In public safety and corrections programs, the budget report recommends shutting down a unit in Sugar Land, three Texas Youth Commission lockups and 2,000 private prison beds, a move that could close at least two additional lockups. About 1,562 prison jobs were also chopped.Meanwhile, the Legislative Budget board has revealed its budget cutting recommendations for criminal justice (pdf via the Texas Tribune). Notably they've suggested a new "supervised reentry" program, releasing offenders with either one year to go or when 90% of their sentence is served on the grounds that public safety benefits from supervising them in the community their first year out instead of just cutting them loose with no oversight. LBB also suggests expanding use of medical parole for individuals on dialysis and others with high medical costs. But those are relatively minor reductions in the scheme of things.
Probation programs would see funding cut by 20 percent, parole supervision would be cut by almost 9 percent, and the agency's construction and maintenance funding could be cut by 83 percent, along with 90 jobs. The Victims Services Division would be eliminated.
Ironically, but predictably, some of the budget cut ideas seem contradictory: For example, cutting parole supervision while reducing delays in the parole process to release more parolees at a time when parole caseloads are already too high. And of course, the Lege has been told in the past that cuts to probation programming - and 20% would be a radical cut on top of already existing shortfalls - would cause recently declining incarceration rates to immediately shoot back up. IMO that's intentional: TDCJ has prioritized prisons over all its other functions and prefers to close none of them, so they've suggested cuts that set the agency up to fail.
At least TDCJ has backed off its absurd stance that prisons should be sacrosanct and totally immune from closure, but these timid suggestions are too concentrated among community supervision programs instead of state lockups, which account for the vast majority of the agency budget.
I'm also curious which private units TDCJ might close, since they've already renewed contracts on some of the most likely candidates. My guess is that the pre-parole facility in Mineral Wells is on the short list - its contract expires at the end of February.
The Statesman also mentioned that "Earlier Tuesday, a group of conservative legislators laid out suggestions for reducing spending by $18 billion withouttouching transportation, public safety or criminal justice." Under their plan, "education bore the brunt of the cuts - $12 billion - because federal health care laws prevent states from reducing eligibility for people covered through Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program." But of course, health and education are the main areas voters want spared: In a poll published last fall, "More than half [of Texans] — 53 percent — said they'd leave public education alone if lawmakers cut state spending to balance the budget, and 63 percent said they'd protect health care for children."
In that light, I believe cuts to criminal justice are inevitable. But concentrating them in community supervision programs threatens to wipe out any other minor potential savings identified by LBB. Former state Rep. Ray Allen - who chaired the House Corrections Committee when Texas last went through a major round of budget cuts - last year wrote that focusing cuts on community supervision "backfired" in 2003. Back then, wrote Allen:
despite my objections, the legislature slashed the criminal justice budget by cutting corrections expenditures in every category other than prisons. Within a year, the prison system exceeded its capacity and began leasing beds from county jails to house a flood of new inmates. About half were sentenced with new criminal offenses, and the balance were returned to prison because Judges revoked probations at a much higher rate, often for violations which were merely technical in nature rather than for new crimes.Allen describes precisely what the next few years will look like for Texas' justice system if budget cutting priorities in corrections don't change from this initial proposal. Locals make decisions about whether to sentence someone to prison or revoke their probation, not the state, so if the state guts all their community supervision options, they'll send more people to TDCJ. Conversely, when the state expanded community supervision options after 2007, they sent less. Budget cutters were told this by LBB, but those warnings (at least in this first draft) were ignored.
Offenders on probation are supervised by county probation officers whose ... cost of daily supervision is about $1.50. Prisons are funded in full by state tax dollars at a cost of $35-$40 per day.
So why did the prisons fill up until they were overflowing into leased space? The answer is simple and logical: elected judges who must answer to voters were afraid that the funding cuts to probation supervision and treatment had made it too difficult for probation officers to effectively supervise their caseloads.
For the next four years, the state's new criminal justice challenge was to handle the flood of inmates pouring into expensive prison beds. This fiscal and managerial problem was further complicated by the longer sentences and reduction of parole eligibility which was written into law in 1993, and that population was aging rapidly and along with that aging came the serious and costly medical problems inherent to high-risk populations.
Some will say it's "historic" that Texas would consider closing even one prison (though the Central Unit is actually a facility the local chamber of commerce types in Sugar Land want closed because it abuts the airport, an industrial park and a proposed minor league baseball stadium). Maybe that's true, but TDCJ will need to close even more units and restore community supervision funding in the budget to avoid an unwelcome repeat of errors from last major round of budget trimming in 2003.