Saturday, May 26, 2007

No Strings Attached: Backroom deal removes all accountability from new prison spending

There's a real story to be had somewhere when language in the state budget gets changed during a conference committee and conferees from both chambers say they don't know who made the redactions or when! Mike Ward on the Statesman's Postcards from the Lege blog last night corrected an earlier, erroneous report that new prison funding would only occur if incarceration levels required it and diversion programs were implemented.

Now, reports Ward, Texas will build new prisons whether incarceration rates require them or not. The DAs are already gloating. Here's Ward's update:

Late word: The long-discussed restrictions on building new Texas prisons have suddenly disappeared.

First-available copies of the proposed state budget are missing a provision that would have placed constraints on prison officials before they could build new units. Such things as the effectiveness of diversion programs, paroles rates and other factors, plus review and approval by the Legislative Budget Board, would have to have been considered.

No more.

A disappointed Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, who had championed the changes as a way to support cheaper and more effective drug-treatment and rehabilitation programs, reported just a few ago: “All the qualifiers have been stripped out of the budget.”

“Now, all that will have to happpen is to get (Legislative Budget Board) approval,” he said.

And that much-ballyhooed, new Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Board that was supposed to help ride closer herd on the adult prison system and the scandal-racked Texas Youth Commission?

It’s funding has been cut to zero.

Legislation creating the board is in a Senate-House conference committee. Stay tuned to see whether it gets cuts, as well.

Prison officials have been arguing against it. Prosecutors have been arguing against any new hurdles to build new prisons. Senate and House criminal justice leaders had been pushing for both.

Somewhere, in a backroom deal in recent days, they disappeared without explanation.

In a backroom deal between who and who?! I want to know: Was there ever a vote among conferees on the topic, and if so who voted how? I'd heard rumors the changes were made without a formal vote, but somebody needs to explain the process by which conferees decided to strip ALL accountability mechanisms out of a quarter billion dollars in spending for prison construction.

The House approved no prisons. The Senate approved prisons with strings attached. So how do we get from there to new prisons with no strings attached? Like Ward said, "Somewhere, in a backroom ..."

Damnit to hell! Have I mentioned that I H-A-T-E May of odd numbered years?


Don said...

Grits: And you are surprised? I didn't know how it was all going down, but it comes as no surprise to me that they're going to build prisons and fill 'em up, come Hell or High Water. Watch the "treatment" beds become regular prison beds as time marches on. This is, after all, Texas. Are we sick yet?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, Don, I'm not an all or nothing kind of guy, so no I'm not surprised but (depending on the veto period) also not entirely disappointed with the session in this regard: Some good legislation passed that should help, and for the first time the Lege didn't respond to projections they were 17,000 beds short by building 20,000 new beds. IOW, it could have been a LOT worse. You turn around a huge ship like Texas' incarceration system REALLY slowly, not all in one session.

That said, I'm angry and disappointed that they're building new prisons and hope they fund the treatment programs long enough to see if they work.

Anonymous said...

the good legislation means nothing. criminal justice reform will ONLY be effective in TX legislators and advocates implement changes to successfully reduce the population. since the system continues to grow no in this state should be happy with the reforms that have taken place. it is time for the advocates to take their head out of the clouds and stop believing their own hype and do something that leads to real reform and reduces the prison population in this crazy state

Gritsforbreakfast said...

anonymous - you'd have been more successful than the advocates up there busting their asses, right? If you weren't in the trenches you don't get to talk like that - fighting bad criminal justice legislation is a tough row to hoe in Texas.

Much was lost this year, but some of the good legislation WILL reduce populations, so I guess I'm not quite as pessimistic. Don't think I'm not unhappy about prisons and bad outcomes. I just try to have realistic expectations of what can be accomplished in a state where for 30 years every politician in both parties thought the way you get elected is say you're "tough on crime." I'm with you much more needs to be done.

Anonymous said...

Prison populations in Texas and the entire U.S. need to be reduced! Our country is capable of more progressive solutions to society's problems. The reduction in the use of tobacco over the past decade is a good example of that and no one went to prison for smoking!

There were good steps taken in this year's legislative session and much more needs to be done. In a perfect world old worn out prisons will be closed because of the new prisons.

I just hope there is finally a sustainable trend toward rehabilitation in Texas. I absolutely agree, every small step in the right direction is a gift.

Anonymous said...

They should definitely close the unit in Dalhart - there's not enough people there to staff the thing and never will be. The industrial pig farm pays better and offers a superior working environment.

Anonymous said...

these reforms mean NOTHING when the prison population continues to grow.

Don said...

grits: I appreciate your optimism; I really do. So, after 20 years of working as an LCDC mostly directly and indirectly for TDCJ, I"m going to suspend judgement and acknowledge, that despite the previous experiences which tell me that TDCJ operates on a variation of Murphy's Law, (anything that can be done wrong will be done wrong), that probably this time everything will come up roses. There will be a new birth of freedom with liberty and justice for all. All the incompetent, lazy, corrupt leaders will be magically transformed, or replaced, whichever, and a new crop of young, progressive, get 'er done types will rise to the occasion. I can't wait. And since I got into Larry the Cable Guyisms, let me just say Forgive Me, Lord, for my sarcasm, and be with the starving children in Zimbabwe. Amen.

Anonymous said...

"The industrial pig farm pays better and offers a superior working environment".

This post by a Grits contributor tells the entire story. When working at the Pig Farm pays better and is a nicer place to be than being a CO in Texas we are in deep pig poo!

Not only is this political blog informative, it is better than the Sunday Funny Paper. Scott have you though about writing a pilot for a comedy show based on the Texas political system? Sex, lies, and intrigue would be the foundation for a smash hit!