Monday, November 27, 2006

When tuff on crime is hard on the coffers

I'm playng grandpa/babysitter for baby Ty today, so expect light blogging from me. But while she's napping, in between crying jags, I'll try to sneak one in.

Doc Berman yesterday offered up an array of compelling sentencing headlines that should be instructive for Texas policymakers, particularly this Houston Chronicle clip, "Our lock-em-up justice is a loser," on overcrowding at the Harris County jail that Kuff also explicated.

In addition, given recent campaign-season hype over sex offenders and promises by Sen. Bob Deuell and other Texas legislators to pursue versions of "Jessica's Laws," fiscal conservatives should consider the article Berman mentioned from Kansas City Star (11/26) called "Tough on Crime, It's Hard on Coffers":

This year lawmakers approved Jessica’s Law, a measure sending felons convicted of sex crimes to prison for long stretches. Now, legislators are finding that the price tag could be as much as $192.4 million for additional prison space over the next 10 years. ...

“The bottom line is that the state of Kansas is on a path to incarcerate far more people than we have places to put them,” said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, an Independence Republican. “We have cast the easy votes over the last decade and now it’s time pay the price.”

The same could be said of Texas - even statutes that lengthen the harshest sentence minimums from 15-25 years, for example, while not changing short-term incarceration rates, contribute significantly to future crises legislators must ultimately manage. When legislators "enhance," or increase the penalty for lower level crimes - from Class A misdemeanors to state jail felonies, for example, or from state jail to 3rd degree felonies - the effect on the budget is much more immediate.

In the past, the Texas Legislative Budget Board has failed to tell legislators the true costs of penalty enhancements they propose, especially when their main impact lies in the out years like Jessica's Laws. I've argued that LBB hasn't always fulfilled its responsibility to portray real short and long-term costs to taxpayers for increased prison sentences; when it's given fiscal notes (cost estimates) of "zero" for significant penalty increases, legislators were able to pretend they were free. In private conversations I've been told that, with a few notable exceptions I'll discuss later, that won't be the case next year now that Texas' prisons are full. We'll certainly find out soon enough.

Kansas passed Jessica's Law first, then realized afterward that it would swamp prison capacity and soak taxpayers. Texas should already know better - our understaffed prison system is 1,900 beds over capacity right now. That number will climb to 11,000 in just a few years with penalties as they are. In 2005, the Legislature decided to slow down this trend; they should continue to reject sentence increases in the 80th session.

In today's budgetary climate, passing more penalty enhancements in Texas without accounting for how to pay for them makes little sense. It's sure not fiscal conservatism. I'm not certain it's any kind of conservatism at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Several provisions of "Jessica's Law" are blatantly unconstitutional. Our elected officials who have proposed them know that. They are just hoping we don't, otherwise they can't maintain the illusion that they are protecting the public safety. California's version was thrown out almost immediately by a federal court. These draconian bills would literally banish thousands of Texans - no hearings, no fact finding, no appeal - from their homes and neighborhoods. These bills are written specifically to apply to all cases, not just new offenders, even to people who have been off of probation for years. Several questions arise here: when did the Legislature get the authority to banish whole groups of citizens from the state, when did constitutional provisions like due process, equal protection and double jeopardy get taken out of the U.S. constitution, and where do they think these people - who have families and homes in Texas - are going to go?