Thursday, January 27, 2005

Billions for 30 or 40 thousand more prison beds?

Earlier I wrote about how the looming crisis facing Texas prisons has spawned an unexpectedly pragmatic, bipartisan approach to Texas corrections policy as the legislative session begins. Via Ann, yesterday's Austin Statesman offered a great example. Citing the growth in projected prison population that to Grits readers must sound like a broken record, both Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie and Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John Whitmire, D-Houston, see shifting significant numbers of inmates onto probation as the only option:

"Does it make sense to keep folks in a $40-a-day bed, with no programs and rehabilitation, when we could keep them working and have them do probation for $2 a day?" Whitmire said. "No way."

Allen agrees.

"As a state, we can't afford to do what we've been doing; that's what I draw from the numbers," he said. "We have to build a system with workable alternatives (to prison) on the front end, or we'll have to spend billions of dollars to build another 30,000 or 40,000 prison beds - billions that we don't have."

The paper reports that per-inmate costs have dropped because in 2003 the Legislature slashed drug treatment and prisoner education programs:

"I'm not surprised those costs are down, because we cut the prison system's budget a quarter-billion dollars two years ago," said state Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Corrections Committee. "We cut programs; we cut costs by renegotiating contracts (with private companies) at lower rates; we cut everything to the bone.

"The system cannot be sustained at this level for long."

Allen was chairman of Corrections at the time this article was published, but the new House Committees have been announced today, and Rep. Allen is the new chairman of the House County Affairs Commitee. He will remain a member of Corrections, which will now be chaired by Rep. Jerry Madden.

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