Tuesday, March 01, 2011

TDCJ closure of 'Intermediate Sanction Facilities' exactly the wrong budget cutting strategy

Regular readers know TDCJ recently released its finally approved cuts to be implemented the current fiscal year (i.e., immediately, in the current budget cycle; see this pdf summary). And yesterday I linked to a story quoting the probation chief in Beaumont, who argued that cuts to diversion programming will boost much more expensive prison costs. Especially troubling in that regard is the agency's decising to close one Intermediate Sanction Facility (ISF), put off opening another one, and eliminating Project RIO, the main employment assistance for ex-felons in Texas.

It's hard to overstate how precisely back-assward these cuts really are, literally the exact opposite of the approach the agency should be taking. And they bode ill regarding what priorities will be applied as TDCJ makes much larger cuts in its budget for the next biennium.

It's easy to see why cutting employment and reentry services is a bad idea because every offender when they leave prison has a choice to make whether to resume a life of crime. Having a job and a stable income make the right choices a lot easier to make. That first year to 18 months is pivotal in determining whether an offender will recidivate, with getting a job and staying off drugs among the most predictive factors. Given that, cutting job assistance for ex-offenders quite arguably could increase crime.

Texas has loads of prison capacity (155,000 beds, mas o menos), most of it full, but in many ways we have the wrong kind of facilities. In the '90s, Gov. Ann Richards and the Democrats pushed to triple Texas' prison capacity, building large warehouses designed to incapacitate offenders, but mostly (despite stated good intentions to the contrary, the type with which the road to hell is paved), they never provided treatment, rehabilitation or reentry services, much less an effective means for judges to apply short-term consequences for probation or parole violators. The result: Even technical violators were revoked for a full prison term.

Intermediate Sanction Facilities are new units created as part of the 2007 probation reforms to give judges somewhere to send probation and parole violators for short-term punishment without revoking them for their full prison for their full stint. That way, somebody with a string of technical violations but no new crimes, in theory, could be punished for their noncompliance with short-term incarceration without TDCJ and Texas taxpayers having to foot the bill for their full prison sentence. The problem has been that judges have been slow to use ISFs and continue to revoke offenders for technical violations at higher-than-reasonable rates. According to the latest data, "In FY2010, there were 24,239 felony revocations to TDCJ, of which 48.8% were a result of technical violations community supervision conditions."

Texas' 2007 probation reforms were permissive, giving judges new tools and options, but if so many judges refuse to utilize those tools, that amounts to an "unfunded mandate" in the other direction, from the county to the state, and it's in the state's interest to limit how much extra cost counties can inflict on the state coffers when cheaper options are available.

This is what Grits means when I've argued for "finishing" the 2007 probation reforms: We've created mechanisms that could help solve the problem, but the reforms' effectiveness appears to have hit a wall after achieving initial reductions, in part because of noncompliance by key counties and nonparticipation by others. But the strategy is still sound: Reduce the number of offenders revoked for their full sentences on technical violations by, say, an additional 30%, and that's more than 3,500 fewer prisoners entering TDCJ to serve long-term sentences every year. It's not a silver-bullet solution, but it's a piece of the puzzle that would go a long way toward allowing the agency to close more units and stave off predicted, short-term prison population increases.

To make that happen, IMO the law should be strengthened to require judges to use ISFs for technical-only violations (with defined exceptions for special circumstances) instead of merely creating the facilities and giving judges discretion to do so. Too many - especially in Collin and Bexar Counties, but also elsewhere - just won't use that discretion and still revoke lots of technical-only offenders to TDCJ. If somebody's committed a new crime, fine, then revoke them. But if a probationer had dirty UAs, missed meetings, didn't pay fees, or even absconded, short-term incarceration in ISFs is often the better option. It's both cheaper for the state and gives the offender a chance to change their behavior instead of punishing them for years at the taxpayers' expense.

Regrettably, TDCJ's 2011 budget cuts go in the opposite direction, closing the North Texas ISF (whose contract expired yesterday) because, "Based on utilization trends and available beds, this facility is currently not required in order to meet program demand." Same goes for an ISF facility in Jones County which was slated to open last fall, but "Due to the slower than anticipated growth in SAFP/ISF utilization, this facility has not been opened and is not needed at this time."

The solution here isn't to close ISF capacity but to force the system to use them where appropriate, overruling recalcitrant judges by statute for certain classes of technical-only violators, even absconders when there is no other criminal charge (again, with exceptions for special circumstances, which I'm sure our friends the DAs and probation directors would immediately point out for us). Don't eliminate diversion resources because they're underutilized, force judges to use them before revoking people to prison. That would let the agency reduce reliance on long-term facilities in order to shut down older, more expensive units, as well as those with chronic understaffing.

I'd also like to see judges compelled instead of merely authorized to grant early release from probation for successful probationers sentenced on lower-level offenses. The 2007 reforms required judges to consider it halfway through the sentence, and the number of early releases climbed dramatically, though from a very low starting point. Much more, however, could be done. The main reason such probationers are kept on the rolls is that they pay fees that sustain the department's budget, a motive that will become even stronger if TDCJ's suggested cuts to CSCDs are enacted. But petty offenders clog up caseloads and divert focus from supervising more dangerous folk, and caseload sizes are about to skyrocket under the proposed House and Senate budgets. Plus, keeping low-risk probationers on the rolls heightens the chance that a minor incident years after the fact will result in a long prison sentence. Letting probationers earn their way off supervision through good behavior just makes good sense from the standpoint of managerial efficiency, reduced recidivism and simple economics.

There are plenty of other policy changes that could be made to reduce Texas' prison population without harming public safety, but strengthening diversion programming instead of eliminating it should be at the top of the Legislature's list. This round of FY 2011 cuts takes the knife to the wrong part of TDCJ's budget.

RELATED: From the Dallas News Crime Blog, "Dallas county officials warn that state cuts to probation will fill jails and prisons."


Anonymous said...

Bad idea to require judges to utilize ISF. Judges didn't become judges to be told what to do.

It is the ISF's fault for under utilization. ISF needs to educate Courtroom personnel about who they are. If they expect Adult Probation to do the educating for them, they are wrong. It is obvious Adult Probation isn't listened to by prosecutors and judges, otherwise the technical violator revocation would not be at its present ratio.

People need to begin playing their part and stop meddling around in each others business. Judges need to be judges. Prosecutors need to be prosecutors. Defense attorneys need to be defense attorneys. Probation Officers need to be probation officers.

There is too much overzealous behavior by prosecutors. There is too much rubber-stamping by judges. There is too much probation officers afraid to speak up. There is way too many good ideas by legislators (probation reform) but no educating about why/how/when to use the reforms.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:57 writes: "People need to begin playing their part and stop meddling around in each others business. Judges need to be judges. Prosecutors need to be prosecutors. Defense attorneys need to be defense attorneys. Probation Officers need to be probation officers."

What you leave out is that legislators need to be legislators. They write the state laws that dictate how all those parties you mention work together, and if judges won't use diversion programs, if probation is powerless, if people are just ignorant and need "education" (as you say), etc., the answer cannot be (in the face of proposed $600-$800 billion in TDCJ budget cuts) that we "can't get there from here." Having 48.8% of revoked probationers get there on technicals is simply too high.

Anonymous said...

The main reasons such probationers are kept on the rolls is that they pay fees that sustain the department's budget.

If it don't fit, just make up some sh**.

The "main reasons" huh? This is where you lose credibility. Assuming nefarious motives.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, 10:24, the Lege has heard testimony from probation directors saying exactly that for many years! The reason low-risk offenders are kept on the rolls and early release isn't utilized more often is that it's successful probationers who pay their fees. See here, e.g..

It's a Catch-22 caused by the disparate funding streams.

S said...

I found my way to this blog from the Facebook page The Gated Community. It's good to know that there's others out there scratching their heads at the antics of the TDCJ...

Honestly, the people making these (very stupid) decisions are more worried about saving a penny or two now than they are about the long-term consequences--and costs!!!--of such inane budget cuts. Yeah, I know money's tight in the state budget. But just like with a lot of other things in life, sometimes you have to spend a little more now to save a lot later.
I mean, it's like with, let's say you need a kitchen blender. You could save some money now and buy a cheap, off-brand one. But it's not going to be long before the motor burns out...usually when you need it the very most. OR, you could shell out a bit more money for something that's actually got quality to it, and will last you for many many years, saving you money over the long run.
I realize that may be a rather weird analogy, but it's basically the same concept. Some things you just cannot cut corners on; if Texas is truly serious about reducing crime rates and the prison population, they would realize that there are far smarter ways to reduce things designed to help former inmates get on their feet and back on the straight and narrow. Alas, they only look at the short-term savings (that cheap blender) as opposed to what the consequences of cutting corners (sooner or later, those inane cuts are going to bite them in the butt, and bite HARD) will be in the near and distant future...which sadly will most likely end up inspiring even more budget cuts in all the wrong places unless the people making these decisions pull their heads out of their hindquarters and realize, "Oh crap, maybe if we make it easier for former offenders to get back on their feet in a LEGIT manner, it just might reduce how many inmates we have to take care of in the prison system!" Not holding my breath waiting for THAT epiphany to happen, but a girl can still hope...

Hook Em Horns said...

Of course it's the wrong strategy as "we" see it but it is in keeping with the culture of Texas politics and prisons. Like it or not, call it what you want, we are a prison state. We are a "LAW AND ORDER" state (excuse me while I throw up)

INCREASE beds not decrease beds.

Create MORE FELONIES not less.


Build bigger JAILS and MORE JAILS.


This mentality has been bought into by the people of Texas who re-elected it over and over and over again. Talk to any of your idiot neighbors about how "safe" they are with all of these prisons, Texecutions and kangaroo courts where you are guilty unless you can prove yourself innocent and then you are STILL guilty in the eyes of Texas.

A Texas PO said...

From my experience dealing with the ISF, the probationers hate the facility because it requires them to:
1) think about what they did wrong;
2) work on assignments and counseling groups to focus on how to change their ways, and;
3) follow rules in a controlled, locked down facility that, in their words, is worse than prison.

These are exactly why ISF was created. However, the word is out among the jailhouse lawyers. Offenders are choosing to plead True to their technical allegations to get a deal on prison time rather than going to SAFPF or ISF. It really breaks my heart to see young folks make that decision, especially when you can see all the potential they have. I thought the other day about how much easier it would be to get to some of these people if probation officers had the ability to detain and transport our offenders (under court order, of course) to such facilities when too many technicals have been racked up. I completely understand the liabilities and the outrageousness of such an idea, but maybe, just maybe, this would help probation departments reduce the number of people being tossed into TDCJ if they actually had the ability and capacity to take care of things in house (and again, under court order). Hell, the Federal probation system is moving towards this. It's just another idea.

But, alas, we are living in a time where idiots and hairspray rule the day.

Anonymous said...

I say spend.


Obama Matches 214 Years Worth of US Debt in Less Than 24 Months

BumpitonDown said...

Since the overall capacity at TDCJ is not going to go up, the end result will be a higher parole rate... We will just start swapping those who "may" live up to their side of the sentencing bargain, for those who did not.

Hopefully, those who have been granted community supervision through parole or probation are wise enough to see what is happening with ISF... if not, there is somebody on the other side of the razor wire just waiting to swap places.

David RD said...

If judges and counties won't utilize these diversion programs then the Legi should put more incentives in the law for them...like charge the court or county for every technical violator they revoke and send back the the one of the TDC "Big Houses". If those entities were forced to pay for the re-incarceration for all small time technical violators they'd probably be more averse to making use of the diversion tools the legi enacted into law. No "rubber stamping", no training needed, no saying "pretty please" - they either use the ISF's or pay out of their county/court budgets. Plus, those violators won't be allowed to bypass some useful and life changing methods and ideas - as A Texas PO said...force the probationers into it and force the courts and counties to use it. Maybe that makes to much sense???

PAPA said...

STOP the INSANITY...the remark about Judges don't like to be told what to do...they take an OATH to UPHOLD The Costitution of the UNITED STATES so they are told what to do plus they swear to do that but they have forgotten what their Oath says and what the Constitution says, if they just did these two things would change a lot of what is happening in the Criminal Justice system...Great Article Scott...TDCJ can cut the cost of operation by just releasing the Inmates that have earned their Good Time with their served time, if they would just do this one thing they could removed many Inmates from the Taxpayers Payroll list which cuts the overhead cost. The ISFs have been a good thing but they are privately ran which many of the places abuses what they are there for which requires a lot of investigations which is cost to TDCJ. Maybe TDCJ needs to own these short term locations and run them according to the rules, policies, regulations, Codes, Law.

DeathBreath said...

Yes, everybody is up in arms when they find that the budget ax will be killing their golden goose. What's wrong, cretins? When it gets close to our little abode, things get pretty serious? One cannot ignore the pork barrel spending that create jobs for constituents, improve roads & makes peoples lives more comfortable.

Let's close those prisons in another city. We need ours more. We are closer to God & Christ occupies more hearts in our communities than those other cities. Oink, oink, oink. I don't have enough food on my plate.

Sound familiar? Darwin.

DeathBreath said...

If you voted GOP and work for TDCJ, you deserve to lose your job. If you work for TDCJ & failed to vote against these snake oil sales personnel, then you deserve to lose your job. Piss off.

DeathBreath said...

I know. Here is the answer from The Monty Python group in the movie, "The Meaning of Life." Convicts will be sold for medical experiments.

Thank God I am not someone with substandard intelligence common with GOPigs.