Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fabelo: We've created the "Walmart of prisons" in Texas

How fast is Texas' prison population growing? According to Tony Fabelo's presentation at yesterday's hearing, in December 2001 Texas had 6,910 empty prison beds. Indeed, Texas' total empty bed capacity in 2001 was larger than the entire prison capacity in 15 states.

By Feb 2003, just 14 months later, all of those beds were full. As of last year, Texas was renting 1,900 extra beds from county jails. By 2012, said Fabelo, Texas will be 17,000 prison beds short if policies don't change. That rate of growth can't remotely be attributed to Texas population increases.

We have “created the Walmart of prisons in Texas,” Fabelo, who argued for creating a new array of incarceration alternatives that will compete with "Walmart" for the confidence and attention of judges responsible for sentencing.

That's a bit of an odd market analogy, but overall an astute observation, IMO, in more ways than one. Just as Walmart often drives away other businesses, the over-reliance on prisons has caused Texas to de-emphasize approaches that may actually be more effective at reducing crime. Without question that's what's happened in Texas since all the in-prison drug treatment money was gutted in 2003.

Fabelo's advocating a more responsible long-term approach. By contrast, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst has proposed a politicized and ill-considered one. It's a long way till the legislaion is finalized, but these initial blowbacks indicate Texas' response to its overincarceration crisis may not enjoy the smooth ride Chairman Madden had earlier predicted.

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