Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An 'unrepentant, hard-right conservative' was 'forced to agree' with prison diversion 'based on the facts'

Former House Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen had this to say about cutting corrections budgets in light of the coming 2011 budget crunch faced by the Texas Legislature:
That 2003 budget cutting of probation, parole and treatment programs backfired.

Yes, the cuts helped balance the budget in 2003-4, but they led to significantly expanded spending in subsequent years in the most costly category of criminal justice spending--prison beds. 2003's cuts saved nickels in that budget cycle, but forced future spending of millions.
Allen recalls that the 2003
session was brutal, and despite my objections, the legislature slashed the criminal justice budget by cutting corrections expenditures in every category other than prisons. Within a year, the prison system exceeded its capacity and began leasing beds from county jails to house a flood of new inmates. About half were sentenced with new criminal offenses, and the balance were returned to prison because Judges revoked probations at a much higher rate, often for violations which were merely technical in nature rather than for new crimes.

Offenders on probation are supervised by county probation officers whose service is funded primarily by local tax dollars with about one-third of total funding from the state. Total cost of daily supervision is about $1.50. Prisons are funded in full by state tax dollars at a cost of $35-$40 per day.

So why did the prisons fill up until they were overflowing into leased space? The answer is simple and logical: elected judges who must answer to voters were afraid that the funding cuts to probation supervision and treatment had made it too difficult for probation officers to effectively supervise their caseloads.

For the next four years, the state's new criminal justice challenge was to handle the flood of inmates pouring into expensive prison beds. This fiscal and managerial problem was further complicated by the longer sentences and reduction of parole eligibility which was written into law in 1993, and that population was aging rapidly and along with that aging came the serious and costly medical problems inherent to high-risk populations.

In 2007, faced with what seemed like a clear necessity to build even more prison beds, the legislature took a different turn, declaring that prisons are too costly for taxpayers for many classes of offenders who would be more cheaply and effectively served by drug and alcohol treatment and enhanced probation supervision. That was the policy they implemented.

After seven terms invested in studying the realities of our criminal justice system, I agreed fully with their assessment. As an unrepentant, hard-right conservative, I was not only able to agree, I was forced to agree based on the facts. Our prisons house many inmates who are little more than incorrigible animals -- criminals who should never again see the daylight of freedom. However, that is not true for thousands of inmates whose crimes were non-violent, were inspired and fueled by foolish and undisciplined substance abuse and mental health issues, and who were consigned to prison by judges who had little faith in the ability of a weakened Probation and Parole system to effectively protect the public.
Allen, who in the interest of full disclosure is a former campaign client, lauds a recent column by Ana YaƱez Correa which argued for cutting prison budgets instead of community supervision. He announced that "She is absolutely right (though, certainly NOT far-right)."

Allen was among the first in the GOP to realize Texas couldn't continue to expand its number of inmates ad infinitum, and that fiscal conservatism required restraint in using public safety resources just like other functions of the state. That's something I've always appreciated about Ray, who I'm pleased to call a friend: he actually believes in the "small-government" ideology he espouses, and not just when it's politically convenient.


Jim Stott said...

I remember when Ray Allen was House Corrections Chair. He filed HB 2668, which kind of began the push for a more effective probation system throughout the state. Because of this and more recent legislation, we have seen a drastic decline in commitments to prison. I hope that one day, we can effectively argue that prison is the alternative, not probation.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You're dead right, Jim, that was a pivotal bill. It diverted thousands of petty drug offenders from state jails, mandating probation on the first offense in less than a gram cases. And when crime continued to decline and the sky didn't fall (and when Allen was reelected in a swing district despite a Democratic opponent who called the bill soft on crime), it emboldened the Lege to embark on the 2005 probation reforms that were vetoed, then passed in 2007 after he'd retired.

Many don't recall that the original filed version of that bill would have reduced the offense from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor, but the compromise was to keep it a felony and mandate probation on the first offense. So Ray was ahead of his time on this stuff.

Unknown said...

Just as Ana was right in her Op Ed piece, Jim has it exactly right. Probation should be the rule, prison should be the alternative. Effective Probation supported by technological options, proven treatment methods and programs and restitution to victims of crime should be our primary focus in Criminal Justice. Prison should the alternativewe reserve for those who pose a danger to the public.

Jim Stott said...

Over the past three or four sessions we have had all kinds of legislative champions, who understand the community corrections system and are willing to focus more on treatment than retribution. As a probation official, I am pleased to see the message finally getting across. Being tough on crime is a great message, but it doesn't always mean a prison sentence. Much of the time being tough means holding people accountable and making them productive. In many cases, that is a far more severe sanction.