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.
UPDATE: Kevin thinks this is bad news.Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 18, 2004 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack