Sunday, December 20, 2009

2011 Budget Blues: Close prison units to shave 2.5% at TDCJ

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says Texas state agencies must reduce their budgets by 2.5% in each of the next four years to account for declining tax revenues, Jason Embry at the Austin Statesman reports ("Legislative leaders eye spending cuts to deal with looming budget hole," Dec. 20), providing an excellent short summary of the underlying source of the state's budget woes:
As compared with a year earlier, sales tax collections were down 14.4 percent in November, and those kinds of returns have hastened budget-cutting talk. But what's really driving the conversation is a decision that lawmakers made in wealthier times to put property tax cuts at the top of the state's permanent priority list.

In 2006, facing an order from the Texas Supreme Court, lawmakers passed a one-third reduction in school property taxes for operations, committing the state to spend $7.1 billion every year to hold those taxes down. But the tax increases that lawmakers passed at the same time to replace that money — most notably a revamped business tax — produce less than $3 billion per year.

So every two years, the state has to pull more than $8 billion away from other priorities, such as public schools, universities or prisons, to pay the rest of the cost of property tax cuts. Doing so wasn't too difficult when the state had surpluses, but now that they're gone, the property tax cuts threaten to eat up any revenue growth the state sees, even though many homeowners never saw much of a decrease in their tax bills.

To meet the state's commitment to hold down property taxes, to pay for an increasing number of people enrolling in public schools and colleges and joining Medicaid rolls and to replace the stimulus dollars used to pay for the current budget, lawmakers in 2011 might have to come up with $15 billion or more to balance the budget, which now totals $182 billion over two years.

That's a daunting number, but Dewhurst said he is convinced the state can close that gap without severe cuts in state services.
At the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a 2.5% cut would amount to more than $125 million over the biennium. In years past, TDCJ's institutional division (which runs the state's 112 prison units) has been shielded from budget cuts, meaning that in 2003, when agencies were last cut to the bone, the only thing available to slash were treatment dollars.

I hope Texas officials won't make the same mistake in 2011. Instead, by investing more in diversion strategies and expanding on successes from the 2007 probation reforms, the state could actually close one or two prison units - as we've seen in other states - and use those employees to bring other facilities up to adequate staffing.

There are two ways to think about which prison units to cut: "Which units are most expensive?," and "Which units are most difficult to staff?"

If you're talking about the most expensive units, those are mostly TDCJ's older facilities which tend to have higher costs-per-prisoner. (See this post analyzing data on TDCJ unit age and cost.)

If you're talking about those where understaffing is chronic, you'd start in Dalhart, where TDCJ wages and working conditions don't favorably compete with factory farming of hogs or a nascent dairy and cheese-making industry that's cropped up there in the last decade.

There could also be political considerations. The local chamber-of-commerce crowd in Fort Bend County outside of Houston want a prison unit closed because it sits on land that has become increasingly valuable as the city of Sugarland has expanded and an airport was placed near the area. During the Sunset process last year, they were turned down when they suggested TDCJ close the unit and build a new one somewhere else. Perhaps they'd have more success during a budget crunch arguing the unit there should be eliminated outright.

In any event, to avoid massive new prison building in the future it's important that the state not limit budget cuts at TDCJ to probation, treatment and diversion programming, but instead "spread the pain" or even limit it to the institutional division, where they're still short 1,000 guards and could close units without necessarily eliminating jobs.

Now's the time to be thinking about alternative budget solutions because when the Lege session starts a year from now, demands for slashing 9-figure amounts from the budget could be quite immediate.

RELATED: From Sentencing Lay & Policy, "Notable prediction that prison population may decline in 2009."


Anonymous said...

Cailiphonya is going broke partly due to unwise decisions related to its correctional system. Economic decisions based on political correctness often lead to disaster.

Google: Why is California Going Broke?

Check on the situation in New York also.

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits,

TDCJ should not close TDCJ run prisons, but cut their private contract beds. There are over 18,700 contract beds in TDCJ. Let's start there before we start closing State run prisons.

These private prisons have just about as much security as Boy Scout Camps. The inmates at these private units are low risk inmates, who are the ones most likely eligible for Parole.

Anonymous said...

Grits if they close a unit or units which one's do you see them looking at.

Independent Accountant said...

There are thousands of TDCJ inmates who are eligible for "DMS". It should be granted virtually all of them in the next 60 days!
When the MS law was changed, we were told that DMS was for "the worst of the worst". I calculated that 98.6% of DMS eligible inmates were to get it if only 1,199 new beds would be required in the five years after DMS passed. Now only 50% of DMS eligible inmates get it!

Anonymous said...

Maybe the State needs to look at consolidating TJPC and TYC once again. How many millions of dollars could be saved there?

TYC numbers are down and there is clearly a push to serve the kids in their community. Seems to me that one agency could handle the task.

Hook Em Horns said...

Close prisons? In Texas? ROFLMAO!

Anonymous said...

Hey I have an Idea, Why dont we get Rick Perry a cheaper House to live in????? I was reading in the statesman awhile back and we were paying 10k a month for His house in Austin....But I do feel TDCJ Should cut the private Prisons out and just keep the State runs open, That would save some money.

Anonymous said...

Anytime America closes a prison for any reason,it is a step in the right direction for mankind.

Anonymous said...

9/6....some folks need to be off the streets and you are probably one of them.

sunray's wench said...

@Independent Accountant - any system that seriously uses the term "Discretionary mandatory" for anything has to be flawed.

Hook Em Horns said...

Still laughing........

Anonymous said...

My first thought is without going past the first sentence in this article is WHY DON'T WE RE-EXAMINE THE PEOPLE WE'VE LOCKED UP IN THE EXTREME SENTENCING phase TX initiated in the 1990's after building all those prisons and let those men and women out on parole. Many of them have already done 15 or more years for non violent crimes...or a crime you might consider violent such as an attempted rape, but a got a 30 year sentence that someone who tortured raped and murdered only got a 27 year sentence. Do you see my point. Moses is crying: "Let my people go!"

Hook Em Horns said...

Please...dont anyone hold your breath waiting for Texas to close a prison...still ROFLMAO!!! CANT STOP!!

sunray's wench said...

anon @3.15 ~ absolutely agree with you. There is such huge disparity between sentencing in Texas.

Reorganise the parole process and look at things less emotionally.

TDCJ EX said...

Sunray . Discretionary Mandatory Supervision (DMS) is a oxymoron. Only an Texas. Can something be both mandatory and the state have “discretion” over whether it can happen or not.

Why don't they call it what it is parole and stop using semantics to claim TDCJ and BPP are following the letter and intent of the law. Or does the law only apply to those who cannot afford justice?

BPP, could if they so choose to do so parole. Those who are eligible, and they become eligible. As long as they have done, what is asked of them in the form of classes, and programming as needed and have a clean disciplinary record .
If 2/3 approximately 66% or 102300. are eligible at some point unless they are disciplinary problems or have not met, whatever mandated conditions become eligible, such as: taking courses, programs, etc. they should be paroled. Doing the math 52,700 aren't parole eligible . A much more manageable number of prisoners.

Texas could also would be very simple change in law return good time as a way of discharging a sentence and becoming parole eligible in a shorter period of time.
Other states use this old to save cost and a tool to maintain order and good behavior in their prisons and for those under some form of state supervision or control. Having realistic,rational and less secretive parole policies, as well as meaningful good time is not soft on time, but smart on crime, not to mention easier on everyone's wallet. Keep in mind income and property taxes are not the only one of taxation . Like other states without an income tax taxes as many fees and fines to make up for it, as well as a high property tax rate.

Looking at and removing many of the 2383+ felonies, including the infamous oyster felonies. The goat felonies, and all those that have been declared unconstitutional by a federal court, including the Supreme Court. Note all of these lawsuits over turning the state legislatures already costly making every behavior of felony. Texas needs to learn. It simply cannot arrest persecute err prosecute incarcerate its way out of social problems.

The more difficult to achieve, but realistic approach is the incremental legalization of drugs, starting with marijuana. Just because it's legal does not mean people are going to rush out and buy marijuana or for that matter, any now illegal drug. If they were made legal for people who want illegal substances already get them.

This in turn reduces all crime and the need for lots of prisons in Texas case 112 units in some over years the oldest being the “Walls” at 161 years old. Though I hardly see the “Walls” being closed. It will always be open in some capacity, Texas fetish for prisons will not allow for it to be closed . Though turning it and to a place that gives testimony to the humane brutality of Texas Prisons might be appropriate .

Grits had any earlier post and thread on the age and cost of all 112 units complete with graph.

This recent Grits Post and thread makes a perfect predecessor to the threat now being discussed.

Hook Em Horns said...

In most of the 49 other states, you get good time credit for every day served. UNLESS you screw up and catch major disciplinary cases, you are RELEASED once you meet the criteria set forth in state law. Indiana is one example that comes to mind. You get 2 days credit for every day served.

Only in Texas can you meet all of the criteria described in state law and then be denied by a parole board that votes in the privacy of each members closet and rarely if ever face public scrutiny.

This draconian style of justice is typical of the Texas system which seems to enjoy this mental torture.

Anonymous said...

Hey I got an idea. Instead of the sate of Texas spending 31 Million on the super bowl this year use it for something productive like the prison system. I mean we all love football, but would you go buy some really expensive tickets to a football game, and just not pay your mortgage? Or how about this one. TDCJ requested 66 million dollars from the Texas legislative budget board for cameras, x-ray machines, and metal detectors not for inmates, but for officers. Ok so I know there is a corruption problem within the ranks of TDCJ both Gray, and freeworld, but it is a small problem blown up in the media to look a lot larger than it is. Maybe the state should put that money into something like paying it's bills, and not cutting it's budget, and instead start prosecuting these wolves in sheeps clothing that are bringing contraband into these facilities. But I guess that would make waaaaaayyyyyy too much sense. Oh well as long as they keep giving me a paycheck, and don't keep me from getting my retirement in the next 20 years or so I guess we will all just have to learn to live with the stupidity.