As legislators struggle to decide whether to spend $150 million on stronger probation or $1 billion on 3 new prisons to solve Texas' overincarceration crisis, ironically the Board of Pardons and Paroles could resolve the whole problem pretty quickly if they chose to do so.
According to TDCJs 2006 annual statistical report (pdf), currently more than 89,000 people, that's 58% of inmates in Texas' prison system, are eligible for parole. More than 50,000 of those parole-eligible inmates - about a third of all Texas prisoners - are non-violent offenders (p. 14).
During questioning of parole board personnel at a recent Sunset hearing, Sen. John Whitmire hit upon this key point: There would simply be no prison overcrowding problem if the parole board followed its own release guidelines for the lowest level offenders.
TDCJ categorizes offenders who are eligible for parole into seven risk levels, and under the current guidelines, level 7 offenders (those identified as the least dangerous) should be approved for release between 76-100% of the time. But take a look at the approval rates for Level 7 offenders at Texas' six regional parole panels from the Sunset report (pdf, p. 31):
Parole Panel Approval Rate for Guideline 7
San Antonio 53.14
Not one of these parole boards comes close to approving Level 7 parole candidates at even the lowest part of the guideline range. One member of the Sunset Commission pointed out, the parole board is actually more likely to follow its guidelines for the most violent, dangerous offenders than they are low-level nonviolent ones. That makes little sense.
I'm not sure what the fix here would be, but there must be some way to cause the parole board to follow best practices for making decisions who to release. (Another key reform proposed by the Sunset Commission was to improve ethics rules to reduce conflicts of interest; e.g., Parole board Chairwoman Rissie Owens' husband, Ed, is deputy executive director of the prison system..)
We'll see what bills get filed on this score, but this seems like an area ripe for legislative involvement. The current system obviously isn't working like it's supposed to and contributes significantly and needlessly to Texas prison overcrowding.