State may reduce programs lowering prison population

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Programs responsible for reducing Texas’ prison population could be at risk in January as lawmakers struggle to deal with the estimated $25 billion shortfall in the state budget.

State leaders have suggested that top state priorities be funded first, leaving criminal justice reform advocates worried there will not be sufficient money to properly fund probation and drug treatment programs.

“We’re going to have a big budget cut coming up, and it’s going to be part of the discussion — what are our priorities and where [money] is going to go,” said state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, vice chair of the Texas House Corrections Committee. “It’s a risk.”

Madden said for the 2007 biennial budget, legislators added about $240 million in funding for treatment, probation and parole programs, allowing the state to save the $600 million it would have had to invest in the prison system.

“It’s smart to divert [some criminals] from prisons, where they cost us a lot of money, to communities where they cost us a lot less money,” Madden said. “They can do wonderful things, they can be taxpayers instead of tax burdens.”

Madden attributes the success of the reforms, which he developed alongside Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, to helping decrease Texas’ prison population for the first time in years, even though it has started to tick up recently.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that the leadership and a majority of the Legislature knows how successful the rehabilitation [program] has become,” said Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “It’s reduced recidivism, it’s enhanced public safety and it’s very
cost effective.”

Whitmire said he hoped the program’s success would protect it from being individually singled out by the Legislature for additional cuts. He also said public safety should be exempt from the budget cutting process.

The 2007 reforms created intermediate sanction facilities for individuals who violate their probation or parole for nonviolent offenses, such as drug or alcohol abuse. These facilities provide a less expensive alternative to prison and a place where a parolee’s supervising officer can intervene before problems worsen.

“A lot of the violations are related to substance abuse problems,” said Ana Yánez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “People who have a substance abuse problem will relapse. [Intermediate sanction facilities] are a part of the progressive sanctions continuum that aim to address the root causes of criminal behavior. It’s for [probation violations] that aren’t considered public safety threats.”

Correa said that cutting spending on the diversion, treatment and counselling programs will increase the rate of probation revocations, which will increase the rate of growth in the prison population, dramatically increasing costs to the state over the long term.