Sunday, June 12, 2005

Lege avoided $1 billion in new prisons

The Texas Legislature's rejection of most prison-sentence-increase bills this session staved off $1 billion in new prison spending by the end of the decade, the Statesman's Mike Ward reports.
Texas could have faced spending well over $1 billion for new prisons in five years had just 11 of the most significant enhancement bills passed. Operating costs would have run another $113.7 million.

"I think there's a growing realization or acknowledgement in the Legislature that we simply can't afford to get tougher and tougher on penalties every session," said state Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, the former chairman of the House Corrections Committee. "Enhancing penalties may have been politically popular in the past, but we simply don't have the money or the (prison) space now to do it."
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, Dean of the Texas Senate, refused to pass new penalty increases through his committee this spring. The few increases that passed -- about a dozen, Ward reports, all with relatively low-volume projections regarding numbers of offenders -- were routed through other committees to avoid Whitmire's dictum.
With Whitmire having publicly announced his intent to kill all enhancement measures assigned to his committee, and the House subcommittee sitting on many proposals because the price tag was too high, sponsors scrambled to get their legislation through unlikely committees such as Business and Commerce, Health and Human Services and even Inter- governmental Relations.

"An awful lot of sponsors dropped their enhancements after they figured out it (getting their bills to other committees) was the only way to get their bill through," said Whitmire, who joined the Legislature in 1973. "I can't recall a session where it was like that, where we held the line like we did this time."
I certainly can't either. Whimire and company deserve tremendous credit for encouraging this shift in thinking and priorities. See prior Grits coverage opposing efforts to increase Texas prison sentences in 2005.
And, as always, see Solutions for Texas for much more on this subject.

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