Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Programming cuts v. prison closures: The inevitable tradeoff

Prison closures were abated and some of the probation and treatment funds scheduled for cuts were restored in the state budget on the Senate side yesterday, as well as shifting money from road funds to the Texas Department of Public Safety, while the House and the Governor continue to back deeper cuts. According to a release on the Senate website:
A Senate subcommittee charged with evaluating funds dealing with prisons and the Department of Public Safety recommended increasing appropriations by almost $300 million Monday. These recommendations would restore allocations to current budget levels for many programs. Current funding in the Senate's version of the budget for public safety agencies is about $9 billion, which is more than a billion dollars less than the last budget.

The subcommittee recommendations would put more money into probation and drug treatment programs and would move $100 million from the state's transportation fund, called Fund Six, to Department of Public Safety. Fund Six diversions have been controversial in the past, as critics say that reducing money marked for highway construction and maintenance leaves the state relying on private entities to build toll roads. Subcommittee Chair Senator John Whitmire said using Fund Six money for highway enforcement is within the constitutional intent of the fund. "I'm very committed to the needs of DPS," he said. "We ask them to do more and more along the border, in particular, and along our highways. Fund Six does allow you to spend highway funds if the security and enforcement is related to our safe highways, so we went with the agency and identified easily a hundred million of their request which could be directly related to safe highways."

The subcommittee will present its recommendations to the full Finance Committee later this week.
Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman summed up the Senate changes thusly:
Back in: $273 million for the state corrections system, including funding for rehabilitation, treatment and parole programs, plus $31 million to keep the Central Unit in Sugar Land open; and $32.7 million for DPS to hire 646 additional troopers, $22.8 million for new vehicles and unspecified funding to restore the uniform-cleaning allowance for state troopers.

Out: $10.2 million for operation of a drug treatment lockup in Burnet; $23 million from the Texas Youth Commission's budget, in expectation that the agency will be merged with the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission; and a directive that controversial raises the Youth Commission awarded to eight executives last year be rescinded.

Still on the table: $111.4 million in additional funding for expanded border security.
This is the same subcommittee that just slashed vocational ed classes in prisons by roughly the same amount as it cost to keep the Central Unit open for the next two years, a decision that IMO should be flip-flopped. Texas already releases 72,000 people per year, so most folks in TDCJ are going to get out. From the standpoint of crime reduction, since they're getting out anyway, I'd much rather the agency close a prison and educate more of the prisoners who remain, which in turn dramatically boosts their chances of being employed one year after incarceration. I wish I knew what secret forces were pushing to keep the Central Unit in Sugar Land open. I've long thought that if there was a chance they'd close any prisons at all in the current budget crunch, it'd be the first one to go; locals have lots of good reasons to want it shut down. But especially if the direct tradeoff, as in this subcommittee's recommendations, is cutting programs that reduce recidivism and long-term incarceration costs.

As far as DPS' budget is concerned, IMO the border security money distributed so far has mostly been misspent on activities that either fundamentally misunderstand the real crime problems on the border or seek to exploit them for political gain at the expense of maximizing public safety per dollar spent. If that's ever gonna change, this is the budget cycle when you'd expect it might. Texas already pays for too much of our transportation budget on credit, and DPS may need more troopers but not more missions. Each new one comes at the expense of the agency's core, historic functions.

This hesitance to act in many ways reflects the public mood. According to polling, the public is living in a fantasyland where they believe the state can continue to fund all government services, not raise taxes, and for many (most importantly the Governor), not raid the Rainy Day Fund. That's not true, and eventually the math will force some behind-the-scenes realism, but likely not until May, or maybe even over the summer.

I'm certainly glad the subcommittee restored most probation and diversion funding, but unless I'm misreading my tea leaves, which is certainly possible, the choice to tradeoff vocational ed in prisons and the treatment facility in Burnet with keeping open the Central Unit may bode ill. It'd be one thing if they cut vocational ed and counted the expense as savings, but just spending money cut from an anti-recidivism program to keep one more prison open shows there are unseen forces pressing the Lege to avoid closing even a single unit. In practice, money to keep open old, outdated prisons like the Central Unit (built in 1909 to provide labor for a now-long gone sugar plantation) come at the expense of programs that reduce future crime and long-term incarceration spending.

These changes do indicate to me that senators expect extra revenue, either from the Rainy Day Fund, new taxes (or fees, etc.), or both. We'll probably know more in the next week or two about how the politics of the Rainy Day Fund will play out in the House. And of course, the real budget doesn't get written until the conference committee at the end. These subcommittee recommendations are but yet another step on a long road to a final budget in the most trying fiscal year for the state in living memory. Still, the tradeoff decisions made early on in these venues risk being cemented among those who've made them and repeated over and over like a fractal - cut programming, don't close prisons. Those are the agency's priorities, but in a leadership vacuum where nobody (with power) but TDCJ is suggesting serious cuts (all to probation, treatment and programming), their recommendations and priorities will inevitably be the ones adopted.

MORE: A few tidbits from watching a bit of the hearing:

The committee invited DPS to come back and present to the subcommittee how much could be raised by jacking up a "large number of fees" the agency charges to drivers and others ... ugh! A tax by another name. This is how we got into the Driver Responsibility surcharge mess.

The subcommittee recommended restoring $40 million to juvenile probation and cut $23 million from youth prisons, including 26 cuts at the TYC Central Office.

LBB made a "technical adjustment" to reduce its estimate of how many employees TDCJ could afford to keep by 723 based on the funding levels in SB 1, potentially presaging more layoffs. OTOH, the subcommittee recommended reinstating the pay 7% pay raise given COs last session which the filed version of SB 1 would have eliminated.

Whitmire said he and Ogden were looking at reductions in the number of private prison beds including Mineral Wells instead of closing the Central Unit, and it "probably" would be closed eventually, but he wanted to keep it on the table heading into the conference committee. Whitmire called keeping the Central Unit open "a concession from me to Ogden."

Part of the reason for suggesting closing the Burnet treatment unit is as a bargaining chip to convince the county to lower its rate.  (Sen. Kel Seliger was a great spokesman for treatment and diversion programs.)

The subcommittee recommended restoring General Revenue funding for inspections of county jails by the Commission on Jail Standards, reacting to pushback by the counties over a plan to charge them fees for state inspections. (One suggestion was to let agencies use commissary profits to pay TCJS fees.) If the agency does not get enough GR funding they'll need new statutory authority to charge additional fees to fund their core operations.


sunray's wench said...

I suspect the shelving of the closure of Central Unit has been prompted by the staff who live nearby having to pack up their families and move elsewhere for work if the unit closes. Maybe some of those families have friends in high places.

Or maybe with the 300+ new enhancements and laws, Texas feels it is being premature to close a prison it could well fill in the next couple of years?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

SW, in 2007 the Lege faced even bigger projections for surplus inmates and decided it'd be cheaper to pay for treatment and diversion programming instead. They face essentially the same choice here, writ large: Whether to prioritize prisons or treatment. The can't do it all and cut nine figures at TDCJ. If nobody makes the hard policy choices, they de facto choose more prisons, which will overflow fast if diversion funding fails to expand to handle projected new prisoners.

Anonymous said...

If anyone makes the argument that teachers are losing their jobs while money is being shifted to TDCJ and DPS, then DPS might be looking to hire 646 new troopers on top of their already existing 300+ trooper vacancies. I see a chance for DPS to hire some qualified (i.e. laid off) teachers for those interested.

Anonymous said...

You should watch the hearing online and you will know the rationale for keeping Central open and initially wanting to close Burnet. Burnet's contract ends in August. It is one of the most expensive treatment facilities that exist per bed. Keeping Central (at least at this time) scares the private contractors at Burnet to lower their bed day rate. Also, it appeases Ogden's fear of running out of capacity. Ogden will fully support these other inititives (it is a package deal you know) if Central stays open. You should really spend the time to watch the video.

Don said...

Scott: When the Senate subcommittee "puts back" funding for probation and diversion programs, yet the House budget writers still want them cut, who wins in conference committee? As you said, if everybody just listens to TDCJ, programming goes, prisons stay. But the Senate doesn't say where the money is coming from. It is phantom money that another committee is supposed to "identify". My question is: How hoped up should we be about this "restoration" of the program funding by the Senate subcommittee?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'll try to do so, 9:05, I was just reacting to the media coverage. Too many hearings, too little time. Today and tomorrow are packed! (Death penalty day in House Criminal Jurisprudence - ugh!)

I certainly understand Ogden's concerns, but incarceration levels are largely a function of state policy. The state can change policies to reduce incarceration rates if it chooses, but nobody is willing to propose that, preferring to pretend that the naked emperor remains clothed. I still think the cold inevitability of mathematics (barring a Rainy Day Fund bailout) will eventually push them to consider policy changes, but they're not there yet. At least not until the House definitively rejects using the RDF, which seems possible.

Don, the short answer is that nobody knows, and just about any scenario you describe is possible. You'd have had about as good a chance of predicting beforehand the Final Four participants in Houston next weekend as predicting how the budget will shake out. It'll be some combination of cuts, smoke and mirrors, and new revenue sources from somewhere, somehow, but what that mix will look like is impossible to predict.

Hook Em Horns said...

Texas LOVES it's prisons! Prisons are as intertwined in our culture as much as cowboys and appearing "tough" on crime.

Texannnna said...


Where are you finding out that the cuts to education in prison are just to vocational education? I work for Windham and we have been told to brace for cuts to our programming across the board with possible closure of entire schools and the loss of what is the "life skills' classes-CHANGES, Cognitive, parenting, and Lifematers to name a few as well as probable cuts to all of our literacy and vocational programs. And I don't think the college reimbursemnt program is included in that amount (34 million cuts at last I heard proposed by Senate) as it came up AFTER these cuts were mentioned. The cuts will result in a loss of 370 jobs IF they remain as the Senate asked. I think the House has asked for a lesser amount to cut-12 million.

If yu have other sources that ahve these numeres and programs to be reduced can you post them? I like my job and I don't want to lose it-especially since I am an educator it doesn't look as if I'll be able to get another one anytime soon in education.

Anonymous said...

About those 26 cuts at the TYC Central Office.

The TYC old guard is still tight-knit and undercover. This nefarious bunch still secretly looks out for each other and covers for each other. Now would be a good time to bundle them up and haul them out the door.

Wouldn't it be great to air out this agency! The best way to spot them is simple--just look at their salary. They promoted each other and gave raises to each other for years. Anyone who regularly got raises during the years between 1997 and 2007 is likely a secret member of that group. Corruption was good for them and their careers thrived in that climate.

Anonymous said...

Your an idiot, these conspiracy laden comments like yours are laughable. The leadership was brought into their current circle back in 2008-2009, when Nedelkof was the Director.