Sunday, July 17, 2016

By what benchmark should we judge prison spending growth?

The Texas Tribune recently reported that prison spending in Texas "increased by 850 percent between 1989 and 2013, while the rate of funding for pre-kindergarten to grade 12 education grew by 182 percent." This more or less jibes with other recent estimates out there. Earlier this month, the Alliance for Safety and Justice posted this graphic on their Twitter feed:

Texas' prison population was 37,621 in 1985 (source), and today is around 150K, so it's not just the prison budget but the inmate population which grew. That 850 percent budget increase paid to house  roughly 300 percent more inmates compared to the '80s.

That prison spending exploded and inmate populations quadrupled over this period is significant; that the growth rate outpaced education spending so severely, perhaps less so. So much more money is spent on education that the rate of increase is lower, even though the dollar amount of the increase may be greater.

To me, the more interesting comparison is how much prison spending grew compared to the combined effects of inflation and population. For example, TDCJ's budget grew by a whopping $458.4 million in its last biennial budget, increasing to an all-funds total of $6.7 billion per biennium.

Grits calculated a few years ago that TDCJ's spending grew 274% more than inflation and population growth combined between 1982 and 2012. Some conservative budget activists have called for a constitutional restriction on spending to limit increases to the biennial inflation/population adjustment. It's nearly impossible to imagine what TDCJ would look like today if it had kept to those spending restrictions except to say this: It'd be a helluva lot smaller.


mike connelly said...

One path to lasting criminal justice reform would be exactly to set this kind of cap on prison spending. Set a total you're willing to spend by whatever variables and parameters, then set up an apportionment system--anything from first come, first incarcerated to block grants to counties/districts--that stops when the last dollar is spent. TX in effect did that with its previous reforms by saying "no more new prisons" even if it then redefined what constituted a prison and allowed existing spending to continue to increase. Your plan would allow the increases but at set and lower rates which would force prosecutors, judges, and their constituents to fix priorities for who goes to prison and who doesn't. IOW, the onus for the complaints about "tough" and "soft" would be lowered as well to those jurisdictions and free state policymakers from the campaigns and charges against them that drive the politics of prison growth. When are you running for governor there on that proposal??

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It takes about $50-60 million to run for governor in Texas, Mike. If you've got that laying around, I'll sign up in the next GOP primary. That's really the only barrier.

Anonymous said...

This article can't be more true. Thank you for publishing it.

Anonymous said...

Release some of the inmates that have served half of their time. Give good time earned credit Tough on crime has caused this, people getting 25-50 years for 1st time offenses. Crooked pro bono lawyers that have no experience. Judges being in Prosecutors pocket. Now, what's the reason for 150,000 being in prison?

sunray's wench said...

The trouble with only limiting TDCJ spending is that the inmates will suffer first and then the guards, and then there will be riots and chaos which will feed the 'we must build more prisons' and 'lock 'em up longer' cries.

The spending should be transparent. Everyone in Texas should know exactly how much of their taxes is spent on a key set of items such as prisons, education, medical, infrastructure. I know exactly how much of my yearly council tax goes to the police force in my area, because it is itemised on the bill we all receive. It prompts people to ask loudly, what exactly are they spending it on if they don't come when you call or if the rehabilitation you expect to happen in TDCJ does not.

Anonymous said...

Inmates now have 100 dollars taken out of their commissary accounts annually to help defray health care costs---problem is, the money comes from the FAMILIES of the inmates who are NOT serving time for a conviction. I look forward to this possible future lawsuit. Ante up Texas---and lay off the welfare like mindset of having others pay for your jollies and ego trip. I note that those on the state senate and house criminal justice committees that oversee TDCJ are attorneys that make a living off the court system that keeps TDCJ brimming---surely the electorate is shrewd enough (!) to see through this undeclared relief act for bar associations. As for costs---reduce them by pushing the 11 thousand or so illegals in TDCJ back across the border one night in a surprise thank you to the place that does nothing to support international standards for legal immigration. Then there are the thousands of medically expensive oldsters over 60 that pose a NOMINAL threat at best to society---let Medicare and Medicaid pay their freight instead of listening to the paunchy, type 2 diabetic guys with "made in China" Stetson hats that inspire the public to stay stupid when it comes to running a prison system with just a little bit of common sense.

He's Innocent said...


Inmates do NOT have to pay that $100 medical fee every year. Only in years in which they use medical services.

My spouse served his 3 flat, we never once paid the medical fee. He has high blood pressure, and uses a breathing machine at night. He had to see a doctor for this, obviously, but they are chronic conditions which the prison must pay for.

If your loved one is going to the nurse for a cough, minor cuts, etc, then yes, he is going to pay the medical copay. Encourage him/her to evaluate if he really needs that bandaid. Of course, sometimes it is unavoidable. But TDCJ will charge for that fee, even if it shouldn't have.

Learn the rules, call TDCJ health services in Huntsville. Politely ask for a clarification of when the fee should be charged, when it should not. Do not bother with your loved ones story. Just get the relevant information. If you need help figuring out how to ensure that TDCJ isn't charging him incorrectly, join TIFA, go to meetings, every month because you learn something every time!

And once you are certain he/she was charged in error, your loved one must file a complaint to get it returned. It takes a while, but it can be worth it.

ladywpaint said...

Follow the money, more to be made off locking them up than education.