Tuesday, June 12, 2007

New prison beds approved by the 80th Texas Lege

The prison building crowd pulled a rabbit out of their hat at the end of the 80th Texas Legislature and convinced budget conferees to approve funding for three new prisons along with money for Chairmans Whitmire and Madden's diversion programs. Nicole at Texas Prison Bidness tallies the total new adult prison beds approved, including treatment and diversion facilities:

Overview of New Texas Prison Beds
Authorized by 2007 Texas Legislature

Type of Prison Bed

# Beds

Probation Intermediate Sanction Facilities 700
Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities 1,500
Parole Intermediate Sanction Beds 700
DWI Treatment Beds 500
Transfer of Juvenile Facilities to Adult Prison System 1,200
Construction of 3 prison units 3,990
Total 8,590

In 2007 the Texas Legislature faced a perfect storm pushing lawmakers to build new prisons, with several factors combining to almost mandate some radical action to prevent further systemic decay:
  1. Governor Perry vetoed legislation in 2005 that could have prevented the current overincarceration crisis. As a result,
  2. LBB projected prison populations would increase to 17,000 over capacity by 2012, sparking renewed interest in prison alternatives, but
  3. Texas doesn't have the right kind of beds (treatment, intermediate sanctions facilities, etc.) to operate prison diversion programs at the levels needed to handle the added volume, so
  4. The Whitmire/Madden plan foresaw the expansion of treatment and prison alternative beds, which the best actuarial projections suggest will allow the state to avoid building more "hard" beds (medium security or higher) entirely. However,
  5. Thanks to pressure from the Lt. Governor, the conference committee agreed to issue a quarter billion in debt to build three new medium security prisons that will ultimately cost taxpayers $106 million per year to finance and operate.
So there you have it - the 60 second version of 140 days of politicking. The three new prison units to be constructed must still be approved by voters and the Legislative Budget Board, but few expect their rejection.

Of these new units, I agree the diversion beds are needed. (I once heard a hopeful rumor that at least one of the TYC facilities transferred would become a DWI treatment unit, but haven't heard that mentioned in a while). If the research-based diversion programs work, along with probation-strengthening legislation pending before the Governor, my hope is the changes will help alter the long-term trend of seemingly endless prison population increases. Best case scenario: Building three new units could let the state close some of its more expensive units that cost too much per inmate.

But if new tools created by the Legislature go unused at the local level, if new program funding isn't spent wisely, or if the parole board continues to fail to follow its own guidelines for releasing low-level prisoners, these new beds could easily turn into just more prison capacity.

As is often the case, attitudes and daily practices of those involved with the system on the ground can trump the intentions of lawmakers without diligent attention to implementation. Changing the approach of local judges, POs or the DAs office can have a bigger effect than changes in the law, which can always be creatively manipulated to generate a desired outcome. So it's not enough to give locals new tools, they must be encouraged to use them through the media and the ballot box.

Nicole also laments the failure of SB 838 (a significant parole reform) to be amended onto a key piece of probation finance legislation, pointing out that Rep. Jerry Madden refused to concur in the Senate amendments that included SB 838. The backstory I heard on this was that the Governor's office said the Whitmire floor amendment turned HB 3200 into "veto bait," so Madden refused to accept it. (HB 3200 is a critical piece of the probation reform package that adjusts local financing mechanisms to give incentives for probationers to earn their way off supervision through good behavior.)

The Sunset Commision told the Texas Legislature last fall that the state prison system is at a "crossroads," and so it is. Time will tell whether 2007 was a turning point in Texas' prison policy, or just more construction pork wrapped up in the flowery prose of rehabilitation. On that question, my crystal ball remains hazy. My heart wants to believe they've improved things, but my head tells me to wait and see.


Anonymous said...

How will these new units be staffed? TDCJ has not been able to adequately staff the last big prison building era. Staffing studies narrowed the vacancies (also seriously threatened security of the units) by cutting needed staff. TDCJ is in serious trouble! Please keep the pressure on them; perhaps someone that can take proper action to end this madness will act.

Retired 2004

Anonymous said...

This is the War on Drugs version of a "troop surge."

I'm sure this will do it. Incarcerating another 8,500 Texans will ensure victory.

We can do it. Just keep building prisons for addicts and dealers. Eventually we will catch them all.

Can I plug a post?


Anonymous said...

Grits, I would be interested to see where the 1200 beds are coming from that they have acquired from juvenile facilities. Marlin and John Shero together do not bed 600 hundred apiece?