Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wrong but Right: Good Idea, Bad Data

The National Council on Crime and Delinquency issued a report this week titled "The Extravagance of Prison Revisited" (pdf) analyzing four states including Texas, predicting that $2.4 billion per year could be saved if the state shifted 80% of its nonviolent, "nonserious offenders" into community-based incarceration alternatives. Unfortunately, their facts about Texas and its budget are wrong: Flat out erroneous. Here's the miscalculation that blows the whole thing:
Texas spent $2.8 billion to incarcerate 80% (51,026) of nonserious, nonsexual offenders ... Alternatives are estimated to cost the state $433 million. A total cost savings of $2.4 billion can be expected with implementation of alternatives. ... Tailoring that alternative to be shorter in duration and achieving economies of scale would likely lead to a greater cost savings
I share many goals with the authors of this report and largely agree with the shift in budget priorities they're suggesting, but whoever wrote this just got their basic budget information wrong. TDCJ's entire 2009 operating budget is $2,946,892,799, even though the report authors claim that $2.8 billion (basically the whole budget) is being spent on 51,026 nonserious nonviolent offenders (about a third of those incarcerated).

The cost per prisoner figure NCCD uses for Texas is $17,100 per inmate per year (which sounds about right - here are the official stats), so if we multiply that amount by 51,026, we get $872,544,600, not $2.4 billion.

NCCD further estimates the cost of diverting those 51,026 Texans into treatment alternatives would be $433 million, which would leave the state with an estimated $439,544,600 annual savings, using this methodology. That's still a lot of savings and well worth doing, but it's not $2.4 billion per year.

Under the circumstances, I'm not sure whether to trust NCCD's (seemingly conservative, probably California-derived) figures on the cost of alternatives. But what they're suggesting - spending money on stronger community corrections instead of hard prison beds - was essentially the theory behind Texas' much-praised 2007 probation reforms. They're just advocating that Texas invest even more in community corrections and save more money by reducing the number of people it incarcerates.

On that point, I agree with them completely. I think it's basically the way we get to the point where we can talk credibly about closing prisons in Texas. I just wish they'd done a bit more due diligence before publishing this piece, or maybe hired some unemployed blogger down in Texas to fact check for them. ;)


Anonymous said...

With the state in such a money crisis the TYC giant budget should be severly cut. So much has been proven to be wasted that stiff controls need to be enforced against the agency. More kids should be released from institutions and parents held more accountable for them.

Texas maverick said...

"The report found that Texas had fewer programs
compared to other states, and the existing programs had
limited capacity, despite successful results."

What a sad commentary on our state. Even when we know what works, or are shown what is working, status quo and getting reelected are more important.

Jennie said...

I agree however, I do not see the costs of parole included.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jennie, I assume some of that $433 million they're talking about would go to parole. They're talking about community supervision of all types, just like the 2007 reforms had both probation and parole components.

Here's a chart with TDCJ's '09 budget breakdown.

Sam said...

Thanks for re-working the numbers. Will a correction be forthcoming from the producers of the bad data?

Anonymous said...

I agree that state budgets are going to require less money to be spent on incarceration of offenders.

The hard part will be to provide adequate supervision of those on community supervision. GRITS, some of your previous articles advocate EBP (evidence based practices) as a more reliable way to supervise offenders. The EBP model is used successfully in many Texas Counties.

The problem is many judges and Chief Probation Officer's do not want to use EBP. Bexar County judges recently selected a Chief Probation Officer and it does not appear Jarvis Anderson wants to follow the EBP model recommended by Dr. Fabelo.

Each applicant for the job provided a response to Dr. Fabelo's report concerning the Bexar County Department. Jarvis Anderson agrees the department needs a case management system, proper risk assessments, and PSI reports with more information. His five page response to the Fabelo report does not even reference Evidence Based Practices. The judges certainly recognized this when he was chosen to be Chief, so it appears the judges in Bexar County are also resistant to EBP.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I actually think Bexar should lose their diversion money if they don't swithch to EBP. The state needs to put some teeth into the program. I told somebody recently I thought they should wait to delete Bexar's diversion stipend until the new chief had a chance to turn the ship, but if Anderson isn't going to support EBP at Bexar, they should just pull the money now.

I haven't seen Anderson's response to Fabelo. Somebody send it along if you've got it.

Jennie said...

Thanks but a curious thought is this. What is the cost on a yearly basis for a prisoner in a facility versus on parole. In other words if it costs $20 a day on the inside then figuring with the portion of the salary of the parole officer and the admin costs, etc. along with say other costs a parolee might have (food stamps, medicaid).

I would love to see the figures there although they wouldn't be exact it would be interesting.

Like telling a parole board "We can save the state X amount of $'s if this non violent guy is on the outside".

Just a thought.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jennie, here is more detail on that question than you probably ever cared to know.

NCCD said...

Thanks for your comment regarding our newest publication. We hoped that it would generate discussion on the topic.

There are many factors to consider in a cost analysis. We believe that we have put forth the most accurate report possible within the limits of the available data, and we appreciate the chance to respond to any comments.

The 2009 budget for TDCJ was $2.9 billion. However, this is an annual operating budget and not directly relevant to our calculation. Our calculation of $2.8 billion is not based on a single year but rather, on the cost of incarcerating an individual for an entire sentence. In Texas, the average nonserious offender is behind bars for approximately four years.

Specifically, our figure was derived by multiplying the number of nonserious offenders by the annual cost per capita times the average number of years served.
According to the National Corrections Reporting Program, the average prison time served in Texas for nonserious drug offenders is 48.6 months and for other nonserious offenders is 38.4 months. Thus the weighted average cost of incarcerating nonserious offenders is 3.9 years per inmate. This times $17,400 per year is $69,405 per inmate. This is the key difference between your calculation and our report. We then multiply that total cost per inmate by 80% of nonserious offenders (or 40,821) and arrive at $2.8 billion.

Annual savings could be derived similarly by using new admissions to prison instead of the sitting population. We estimate that an annual cost savings would be roughly 1/3 of the one-time savings. This is another valid way to look at the issue. There is ample detail on our methods on pages 4 and 5 of the report, and in each state section.

The costs for alternatives come from reports by the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council and the Texas Legislative Budget Board. They represent costs of the programs that are run in Texas, adjusted for 2009.

We are glad that we agree on the importance of helping policymakers and the public understand that large numbers of inmates can be effectively sentenced to alternatives, saving tax-payer money and still protecting public safety.