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Texas Prison Population Drops but Savings Evaporate

by Matt Clarke

The prospects for cost savings in the operation of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), now the nation’s largest state prison system, seemed optimistic in 2011 when the state made the unprecedented decision to close a prison. The closure of the 1,000-bed Central Unit in Sugarland should have resulted in substantial savings. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.1].

Recognizing this, the Texas legislature cut $60 million from the TDCJ’s budget for 2012 and raised the co-pay that state prisoners must pay for medical treatment from $3 per visit to $100 per year, with the fantasy expectation of collecting up to $15 million from prisoners who are not paid for their labor. [See: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.42].

Additionally, the TDCJ enacted other cost-cutting measures such as reducing the number of desserts served with prisoners’ meals to once a week; serving only two meals on weekends; reducing education, rehabilitation and treatment programs; closing and consolidating prison industries; and reducing the number of staff in the already barely-constitutional prison medical system. [See, e.g.: PLN, Dec. 2012, p.24]. Finally, TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston said any further cuts would compromise prison security.

It all seemed so promising: The TDCJ’s reduced expenses would help Texas manage its massive budget shortfall. Then reality kicked in and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) told the legislature that it couldn’t provide the prison system’s health care at the reduced rate that lawmakers had approved, and threatened to terminate its contract with the TDCJ. In response, legislative leaders promised another $45 million to UTMB, vaporizing most of the prison system’s anticipated savings.

The TDCJ’s population has dropped in recent years, from 156,382 in September 2011 to around 150,900 in October 2013. However, the budget for the state’s prison system has remained largely unchanged: It was approximately $3.12 billion in FY 2011, $3.06 billion in 2012, around $3.08 billion in FY 2013 and the TDCJ has requested even more – $3.16 billion – for FY 2014.

All of this should lead Texas lawmakers to question whether they want to continue incarcerating so many people – even though the state’s prison population has been dropping, it is still extremely high – given that the costs have remained relatively stable and are starting to increase.

“This is an adult discussion that the legislature is going to have to have,” stated Scott Medlock, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Ultimately, the problem is that we’re incarcerating too many people for too long.”

State Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, agreed that the issue must be addressed.

“At some point, because of the costs, we have to recognize that we don’t need to waste one dollar incarcerating one person that doesn’t really need to be behind bars,” he said.

But what can be done to further reduce the costs of Texas’ prison system?

“There is nothing the state can do to limit its costs if we keep sending more and more people to prison, if we keep expanding the capacity,” observed Marc A. Levin, policy director of Right on Crime, a national campaign of the Texas Public Policy Foundation composed of conservative leaders who support reforms designed to curb both crime and the cost of the criminal justice system.

Sadly, Texas once had a successful plan to reduce its prison population that was a model for other states. In 2009, the Texas legislature adopted and funded a series of measures that primarily created diversion programs for people who otherwise would be sent to prison. The programs reduced the state’s prison population, more than paying for themselves and thus saving money. Unfortunately, the cash-strapped 2011 legislature defunded those same diversion programs that had worked so well in the preceding two years. It was a classic case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Right on Crime suggested that Texas may consider paroling around 8,000 non-violent, non-U.S. citizen prisoners to their home countries, a plan enacted by the state legislature in 2011 but which has not produced any significant results. The TDCJ could also grant more medical paroles to seriously ill and dying prisoners, something allowed by law but resisted by the parole board, largely out of fear of bad publicity should a medically-paroled prisoner recover and go on to commit additional crimes. [See: PLN, Jan. 2013, p.22].

Other cost-cutting options include allowing counties to benefit financially if they send fewer prisoners to the state prison system, and reforming sentencing laws to reduce the discretion of state judges to impose lengthy sentences for relatively minor offenses. More than a dozen other states have already passed “smart on crime” measures, but it remains to be seen whether Texas lawmakers have the political fortitude to back similar legislation.

“The challenge now is to find a way to operate a smaller [prison] system while maintaining public safety, which is the important consideration,” said then-state House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden. “We know how to be tough on crime. Being smart on crime is always more difficult to figure out.”

Levin’s solution is much more succinct: “At some point, we have to stop putting everyone we’re mad at in prison and reserve those cells for the people we’re afraid of.”

Sources: Austin American-Statesman,,,

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