Friday, April 15, 2011

Madden's omnibus prison bill: Reducing inmate numbers, shifting costs to families, employees

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden on Wednesday unveiled the committee substitute for his big, omnibus TDCJ bill, HB 3386; see the hearing online here beginning at the 48:30 mark, as well as Mike Ward's coverage in the Austin Statesman. The bill will significantly reduce the number of technical probation violators sent to prison each year and parole illegal immigrants back to Mexico - perhaps even accounting for the 4,000 beds TDCJ chief Brad Livingston says they'll be short if the cuts in House Bill 1 are enacted. But it also contains provisions that aim to cut the budget on the backs of inmate families and prison employees.

'Shock probation'
First, the portions reducing the number of inmates. The biggest reductions would come from using "shock probation" for technical violations. Mike Ward was the first to report on the:
plan to expand the use of "shock probation" sentences with limited prison time, to charge imprisoned felons more for their medical care, to study hiring additional private companies to run state jails and transport convicts between prisons, to consider releasing some critically ill convicts to save on medical bills and to begin selling over-the-counter medications to convicts rather than giving them away.

A fiscal note on the proposed changes says they could save nearly $13.5 million in two years, according to a copy of the document obtained by the American-Statesman. But House leaders said they expect that the savings could be at least twice that.

"We think this is a way to save money, lots of money, without endangering public safety," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, who said he will unveil the specifics of the changes in House Bill 3386 at an afternoon committee meeting today .

"The biggest piece of this is that instead of sending low-level probation violators to prison to finish their sentence, which can be years, we will send them to prison for up to a year as shock probation," Madden said.
"This may produce the most savings for taxpayers of any single bill this session in this area."
I haven't seen the committee substitute, which is not yet online, but judging from the discussion the language is permissive, creating alternative revocation procedures that let judges send probationers to TDCJ for one year on technical violations, then gives them the option to let them let them back out on supervision. Long-time readers know the Legislature has been targeting technical violators, with only limited success, for reduced incarceration via recent probation reforms. This would make it much more explicit, while still leaving judges discretion in individual cases, that the Legislature does not intend for probationers to be sent to prison long-term for technical violations alone.

Paroling illegal immigrants
An amendment by Rep. Erwin Cain would expedite release of 2,057 "parole-eligible criminal illegal aliens" who did not commit violent crimes or sex offenses. Cain suggested prioritizing their parole would save $76 million over the biennium. Brad Livingston said the amendment would cause a "one-time spike in number of offenders who are paroled and ready for ICE custody," after which those paroles would presumably be expedited.  Those targeted for release make up about 58% of the total parole-eligible illegal aliens in the system (roughly 3,500).

Livingston emphasized that HB 1 leaves 4,000 beds unfunded, so the Lege must cut inmate numbers by at least that much before anyone can talk about "savings."

Mulcting inmate families
Other provisions of the bill would mulct revenue from inmate families and potentially employees at state jails whose jobs may be privatized, their salaries reduced, benefits eliminated, etc.. Amendments direct the agency to study privatization of both state jails and inmate transportation. Ward describes the extra costs proposed for inmate families:
The revised bill also calls for each imprisoned convict to be charged a $100 annual fee to cover the cost of their health care instead of the current charge of $3 per visit to a prison doctor.

That change could bring in about $13.5 million over two years, according to an internal memo.

While an earlier version of the plan did not detail how the fee would be collected, the revised bill allows prison officials to take the $100 from inmates' trust fund accounts — either the full amount if it's in the account, or half of any deposits into the account until the $100 is paid.

At present, prison officials said that more than half of the state's 154,000 convicts have trust funds containing more than $100.

The revised bill will also double the number of minutes prison convicts are allowed to use prison pay phones each month, from 240 minutes to 480. Madden said that change, if approved, is expected to raise $2.9 million more per year than the nearly $6 million expected under current rules.

The rewritten bill would also allow some over-the-counter medicines — aspirin, ointments and other medications for upset stomach and pain relief — to be sold through prison commissaries for the first time.

Under current policy, prison clinics dispense the over-the-counter drugs for free to convicts.
I'm at least glad to see them raising money from phones by increasing minutes instead of hiking the price. Somewhat humorously to me, in California the availability of contraband cell phones has become a minor budget issue because they're so common inmates are using the landlines less. But taking money from inmate trust accounts and making inmates pay at the commissary for over the counter medication amounts to passing on costs not to inmates but their families. And unlike with increased phone minutes, there's no marginal benefit to families in return. After a certain point, families will stop putting money there; you can't get blood from a stone.

Potential privatization would save on employee pay, benefits
The other group from whom legislators want long-term savings are employees at 15 state-owned and operated state jails. Amendments to the bill would require TDCJ to study privatization of both state jails and inmate transportation (the latter of which would seem to raise some security issues).

Rep. Cain says privately run jails offer the "same or better services" as state-run facilities, but the main source of savings, he said, is that privatization would "reduce state exposure to pension and healthcare costs" in the long term. TDCJ chief Brad Livingston added that salaries at private facilities are lower than state-run units, raising the specter of state employees being fired and offered their old jobs at lower wages, no pension, etc.. Cain's amendment doesn't privatize immediately. He would commission a study by TDCJ in which they solicit and evaluate competitive bids from private vendors.

TDCJ presently has 20 state jails, according to testimony - 15 state-owned and operated state jails, and five state-owned units operated by private companies. Livingston said that while it's difficult to compare apples to apples, private operators are cheaper than the state by roughly $7-8 per inmate per day because of lower salary and benefits. Bottom line: Private vendors pay their staff less money and have a less favorable benefit package than state employees. Also, it's still not a true apples to apples comparison, said Livingston, because if offenders become disruptions, have significant discipline problems, or require extra healthcare services, they're transferred back into the state system. So the privates really do only house the lowest-cost, lowest-risk, best-behaved inmates. They cost less mainly because they cherrypick the least expensive inmates, not because their model is inherently superior.

The issue of privatizing prison transportation raises a lot of vexatious questions. Some of TDCJ's recent escapes have involved transportation scenarios, so it's not an area where you want to skimp on security. And the big drivers on transportation costs are a) the price of gas and b) the distant location of rural units. Focusing on privatization is arguably a too-narrow way to address rising transportation costs. They should also be considering the impact of changes like closing rural units or releasing inmates directly from the facilities where they're housed that would reduce the number of miles covered. There's likely minimal savings to be had from privatization because everybody pays the same gas prices.


Anonymous said...

Unless you do something drastic to collect the medical fee's from the offenders, you won't see a dime. Offenders are known to request reimbursement when they have been treated for the same condition they have been seen for before as it is then a "Chronic" condition to them. Offenders with true chronic conditions such as Diabetes, hypertension, etc... aren't charged anything. If you want to make it work, charge everybody, everytime with NO refunds. If you access medical, you pay the fee no matter what it is for. We have to pay in the freeworld everytime we go, whether it is a true chronic condition or not. However, since the providers and nursing staff rarely mess with charging, it should be taken out thru TDCJ Huntsville and the unit have nothing to do with it or reimbursements either.

Don said...

Don't know where Cain gets it that private prisons offer the "same or better services" at a lower cost. That is not what I saw while working in both state and private prisons. However, the private guys DO offer some attractive, um, incentives, for Mr. Cain et al to advocate throwing some business their way. :)

sunray's wench said...

The income from the TDCJ phone service goes first to the phone company to repay for equipment costs, and then the next $1 million I thought was earmarked for the Victim Compensation fund, so none of this extra money will get anywhere near TDCJ.

And not only do I still not get to speak to my husband on the phone with these plans (which would generate money and not cost TDCJ any more to implement), but they want me to chip in $100 year regardless of whether he needs medical care or not, yet wont consider paroling him earlier than 1/2 his time? If this gets through, then a LOT of inmates will have less than $100 on their books permenantly and TDCJ will make LESS money overall.

Anonymous said...

If they force inmates to pay for their own medication then I hope they raise the spend limits. They already pay for all of their own hygeine, food if they want anything decent, if you could even call ramen noodles that.

Part of what I know about TDCJ is you can either buy food from commissary or you can buy food illegally. Buy a "pack" and sell cigarettes for what equals a dollar in food. I think this $100 proposal could lead to a higher demand for contraband. Either they get a $200 on their books and $100 goes to state or they get the whole $200. I know where I would want my whole $200 to go to.

Anonymous said...

Complete nonsense!!

When they deport the illegal parolees, they should make them 'pinky' promise not to come back.

Anything to save a buck, I guess.

Anonymous said...

It’s cheaper to have a cell phone smuggled in and much more convenient than to rely on the crappy embark system. At least when the family missed a call from a loved one they can return it. The inmate just needs to remember to keep it on silence. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

I never thought any of these proposals would benefit the offenders. And they won't...none of them from cutting meals to raising medical. This has never been about making prison a better place or rehabilitating them to return to the free world able to work and support their families. Their crime belongs to them the rest of their lives...forget sentencing and doing their time.

Anonymous said...

Gimmicks like these just rob Peter to pay Paul. The only way to save money is to not prosecute these people in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Between the court cost and everything they need to survice there is so costly to the family. Do they think we will punish our love ones for the mistakes they made. Sorry no, there are the ones who are here waiting for our Family mambers to come home. I already spend enough, for food and calls. I understand they have already cut back on the food, and now he eats more from the commisay. Sad that we have to pay to have for our family members taken care of while inprisoned. Do the prisons pay for them to work for them or is that something the tax's pay for.

Prison Doc said...

Commenting only on the things I know something about--medical payments, medications, and private prisons--I don't really see any significant savings or advantages to any of these proposals. Just more rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Hook Em Horns said...

How many pole barns are up for closure?

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, a teenage parolee killed a man in his driveway in the Houston-area.

Think about these kinds of stories before we set a bunch of criminals free.

I'm sure the state saved money by paroling this scum early, but a husband and father of 3 is now dead.

Anonymous said...

Was the teenager on parole from TYC? Being 18, I am assuming he is a TYC parolee.

Someone needs to look into the supervision being provided by his parole officer. I guarantee that the supervision provided was pathetic.

If the supervision was inadequate, the family needs to sue the agency responsible for supervision. The death of the man, father, and husband was unecessary!

And if these politicians think they are going to release prisoners while at the same time reducing crime, they are mistaken!!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:16, there have been stories of current or ex-soldiers, even cops, who have committed murders. So,does that mean we should lock up all the soldiers and cops? I speak with sarcasm because your presumption is ludicrous. People are going to commit murder, whether they are committing their first crime or their second or third. Those individuals are in the small minority and they need to be dealt with on an individual basis. Your presumption suggests we should keep all small-time property and drug offenders locked up forever, as if they are potential murders if we let them loose.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:16, you ask us to think about one tragedy, but why don't you think for a moment about the fact that Texas already releases around 72,000 people per year from prison. More people are RELEASED annually from Texas prisons in the Rick Perry era than were locked up en toto 20 years ago. Almost everyone in prison will be released, the questions are when, whether there is adequate programming to help change their ways while they're locked up, and what does community supervision look like upon upon release. Pointing to one terrible incident doesn't change that - the state still can't just lock petty offenders up ad infinitum on the off chance they might commit worse crimes.

11:19, you've got another think coming. Texas reduced prisoner numbes and (even more dramatically) our incarceration rate over the last several years and overall crime continued to decline. So less incarceration did correlate to less crime, you're factualy incorrect on that. (And fwiw, you're not alone.) What's more, other states that cut incarceration more than us have seen even greater crime declines, New York being the best example.

Anonymous said...

On Privatizing some units. Which ones are being offered up? I hate the slant on the story that it is benefits that cost the most. Private Units do not pay:

a) Medical for inmates
b) Transportation for inmates
c) Upkeep on some of their facilities (TDCJ is paying the costs for repairing showers, repairing fire alarm systems, putting in video surveillance systems, repairing intercom systems

So how can this be cheaper? There is just no way. Redo the contracts with private prisons and let them pay all costs with the inmates and the State could benefit!

Anonymous said...

Correlation does not mean causation. Incarceration numbers are down due to the fact we quit sending people to prison. It doesn't mean that changed their life for the better, it simply means they are no longer going to prison for the crime committed.

If you look at New York, they have placed a strong police presence in high crime neighborhoods (minority neighborhoods). Of course the minorities whine and complain about New York's stop and frisk policy; however, they are benefitting from a strong police presence. So has active law enforcement reduced crime or is the so-called evidenced practices they have changed lives? I am going with police presence!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:01, either way, New York's example shows incarceration rates are not the pivotal factor and can be reduced without crime increasing. If changes in front-line policing reduced crime without the added incarceration expense, isn't that a superior approach?

Hook Em Horns said...

4/16/2011 11:01:00 AM

Correlation does not mean causation. Incarceration numbers are down due to the fact we quit sending people to prison.

When and where have we stopped sending people to prison? I need to let some defendants know this!

Anonymous said...

How do you supervise parolees living in Mexico? Just discharge them from the system and deport them back to Mexico and be done with it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:57, that's correct. Once they're deported they'll be out of TDCJ parole's hands entirely.

Christine said...

Families were originally charged with caring for inmates - they supplied their food & clothing. The only thing different now is we’re just supplying the money to keep them there longer with worse circumstances.
Personally - I'm just tired of being jerked around....If they are going to increase the cost to us...not only as prison families but as tax payers....then I want things to be available -complete meals with real meat and more than one vegetable, real health care, rehabilitative programs, outside rec not just 'dayroom rec' which according to some guards is the same thing....and since I'm already paying for them....I would like more phone minutes so we could have a decent conversation for once.
And the next time the prison unit wants to change the prison’s address…..instead of sending back a 5-8 dollar package (that turns into a $16 package if I resend it)….tell the inmates ahead of time so they will let their families know…not try to cover it up with black marker and wrong address stamps that clearly do not belong to the post office.

Katia said...

I wonder why they don't allow International phone calls...they would be making a lot of money with that cause there are many people whose loved ones are overseas!

sunray's wench said...

Scott - this Bill has had some more amendments to it including provision of an inmate care package scheme where the vendors must give TDCJ a percentage of the profits, but which much cost TDCJ nothing at all! Worth another look I think.