Monday, November 20, 2006

House Corrections Chairman: 80th Texas Legislature should 'reduce the number of prisoners,' build new treatment beds

I'd forwarded Grits' recent summary of Texas criminal justice legislation around to a few key folks including House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden's office, and received this nice reply from the chairman himself updating us on current plans for managing Texas' overincarceration crisis:

Thank you. We are working on a lot of major bills for the coming session particularly in the areas of probation, parole and Chapter 37 of the Education Code legislation to improve the Alternative Education. Just FYI we have found some very interesting programs we are going to be supporting this session that we hope reduce the number of prisoners and eliminate the need for prison beds. The exception on the building of beds is that we support the expansion of the SAFP [drug treatment] beds and believe we should have more than are in the current recommendation from TDCJ and we do support the added Alcohol treatment beds which is one of the reasons we have refiled the expansion of private facilities bill. Also that would keep some people from being sent to county facilities when we have existing space at existing facilities. Also the recommendation for adding beds to current facilities for treatment programs at TDCJ is really needed.

Also you might look at the latest parole rates and if they keep up we will have to get new estimates on future needs of beds that will drop significantly from the current estimates.

Jerry Madden
Thanks, Chairman! That's particularly good news about the parole rates. In the big picture, the criminal justice system is like an organic beast with a lot of moving parts. When prisons are too full, there are many ways to skin that particular beast: On the front end with shorter, stronger probation and progressive sanctions for technical violations; in prison with programs aimed at educating prisoners, preparing them for work and reducing recidivism by keeping them connected to their families; but also on the back end by paroling nonviolent offenders to make way for those who've committed more serious crimes.

I focus a lot on the front end and in-prison programming on Grits because that's what state and local officials can control. But if the parole board would do a better job on the back end - really just meeting its own guidelines for low-level offenders - they could easily solve the short-term crisis. After the tongue-lashing they received at the Sunset hearing last week, maybe they got the message.

Also interesting to me was the chairman's linkage of the DWI treatment beds proposed by TDCJ to his legislation that would expand private prison capacity. That'll be something to watch. I certainly don't oppose renting beds as a stop-gap measure, but not as a long-term solution. That's a terrible deal for the taxpayers: It's just like the difference between renting an apartment and buying a house - in the short-term the apartment might be cheaper and less hassle, but in the long-run financially you're a lot better off if you buy. The same is true for prison beds. If you need them, issue bonds and pay to build them; if you can find ways to avoid it, though (we've got 106 units already, for heaven's sake, and can't staff them), taxpayers are better off still. My preference would be to convert current beds to treatment beds, and not build any new units at all - along with strengthening probation, Judge McSpadden and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have suggested ways that could be done.

I certainly understand the chairman's position, though. Madden did a good job last year running the Corrections Committee, succeeding one of my old campaign clients, Ray Allen, as chairman. But Governor Perry vetoed his most important legislative effort to stem overincarceration pressures. Now, thanks to Gov. Perry, the Lege must do some fancy footwork to ensure prisoners don't wind up sleeping on the floors in Texas prisons just like they are in the Harris County jail.

Good luck this session, Chairman Madden, you'll probably need it! And thanks for the note.

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