March 23, 2007

    Sad News Senate Finance Commitee Voted to Build New Prisons

    The vote to build three new prisons took place on Wednesday morning (see transcript of hearing below), and it directly contractdicts and undermines months of bipartian smart on crime efforts put forth by key state leaders like House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden (R) and Senate Criminal Justice Chair John Whitmire (D), as well as the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, headed by Rep. Sylvester Turner, which (unlike the Senate) did the responsible thing by excluding prison construction costs from its budget. Unfortunately, the Senateís Appropriations decision to build 3,900 additional prison beds in three new units at a cost of at least $233 million is taking money from other places Ė not to mention leaving taxpayers with the ďhiddenĒ costs of prison building bonds which last years. The saddest part about this is that this decision is not about increasing public safety but solely about politics. Senator Ogden, the chair of Finance, has always expressed his approval to the idea of building more maximum security prisons, and the Lt. Governor, David Dewhurst, has publicly supported more prison building in a move widely seen as a precursor to a future Governorís race. But he does not need new, wasteful prisons to win.

    We need your help contacting the media, writing Letters to the Editors, and calling the offices of both the Senate and the House to urge them not to build any prisons. We are having some trouble raising awareness on this important issue Ė and we need all of the help we can get because the final Appropriations decision in conference will occur very soon.

    Those who have been misguided by pro-prison advocates will tell you that the reason we need to immediately construct 3 new prison units is because it takes five years to build a prison. As such, I am assuming that TDCJ would like to have three new prisons by 2012. According to a very reliable source who was involved in the development of our state jails in the early to mid-1990ís assured me that it did not take TDCJ five years to build a prison. In fact, TDCJ was able to double its prison capacity in only a couple of years.

    Moreover, when the Legislature created state jail felonies and state jail felony facilities in May of 1993, the Legislature provided that these new felonies would not become effective until September 1, 1994. This was to allow TDCJ time to build the new state jail felony facilities before the new law went into effect. By September 1994, we had an entire state jail felony system created and ready to accept state jail offenders. So the question is: Why does it now take five years to build a prison when it only took 18 months to 2 years in the recent past?

    The second reason I have heard as to why we need to build new prisons immediately and why it will take 5 years is because TDCJ wants to build a ďMichaelsĒ type unit Ė which is nothing more than a maximum security prison. This reason also makes no sense. There is nothing special about the Michaelís unit and almost all of the units built by TDCJ are maximum security units. So once again, why in the past has it only taken 18 months to 2 years to build a maximum security unit but suddenly it now takes five years? TDCJ already owns the land and is not going to have to worry about site locations or public hearings. Plus, they still have the specs for all of the maximum security units they built in the 1990ís.

    While on the topic of maximum security prisons, considering that many (if not most) of the projected increase in prison inmates would be low-risk offenders and state jail confinees, why do we need to build a maximum security prison as opposed to a state jail felony facility or some lesser security prison Ė other than the fact that maximum security prisons are what we have always built (the status quo)? I would at least like to see a study of the types of offenders projected to be sentenced to TDCJ that they claim would put them above current capacity before any decision is made as to the type of prison unit(s) that need to be constructed.
    [Note: not that we support the building of state jail facilities, either.]

    So the taxpayers are going pay for the construction of 3 units immediately that could be reasonably undergo construction in 2010 if what we want is to have the units ready for occupancy in 2012 (which is when the pro-prison advocates argue we will reach capacity if we leave everything as is). This means that we are going to vote on $900,000,000 worth of bonds in November (for six prison units) and seek bond authority approval to immediately issue bonds for 3 new units at a cost in interest of approximately $50,000,000 per year. In other words, we are going to waste $150,000,000 in interest alone before we reach the stage when we would really need to issue bonds for construction. And this is being fiscally responsible? We donít even have the guards to staff our current prisons. Moreover, we are not even going to try to increase diversions from prison (an effort that many legislators on both sides of the aisle Ė as well as many advocacy groups Ė support) before we start building new prisons. Even though Senate Finance refers to the building of new prisons as Plan B, it seems to me that building new prisons is Plan A and the diversion strategies are Plan B.

    Then on top of it all, many reports have shown that if the Parole Board only followed its own guidelines by increasing its parole approval rate by 2% (and speeding up the parole approval process for low-risk inmates), we would not have an overcrowding problem and would not have to spend a dime on prison construction or prison operations (which the Legislature has yet to address), and could instead put the money into community supervision, rehabilitation, and re-entry programs (e.g., vocational training, housing, job placement).

    At a Senate Finance hearing on Tuesday, it was announced that the Parole Board has now increased the parole approval rate by the 2% rate and we currently do not have an overcrowding problem. Now that the Parole Board is doing the smart thing, why are we still building 3 new prison units immediately under the pretext that, if everything works out and overcrowding is reduced, we can just replace older prison units with the newly constructed ones.

    Finally, in this Legislative session, when we have limited resources and tremendous funding needs, when did replacing 3 older prison units become a higher priority than funding CHIP, the System Benefit Fund (which helps to provide electricity for low-income customers, many of which are single mothers and the elderly), property tax relief, or dealing with college tuition increases, etc?

    Here is what a key member of the Senate Finance Committee stated: "Alright members, letís get this train back on the track. The proposal that is in question is whether we adopt the $34 million to authorize the bonding of 3 prisons. Thereís 2 issues that will come up. One of those issues is, will there be a rider to kind of clarify how these prisons will be built and when?Ē I say, letís stop this train in its tracks and let legislators who support the status quo and who think weíre not paying attention know that weíre tired of wasting our hard-earned money on an ineffective system that doesnít make us any safer and doesnít produce responsible individuals.

    So call your legislators and your local media and let them know that Texas doesnít need new prisons. We need what works!

    Talking Points:

    Texas does not have any legitimate reason to construct any additional prison units at this time.

    Prisons are an unsustainable, costly, and ineffective approach to promoting public safety.

    Three new prisons will cost Texas taxpayers more than $100 million per year to sustain.

    Money that will be spent on maintaining prisons could have been used for property tax relief, funding for CHIP, the System Benefit Fund which helps to provide electricity for low-income customers and much more.

    Texas canít fully staff the prisons we already have, much less afford to staff new ones.

    Currently many day-to-day guardsí duties are being performed by inmates since some facilities operate with staff levels near 62%.

    Lawmakers will have you believe that we need to start building prisons now because completion takes five years. In reality, it takes only 18 months.

    Also, put a call in to the House Appropriations Committee, especially the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice
    and thank them for doing the right thing for Texas by being responsible and efficient with our funds, and by not allocating money to build new prisons.

    Contact your elected officials and tell them you want smart on crime policies that will yield real results, not additional prison construction!

    Find your State Representative:

    Find your State Senator:

    Notes from Senate Committee on Finance
    March 20, 2007
    Mar 20 Senate Committee on Finance

    Whitmire: (Speaking to SenatorWilliams) And also, what percentage did you say the diversion rates would be for these new treatment programs? Didnít you go very conservative on that? Weíve only said with all these new treatment programs, itís only going to divert 50% of the people that we deal with. Which is very conservative. There are some estimates that say it will be as high as 75% or more, so, gets us back to what Senator West proposes and I propose, we need to look at this in about a year, and see how itís being implemented. Whatís the parole rate. You know, if Miss Owens is correct, who runs the place, these new programs are going to allow them deal with DWI parolees in a more efficient manner. Iím here to tell you we could easily have sufficient capacity, even with the projections you just used.

    Williams: And I hope youíre right Senator Whitmire, but I think what we need to do because the lead time on these prisons is 5 years, we need to begin building 3 of these prisons units just as soon as this budget is approved.

    Whitmire: And it works as well and it should, the parole year

    William: Just this idea of stalling it off for a year, I donít think weíre gonna know anything more in a year.

    Whitmire: Of course we will.

    William: Well I donít know, we talked about putting a rider in there that we would close down all units and now that somehow morphed into Ďweíre gonna delay this decision for another year.í And I donít know when that happened. That must have been before I showed up yesterday.

    Clerk: Senator Ogden has something to say about that.

    Senator Ogden.

    Ogden: Ok. Alright members, lets get this train back on the track The proposal that in question is whether we adopt the $34 million to authorize the bonding of 3 prisons. Senator West, thereís 2 issues that will come up. One of those issues is, will there be a rider to kind of clarify how these prisons will be build and when.

    West: Right

    Ogden: The answer is, there is a rider that is being worked on, but I havenít seen the language on it. It hasnít gone to the workgroup for approval. And whatís going to happen is, there will be a rider. The workgroup will work on it to get it satisfactory to them, and it will come back before this committee to be adopted. And that, in my opinions is almost as good a place to debate this issue as to debate whether we even fund them. So what Iíd like to do today is to vote on the workgroup recommendation. If you want to amend it, well amend it to either fund it or not fund it. But, I will tell you, you got another shot at the apple when that rider comes up, but I donít know what itís going to say.

    West: Can I request a couple of additional working group members? Can I swap? Would anybody like to trade?

    Ogden: I wasnít calling about the quality of the working group.

    West: Iíd like to trade.

    Ogden: I consider the outstanding senators and good friends, but I entertain the trade, for both of them.

    But Iíd also like to say members, donít minimize the issue of- that was said before. That this is a package, and to a certain extent, this is a more comprehensive effort than Iíve ever seen us with respect to the criminal justice budget, and I would remind the committee that in the current workgroup recommendations weíre going to add over $200 million in funding for a various forms of treatment and diversion programs, and in addition to that weíre proposing $34 million in debt service to build 3 new prisons.

    Itís a good proposal if you look at it as a package. I think itís a conservative effort to make sure that weíre living up to our responsibility.

    And, unlike in other areas of this state that weíre now wrestling with, it does provide a contingency in case one proposal doesnít work as perfectly as we hoped. And every day weíre on that senate floor dealing with things we thought were really good ideas 3 or 4 years ago that donít seem to be so hot right now.

    Clerk: Thank you, Senator Whitmire.

    Ogden: Well, like article 7 thatís coming up.

    Whitmire: Item 13, Senator West, was disapproved. That was a 2700 bed (macro?) prototype. 13 are the bonds, the construction money. $233,400,000 geo bonds for the construction of 3Ö 1,330 beds in prison units. Corresponding debt service is estimated to be $34,506,432. That would be to draft right up a study of the commission of older facilities.

    (Ö.?)vehicle replacement, disapproved. PC replacement, disapproved. We wont have any vehicles or PCs in the new prison. But thatís a different issue. (Ö?) information management, disapproved. Intermediate sanction facilities, disapproved because of the previous approval. Annual parole supervision, weíre working on a rider to speak to that.

    West: Oh ok, so itís not disapproved? Item 22 is disapproved, orÖ

    Whitmire: First of all, they could already be doing it. But we want to authorize it, again in a rider but we donít want to spend the monies. We donít want to cut the FTE which they propose if ( Ö ) because I want to address the caseload. It must be 75 and it quite often gets to as high as 90 because of their turnover, so we want to go to annual reporting in a rider, but we donít want to, we want to disapprove that cutting of FTEs.

    West: Is there any, and this may be an LBB question. You may have it, you may not. To the extent that you have it. The average caseload is 76 for a parole officer. To the extent that you have a parole officer, say that has a caseload of 100. Is there any definitive studies that show that those particular case managers of parole officers with a higher than average parole rate, tend to have a higher revocation rate than others?

    Whitmire: Sure. Yeah. All you gotta do is talk to any parole officer, and the higher their caseload the less supervision they give to someone the more immediate contact when he or she is having problems so they end up being revoked. So thatís the reason, we donít want to cut, the disapproval reduction in funds that they recommended in that area. Because itís a good investment.

    West: So then, item 22 has disapprove here. So thatís not accurate or what?

    Ogden: That was to cut them.

    West: Oh that was to cut them. So we disapprove the cut then. Way to explain it.

    Whitmire: Additional item: substance abuse treatment in state jails, Senator Williams upon recommendations adopted $5,800,000. Senator West to put substance abuse treatment back in stat jails.

    West: Wasnít that the original purpose?

    Whitmire: It was absolutely the original purpose for drug and education services, as a major element of state jails, so thatís a huge accomplishment.

    Ana YŠŮez-Correa
    Executive Director
    Texas Criminal Justice Coalition
    510 South Congress Avenue, Suite 206
    Austin, Texas 78704
    Cell: 512.587.7010
    Office: 512.441.8123 Ext. 109
    Fax: 512. 441.4884

    Texas could need 5 new prisons; Inmate rise blamed on problems with probation system

    January 19, 2005
    The Dallas Morning News AUSTIN;

    Texas would have to build as many as five prisons over the next six years if the state continues to incarcerate offenders at the current rate, according to a new report by the state's budget monitors.

    Texas' prison system holds 150,575 inmates, more than any other state.

    If incarceration trends continue, the system would add nearly 3,700 prisoners over the next two years, and more than 14,000 by 2010, according to the report by the Legislative Budget Board.

    The prison population is already beyond the state's preferred capacity.

    A preliminary state budget,
    released last week, suggests spending an additional $40 million for contracted space in county jails and cutting funding for adult probation departments, whose rolls are falling.

    But the report by the Legislative Budget oard "made up of the leaders who craft the state's budget" notes that many criminal justice officials believe the prison population is rising precisely because the probation system is not working.

    The rate of felons having their probation revoked rose 18 percent between 2001 and 2004, according to the report, which will be released this week.

    A copy was shown to The Dallas Morning News.

    "More attention needs to be given to the front end of the sentencing process in order to realize a decline in the state's incarcerated population," the report states, citing the feelings of criminal justice officials interviewed throughout the state.

    That recommendation dovetails with the ideas of many key lawmakers, who have said Texas cannot afford to keep building more prisons.

    "We don't want to build new prisons," Rep. Ray Allen, a Grand Prairie Republican who chairs the House Corrections Committee, said in a recent interview.

    "If you ask four or five of the top officials, they will say the same thing.

    "Prisons are inordinately costly."

    But how many prisoners are too many?

    If there is a magic number, it is typically an equilibrium that accounts for financial realities and a criminal justice philosophy, experts said.

    "The legislators have to get through the session and balance the books," said Charles M. Friel, a professor at Sam Houston State University's College of Criminal Justice.

    "In corrections, we have to look at the long term. You need a plan you can sell that prepares you for the next 20 years."

    To help reduce the prison population, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has asked for an additional $28 million to hire 391 more probation officers.

    Lawmakers such as Mr. Allen said that investment would be far less costly than building new prisons.

    Officials interviewed for the budget board's report also recommended:
    reducing the probation terms for some offenses, revising laws to keep small-time drug users out of state jails and prisons, and trimming the probation terms of offenders who have successfully completed drug treatment programs.

    Texas Youth Commission facilities are also expected to exceed capacity in the next two years.

    The report says 236 more juveniles would be added to commission facilities by 2007, which would put the facilities nearly 12 percent over capacity.



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