Thursday, March 18, 2010

TDCJ needs 'Plan B' to rescue successful community corrections investments

I attended the first half of the House Corrections Committee hearing Tuesday on probation and community corrections (video available here), one of the interim charges issued to the committee from the Speaker. Only four legislators were there - Chairman Jim McReynolds, Jerry Madden, Marrissa Marquez, and a particularly glum and silent Solomon Ortiz, Jr. (who I commented to a bystander looked like somebody had run over his dog).

Much of what was discussed will be familiar ground to Grits readers, so rather than recite chapter and verse, I'll simply record the impression that - especially among the legislators, in presentations from TDCJ and local adult probation departments (CSCDs) in Dallas, Corpus Christi and Lufkin - the consensus was pretty clear on the need to sustain recent funding for strong probation and diversion programs. (Unfortunately, no one strongly pressed the point with TDCJ director Brad Livingston on why nearly all his suggested budget cuts came from the probation and treatment side.)

Local probation officials were particularly insistent on two critical points: The need for accurate assessment tools, which the Dallas chief emphasized must be used immediately when the offender enters the system (not months down the line), and the need for focusing limited resources on supervising medium and high risk offenders in the first two years of their terms. After that, they all said, intensive supervision usually wasn't worth the bang for the buck, not because the offenders absolutely would not recidivate but because maximizing supervision in that early part of the process generated the best crime-reduction results, with rapidly diminishing returns after the initial supervision period. A large and compelling body of research, the committee was told, supports those conclusions, which were backed up by the individual directors' experiences.

There was no substantive disagreement with those sentiments expressed while I was there, nor in a brief conversation with the three local directors in the lunchroom, which was heartening. While they identified a few glitches - e.g., the Lege may have overinvested in treatment beds and underinvested in (less expensive) outpatient treatment - there seemed little dispute that recent investments are working. However, two things struck me overall.

First, it's clear there needs to be further investment in the 2007 strategies to maximize their potential. That became evident when a critical subtext briefly emerged that will inevitably become a greater source of concern down the line: The reliance of local probation departments on fees for nearly 1/3 of their budgets (ranging from $25-$60 per month, by statute). That creates a long-term unstable situation if probation departments successfully reduce their caseloads, which would the net result of focusing resources earlier and letting offenders earn their way off supervision with good behavior.

One probationer who testified said many offenders considered long probation stints a scam to squeeze fees out of them, and in a sense it's fundamentally true that CSCDs are structurally reliant on that income, giving them an institutional incentive not to reduce caseloads too greatly. To fully implement a strong-probation strategy where offenders are encouraged to earn their way off supervision early through good behavior, those funding mechanisms need to be restructured.

In the big picture of TDCJ's $3 billion per year budget, that shouldn't be an obstacle for reform if prison cutting were on the table (the same could be said, for that matter, of the much-discussed refund shortfall), but if the agency insists that all the cuts have to come from the community corrections side, as was the case in their 5%-cut plan submitted to the Governor, all of a sudden those lost probation fees become a pretty big deal.

Chairman McReynolds said at one point that, although Texas' massive projected $11 billion deficit hadn't yet made its way into budgeting reality, as it inevitably would in 2011, whatever solutions they enacted then they should be thinking about now. With that, I completely agree; I just think the gaping budget hole will be much bleaker and more immediate than the agency is pretending if it's true we'll see an $11-$15 billion gap.

That's why I've been harping on the need to plan now to shift money from prisons to stronger probation. The goal is to save money by changing approaches; budget cuts are only a fortunate byproduct but it doesn't mean they'll stop spending money on corrections. Under that scenario, in adult probation they'd need to spend more. But since 80% of TDCJ's budget goes to prisons, there's also just a lot more room there to cut. Somebody needs to make TDCJ produce a "Plan B" that involves reducing prison capacity before they get too much further into the process.

Judging from the discussion Tuesday, corrections shouldn't be exempted from budget cuts, as TDCJ has requested, but instead budget writers should view TDCJ as the one big state agency where it's possible to cut smartly. On some of the other big ticket items like education, pensions and healthcare, the solutions aren't so obvious.

My second overall impression was that the extent of the seeming consensus by officialdom was remarkable, suggesting that perhaps it's time to re-examine some of the money-saving options from the original legislation that were left, as they say in Hollywood, on the cutting room floor back during the original sausage law making process.

The history of Texas' recent probation reform legislation began in 2003, when then House Corrections Chairman Ray Allen passed a bill mandating probation on the first offense for less-than-a-gram drug offenders, a move which diverted up to 4,000 offenders per year from state jails. Then in 2005, a strong bill prepared during the interim was gutted with amendments forced on the House floor by then-Reps Terry Keel and Robert Talton, who eventually convinced the Governor to veto the legislation entirely. Rep. Madden, who'd worked on the legislation for two years with Sen. John Whitmire, amended his bill to make it apply to a much smaller number of offenders after Keel predicted on the House floor, in bombastic, over the top language, that a massive, inevitable crime wave would ensue if the bill was passed. In 2007, with Keel gone, the Lege re-passed virtually the same (post-amendment) bill, and the Governor signed it rather than spend $1 billion to build and staff three new prisons.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that all those dire predictions turned out to be wrong and the folks testifying Tuesday told the committee the changes were working well. What's more, the main critics of the legislation are now out of office, and Texas has gained national acclaim on the topic.

That suggests to me that 2011 might be a great time for the Corrections Committee (or Sen. Whitmire's Criminal Justice committee) to go back and re-file portions of the original 2005 bill that were stripped off in the House. It'd be the legislative equivalent of picking up a spare, and would build on the remarkable successes of the 2007 reforms. The consensus statewide among judges and probation officials about the wisdom of the approach is much stronger than it was back then. (There weren't nearly as many vocal, CSCD directors coming out to support reform in 2005 or 2007.) Combined with reconfiguring state drug laws, those policy changes would further shift corrections' focus from incarceration to probation, fulfilling myriad public policy goals, from budget cutting to reducing crime.


Anonymous said...

Grits, do you know why so few CSCD directors showed up for this meeting? Was the meeting open to any that wanted to attend?

It seems at least directors from all the large departments should have been represented.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

At least one or two others were there but didn't testify. The room was full; I didn't know everybody.

Anonymous said...

Testimony is always "invited". Directors may show up as they wish but those who testify most of the time are invited to testify by the CJAD Director. Those who do testify are either on the Legislative Committee of the Texas Probation Association or are from the larger departments. Other Directors do show up to lend support. Most Directors are in their home area having to do budgetary "mine field" work in order not to have to lay off employees due to the LBB and ERS short sighted funding errors. Brad Livingston is once again showing how little TDCJ cares for adult probation interests when he testifies that losses in probation are the way to go instead of losses in the prison system. I wonder how long Directors can keep the fires burning in their judicial districts with the internal sanction models designed to keep the prison populations down with TDCJ's continued prison mentality showing its' partiality.

Marie T said...

Anybody want to make a buck? Problem is Brad probably wouldn't take the class.

The National Institute of Corrections’ (NIC), Academy Division is seeking applications for the development of a competency based, blended modality training curriculum that will provide correctional executives with the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to become more self-aware, ethical and value based, a strategic thinker, more organizationally influential, collaborative, team oriented, capable of setting effective organizational priorities, identifying a strategic vision and mission, and creating collaborative partnerships in the external environment.
Posted by Joshua Stengel at Agency News

Anonymous said...

Brad Livingston isn't an idiot! He can grow his PRISON empire when CSCD's lose funding. Less probation officers means more prisoners.
Someone fire Brad, he is the end cause of more crime!

Hook Em Horns said...

I liken the current situation in TDCJ as kind of like when a toilet flushes and Brad Livingston is caught in the swirl!