Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Senate Finance to TDCJ: Have an extra slice of pie!

In the movie Radio, Cuba Gooding Jr. played a retarded man befriended by a local high school football coach. In an early scene, the coach took Radio to a diner to talk, and when it came time to order dessert the waitress asked which he wanted of two kinds of pie. "Both," Radio cheerfully responded, to which the coach laughed and said, "Give the man both!"

That's awfully generous. But what if that second slice of pie cost $100 million per year? If you're the Texas Senate Finance Committee, the answer is still "Both," or at least it was yesterday when they approved the budget for three new prison units. (You can listen to the 1.5 hour meeting here.)

The Finance Committee budgeted only $34 million per year in bond debt charges, but that won't cover staffing and operations costs. In its Legislative Appropriations Request, TDCJ estimated the annual cost to staff and operate three new prisons would be $72 million. Not one person mentioned those costs during the debate over this item yesterday - senators debated the issue as though simply building new prisons were the only costs involved.

Regular readers know Texas prisons face an overincarceration crisis. The Legislative Budget Board estimates that at current trends the state will be 17,000 prison bed short by 2012. There are three possible solutions: Build more prisons, expand treatment and incarceration alternatives, or lease more contract beds. Senate Finance chose all three! They backed Whitmire and Rep. Jerry Madden's aggressive treatment package, but also supported issuing nearly a quarter billion in bonds to build three new prison units, and boosted the budget for more contract beds.

As yesterday's debate made clear, though, the estimate of a 17,000 bed shortfall includes many assumptions, most importantly that no treatment or diversion programs will be created and that parole rates remain at their historic lows. After being called on the carpet by the Sunset Commission last fall, the parole board's release rates have increased from 26% to 30%, said Whitmire, and if they continued at that rate there will be no need for new prisons.

The good news: Nobody disputed funding for Whitmire and Madden's treatment package, which has so far continued to receive bipartisan support. Whitmire explained that treatment proposals were designed to facilitate higher parole rates because the parole board refuses to release many nonviolent DWI and drug offenders without treatment. Today, said Whitmire, more people are on waiting lists for treatment - after which they would be eligible for release - than the state is renting in contract beds. That means if Texas just eliminated the waiting lists for treatment, it would solve the short-term overcrowding crisis.

However Whitmire also expressed realism that "the leadership" (read, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst) wanted new prisons "for political purposes," and admitted that was trumping the need to choose between priorities. "The leadership" wanted bonding capacity for six new units, said Whitmire, and wanted three new units to be constructed sooner than later.

The debate broke down between three factions: Senators Whitmire and Royce West believed that with nine figures in new treatment spending and 6,100 new penal treatment beds the capacity crisis would be resolved. Whitmire reluctantly acquiesced to demands from "the leadership," he said, by gaining a concession that a Rider would put off new spending for a year and base new building decisions on Legislative Budget Board population growth estimates.

Senator Troy Fraser said he agreed Whitmire's treatment plan should work, and supported the compromise "rider," but he also wanted new prisons built as a "pop off valve" in case something went wrong. Chairman Steve Ogden seemed to be in this camp, referring to new prisons as a "contingency."

If the treatment program worked, said Fraser, he would join Whitmire down the line in closing some of Texas more outdated, expensive units - Mountain View and Gatesville were specifically named. (Whitmire said prisoners at Mountain View cost $67 per day to maintain, compared to $40 per day average statewide. It'd be interesting to see a breakdown, wouldn't it, of each unit's costs?) Everyone recognized that closing units would be politically dicey - at one point Fraser suggested the Rider leave the decision of which units to close to an "independent entity."

Only Sen. Tommy Williams thought new prisons would likely be necessary and opposed any talk of closing old units. He predicted parole rates' recent rise could not be counted on in the future, and said new prison building should begin immediately, as soon as the budget is approved. (No word on where Williams thinks Texas will find the guards to run these new units - inmates are staffing some of the prisons we've got now.)

This debate is far from over. Whitmire's Rider has yet to be presented, and the House leadership hasn't committed to new prisons the way Lt. Gov. Dewhurst has. Decisions by House Appropriations and a future conference committee lie between this vote and any new prison building. But the likelihood that Texas may construct more prison units looks greater than it did just a couple of weeks ago.

One-hundred million dollars per year and change - that's a mighty expensive slice of pie!


Anonymous said...

Let’s make everything illegal and put more people in prison. Working in corrections is a major cash crop in Texas. Keep the unusually long prison terms coming. J-walking should be a state jail felony on first offense. I depend on people going to prison to keep my life style going.

billt said...

Regarding your Jan. 31 column and this one....prison overcrowding would be reduced if the "good" inmates get sent home on parole instead of them being kept to run the place. I was down 10 years and it always seemed to me that the ones who worked, behaved, and sought to rehabilitate themselves were the ones who got set offs, while the ones who did nothing to improve and got cases were the ones who got let out. I know it's bass-ackwards, but since I have started reading this blog, I understand why

Anonymous said...

It is like the scientific laws of inertia. An object in motion tends to stay in motion.......

It is also like a disease, once it reaches critical mass, it is hard to stop it's spread.

Someone, somewhere needs to push back! At some point, the tax paying middle class will figure out they're not getting their money's worth in the form of public safety. Then they'll use the vote to stop the "Criminal Justice Machine".

Good blogs like this one that inform the public are a great step in the right direction!

Don said...

As a Licensed Chemcial Dependency Counselor for 20 years, I'm glad to see the legislature willing to try to undo what they did in 03 and 05 to cause the prisons to overflow, but unfortunately it's like trying to put the genie back in the bottle. We will fill up whatever space we have, and if we build more, we'll fill that up. We all know that. Also, while we're talking about not being able to hire guards for the prisons, just where in the hell do we think we're going to get counselors for treatment? Grits: keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Build more prisons!!! This is absurd! We don't have the staff to effectively run the units we have now and Inmates are running the units. What is wrong with the Senators who think this is the answer? This makes me ill and to think the promise was made to help people get their lives back and become productive citizens has just vanished. What in the name of the Lord is going on?

Who is getting the cut from this? The money talks and BS walks is true and our Senate is becoming the biggest liars who ever lived. I am ashamed to be a native Texas. Treat children the way they are treated in TYC and then turn around and build three more prisons to further damage peoples lives and for what? No one is getting helped here, no one who will admit it anyway. Who is getting the cut from this? There is no rehab, no health care and people who are unfortunated enough to get caught in the tangled corrupt system are the ones who suffer plus those who love them. Where in the world are you hearts, get them out of your pocket books and do something right for a change.

I pray the House will not let this pass, they seem to have more sense than the Senate, especially some of those I know of.

You members of the Senate who voted for this should be made to stand in the corner for the next 10 years, I am so ashamed of you and you lied to all of us and that makes it worse.