Sunday, November 08, 2020

TDCJ savings from prisoner reductions significant, but probably not $1 million per day

Recent incarceration reductions are saving the Texas Department of Criminal Justice $1 million per day, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's Doug Smith in testimony to the Texas House Appropriations Committee. But that figure seems high to me.

In the footnotes, Smith informs us that, "Monthly commitments to TDCJ declined by more than 16,000 during the period between March and August 2020 compared to the six-month period prior to the COVID-19 emergency declaration." Assuming each inmate costs $62.34 per day, as LBB finds in its uniform cost assessment, 16,000 fewer prisoners would indeed give you a million per day savings. 

But that's an average cost that includes overhead which won't go away just because prisoner numbers decrease. TDCJ doesn't really save much money until it actually closes units. Texas reduced juvenile incarceration numbers, for example, but didn't close large youth prison facilities. So the cost per prisoner went up. The same thing will happen at TDCJ if more prison units don't close.

I mention this only because I'd hate for Appropriations Committee members to read TCJC's testimony and think the state prison agency has extra money to give back. The agency is primed to save that much money if they close additional units, but it hasn't happened yet.

The rest of TCJC's analysis was spot on: In particular, I agree with their warning that reductions may be short-lived, including this assessment of incarceration in Texas and what it would take to avoid budget hikes in the future:

As of August 2020, there were 124,181 people incarcerated in Texas prisons,1 following a recent population drop of approximately 16,000 people; this is the result of rapidly declining crime rates, decreased felony court activity due to the COVID-19 emergency declaration, and stalled transfer of individuals committed to state prison from county jail.

While this reduction in incarceration seems promising – and is saving the state approximately $1 million per day – the numbers will likely rise again once the pandemic subsides. Currently, 891 of every 100,000 Texans is incarcerated (either in a state or federal prison, a juvenile facility, or a county jail). This rate of incarceration eclipses the national incarceration rate by 27 percent and dwarfs many other NATO member countries’ rates altogether.

Unless the system is downsized and funding is shifted toward programs known to prevent crime, including substance use recovery programs, Texas will be forced to increase funding every year for maintaining its 100+ units, many of which are more than a century old.

The group's main recommendation: "Rather than allocating additional state dollars to facility costs, we urge the committee to recommend closing aging and under-staffed facilities across the state." Hear, hear!

Speaking of closed prisons, in its own communication to legislators, TDCJ updated the Appropriations Committee on the status of the 11 prison facilities Texas has already closed: 

Over the last decade the TDCJ has experienced a decline in the offender population. Due to the declining offender population, the TDCJ has closed/idled eleven facilities. Six of these facilities have been sold through the GLO, or were privately owned and operated. The remaining five facilities are not currently being used to house offenders. The five facilities include the Bartlett State Jail, the Bradshaw State Jail, Jester I Unit, the Garza East Unit and the Ware Unit. The agency is currently working with the GLO regarding the sale of the Jester I Unit located in Sugar Land, Texas.

TDCJ's presentation included handouts with details about each of the five, shuttered properties.


Texasyankee said...

Too many people don't understand the difference between average costs, fixed costs and variable costs. Reducing the number of inmates only reduces variable costs such as the cost of meals which isn't much, but doesn't reduce the cost of guards, electricity, pensions which are substantial. Grits is right in pointing out that only closing units really reduces costs.

Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered and Uncensored Minds of Independent Thinkers of the 3rd Grade Dropout Section:

Its a beginning to a dramatic changing mindset set of "Tough on Crime die hard advocates. resulting in prisoner reduction and the closing of eleven units, which alleged to a saving of nearly $1 million per day,and may account of nearly 365 million a year or more. The alleged reductions and savings, may be attributed to the changing of the guards in the offices of prosecutors and judges. That's not pocket change!! Just Saying!

Doug Smith said...

Thanks for the correction, Scott. It does indeed take prison closures to realize savings, and I should have added that to the testimony. We are double checking our figures and adding that crucial detail to our LBB testimony. Never hesitate to call out inaccuracies, especially when they create a false impression.

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