Thursday, August 21, 2008

Highlights from TDCJ chief's testimony at House Corrections

The House Corrections Committee began its hearing this morning with testimony from Brad Livingston, E.D. of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Here are a few highlights:

The largest recent contract approved at the board level is telephone contract, said Livingston. Roughly 120,000 offenders will have access to around 4,000 phones which will use biometric identifiers and personal identification numbers to restrict inmates to making approved calls. It will take 7.5 months to install the phones. The rates are "quite low compared to what you'd see in county jails."

Two employees from the phone contractors explained there will be registration process to screen who inmates can call and a voice identification system will ensure the prisoner whose ID number is used is really the one speaking on the phone. Offenders can only make calls to people on an offender's visitation list.

Increased number of residential beds for probationers by 800, 3/4 of which are already in place. They also are receiving good feedback from judges to the extra $10 million per year authorized by the Lege for outpatient drug treatment, said Livingston. Funding was approved to add 1,000 beds to the In-Prison Therapeutic Community program, which he said have all been in place "for several months now." About 600 out of 1,500 new SAFP beds the Lege authorized are also online.

The new funding for an in-prison DWI treatment program has been a subject of debate with the Board of Pardons and Parole regarding who's eligible for the program. Livingston said those differences had been "worked out" but did not elaborate and quickly brushed past the issue, making me think there's still some behind the scenes contentiousness he preferred not to discuss.

Residential aftercare, said Livingston, has been an ongoing challenge because vendors haven't shown up to bid on contracts for so-called "Transitional Treatment Centers." The "vendor community" has not pursued these contracts. The current RFP, the latest of several, is "open ended" waiting for anyone who's willing to step up and provide the services. (See prior Grits coverage.)

Rep. Terri Hodge said there are hundreds of prisoners right now who've completed their IPTC or SAFP treatment requirements but have been refused parole because the TTC beds simply don't exist. She asked Livingston if offenders will just "sit there in prison" because contractors won't provide aftercare beds.

Livingston said alternatives he's considering could require "changing some mindsets" about what aftercare should look like. I have no idea what that means! To me, if private vendors don't exist to provide the services that leaves only two options: For the state to directly provide the services or to substitute more rigorous community supervision and treatment requirements for parolees. He later referenced the possibility of partnering with local CSCD's to provide intensive supervision and case management in lieu of expanding TTC beds. That approach might also assist with Rep. McReynolds concern that aftercare approaches are mostly aimed at urban needs and not so easily tailored to rural settings.

Livingston also briefed the committee on TDCJ's recent legislative appropriations request, taking the opportunity to pitch a proposed 20% pay hike aimed at remediating the agency's ongoing staffing crisis. Statewide turnover for guards is 24%, said Livingston, but before the hiring bonuses turnover in the first 12 months was 42%. Turnover for parole officers, he said, is about 20% per year.

Thanks to recruitment bonuses approved this spring, he said, for the first time in anyone's memory TDCJ's staffing actually improved over the summer instead of worsened. (Typically more staff leave in the summer months when the lack of air conditioning combines with low pay to make other opportunities look a lot more appealing.)

Madden raised a potential looming issue: When TDCJ raises pay for guards, won't COs at private prisons with with which the state currently contracts, so what happens when they become understaffed? Livingston said improving rates for contractors to factor in increased pay would be "challenging" and basically said, if not in so many words, it would be the contractors' problem to manage.

Relating to re-entry, a topic to be discussed later in the hearing, Livingston said the current budget proposes increases for outpatient substance abuse treatment which he says is the item most frequently requested in conversations with judges. He also encouraged the Lege to increase funding more mental health services.

Regarding state jails, Livingston said they were aimed primarily at property and low-level drug offenders and are not eligible for parole or good time. There are 20 state jail facilities (out of 106 TDCJ units). Thanks to additional funding last year, he said, 1,200 treatment slots have been added within existing state jails and are now online. He and Rep. Hodge also had a discussion about why the Department of Public Safety won't accept TDCJ ID cards to get a driver's license. (Perhaps a new DPS director will take a different position on that topic.)

With that, Livingston concluded his testimony. On, the committee goes, to discuss state jails.


Anonymous said...

Not to sound like a broken record BUT, until you fix the systems in place prior to PRISON, you will not be able to pay well enough to man them!!!!!!!!
Our schools, juvenile and adult probation system are BROKEN. You have a Probation officer attempting to handle caseloads that should be spread amongst 3 officers. The probationers are not being properly supervised and not receiving any beneficial counseling or training from their overloaded officers. Satrting pay for degreed probation officers is 28,000-30,000 AND starting pay for entry teachers is 40,000+. Can anyone expect skilled probation officers to stay, at that rate of pay. It took me 20+ years as a probation officer to make 44,000 a year.

Don said...

Same problem as several knowledgeable people pointed out in the earlier Grits's coverage re the TTC's. They don't want to pay enough for vendors to do it. It's mind boggling. As another LCDC said, it takes 4 years to be an LCDC, and they want to pay 25,000 per year. They want to pay vendors $30 per bed day to provide room, board, counseling, transportation to work. They can't understand it when they get no takers. I agree also with the comments of anonymous above. The system is BUSTED. And the lege and TDCJ keep trying to put bandaids on it. TDCJ may be the biggest state agency in the world who, as far as I can tell, hasn't done ANYTHING right in the last 30 years. What does Livingston mean we'll "change the way we think about aftercare"? Lower the bar, is what he means. Licensed counselors? What licensed counselors??? We don't need no stinkin' licensed counselors. No money for bread? Let 'em eat cake!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don, actually Livingston said that the willingness to pay for TTCs wasn't the problem, that they'd offered in subsequent RFPs to let vendors name a higher price and still no one bit.

A bigger reason no one is biting may be that the Lege has a history of starting programs like this then pulling the rug out from under treatment funding when economic times are bad. It's not a low per diem, Livingston said, that's the barrier to the contract, but vendors hesitate to make the capital investment, possibly fearing the income won't be there for the long haul.