Thursday, February 03, 2005

Legislative Budget Writers Urge Probation Programs, Not More Prisons

Note: It would be great if this problem were further conceptualized as related to the under-education of poor people of color. This is what Rep. Dora Olivo's recent summit at the Capitol on Schools to Prisons demonstrated. -Angela

State's prison population, costs growing

By Mike Ward
Thursday, February 03, 2005

Facing a looming shortage of prison beds and a huge price tag to build more prisons, legislative budget writers today advocated new funding for probation and rehabilitation programs as a way to diffuse what could soon become an even bigger budget-breaking crisis.

Bottom line: Local probation programs will have to be bolstered so that more judges can sentence nonviolent offenders there.

"We're going to have to increase the emphasis on probation. There's no question about it," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. "We simply can't afford to build a bunch of new prisons, much less pay to operate them."

In testimony this morning, committee members were told by state budget analysts and prison officials that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice could be out of beds to house new convicts as early as March. It will then have to lease jail beds from counties, at an estimated cost of more than $12 million for the rest of the budget year, which ends Aug. 31.

During the next two years, prison officials say they will need an additional $51 million to lease 3,500 beds. And in five years, official projections show, the system will be 15,000 beds short.

While prisons will need tens of millions more to maintain the current system, Pitt said other agencies are also seeking increases. In all, he said today he expects there will be $10 billion worth of needs on the table — including school finance reform — beyond what the state needs to maintain current services..

"Obviously, that's a lot more than we have available — so you can see that we're going to have to look at alternatives," Pitt said. "Increasing probation programs is one of the places I think we'll start."

Committee members questioned why so many offenders, who are filling up the prison beds — 15,000 during the last year alone — are there for technical violations of their probation, many for minor infractions such as not paying their probation fees on time. In all, officials said 70,000 convicts in prison today are there because their parole or probation was revoked.

Texas prisons hold a little more than 150,000 people.

State Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, a former chairman of the House Corrections Committee that oversees the prison system, said the probation rate has declined while the prison rate is up. That should be no surprise, he said.

Two years ago, officials said, the state cut funding for some probation programs. Others were never fully funded.

"We'd better get it now or we're going to have to build new prisons," Haggerty said.

Like others, state Reps. Al Edwards, D-Houston, and Peggy Hamric, R-Houston, recalled the building boom that Texas undertook just a decade ago to solve prison crowding: More than $1 billion was spent to triple the size of the prison system, in what was touted as the largest public works program in U.S. history.

"This sounds like the same old soup, just warmed over," Edwards said. "We're going to have to make changes so we don't continue doing the same thing over and over."

And if the bed space costs seem high, the related costs are up, as well. Prison officials say they need an additional $75 million to cover skyrocketing medical costs, plus other multimillion-dollar increases to properly supervise, feed and care for the growing numbers of convicts. Five additional prisons will be needed in the next five years just to keep up with the growth, they said, unless new programs are launched to divert nonviolent and minor offenders from prison.

"It concerns me that we thought we were going to have capacity for the future — and we don't," Hamric said. "It's distressing."

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