Thursday, June 15, 2006

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden promotes solutions for Texas' overincarceration crisis

The Republican chairman of the House committee that oversees Texas prisons says we can solve Texas' overincarceration crisis without building more prison units. The answer: Fewer probation revocations on the front end, increased parole rates on the back end, and using early release provisions to let probationers earn their way off supervision with good behavior. Not sexy stuff, but pretty important.

Modifying downward earlier projections, the Legislative Budget Board predicted this week that Texas prisons will exceed current capacity by nearly 10,000 inmates by 2010. (Earlier projections set that number closer to 14,000; I've said before I haven't always had a lot of confidence in LBB's inmate population projections.) House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden made public the new estimate and spoke about the problem at a forum yesterday in Austin entitled "Breaking the Addiction," sponsored by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. (As usual, Elizabeth Pierson did a good job on the topic for the Brownsville Herald - see
her coverage and the Daily Texan.)

In honor of the occasion, Madden's office issued an informative if little-heeded press release yesterday highlighting the choices facing the state prison system. He's aiming to educate the public about one of the most important, underreported public policy crises in the state, so I wanted to reprint his press release in its entirety here since I can't find it online. (It was forwarded to me via email.) Madden is an important Republican decisionmaker in Texas on criminal justice - it's partly his job to fix the overcrowding mess and he's promoting viable solutions for those who are listening. His press release was titled, "Legislature Predicts Prison Population to Exceed Capacity by 10,000 beds in 2010," and it reads:

This week the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) released new prison population and capacity projections for fiscal years 2006-2011. If capacity remains where it is today and the state does not build anymore prisons, the prison population will exceed operating capacity by 9,600 beds in 2010. Although this projection is less grim than the original numbers (last years projection was 14,000 beds short by 2010), it takes several years to build multi-million dollar prisons, so the legislature must act quickly to either curb this growth or start building.

Representative Jerry Madden, Chairman of the House Committee on Corrections, spoke on the new projections at a policy primer held by the Texas Public Policy Foundation this Tuesday. Madden feels that while 10,000 beds by 2010 is a steep challenge, it is doable. "The good news is that probation departments are decreasing the revocation rates and increasing early discharges- that means we are slowing the spillover of probationers being sent to prison". Last session the legislature allocated approximately $27.7 million per year in new diversion program funds to the Community Justice Assistance Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. These funds were intended to reduce probation officer's caseloads so that they can focus on the serious offenders, increase treatment and aftercare, and entice probation departments to use progressive sanctions models. Second quarter highlights show that felony revocations are down 7.43%, felony technical violations are down 13.72%, and felony early discharges are up 17.40%.

Madden is also looking at parole rates, "with a little help from the backend, we may not be in quite the dire situation that we were projecting last session". Right now parole rates are running at roughly 27%, whereas historically (in 2003 through 2004) they were running at about 30%. The LBB predicts that if the parole rates increased by only 2%, there would be no need to build any new prisons by 2010. Madden's main intent is to divert more people from coming into the system rather than letting them out the backend, but he says it is comforting to know that there is a safety net that does not require major action and would not require spending hundreds of million dollars to build more prisons. It is estimated that a 2,250 bed minimum-maximum prison will cost the state approximately $250 million dollars (that figure doesn't include the cost to actually run the prison, it is only the initial building costs). "If parole rates return to what they were in 2003 and 2004, and probation continues to make improvements using graduated sanctions and new money for treatment beds, then we can maintain our prison capacity".

To get the prison population down by 2010, Madden has big plans for this coming session. At the policy primer on Tuesday, Madden reiterated his request that the Governor reinstate some form of the criminal justice policy analysis group formerly known as the Criminal Justice Policy Council. "We have received outstanding support for this request from advocacy groups, public policy think-tanks, agency employees, universities, and legislators from both the House and Senate since my request went public last week".

Madden also plans to resurrect his probation reform bill that was vetoed by Governor Perry last year. "It will be brought back in a form that will be acceptable to the Governor, but I will not eliminate the components of the bill that are guaranteed to make our probation system stronger". Another top priority for next session is changing the probation funding formulas so that the state can focus more intensive programming early in the probation terms where you get more bang for your buck. The intent of HB 2193 was to divert resources from low-risk "model" probationers who are doing everything the state asks of them and focus resources on three things: high risk offenders, drug courts, and treatment. Changing the probation formula will compliment this plan and keep the state from building more prisons.


Anonymous said...

It seems from your links like it's not LBB's inmate population projections you dispute so much as the budget costs they assign to those inmates, am I right? They said HB 151 would add 700 new prisoners, for example, they just didn't give it a fiscal note big enough to pay for 700 new beds. That seems like a long-ago routinized political favor for the bill author, but it doesn't necessarily indict LBB's prison population projections.

Also if a new prison would cost $250 million, why not just lease private prison space? It'd be a lot cheaper in the short run. That's a lot of scratch!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

:-) Got me. That's actually right. Maybe LBB's inmate projections are okay and the phony budget estimates are my real beef (most fiscal notes for sentence increases are zero, no matter how many new inmates would be incarcerated - the note on HB 151 was a true rarity).

On private prisons, let's review. 2,250 beds would cost $36 million per year to rent at $16,000 per year, with per bed costs rising slightly over time. So in six years you'd have spent the equivalent of building a new prison unit. But if you'd built a new unit, then per-prisoner costs decline in the future - if you're renting space as your policy, not just as a stopgap until populations can be reduced through probation reforms, etc., you're paying out than annual amount ad infinitum. Best,