Thursday, February 03, 2005

TX House Appropriations Chair: No new prisons

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said in a hearing this morning that Texas can't afford to build new prisons, according to an Austin Statesman article just web published.

"We're going to have to increase the emphasis on probation. There's no question about it," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. "We simply can't afford to build a bunch of new prisons, much less pay to operate them."

In testimony this morning, committee members were told by state budget analysts and prison officials that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice could be out of beds to house new convicts as early as March. It will then have to lease jail beds from counties, at an estimated cost of more than $12 million for the rest of the budget year, which ends Aug. 31.

During the next two years, prison officials say they will need an additional $51 million to lease 3,500 beds. And in five years, official projections show, the system will be 15,000 beds short.

Grits reported earlier that Rep. Pat Haggerty filed HB 575 last month, which is the actual legislative fix on probation that would resolve the overincarceration crisis, at least for the time being. The Statesman article didn't cite the actual legislation, but desccribed the broad outlines of the problem, which regular Grits readers will find familiar.

While prisons will need tens of millions more to maintain the current system, Pitt said other agencies are also seeking increases. In all, he said today he expects there will be $10 billion worth of needs on the table — including school finance reform — beyond what the state needs to maintain current services.

"Obviously, that's a lot more than we have available — so you can see that we're going to have to look at alternatives," Pitt said. "Increasing probation programs is one of the places I think we'll start."

Committee members questioned why so many offenders, who are filling up the prison beds — 15,000 during the last year alone — are there for technical violations of their probation, many for minor infractions such as not paying their probation fees on time. In all, officials said 70,000 convicts in prison today are there because their parole or probation was revoked.

Hearing Jim Pitts speaking enthusiastically about Rep. Haggerty's idea is a very good sign. I've always wondered what would happen when fiscal conservatism finally butted heads with the overreaching tough-on-crime policies that have caused Texas' overincarceration crisis. It's still awfully early, but Pitts' comments are a good sign that fiscal conservatism has a chance of winning out.

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