Tuesday, December 02, 2014

What big ticket criminal-justice items might TX Lege fund with 'surplus'?

Wow, I'm surprised at the size of the spending cap increase the Texas Legislative Budget Board estimated for the 2016-17 biennium: $3.4 billion above the amount of revenue allocated in the last budget, or $1.7 billion per year. Grits had guesstimated they might have about 2/3 that amount.

Of course, they could spend all of that on transportation and still not remotely fill the need. Ditto for public schools, where that amount hardly scratches the surface of what the state will likely owe when pending litigation is complete. And naturally, the Lege could always (in theory) keep spending the same and use the extra $3.4 billion for tax cuts; there will be pressure to go that route.

But let's imagine for a moment what the state might spend money on if they used some of that "extra" cash on prominent, big-ticket criminal justice needs. What would they be? In order from largest to smallest, here are several criminal-justice items the state can in theory afford to fund in light of this blithesome budget news:

Pay for TDCJ prisoner healthcare, guard raises, programming (w/o AC): $546.6 million
The Legislature has already been told that, unless the state changes policies to incarcerate fewer people, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will need $175 million more in the next biennium just to pay for healthcare for current levels of inmates, in part driven by the aging of the prison population as a result of long, punitive sentences. (Plus, the agency's front-line medical competence is still recovering from 2011 budget cuts.) In all, TDCJ has asked for $546.6 million in "exceptional items" including a 10 percent pay raise for guards to compete with oil field work. Of course, diverting more offenders from prison and shuttering understaffed facilities would relieve the problem, too, letting the state pay for staff raises with savings from facility closures. But TDCJ brass has suggested no such alternative. (There are a few exceptional items for probation and diversion funding in TDCJ's budget request, but overwhelmingly their request for new spending would go to running and staffing facilities.)

Two caveats to this already-large number: First, all this assumes that, while the 84th Legislature in session, the 5th Circuit or a federal district judge doesn't require the state to provide air conditioning at the state's hottest prisons; then the extra expenses get much higher, especially if the prison population doesn't decline. Second, the Lege could and likely will reduce these figures significantly by cutting either the size of raises and/or diversion programming. The latter risks higher recidivism, the former risks unplanned, forced closure of facilities because TDCJ can't find sufficient staff in rural areas. According to the Texas Tribune, "Statewide, the agency has left roughly 1,400 prison beds empty since 2012 because of staff shortages." Pick your poison.

Eliminate the Driver Responsibility surcharge: $110 to $340 million
From a standpoint of bypassing the most vocal political opposition, the shortest distance to abolishing the ignominious Driver Responsibility surcharge would be for the state to find some other way to fund Texas trauma hospitals, which have been receiving about $55 million per year or $110 million per biennium from the DRP. Otherwise, most everybody agrees the program is a failure that's making worse the problems it was intended to solve, as well as creating new ones. Complicating matters, though, the state also mulcts $85 million per year, or $170 million per biennium, from the DRP for the general fund, and uses another $30 million or so to feign balancing the budget. So really, to replace the whole pot of money would cost around $340 million; just to make the hospitals whole (letting the surplus take care of the GR cut) would run $110 million.  On the bright side, about a third of phone calls to the DPS drivers license division related to the surcharge, according to the LAR (pdf, p. 184, formally p. 3B 13 of 23), so eliminating the surcharge would free up significant internal resources to focus on serving other motorists.

Expand Texas' Great Border Security Boondoggle: $105.4 million
Otherwise, Governor-elect Greg Abbott has said he wants to double state spending at the border, but DPS has suggested even more than that. So, as insensible as your correspondent considers that ridiculous, politicized policy, let's add it to the list. In its 2016-17 Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR), DPS has $73.9 million in its Legislative Appropriations Request for its Goal Number Two, "Secure Border Region," and has requested an additional $105.4 million for the biennium, or $179.3 million total, not including the National Guard, etc.. Elsewhere in the budget, there's another $17.4 million for the biennium under "Local Border Security"  to pay for overtime for DPS troopers already stationed along the border, bringing the total to $196.7 million, if all of DPS' border-security dreams were realized (not including the National Guard deployment, grants to local law enforcement, etc..) Of that, the $105.4 million would be considered "new spending" outside the LAR, though in truth it's all part of the same, politicized gallimaufry. Make me Philosopher King, of course, and I'd cut these entire line items from the budget, saving the state $74 million instead of spending nearly three times that on already-dated political theater.

Cover 'unfunded mandates' from Fair Defense Act: $100 million
The Texas Indigent Defense Commission has requested just shy of $100 million per biennium as an "exceptional item" to reimburse counties for increased indigent defense costs since the 2001 passage of the Fair Defense Act. There are reasons to believe that number is slightly overstated (e.g., inflation and population growth account for some of the difference), but in 2013, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, "Texas counties paid approximately $189.7 million [for indigent defense] compared to the State’s $27.4 million." County spending on indigent defense more than doubled from 2001 to 2013. If the state chooses to fund indigent defense at that level, it should exercise more say in its efficient delivery via public defender systems as opposed to the sorts of screwy, outlier systems (I'm talking to you, Comal County) the TIDC has taken to funding of late. This would also give the state incentive to reduce petty offenses like possessing less than 2 ounces of pot or driving with a suspended license (second offense and beyond) as Class B misdemeanors, since the Lege won't like paying for those folks' lawyers any more than the counties do.

Confront competency restoration crisis: $55.7 million (or more)
Grits dislikes having reached this conclusion, but in the wake of court orders and persistent, problematic backlogs, Texas should expand the number of state mental hospital beds available for competency restoration and simultaneously fund local in-and-outpatient competency restoration programs at the county level, particularly for, say, the state's 20 largest counties. The Department of Health Services requested an additional $55.7 million for state hospitals to address this problem, so I've put the price tag in the headline at that amount. But in addition there needs to be new funding for handling competency restoration at the local level, at least in the larger counties, to permanently calm the waters on this topic. That might cost $15-20 million per year as a fully fleshed out, statewide program, substantially less on the front end,  Either way, if the state doesn't act soon - whether to construct extra hospital capacity, to facilitate the diversion of incompetent inmates into local, pretrial outpatient treatment, or both - then in this non-lawyer's opinion, sooner than later the courts will mandate more expensive solutions than the Legislature might prefer if it addressed the problem head-on. (N.b., these sorts of outpatient competency restoration programs should IMO also be a priority for grants from the Governor's Criminal Justice Division.)

Expand crime lab capacity: $15.7 million (at least)
Among its "exceptional items," DPS requested an extra $15.7 million for crime labs over the biennium, or a 19 percent increase over their base budget. Given current backlogs, plus extra caseloads thanks to revisiting hundreds of cases from the Jonathan Salvador debacle in Houston, not to mention the recent expansion of blood-alcohol testing (at least before Villareal), that amount probably underestimates what's needed just to remain afloat. Unless case volume somehow declines, DPS crime labs could spend that much and still be falling behind. The only other solutions are to  appropriate more money or have DPS shift to a fee for service model.

Other potential crim-just investments
With the exception of abolishing the surcharge, which is the subject of perennial legislation, these are all agency requests representing their ideas how to solve the problems facing them, not necessarily my own, personal preferences. If I were mocking up budgets, for example, I might have included an extra $100 to $150 million in TDCJ's for diversion programming and reduced probation caseloads and suggested cutting 3-4 private prison contracts. Texas' $200 million or so investment per biennium in diversion programs starting in 2007 prevented the state from having to build and operate more than a billion dollars worth of new prisons and let us close three instead. Doubling down on that investment, combined with adjusting sentence thresholds for nonviolent offenses, would let Texas close even more, saving money overall and easing managerial pressures on an array of labor and health-cost related problems. Otherwise, prison costs will continue to grow well beyond the effects of inflation and population growth.

Grits would tack on an extra $10 million or so for the biennium, for starters, for county level outpatient competency restoration in addition to the state hospital funding. (Texas may right now need extra beds - in fact, the $55.7 million number sounds low to me - but the state should plan how to not need them in the future.) Just a few million dollars in additional resources aimed at prisoner reentry could have a big impact; I'd focus in particular on people who spent a significant amount of time in solitary confinement while they were incarcerated. The state could set up a fund to pay for local department's police body cams they way they did in 2003 for dashcams in police cars (with a voter-approved bond issue). Finally, I'd bolster crime-lab funding with money for contractors to get rid of backlogs, while expanding the state's own capacity even more with an eye toward the future.

* * *

This blog post was a thought experiment to identify big-ticket criminal-justice budget asks at the 84th Texas Legislature, but it is certainly not exhaustive. E.g., if I weren't limiting the list to criminal-justice topics, I might have included judicial pay raises. Nor should it be read as an endorsement of every expenditure listed. Grits wouldn't agree with reimbursing counties for indigent defense, for example, without statewide standards and accountability. And regular readers know I wouldn't spend another dime on Texas' border security boondoggle.

Leaving aside Grits' personal preferences (i.e., the items under the final subhed), let's focus on already existing proposals we know the Legislature will be facing. If one totals the above sums requested by big criminal-justice agencies then add in the cost of abolishing the Driver Responsibility Program, one gets to around $1.2 billion per biennium in new spending on criminal justice - more if federal courts mandate installation of air conditioning in Texas prison units.

Compared to what's needed on roads, education or healthcare, that's a small sum. But with only $3.4 billion in new funds available and enormous transportation and education costs looming, it's also unlikely a third of the extra will go toward those purposes. So what should be prioritized? And what other big-ticket items did I miss? Let me know in the comments.


Anonymous said...

We could fund a portion of this and also address stabilization / labor quality issues if we would downsize and transition safely many offenders to community supervision. We could start with nonviolent females, nonviolent elderly and most state jail offenders.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Exactly right, BB. Turnover is so high among guards they could close units easily without firing anyone.

Anonymous said...

How about more spending on Mental Health Treatment which MAY help alleviate County Jails collectively being the largest mental health treatment provider in the state?

Anonymous said...

Not that I'm a policy insider or anything, but I think there are several things being worked on this next session from Huntsville:

1. Medical Parole. Last session Texas counties objected to the bill in fear of patient dumping, along with Tan Parker objecting to sex offenders being paroled. There is a proposed model to convert the old Marlin VA hospital into a parole medical release facility. This would allow TDCJ a way to move their sickest inmates up for parole into a none secure facility and receive Medicaid / Medicare reimbursement without the counties being victimized for patient dumping. Also inmates who are veterans are able to be treated at the VA hospital in nearby Temple.

2. Mental Health Diversions. With TDCJ becoming the new de facto mental health treatment center for Texas with over 25,000 inmates with severe mental illnesses, developing training for corrections and law enforcement to recognize the mentally disabled is a priority. San Antonio has a model programs that has save millions of dollars and has diverted thousands of mentally disabled from jails and prisons. If similar programs could be implemented statewide, you would see substantial savings. (See San Antonio PD Crisis Intervention Training in The Nation Magazine).

3. State Jail Reforms Between TPPF and TCJC there are many ideas. State Jails are a big waste of money and they mainly exist so private prisons in Texas will have contracts. The newer Tea Party guys don't like the prison industrial complexes existing just so someone can have a contract.

4. Reducing penalty classes, increased use of probation and community supervision. Adding an inflationary adjustment for thefts, and criminal mischief. Increasing the use of civil penalties for minor offenses and crimes without Mens rea.

5. Revising the use of Good time / Work time calculations for inmates who are doing the right thing and making a positive change for themselves.

6. Staff TDCJ facilities in regions that are short of staff and cut the unneeded contracts beds. TDCJ is wasting money on these contract beds and could be using their own facilities and attracting staff by increasing pay salaries from the money saved on contract beds. They could also apply the money to increase training for officers. The largest turnover among correctional officers is new officers who are not adequately prepared for the correctional environment when compared to other large state correctional departments who in some cases receive 3 times more training than Texas officers.

These savings might fund an adequate prison system with less drama. It's sad the UN's Committee Against Torture (CAT) cited Texas prisons numerous times in there 53th meeting that ended last week.

Anonymous said...

What you wrote back in 2010 "Tuesday, March 30, 2010 -
Driver surcharge boosting Texas joblessness," is escalating. More people who are trapped in this scheme of double jeopardy have been relying on government assistance because no one will hire them while their licenses are suspended. And it shouldn't be stopped going forward because the core of the people who are having these problems will still rely on government assistance. Just wipe it totally clean and the benefits will come in the form of less people relying on government assistance. They'd rather work. Just my observation...

Anonymous said...

A) Body cameras for law enforcement officers.

B) Reducing an offense to class C means that indigent defendants won't get an attorney. This leads to bogus convictions. A pot conviction can foreclose eligibility for federal financial aid. Meanwhile, a class C assault with Family Violence can get non-citizens deported and for everyone else gets you labeled forever as someone with a 'history of violence' so be careful what you wish for with regard to class C misdemeanors.

Anonymous said...

Do away with CRC's on misdemeanor offenses.

Anonymous said...

Body Cams -
Wonder if officers will be able to turn off the body cam when it involves high profile officials, or if prosecutor's will magically make the recording of the chosen few disappear?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, 6:49, SB 158 by West would address some of those questions. The dashcam fund was $18 million and enough to give cameras to everybody who asked for them except Dallas and Houston PDs. It might take double that to put body cams on everyone (a shoot-from-the-hip guesstimate), but if so that'd still be just 1.06% of the $3.4 billion lagniappe between the spending cap and the 2014-15 budget. Whether they wanted to do it out of GR, or via voter-approved bonds, the state has the money.

@4:16, I'm with you. If TDCJ and the parole board used all the tools they have at their disposal they could reduce the prison population without changes to sentencing structure. But they're political appointees, the politicians make the rules (and their budgets) and that means the Lege must do it as a practical matter. The Lege could mandate some of the things you mention, changing mays to shalls, and make a big difference.

RE: 9:41 and Class Cs, that's a decent point about the possibility of losing financial aid, etc.. But for most defendants the outcome of a Class C ticket is still better than a Class B arrest, no? Besides, it's not like court-appointed lawyers are spending loads of time investigating and trying those cases now. If the attorneys working indigent Class Bs in misdemeanor court weren't plowing through cases on a high-volume, double-digit fee basis, I'd feel a greater need to be careful not to lose their services. As things stand, I wonder how much Ds would really be losing and whether it exceeds the benefits of no-arrest, no-jail, no-bail, ticket-only, lower-fines, etc.?

Folks who want to hire their own attorney can still do so for Class Cs and it'll be cheaper. Maybe I'll find myself eating crow on this down the line, but to me the trade-off seems worth it.

Denny Crane said...

Does the $55 million to trauma centers only go to County Hospitals or does it include private hospitals? Why can't that money go to mental health beds?

I would suggest that we get money for those beds by adding one cent tax on gasoline, alcohol and cigarettes. You could also make everyone renew their driver's license yearly online and add $10 fee to go to hospitals.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Denny, the surcharge only goes to Level 1 trauma centers, all of which as of right now are public, not private. The rest goes into the state's regular budget.

sunray's wench said...

Anon @ 4.16 said "5. Revising the use of Good time / Work time calculations for inmates who are doing the right thing and making a positive change for themselves."

Definitely a step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

How about some money to better outfit law enforcement to deal with border crime? Many county's and cities in Texas are in no way equipped to deal with terrorist acts that are most certainly going to occur. Texas could use revenue from pot taxes to fund sheriff's and police departments for much needed equipment and training.

Anonymous said...

The biggest and most massive fraud, waste, and abuse in the state of Texas is the SAFP and IPTC programs!!! I saw massive fraud being committed in that Gateway program on Henley unit just as a visitor. Those guards are the ones committing fraud by doing everything in the power to cancel those family sessions on the weekends, yet the state is billed for them. I had a pregnant LT in November 2013 stop a session in progress after 10mins. You see it took the guards over an hour to get the offender there. The 1100am class started at 11:50am and ended right at 12pm because this pregnant guard did not want to sit there. The state was billed for the whole hour. The half-way house in Fort Worth, Volunteers of America threaten me with retaliation (family member) if I told on them and then lied to the investigator. I called them on fraud and extortion! The aftercare program (for parolees) in North Texas is one big cesspool! There once again is massive fraud and I believe 100% bribes are being paid to keep people in this FAILED PROGRAM longer. The parole officers up here will retaliate against the parolees when family members can no longer afford these programs for their love ones. CUT THESE PROGRAMS AND THE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS BEING WASTED NOW! STOP SENDING THE PROPERTY TAXES ON OUR HOMES THAT THE STATE STEALS FROM HOME OWNERS TO FUND THESE PROGRAMS! Face if you’re rich or a pro sports athletic, you will never go into these programs. The entire so called justice system in Texas is on big cesspool that steals from the tax payers to spread money around to the people running these programs. Anytime the head of a board breaks the law trying to employ a family member and they are still sitting at the head that tells the whole story right there.

Unknown said...

Absolutely spend money on mental health for prisoners. So many inmates should be in hospitals, for mental illnesses and drug addition, not in prisons. But we don't have any hospitals for them, so let's try to address these problems in any way posible.
Pay prison guards better and weed out the pathological, power hungry, and vicious ones (there are many of these).
Also, it is cruel and unusual punishment that prisons do not have air conditioning in prisoner areas. We are all acclaimated to air conditioning in Texas summers. Inmates are getting sick, can not sleep, and are becoming irritable and more likely to be in fights, due to high temperatures in the dorms. These people are not animals. They are our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, granddaughters, grandsons, uncles, aunts....in other words, everyone in prison is important to someone on the outside.