Criminal Justice: Cutting the Three Ps

If lawmakers want to reduce criminal justice spending, they'll have to cut the budget of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state's prison system – currently housing about 155,000 inmates. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the department requested more than $6 billion in funding for the 2012-13 biennium, and the proposed budget allocates roughly $5.3 billion, so there's a 16.5% gap. That means cuts. And more cuts.

Where should those come from? The cuts suggested in House Bill 1 are all over the place, and some are quite confounding: Consider the proposal that capacity be removed from the prison system – by shutting TDCJ's Central Unit in Sugar Land and by eliminating all private prison beds (roughly 11.6% of prison capacity) – while simultaneously cutting funding for the state's parole system. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the latter could mean the agency would process thousands fewer cases each year; if you don't parole people, you need bed space; if you don't have bed space, where do you put the people?

Says the the coalition's Ana Yáñez-Correa, the state has to be smarter about how it slices the TDCJ budget. Currently, the proposed budget includes "severe cuts to the three Ps that are key to public safety ... probation, programs, and parole," she says. "If you cut those three Ps, public safety will be in jeopardy. Bottom line." Lawmakers should instead close prisons and transfer half of the money saved into "things that we know are producing the outcomes that we desire" – including community supervision and substance-abuse treatment programs. Yáñez-Correa says the state should reinstate mandatory community-based supervision of nonviolent, non-sex-offenders, as was the standard until 1995 – when the state established the oxymoronic "discretionary mandatory supervision" program, radically increasing the parole caseload by requiring each case to be reviewed individually before determining who would be supervised. Instead, Yáñez-Correa says, the more efficient mandatory community-based supervision would allow the system to better keep an eye on violent and dangerous offenders while helping to reintegrate nonviolent offenders – generally the population of people who we're not scared of, but simply mad at.

Also on the chopping block is funding for prisoner health care. The state currently invests less than $10 per inmate per day, and that amount could drop to just $6. That could set the state up for trouble with the federal government, says Jim Harring­ton, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. The Eighth Amendment bars the imposition of cruel and unusual punishments – failing to provide health care fits the category. Last month, TCRP released a report painting a disturbing picture of prison health care: Appalling medical care, the report argues, leads to preventable deaths.

TCRP supports a number of reforms to raise the level of health care, provide more oversight and accountability, and save money. One simple way would be to parole more nonviolent offenders and to grant Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision to no-longer-dangerous ill and elderly prisoners. Currently, the Board of Pardons and Paroles each month grants just 10% of eligible cases. Indeed, according to the TCRP report, the board failed to parole a terminally ill and bedridden inmate with only 90 days left to live because the board thought he was a "threat to society." "What is the point of that?" Harrington asks.

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