March 18, 2004
Those prison blues

I've harped on the correlation between our lock 'em up mentality in this state and our recent budget shortfalls (see here, here, here, and here for earlier installments). Slowly but surely, that idea is taking hold to the Lege.

"I don't think there's anyone in the state of Texas now who thinks that the smart thing to do is build thousands of more prison units," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie. "We need to have a better-funded system of probation."

Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, a member of the Corrections Committee and its designee on the Appropriations Committee, was among several lawmakers who quizzed Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials about whether many people are on parole who might not need to be, whether probation programs get enough money to be a realistic alternative to prison and whether new technology should cause Texas to rethink its decade-old parole and probation policies.

Such suggestions could have drawn derision at the Capitol just a few years ago during an era when new prisons and getting tougher on criminals were politically popular. During a five-year period starting in 1991, Texas tripled the size of its prison system to become the largest in the free world as it slashed the parole rate and sentenced felons to longer terms.

But the costs to operate such a system proved huge, and parole, probation, drug treatment, education, job training and other rehabilitation programs for prisoners were cut to make ends meet. Last year, the criminal justice agency, which oversees prisons and parole programs and financially supports county-run probation programs statewide, had to cut $240 million out of its $5.2 billion budget.

"My sense is that we may have about the same amount of funding available during the next biennium, but any new initiatives whatsoever will have to be paid for through savings," Allen said after a Tuesday hearing during which businesses proposed options that could save state money by privatizing some corrections services.

On Wednesday, a legislative hearing explored how to improve parole and probation programs to save money. State budget officials noted that the basic cost of keeping someone on probation is 97 cents a day, compared with $2.30 for parole and $44 for prison.

Lawmakers are discussing whether satellite-tracking technology could be used more extensively to better keep track of the 76,000 parolees and 450,000 probationers -- more than 3 percent of all adult Texans -- and whether other technology and revamped supervision policies could allow many more felons to serve their time outside prisons so they could pay taxes and stay with their families.

"Do we have people on parole in Texas for 14 years because they need to be on parole or because that is how we have always done it?" asked Stick, a former prosecutor.

Stick suggested that some people might be released from parole early if they were proven to be rehabilitated.

"Maybe we have an antiquated system we need to look at," he said.

Yeah, maybe we do. I realize there's a certain only-Nixon-could-go-to-China aspect to Republican state legislators looking into alternatives to the prison industry, but now would be an excellent time for some Democrats to make we-told-you-so noises and to trot out whatever good ideas they may have. They won't get official credit for whatever legislation may result, but they might plant the notion in the media and in the public consciousness that they were on the right side of the issue all along.

UPDATE: Kevin thinks this is bad news.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 18, 2004 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack

Maybe the Legislature could start by replacing the funds they cut from youth juvenile delinquency prevention and early intervention programs - the programs that the Criminal Justice Policy Council found had played a significant role in reducing juvenile crime and saved the state a few million?

Oh, wait, we're supposed to wait until they're adults and their behavior is harder to mold...and until after they've already committed a crime...what was I thinking? Heaven forbid we start early where it's cheaper to make a difference.

Posted by: Skye on March 18, 2004 8:02 PM

What are some successful drug rehab programs for people inside the prison and also on parole?

I am taking a criminology internship at the University of Utah. Need info.


Posted by: Melissa Zebe on September 11, 2004 7:39 PM

i a loking for a friend by the name of melissa howard but married name melissa zebe and i came4 across this. if this isthe right one call me at 602-570-6308 or 623-937-5431

Posted by: katy housel on February 3, 2006 9:24 AM