time to get smart on crime:

"'Tight budgets have forced fiscal conservatives like myself to ask the same questions liberals were asking 10 years ago. We're all at the same reality now on criminal justice, I think: We simply cannot afford to keep everyone behind bars.

"It costs Texans about $2 a day to keep a convict on probation, and $45 a day to keep him in prison, Allen said.

"Signs of the sl
ow shift in public policy are everywhere as lawmakers prepare to return to Austin in January."
In the interest of full disclosure, this writer worked for Ray Allen's re-election campaign this fall -- my first ever Republican candidate in more than 60 races over the last 11 years in which I worked as a political consultant. Allen's reconsidered criminal justice positions and willingness to work with liberals on these and homeland security topics were my main reasons. (Plus his Democrat environmentalist opponent insensibly ran as "tough on crime.")

Anyway, Ward reports that Texas prison officials are seriously starting to focus on priorities beyond locking more people up, maybe for the first time ever. Certainly budget pressues play a role, but a great deal of the shift has been due to sound arguments and public pressure brought to bear by a lot of the community groups linked to the right, coupled the willingness of people like Ray Allen to work constructively with folks who aren't in his ideological camp.

We'll need legislators' help to get where we need to go. Despite supportive comments in the article, the Texas Depatment of Criminal Justice appears only to be requesting small increases for treatment and rehab -- the levels of funding described in the article won't much affect overall prison population levels in the near term, even if their movement is in the right direction. Ward describes TDCJ's intiatives on the topic:

"Last spring, the Department of Criminal Justice created the Rehabilitation and Re-entry Programs Division to consolidate and better coordinate existing state and local initiatives to help the 60,000 inmates who leave Texas prisons each year. Top prison administrators are participating in a Travis County experiment establishing a community network to help ex-offenders. New programs are being offered for convicts who are leaving solitary confinement to return home.

"In their proposed two-year budget, prison officials have requested an additional $28 million for increased supervision of probationers, $27 million for additional local beds for probation violators who would otherwise end up in prison, and $10 million more for additional drug treatment for parolees. ...

"For Texas prison officials, who historically have been more focused on incarceration than rehabilitation, the shift is coming with support from the top.

"'For an agency whose primary mission is public safety, it's always been really challenging for us to deal with both incarceration and re-entry, but we're doing it because it's right for the State of Texas,' said Brad Livingston, interim executive director of the criminal justice agency."

Other ideas for reducing incarceration, like drug courts, must be funded outside TDCJ's budget. The Statesman and Allen laid out the enormous potential costs, though, if Texas doesn't act:

"By any measure, the corrections business in Texas is huge and expensive: a $2.4 billion annual budget; 45,000 employees; 150,000 people in 112 prisons and state jails; more than 70,000 on parole; another 400,000 on probation. The prison system added roughly 100,000 beds during the 1990s to build what, at the time, was the largest prison system in the free world.

"Demand has continued to grow. By 2007, Texas will need 7,000 additional prison beds, Allen said, and that could cost taxpayers as much as $500 million.

"'Instead of that, what if we funded additional probation programs and local short-term confinement beds and made other changes that would cost a whole lot less, with probably a better outcome,' Allen said. 'We could pay for a lot of children's health insurance with the savings there."

No kidding! Lets spend less on incarcerating people, and pay for a lot of children's health insurance, instead! Chairman Allen plans to lead his committee that way, but in turn says he's only following the lead of his constituents: "I think the public is way ahead of the Legislature on this, and I think next year you'll see the pendulum swinging back toward rehabilitation in Texas," he said.

I hope he's right.


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Anonymous said...

I think that probation vs prison works well except the systems dont connect the unpaid child support or health insurance the parolees are to pay. In addition to that most of them cannot get jobs due to the felony. The system could use a lot more then just this solution. make the parolees pay through probation dept. Health insurance, child support, ect... The system doesn't work