Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Notes from the TDCJ Sunset hearing

It's still going on, but here are some highlights from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) Sunset hearing so far this morning. Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Justice Chairman John Whitmire, who sits on the bi-cameral Sunset Advisory Committee, mentioned several items so far that I didn't know about:

First, the 79th (2005) Texas Legislature removed all treatment programs in Texas state jails! I had no idea. That's where most low-level drug offenders go. That means for them, as chairman Whitmire said, there's no work, no treatment, it's "just a holding place." What's more, TDCJ is not asking for drug treatment funds for state jails in the next budget.

Also, the current budget request from TDCJ wipes out funding for Texas' main prisoner re-entry program, Project RIO. Grits wrote about Project Rio here. TDCJ chief Brad Livingston said it was removed from the proposed budget because of the Governor's demand that agencies generate a "90% budget " that would cut ten percent from everything but prison spending.

Finally Howard Wolf, a public member of the commission, questioned why, according to page 30 of the Sunset staff report, the Pardons and Parole Board was more likely to follow the parole guidelines for releasing violent offenders than nonviolent offenders! The answer was essentially that the parole board considers its guidelines "just that, a guide," but they did not feel obligated to follow them in any individual case.

The parole representative tried to blow off Mr. Wolf with bureaucratic doublespeak, but Chairman Whitmire wouldn't let her get away with it. Whitmire criticized the parole board for widely varying release rates in the state's six different parole regions. From page 31 of the report, here are the parole rates for the highest and lowest guideline categories for the six different regions:

Parole Panel Approval Rate for Guideline 1 Approval Rate for Guideline 7
Amarillo 8.02% 42.96%
Angleton 4.53 54.47
Gatesville 4.52 38.29
Huntsville 2.93 45.71
Palestine 0.45 57.88
San Antonio 14.79 53.14

Parole board officials said that offenders in Palestine were more violent while more nonviolent, low-level offenders were in San Antonio, which may explain some of the disparities. But Chairman Whitmire burrowed deeper, saying that couldn't explain disparities among other regions, nor disparities in the likelihood of releasing the lowest level Guideline 7 offenders.

The Dean of the Senate recalled that the reason the guidelines were created in the first place was to reduce large disparities between regions, but these figures, he said, showed little progress has been made.

Another speaker mentioned that 5,500 DWI offenders were currently in Texas prisons (offenders who've been convicted three or more times for DWI). These offenders are all integrated into the general inmate population, not receiving treatment for their alcohol addiction. The parole board rep said DWI offenders were a big reason why the lowest level categories of offenders weren't being paroled at higher rates.

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