Sunday, March 13, 2011

$162 million savings from probation, diversion cuts will cost more than twice that in extra incarceration costs

The Texas Tribune's Brandi Grissom has a piece in the New York Times today focused on the consequences of proposed cuts to diversion programs and reentry services for inmates leaving Texas prisons.
Texas legislators, looking for ways to plug an estimated $15 billion to $27 billion budget hole, are considering proposals that would cut as much as $162 million from rehabilitation and treatment programs meant to help criminals avoid going back to prison. For instance, the $100 Danny Bell received when he was released — the so-called “gate money” handed to prisoners who have completed their sentence — would be cut in half. Financing for Project Reintegration of Offenders, known as Project RIO, which helps released inmates find jobs, would be eliminated. So would money for educational and vocational programs in prisons and for re-entry transition coordinators. Financing for substance abuse and mental health treatment programs would drop dramatically.
Grits shares the concerns expressed about cutting the programs that staved off the need for more prison building over the last few years. They'll have to start building again if suggested cuts to probation, diversion and reentry programming are implemented, costing a lot more in the short term than any temporary savings we might enjoy. Dr. Tony Fabelo estimated recently that by FY 2013 - that is, the second year of the coming biennium for which the Lege is now writing the budget - under Texas' House budget as filed the state will be 12,857 beds short; under SB 1 on the Senate side, TDCJ would be 9,634 beds short, all because of cuts to diversion and reentry programming. If all those beds were leased at (for estimation purposes) $17,000 per inmate-year, the cost in the next biennium would run an extra $327 - $437 million - far more than the probation cuts save!

Cuts to probation and diversion programming will incur higher incarceration costs almost immediately, as judges change their sentencing patterns in reaction to the new array of options presented them by the state. If you were around for the cuts to probation and treatment programming during Texas' 2003 budget crisis, you've already seen this movie. Similarly, eliminating employment programs for ex-inmates while refusing to contemplate prison closures is a particularly penny-wise-pound-foolish decision - arguably the exact opposite of where spending priorities should be. After all, employed ex-offenders are a lot less likely to commit more crimes and go back to prison in the future.

The 9,600 to 12,800 extra beds Fabelo says we would need will have to come from somewhere. The state can build more prisons we can't afford. Leasing more beds would cost hundreds of millions they don't have (the House and Senate budgets suggest reducing the number of leased private prison beds by 3,519 and 2,119 beds respectively). Or, the Lege could embrace the opportunity to change policies to incarcerate fewer people. The latter choice looks to me like the only rational one, but so far this session all the momentum seems to be with TDCJ's priority of keeping the maximum number of prisons possible up and running. Time will tell.

Cutting Gate Money?
Another note from the NYT story: I've heard conflicting reports on whether TDCJ is considering cutting "gate money" for inmates, and Brandi didn't source her assertion that it would be cut in half. "Gate money" is the $100 given to inmates when they leave prison, an amount that hasn't changed in many years. As I understand it, if their sentence is complete, departing inmates get the whole $100; if they're on parole, they get $50 and a bus ticket, with their parole officer giving them the other $50 when they show up for their first meeting.

The idea that gate money might be cut was first publicly mentioned in a summary sent to probation directors by TDCJ-CJAD chief Cary Welebob describing cuts in the filed version of HB 1. Notably, though, the cut was not listed specifically anywhere in the filed versions of HB 1 or SB 1. Dave Baab frorm KPFT-Houston's The Prison Show on March 2 asked TDCJ flak Michelle Lyons about the gate money, and emailed me afterward: "According to Michelle Lyons, an unnamed Senator was trying to propose the reduction in Gate Money, and made a bit of noise about it. However, TDCJ did not view this as an option and it was not in the proposed budget cuts listed by [TDCJ Executive Director Brad] Livingston. Lyons stated that the current $100 or 50/50 split was barely enough to see them to their destination with basic necessities and they did not feel that reducing this amount would be beneficial in any manner." Based on that, in my own mind, for now, I've dubbed the cutting-gate-money meme a "rumor" - in this case one printed in the New York Times, but a rumor nonetheless.

UPDATE: While the gate-money cut wasn't included in the budget, a commenter pointed out that on Friday, Rep. John Otto did file HB 3650 which would reduce gate money from $100 to $50. So the issue is in play, but was not included in the filed versions of the budget.


Anonymous said...

They last changed the gate money policy in or around 1993. It used to be that offenders received a $200 check at the time they left the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Then, in about 1991, they changed it giving the offender $100 at the time of departure and another $100 when they report to their P.O. These amounts were later reduced to the $50/$50 you discuss in 1993.

Anonymous said...

If it's in the New York Times then it has to be true. We know they don't have a spin.

ExpectingToReturnToGray said...

The thing is that if they don't cut the money going into diversion and reentry efforts, where will they find the reductions they need to make? As long as they refuse to close any additional prisons, other than the Central Unit in Sugarland, there aren't any other sizable cuts to be made. Maybe they will accommodate the 12000-plus new inmates who will be coming into the system by letting out 12000-plus who are currently in the system--the undocumented aliens, the elderly or infirm (who will take care of them on the outside?), and the nonviolent or those with nearly completed sentences. Of course, they will have to force the Board of Pardons and Paroles into letting more go home earlier.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"As long as they refuse to close any additional prisons, other than the Central Unit in Sugarland, there aren't any other sizable cuts to be made."

IMO that's EXACTLY right. There's no other rational option that gets you close to HB 1 or SB 1's levels of cuts that doesn't include closing more prisons. I'd like to see them shut 6-8, including Central, some of the other older ones, and one or two out in the sticks they can't staff. The policy changes to get there are do-able, if legislators can muster just the tiniest smidge of pragmatism and political courage. In other words, we need a miracle. ;)

Anonymous said...

If there is a TYC/TJPC merger, wouldn't that free up money to place into diversion programs for adult offenders?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, closing TYC frees up money that will go (partially) to the counties for JUVIE offenders. They'd have to close adult prisons to divert $$$ to adult probation, etc..

Texas Maverick said...

HB 3650 by Otto.SECTION 1. Section 501.015(b), Government Code, is amended
to read as follows:
b) When an inmate is released on parole,mandatory
supervision, or conditional pardon, CURRENT LAW [the inmate is entitled to receive $100 from]
the department shall provide the inmate with $50
on the inmate's release from the facility and transportation at the expense of the department ....

What a way to balance the budget!