Saturday, September 13, 2008

LBB: Texas' prison population will dip next year for the first time in decades before rising further

Ever since the Governor fired Dr. Tony Fabelo and abolished the state's independent criminal justice number crunchers, the Texas Legislative Budget Board assumed responsibility for issuing population projections for the adult and juvenile justice systems. These are the official data on which state agencies base their budget requests and legislative budget writers authorized the expenditure of tax dollars for the Department of Criminal Justice and the Youth Commission.

See the latest projections here (pdf - June 2008). To me this is a fascinating and useful document, and a truly interdisciplinary one. LBB has to pull data from all sorts of different agencies and sources to produce these estimates, and the methodology sections are essentially a prose description of the mathematical reasoning contained in the main section.

Prior to the 80th Legislature, LBB projected the adult system might be as much as 17,000 beds short by 2012, prompting an aggressive commitment of new funds by the Lege to divert offenders away from prison and stave off new prison building, especially since the state cannot adequately staff the facilities we've got. According to the June 2008 analysis, Texas' total prison population will actually decline slightly next year (!) for the first time in many moons because of the 2007 probation/diversion reforms, eliminating the short-term need for expensive new prison building. The total will then begin to creep back up slightly, said LBB, which projects Texas will exceed current capacity by .6% in 2013 if nothing changes, needing to find 942 more beds instead of 17,000. (Thanks Jerry Madden and John Whitmire!)

Both parole and probation revocations are down thanks the the Legislature's expansion of treatment options and intermediate sanctions facilities, LBB reports. Statewide, in FY 2007, 7.5% of felony probationers and 9.7% of parolees were revoked back to prison, which compares favorably, e.g., to revocation rates of 8.8% and 14.8%, respectively, in 2004. (Regular readers know, of course, that such gains vary widely from county to county.)

Interestingly among LBB's assumptions, just 50% of those placed in new diversion beds are assumed to be people who'd otherwise be revoked to prison. That means the Lege has created a true intermediate sanction. It's not just a program that's LESS harsh than prison, for half of those using diversion beds it's actually a HARSHER sanction than would otherwise be available.

So where does the upward pressure on incarceration come from in Texas' adult prison system? For starters, Texas recently has averaged a 6% annual growth rate recently in direct court commitments to prison, said LBB, this compared to about 2.5% annual population growth statewide over the same period. LBB's numbers assume that high rate of increase will continue. This is true, they say, even though "The crime rate declined from its peak in 1988 and has remained steady at a lower level since 2000."

Another big driver of Texas'expanding prison population is the oxymoronically named "Discretionary Mandatory Supervision" statute, which requires just a bit of explanation for the uninitiated. Prior to 1996, offenders were automatically released when their served time and good time added together equalled their sentence. The Lege eliminated mandatory release, creating the bizarrely named DMS system that still requires a parole panel to approve offenders' release. These offenders - who prior to 1996 would have all been out the door - today are released only 52.2% of the time a parole panel considers them. That means almost half of offenders who would earlier have been eligible for mandatory release are today kept in prison by the parole board.

Overall, the parole approval rate averaged over the last 5 years was 28.7%, though in FY 2009 that ticked up to 29.9%. However a bigger factor has been a slow but significant increase in the number of parolees considered for approval - with that expansion, the number of approved paroles has increased slightly, said LBB, even though the overall approval rates didn't rise that much.

In the past, LBB's projections were used like a hammer to demand approving construction of unnecessary new prison beds. These projections won't have the same usefulness to prison builders. They show diversion programs worked, that investing in them reduced reliance on prisons and created meaningful alternatives that courts are actually using.

Coming Soon: I'll discuss LBB's juvie projections and the surprising increase they predict in TYC's inmate population.


Anonymous said...

I'd love to see some statistics that refer to:

Length of Sentence
Description of Crime
% of Sentence servce before parole

For each and every person released on parole, these numbers would tell the true story of what the Board of Pardons and Paroles is doing. It would also inform Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys, Judges and the accused about their true chances for parole when considering a plea deal.

Right now no one knows because of the current data perpetuate lies. Another lie is that favorable prison behavior will make a difference.

Only unfavorable prison behavior makes a difference and it is a negative difference.

Anonymous said...

absolutely! And I'd like to see the number of successful 1st time applications for parole for those serving 3g sentences ~ who already serve longer before parole is considered.

Anonymous said...

sunreys wench...1st. time release for 3g offenses...I think not. I have not seen it happen yet. They get the 2 to 5 year set off regardless of what laws they were convicted under. It does not matter how many so-called rehabilitative programs they have attended or how good their prison record is.
It is very disheartening to speak with family members about possible parole after they tell me the crime is aggravated...3g. You know that old...all the king's horse and all the king's men...? Well, all the parole packets, all the programs and all the high priced parole attorneys can't get Jim Bob out of prison on his first time up for parole if his offense is 3g. I would prefer the Parole Board just post that fact on their website and save everyone the emotional upheaval of having any hope at all.