Tuesday, September 21, 2010

TDCJ budget cut suggestions set agency up to fail

The state budget folk who estimate such things now say Texas' budget shortfall may be a jaw-dropping $21 billion next biennium, exacerbated by the fact that last session legislators only balanced the budget using $14 million in stimulus funding.

Which brings us to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Legislative Appropriations Request (large pdf), which was finalized while I was on vacation. TDCJ by far costs taxpayers more than any other criminal justice agency, so obviously they should be subject to the lion's share of cuts. However, the "Administrator's Statement" warns of all sorts of dire consequences if TDCJ's budget is cut by just 5%, which is the level anticipated by their LAR. Upon closer inspection, though, that's because the agency's suggested budget cuts seem designed to exacerbate rather than avoid bad consequences. Indeed, I have little doubt the agency's budget could be safely cut while avoiding many of the problems described.

For starters, TDCJ fails to suggest closing a single prison unit or policy recommendations to reduce incarceration levels, even though the agency claims a 5% budget cut would necessitate the "elimination of approximately 1,700 correctional and unit-based positions." Such a cut, they say, would have a "profound effect on our ability to securely and safely house, feed, clothe, and provide health care to those offenders incarcerated in TDCJ," but that's only true if they don't scale back the number of units to safely staff the facilities they continue to operate. Nowhere is there a hint of at the obvious truth that if the state chose to incarcerate fewer people, most of the terrible problems they prognosticate could be avoided.

For example, the agency suggests cutting $37.5 million per year for healthcare at its state-operated units compared to 2009 levels, which is an absurd proposal unless the agency also reduces the total number of incarcerated inmates. Healthcare costs are increasing faster than inflation and UTMB, which provides healthcare for 80% of TDCJ inmates, has said it can't operate on its current budget, much less with tens of millions less.

Another odd one: TDCJ suggests cutting food costs by $18.7 million per year compared to 2009 levels, but how can this be done when a) they don't suggest reducing the number of inmates and b) food costs are rising?

TDCJ says a 5% cut would "hinder the agency's ability to provide institutional substance abuse treatment and continuing aftercare (both residential and outpatient counseling)," but that's because they chose to target cuts in those areas instead of prioritizing money for programs that reduce recidivism. Ditto for reentry, rehabilitation programs and mental health spending. These suggested cuts seem expressly designed to drive up recidivism and boost the prison population instead of proposing a more sustainable way to get by on less money.

Similarly, the LAR says that "Reductions in the probation function would reduce the resources that are available to judges and probation officials in managing offenders within the community. Residential programs, treatment programs, probation caseload ratios and the number of specialized caseloads would be impacted. With fewer resources and options aimed at diverting offenders from prison, the incarcerated offender population could grow larger." That's true, as far as it goes, but again only if the Lege accepts the agency's ill-conceived recommendation to slash probation. This writer has repeatedly argued that the only way to safely cut the corrections budget is to increase funding for community supervision and make the big cuts in TDCJ's institutional division, which has more than 34,000 employees and accounts for more than 80% of the agency's budget.

Indeed, TDCJ clearly thinks they should not only keep open all their existing facilities, but pay to repair and upgrade units that in some cases are old and outdated, declaring that: "Continued repair and rehabilitation funding is necessary to maintain our existing physical plant, numbering over 100 correctional facilities statewide. Many of these facilities are over 75 years old. The size, scope and complexity of our physical plant requires substantial ongoing preventive repair and renovation." Regular Grits readers know that Texas' older facilities cost more per inmate to operate; the agency should close at least some of them instead of seek more money to repair them all.

TDCJ also suggests continuing all contracts with private facilities, though several end this year and seem like prime targets for cutting. Some private vendors provide halfway houses and drug treatment services that need to be retained because closing them might reduce parole rates, but those simply warehousing inmates ought to be at the top of the list for the chopping block.

One silver lining: For the first time in years (if ever), TDCJ suggests zeroing out its budget for new facility construction. The state's experience since deciding to triple prison capacity back during Ann Richards' administration has been "if you build it, they will come," so at least the budget crisis may put an end to that ignominious trend.

Virtually all of TDCJ's funding - around $3 billion per year - comes from state General Revenue funds, as opposed to programs like Medicaid where federal matching funds mean the state loses more money than it saves from cuts. So to cut state spending overall, it'll be difficult bordering on impossible to avoid cuts at TDCJ. Indeed, polls show prison spending is one of the few areas where the public supports budget cuts.

Bottom line: It's folly to suggest across the board cuts instead of targeting them in the institutional division, where most of the agency's budget is spent. IMO TDCJ officials actually know better but are suggesting cuts that would cause so many problems they hope legislators will be too scared to make them. This is a typical bureaucratic maneuver but inherently bad public policy. Let's hope legislators see through it and propose sufficient policy changes so that cutting the prison budget can actually be done safely.


Anonymous said...

...there's just no end to the folly and back scratching in texas politics.

sunray's wenchh said...

I know how they think they can cut the food budget. They will drop from 3 meals per day to 2 meals per day just like Alabama has done for its inmates. One of those meals will almost certainly be cold too, not cooked.

Listening to TDCJ staff in other places, they appear to think that they should be exempt from any spending cuts at all. They also want to see the end of individuals retiring from TDCJ, taking the pension, and then returning to work for the agency - effectively getting paid twice for the same job.

Perhaps the Lege could look for areas where other agencies need products made and that are spending a lot of money to source them, and transfer that production to inmates instead. Free labour, and training for the inmates, to produce the goods for less.

Anonymous said...

Scott, this has been going on since they began the prison construction under Richards. Back then it was treatment-oriented. Bush took over, appointed Pollunsky to Chair the BOCJ, and before he was even reigned in as Chairman he began with a list of "rules" that were going to change.

In 1994 TDCJ was being sued by the large counties for approximately 22,000 state prisoners awaiting transfer in overcrowded county jails. I was in the Tarrant County Jail in conditions that were deplorable. Texas needed 30,000-40,000 prison beds to alleviate overcrowding in county jails and provide for expansion of existing facilities -- they would build 130,000 from 1987 to 1999, in what was the largest expansion of a prison system in the history of mankind on this earth. The scare tactic then was, "if we don't get this money, we are going to have to release 70,000 child molesters in the next year." It's the same scare tactic today. If they have to make cuts, we just won't be safe. The Lege is laughing at them.

Texas has never closed a prison unit in its history as a state. The Huntsville Unit was built as a slave plantation/prison in 1849 and it still houses prisoners today. Thankfully, I believe we will see prisons closed this session. And society will be just as safe, if not safer, than before.

Anonymous said...

The TDCJ is about 97% filled to capacity. The TDCJ does not make decisions about who is incarcerated. They only incarcerate those who are sent to them. The Board of Pardons and Parole is a separate agency; the courts and the legislature determine who is incarcerated. How do TDCJ officials benefit personally from keeping prisons open? Also, isn't that the call of the legislature as well? If prisons close, where are those offenders supposed to go? If you believe a certain category of offense does not deserve prison time as punishment, contact the members of the House and Senate criminal justice committees. They are the ones who can do something about it. Don't knock TDCJ officials from juggling just as fast as they can to run a constitutional system while using transport buses with over a million miles on the odometer.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:07, TDCJ should be honest with legislators and tell them if they want the budget cut safely they must change their punitive policies. Proposing unreasonable cuts in order to claim their budget should be sacrosanct is disingenuous. Legislators have asked TDCJ how to cut their budget, and the agency's reply is "it can't be done" instead of honestly answering the question.

Don said...

to 8:07: If TDCJ cuts beds, then the other agencies who DO have the voice on how many people are incarcerated will have to trim to accomodate the cuts. State District Courts, prosecutors, Board of Pardons and Parole, etc. TDCJ needs to close some units. It starts with them (TDCJ). To contend that they have nothing to say about how many inmates they keep over time is silly. They cut programs, thereby increasing future population. They try to influence legislators to make new felonies and enhance old ones. The list goes on. Why? Self-preservation.
Michael, I agree with everything you said except that I don't share your optimism about the lege closing units. Hope you're right and I'm wrong. I won't even be surprised if we see another line item in the budget for new prisons "if needed", like last time. After all, Rick Perry is still governor, and probably will be come 2011.

Susan said...

It seems to me that we have to look at the Pardons and Parole's erratic decisions. They warehouse prisoners who long ago "paid the price" and have PROVEN through long years in prison to be more than ready to be paroled. They call it "nature of the crime" and every two or one year continued to set back the same inmates. I really have come to believe that they need the slave labor force and that is the main reason they don't let prisoners parole. I can cite case after case. There is no oversight over the secret star chamber. Fewer old timer prisoners would reduce the population. I believe in punishment but not to the extent the Parole Board utilizes it as a reason to keep many from parole.

Anonymous said...

"To contend that they have nothing to say about how many inmates they keep over time is silly. They cut programs, thereby increasing future population. They try to influence legislators to make new felonies and enhance old ones." Don, if any TDCJ official cut programs without the say-so of legislators, they would be out of a job quickly. Believe it or not, folks like Senator Whitmire keep a pretty tight watch over TDCJ. Administrators don't choose to do whatever they decide they want to do. Also, TDCJ personnel are constantly reminded that it is not their role to comment on their opinions regarding punishment. If a legislator asks how changing a law would affect the agency, the response is to simply contain the costs and resources needed without an value judgment. These are people who work very hard for low pay -- they receive NO benefit from increasing incarceration rates. To imply otherwise is ludicrous and smacks of Sarah Palin rhetoric or an Oliver Stone movie, depending on which conspiracy theorist you identify with. As a matter of fact, it would benefit TDCJ employees not to be so stretched. Many of the resources cut in 2003 were never replaced, but due to criminal justice policy outside the purview of TDCJ, the population has continued to grow -- although many of the program implemented in 2007 by the legislature appear to have slowed the growth thankfully. Instead of looking for Machiavellian motives where there aren't any; perhaps you could assist as I suggested previously by contacting someone who REALLY has power -- your legislator. That being said, my comment aren't meant disrespectfully and I am glad people like you are paying attention to the operations of our state even if we disagree.

Jim Stott said...

I know the state legislature has its work cut out for it next session. I don't envy any of them, especially in the criminal justice arena. Mothballing prisons may be a temporary solution, but, if serious cuts to community corrections come about next year, the need for the space will be there in another couple of years. Programs we were able to set up with special funding to help reduce the prison population are working very well. If the alternatives aren't there, there's only one solution, incarceration. It's time to think about other ways to generate revenue. It's kind of like Wal Mart philosophy. If costs are always being cut, how long before it's free?

Don said...

Sorry 1:02. Despite your condescending comments to the contrary, I have witnessed TDCJ cutting programs in certain prisons on the pretext that they couldn't find qualified personnel to run them. Maybe they weren't permanently "cut"; just went for years without running. I know the legislature has to be complicit in making major changes, but they are somewhat limited by what they are told by TDCJ officials. Why would the Governor tell each agency, (TDCJ) to identify where they can cut? Then TDCJ says "well, we have to cut personnel, so we have to cut programs". Can't cut facilities. Even Probation Department directors have the option of applying for grants to run programs or not run them. Apparently, you work or have worked for TDCJ, because you speak with authority, but so have I. Legislators don't micromanage programs in prisons.

Prison Doc said...

I lay it at the foot of Pardons and Paroles. It seems to take everybody a helluva long time to make parole even with nonviolent crimes and "good behavior". Of course, sentencing reform is mandatory, too, if the prison census is to be cut. People who don't work "inside" may not realize how long 20,30,or 40 years in a cage is.

sunray's wench said...

I'm with Prison Doc on this. The BPP could approve way more parolees than they curently do, on medical grounds as well as on good behaviour. They choose to follow their own agenda.

I suspect a lot of TDCJ's costs go on pensions.

Anonymous said...

Don, do you also believe in the Easter Bunny?

Don said...

Yes. Why?

Hook Em Horns said...

Hang on...I have to stop laughing...are you kidding? Set up to fail? Hold on...laughing again...wait...I cannot stop...just a minute...DAMN...OK...wait...Set up to fail? THIS AGENCY IS ALREADY A FAILURE. Back to CSI.