Friday, March 25, 2005

Memo to state budget writers: Pencil in more prison money if HB 151 passes

Texas will need to construct 500 new prison beds in the next two years if the Legislature approves HB 151 by Truitt, which appears on Tuesday's House floor calendar. That bill, which increases the penalty for burglary of a vehicle from a misdemeanor to a felony, would shift payment for incarcerating hundreds of inmates on burglary charges from county jails to state government.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee appears to be the weak link in the Legislature's efforts to restrain prison spending. They already passed out Truitt's HB 151 plus two similar bills on the same topic. And the subcommittee on "enhancements" (the euphemism for increased prison sentences), chaired by Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, has begun approving new increases in prison sentences. Last session, Chairman Keel also created a subcommittee on "enhancements," but it was the legislative equivalent of a dead letter office -- to my knowledge it never or hardly met. By contrast, Hodge's subcommittee will meet twice next week.

Much has been made of the bid to stave off massively expanding Texas' prison system by enhancing probation services, reducing probation caseloads, and creating new drug courts. Given the punishment levels and incarceration trends under current Texas law, the state will be forced to pay more than $1 billion for new prison construction by the end of the decade if something isn't done.

Probation reforms are a smart idea, but they are only enough to counter the existing problem ... barely ... maybe ... if everything goes right. They won't stop more prison building if legislators can only imagine punitive solutions to society's problems, and if the Legislative Budget Board continues to mislead them about what these bills really cost.

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