Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Former House Corrections Chairman: Don't make same mistake as in 2003, close older, expensive prison units to save money

I'd somehow missed two notable items first published in February on the blog of Ray Allen, a past Republican chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee (and in the interest of full disclosure, a former campaign client). See:
Both these posts, I think, are for the most part right on the money. Allen ran the Corrections Committee during Texas' last major budget crisis in 2003, when cuts essentially similar to those proposed by TDCJ director Brad Livingston ended up boosting expenses in the short therm. That year state leaders exempted prisons from cuts, a mistake Allen thinks (and I agree) shouldn't be replicated this time. Of TDCJ's recently suggested budget reduction plan, he wrote:
TDCJ's proposed budget cuts are about what I expected: cut probation and programs; don't cut prison beds. To the credit of Director Brad Livingston, he did emphatically point out the likely negative impact of the proposed cuts if actually made in the TDCJ budget. On the downside: when similar cuts were proposed in 2003, judges immediately responded by increasing sentencing direct to prison by more than 12% (if memory serves me correctly) a full four months before the cuts were enacted, and eight months prior to the reduced budget's effective date.

Legislative Budget Board criminal justice analysts should keep a close eye on this paradigm starting NOW, and have statistical runs ready for legislative committees which will consider these matters over the next few months. A careful analysis of the 2003 figures will clearly show that anticipated savings from cutting treatment and probation funding were eclipsed by immediate growth in agency costs for its rapidly increasing prison population.
In short, the budget cuts did not reduce actual spending; they actually forced increased spending. (Emphasis in original.)
Allen suggests looking at the most costly, older units as possible candidates for closure:
Texas has a huge prison system with more than 100 facilities scattered across the state. According to TDCJ, the average cost of operating a prison bed runs around $36 dollars per day per inmate.

But, the cost of operating specific units varies widely. The most important cost driver comes from the cost of hiring and maintaining security staff, and the actual architecture of prisons creates staffing differences. In general, prisons built around the turn of the century (1880's-1920's) were built of stone, and have blind corners, nooks and crannies, and lack centralized cell-block pods which allow surveillance of living spaces from a central guard station, etc. A second cost driver arises from specialized services such as extensive medical, psychiatric or other treatment services. The second set of cost drivers is difficult to analyze from the outside because the agency does not report these costs separately from security costs. That said, some units cost $21+ per day/per inmate more to operate than the state's average operations costs.

Eliminating 2000 of these high-cost beds could yield substantial savings for the state.
Allen also offers political advice for those who want to protect recent investments in community corrections:
I believe TDCJ and its leadership will act as honest brokers as the policy debate unfolds, providing accurate information to those who request it, while carefully avoiding the temptation to become participants. Livingston will defer judgment to his Board of Criminal Justice, and to the collective will of the legislature, the Lt. Governor and the Governor.

So, you ask, in the meantime, what should be done by those who have worked so hard to create and fund alternatives to incarceration over the past few years?

First, marshal your facts into a coherent narrative which will persuade both the legislature and the public that costly prison beds should be reserved for those whom we reasonably fear; and, second, that effective probation supervision, proven substance abuse treatment programs, and short-term confinement when necessary, should be strengthened and tweaked to keep Texans and their property secure.

Finally, don't be surprised when this issue becomes a significant election issue between now and next November. Texans need all the facts, and they should tell elected leaders what they are willing to fund in order to maintain public safety.

You can and should participate in that public debate by interviewing and informing candidates, by speaking out and writing letters to the editor and articles for local newspapers, newsletters and blogs, by talking to friends, relatives, fellow workers and members of your church, synagogue or social service organization, and, by voting for candidates who most closely mirror your values, concerns and positions on key issues.

Understand that most voters and candidates are only minimally informed, or worse, misinformed about the criminal justice system. In particular, they do not understand that prison costs roughly $38/day for each of our 150,000 prison inmates and that this equation drives Texas' criminal justice budget. They do not know that nearly three times as many offenders currently are supervised on probation for around $1.50/day. If budget cuts weaken probation and thereby increase prison admissions, every new inmate added to a prison bed will cost taxpayers 25 times more than would have been spent to supervise him on probation.

Few voters understand that when the state sentences offenders to prison, federal law requires state taxpayers to bear not only the costs of constructing, maintaining and operating a prison, but, all costs of confinement including salaries and benefits of corrections officers, of food and clothing, and the steadily rising costs of physical health care and mental health care.

Most voters and candidates for office do not know that probation conditions may require an offender to wear one of a variety of electronic monitors capable of enforcing house arrest, detecting the use of alcohol, or of tracking a subject's movements in real time using global positioning satellites (GPS). Probation offenders are almost always required to get and keep a job, to refrain from using alcohol or drugs, to submit to regular drug testing, and, to attend court ordered classes, and to submit to substance abuse treatment while confined if the judge deems it necessary.

If these probation conditions are not met, judges can send offenders directly to prison with no further appeal. By the way, probationers also pay mandatory fees each month to the state, and they pay taxes on their earnings.

These facts pose a compelling argument in favor of a strong probation system when fully understood. Liberals, conservatives and independents alike usually agree when these facts are weighed into the final decision.

I do not believe that happened in 2003, and the result was a decision to cut probation and treatment funding which led to immediate, explosive growth in the prison population and the prison budget. Fortunately for taxpayers, that vicious cycle was halted by reforms in 2007, followed by restored and expanded treatment alternatives in 2009. Public safety did not deteriorate in the least with the implementation of these sensible reforms.

Bottom line: every stakeholder in the debate was handed a tough job-assignment the day state leadership was forced to ask state agencies for recommended spending cuts.

Hopefully, a full and complete public debate about these issues over the next fifteen months will persuade state leadership to adequately fund a sustainable criminal justice system which continues to protect taxpayers from dangerous criminals through an intelligent balance of effective community supervision and tough, efficiently run prisons.
One minor point of disagreement: Allen thinks private prisons should be excluded from the budget-cut mix because they tend to have lower published cost per day figures than state institutions. My view is that closures should include a mixture of state-owned units and eliminated private contracts. That's in part because a) it's practically and politically easier simply to not renew a contract than to decommission a state-run prison and b) there are a couple of private prisons where there are strong economic development or security arguments for closing them separate and apart from any budget concerns.

Also, published private prison costs don't include most health care expenses, a major cost-driver which is 100% picked up by the state. And most privates don't include ad-seg units, so more poorly behaved prisoners inevitably are all housed in state institutions. Besides, per diem private prison costs are projected to go up soon, anyway. So IMO the figures publicly available don't really reflect an apples-to-apples comparison.

For the most part, though, Allen's suggestions make tons of sense, coming as they do from someone with an extraordinary depth of experience with TDCJ and the political institutions that govern it. It's great to see knowledgeable folks speaking out to say that cutting probation and treatment shouldn't be TDCJ's only response to the budget crisis.


Anonymous said...

Besides walking at the back of the Christmas parade, the hardest part of growing is learning not to step in the same cow patty twice.

Retired LE

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I am wrong in this thinking.....
Could TDCJ manipulate the cost per day for inmates on a unit?

If the unit is fully staffed and they keep hiring more staff than what they have ever had, but are housing inmates at 33% of the bed capacity? You would take the average number of inmates at the facility over the past year and divide that out and that unit would artificially show a higher cost per inmate than comparable units.

Unfortunately this is what it seems like to me. Again, correct me if I am wrong...

Atticus said...

These comments and observations make so much sense it hurts. Once again Texas is facing a classic case of "You can pay me now or pay me more later", and I'm not optimistic that the Lege will keep from repeating the mistakes made in 2003 and other times in the past, when the advances made by Ann Richards, Sen. Whitmire, Rep. Madden, and others, were reduced and/or eliminated in the name of "belt-tightening"...

Anonymous said...

One of the problems facing TDCJ is the aging inmate population. Having worked for TDCJ for a number of years, I have seen this over and over. Plus when you have offenders with terminal illnesses,who should be released on medical discharge. This problem could solve the overcrowding, by releasing those offenders.However, change comes slow to TDCJ.

Anonymous said...

Too bad the article wasn't "learn from 2003 and stop passing stupid legislation.." but oh well, that won't happen so long as the group we have in there remains.