Friday, January 05, 2007

Details emerge on Texas plan for alternatives to prison

Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman has the scoop on what the proposed fix for Texas' prison overcrowding will look like, and it's nothing like what prison officials originally proposed. Reports Ward ("Plan to ease prison crowding could be biggest reform in a decade," 1-5):

Senate and House leaders are close to agreement on the details of a substantive reform plan for Texas' crowded prison system that would spend nearly $150 million for expanded treatment and supervision programs, officials have confirmed. Those projects would be far less costly than building new lockups, they said.

While final details are not complete, the two-year proposal would include adding at least 11,200 slots in treatment, counseling and transition programs designed to allow more convicts to successfully re-enter society rather than coming back to prison for new crimes. ...

While prison officials earlier proposed beefing up those programs, the new proposal would go much further. Instead of 250 additional beds in a specialized substance abuse program, 1,800 more would be added. Parole counseling programs would be tripled in size. Halfway houses would grow from 600 beds to 1,500 beds statewide.

"This may be the most significant thing we do in a long time," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, an architect of the proposal with his counterpart in the Upper Chamber, Houston Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"We can do away with the waiting lists in several programs. We can relieve the pressure on the system. And we can do it for much less than by building new prisons," said Madden, a Richardson Republican.

That's a sharp rebuff to TDCJ's idea to build three new prisons at a cost of about $1 billion, including finance costs. (And that doesn't even count staffing and running them.) But Whitmire and Madden's critics who say their plan is all about money can't justify their claims in the face of this proposal. They're basically quadrupling TDCJ's proposed expansion of treatment and rehab programs at a cost of around $150 million. Alternatives to prison cost less, but they're still expensive.

The full legislation hasn't been filed yet, but Ward published a few first-out details from their proposal:
Under the tentative legislative plan, one type of specialized drug- and alcohol-treatment centers would get $46 million over two years to expand the number of bunks from 3,250 to 5,000. As many as 10,000 convicts would be treated in them each year, officials have said.

Another type of prison-based treatment program would get $7.7 million to expand from 500 beds to 2,000 beds that could treat as many as 4,000 inmates a year.

Another $40.8 million would be allocated to expand so-called transitional treatment centers from 600 beds to as many as 2,000 beds. Those privately run centers provide counseling and are designed to help prisoners successfully re-enter society after they complete their sentence.

Special lockups to punish probation and parole violators — Intermediate Sanction Facilities, as they are officially known — would grow from 2,200 beds to 4,000 beds. And $19.7 million would be spent to expand halfway houses from 600 beds statewide to around 1,500.

"We're not talking about letting violent offenders out, not anyone who's a threat to society," Whitmire said. "We have one and a half prisons full of inmates who have already been approved for parole, but they can't get out because we don't have enough programs available. That's crazy. Wouldn't it make sense to fund the programs so we can get these people into them and free up those beds?

"That will help Texas in the long run."

Madden echoed that sentiment.

"Our goal is fewer prisoners in the next decade . . . slowing the growth of prisoners," Madden said. "If more inmates can successfully complete programs and successfully re-enter society, then we spend less on prisons and society is the better for it."

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