Sunday, August 20, 2006

Half billion proposed for new Texas prison building in agency budget request

Who didn't see this coming?

Oh yeah, the Governor.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice wants $520 million more in its next budget for new prison building and small expansions of drug treatment facilities, reports the Austin Statesman ("3 new prisons, more treatment programs are sought," August 19).

Half a billion here, half a billion there - pretty soon it starts to add up to real money. This was SO avoidable.

Texas doesn't have a problem with prison overcrowding. What we have is an overincarceration crisis. We're incarcerating too many people for minor infractions for too long a time, and too many things are illegal, even frequently felonious. Nearly 2,000 separate, specific acts have been declared felonies in Texas. When God sat down to write a list of forbidden actions, He only came up with ten.

In addition, Texas has the longest probation terms in the nation, and a huge proportion of those entering prison each year come in on revocations for technical violations. The Texas Legislature tried to partially address the problem in 2005. House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden and Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire proposed strengthening probation by giving offenders ways to earn their way off supervision early through good behavior, with the approval of a judge.

In a move that defied fiscal sanity, and in this writer's opinion worsened public safety, Governor Rick Perry vetoed the bill at the behest of a handful of prosecutors. From that moment this outcome was inevitable. Conventional wisdom had it that Perry wanted to appear "tough on crime" before the 2006 gubernatorial elections, but the real result was to be "tough" on taxpayers' pocketbooks. The reforms were good for both taxpayers and public safety, backed by fiscally conservative Republicans and Democrats alike, and passed by wide margins in both legislative chambers.

Thankfully, legislators right now appear inclined to find alternatives to incarceration instead of more prison building, reported the Statesman:
In recent weeks, as details of the new expansion plans leaked out, Senate and House leaders questioned whether building prisons is the answer.

Instead, they backed more treatment and community-based corrections programs that are much cheaper to operate. Citing a continuing shortage of guards, they also questioned whether enough workers can be found to properly staff new prisons.

That last bit about finding workers to properly staff prisons looms larger than most people realize, and the 3% pay hike proposed by TDCJ chief Brad Livingston won't make a difference given the agency's other rotten labor policies - what difference would a 3% pay hike make to you if you made $23,500 per year before taxes and your employer could demand double shifts without extra overtime pay? One in four Texas prison guards quit each year, and the quality of recruits has declined. A 3% raise won't cover guards' increased cost of gasoline to get to work.

The basic labor problem at Texas prisons can't be easily fixed. Most prisons have been built in rural areas, supposedly as mechanisms to spur economic growth through state employment. But the jobs are crappy, not good enough to keep young people, certainly, from moving to Texas cities, and prisons have become harder and harder to staff as rural counties depopulate. You can't legislate a fix to that problem, not without spending a LOT more money.

This short-term crisis could have been largely avoided with the passage of HB 2193, and similar probation strengthening now becomes virtually mandatory for the 80th Texas Legislature. Indeed, the flood of new, mostly-non-violent prisoners has grown so great that fiscal hawks at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation now propose even more dramatic steps. Most observers agree what must be done. The real question is, why have we waited so long?

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