Monday, June 18, 2007

Why Texas' corrections costs are (relatively) low and why it's an illusion

Why are Texas' prison costs growing slowly compared to other states, and can we expect the trend to continue?

As a starting point for the discussion, Doc Berman points to this new article on comparing corrections cost increases by state. The author cites Texas as a state focused on diversion alternatives that is "putting off building new prisons," but regular Grits readers know that while the Legislature definitely expanded diversion programs this year, that hasn't stopped our prison building binge. created a chart comparing states' corrections cost increases (see below), and it's telling to note that Texas ranked on the lower end of the list. There are several key reasons for Texas' relatively low cost growth, and also strong evidence that it's only a short-term phenomenon.

First, Texas' correction budget is low because of draconian budget cuts in 2003, so brutal that El Paso Republican Pat Haggerty called them criminal and said the Legislature should be behind bars for making them. Most in-prison drug treatment and many educational and therapeutic programs were summarily axed that year. The result made costs lower, but also worsened recidivism and contributed to Texas' failure to achieve crime reductions as great as other large states.

Guard understaffing is another big reason Texas' costs appear low on paper. Some institutions are only 62% staffed, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is chronically 3,000 guards short. What's more, even that understates the real need because TDCJ supplements guard shortages by using parole eligible "trustees" who would otherwise be released to do jobs that should be done by guards or state employees.

Yet another reason Texas' costs are low: We dramatically underspend on inmate healthcare to the point where UTMB officials in charge of prisoner health told the Legislature last year the state is "very close" to failing to provide the constitutionally required level of minimum care. Compounding the problem, long sentences are filling prisons with more elderly prisoners than ever before, and their costs are much higher than younger inmates. If Texas ever decides to improve prisoner healthcare - either through its own rational choices or when forced by litigation - our cost-per-prisoner figure will certainly increase.

Finally, Texas' community supervision system is bloated and overwhelmed, with many probation officers manageing caseloads of 140 probationers or more. Instead of funding probation programs, Texas has larded fees onto probationers supervision conditions until today probation fees cover about half local probation departments' budgets. But there's a limit to how much frequently-indigent defendants can pay, so this practice has caused the number of technical violations to rise and restricted departments' funding in ways that reduce public safety.

Several trends, though, make me think Texas' low spot on the chart may be short-lived. For starters, the amount of General Revenue funds just-approved budget for TDCJ increased nearly 10%, with spending on EXISTING PRISONS increasing $375 million alone. Another $200 million or so replaced the treatment and diversion spending cut in 2003 and added new treatment beds. Figures in the article don't account for these dramatic increases in the '08 and '09 budgets.

New prison construction approved by the 80th Legislature will contribute more to growing corrections budget, costing $2.151 billion over the next 20 years, or around $106 million per year for debt and operations for three new prison units.

Texas was already underspending on our massive probation system, which supervises more people than any other state. With Governor Perry's ineffable veto of HB 3200, that trend will likely worsen and create a near-term underfunding crisis for local probation departments. (Some version of the bill will have to be revived in 2009, if by then it's not already too late.)

Last but not least, Texas cannot continue forever to understaff its prisons, particularly if we're going to be building more. Including staff duties currently performed by prisoner trustees, TDCJ is probably 5-6,000 guards short of optimal staffing before a single new prison is built. That makes prisons less safe for staff and inmates alike. If TDCJ hired the number of guards it needs, though, its budget figures wouldn't come in so low.

So Texans should take the chart below with a grain of salt. Our corrections costs may appear to be lower, but the reasons all have more to do with our failures than any successes.


Anonymous said...

If you think the guard shortage is bad, wait until rank and file probation officers say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!!! Supervision officers MUST have a Bachelor's degree and one year experience to start around 27,000 per year. What a sorry excuse for a career pay scale. I predict Governor Perry will pay dearly for this boondoggle. I will do my best to help him FIND a new career come next election. After 22 years as a DEDICATED probation officer and only making $43,000 per year, I can say I will vote for anybody BUT Governor Perry! And I mean anybody!

Anonymous said...

Hey DEDICATED probation officer....I am right there with you on the voting topic. I am also 100% convinced that without adequate pay throughout the system we will continue to lose those who are trained and committed to the job. The moronic guards they are hiring these days probably couldn't qualify for work at the local McDonald's for lack of speaking English correctly or being able to write a complete sentence.
The health care our prisoners are getting at this point in time is criminal. Or should I say lack of health care? UTMB should hang their heads in shame at the things they are allowing on various units and the people they are hiring to give so-called health care. It is a joke to anyone with even a minimal knowledge of good health care, be it constitutional or not. My dogs get better care from my very qualified vet.
Frankly, until our elected officials pull their heads out of their a_____ and demand change for our criminal justice system, we will see lack of rehabilitation, almost none existent medical care, recidivism in mass, and qualified people walking away from a dead horse.
Personally, I think hell is hot and we all know a few who will surely make that roll call.

Anonymous said...

Oh I agree with that totally. The pay scale for correctional officers inside prisons and TYC facilities is disproportionably lower than any state mentioned above us on the chart. Maybe not in the juvenile arena, but I bet salary wise for the adult system, we rank where we do for that reason alone.

I think we could raise probation officers salary by lessening their case loads and thus the need for them by not requiring so many low level offenders to experience such a great of length of probation. But then again, how would they fund themselves? I mean, are they justifying such a lengthy and disproportionate-to-the-crime probation sentence to keep funding alive and available for probation offices? And then to lock up poor folks who can’t pay maybe justifies the length of the probation sentence of those that CAN pay? Where does that money go? To help keep those who can’t pay locked up – again? There has to be some balance there huh! Texas is ass backwards on this one…

Unknown said...

The problem with health care is our gatekeeper system that provides it. Until we address this either with deregulation or regulation that serves the public, these costs will continue to be astronomical and limit the amount of health care for the buck. Over 80% of patients do not need the level of expertise that is required by law for practitioners. We have a chronic shortage of lower paid nurses and GPs and a surplus of highly paid specialists. It's the equivalent of requiring someone with a Masters degree plus to supervise the guys mowing your yards. Pretty soon the suburbs would look like jungles.

Anonymous said...

I am not a probation officer but I am furious with Gov. Perry for what he did by vetoing HB 3200. The man is nuts! He is angry because of the TTT and the coal energy plants and this is his get even play.

I would vote to impeach the man if there was enough support. You work hard and try to be fair and then the Governor shots your feet off. I am a medical person and I also know what it is like to be underpaid and overworked, nurses are and you are expected to come in and fill the hole on your days off, so lets get together and get rid of the rift raft Governor and his side kick Dewhurt everyone.

Anonymous said...

Can we add Elmer Fudd of Houston in the cleaning?

Anonymous said...

What about us poor old retirees? We spent our time on the blocks. We haven't had ANY kind of salary adjustment in 6 years. Put yourself in our worn out shoes.

Anonymous said...

On the incarceration side, it is pathetic how Texas is trying to put away non-violent felons for longer sentences than some violent offenders! Particularly if they are in jail for something that has great potential to be rehabilitated such as a substance abuse problem....
They rot away in jail, taking up space, and wasting the tax payers money...when they could spend some time in treatment, then put on strict probation -- being contributing members to society paying taxes and child support (If incarcerated, then they get out & still have the addiction...end up wasting away their time & life, when they could've been rehabilitated from the get-go)
These non-violent offenders could be put into treatment then on probation with electronic monitoring. For every $1 that Texas spent on treatment, it saved $2.86 on incarceration.