AUSTIN -- Texas prisons are packed, and state corrections officials are urging the Legislature to build three units. But traditionally tough-on-crime lawmakers appear ready to take a different approach -- rehabilitation.
Legislators at the forefront of the debate say they can meet a projected shortfall of 11,000 beds in 2011 by moving thousands of low-level or parole-ready prison inmates into supervised community programs and by bolstering substance-abuse programs to free up beds held by minor drug and alcohol offenders.
Texas prisons already hold 151,000 inmates, and the state is short 3,500 corrections officers. Adding prisons isn't cost effective, these lawmakers say, and doesn't get to the root of the problem.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice "has fewer and fewer allies as the facts get out," said Sen. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
"We're at a crossroads. There's a strong consensus to do things differently, to continue being tough, but to be smart about inmates who need a different kind of treatment." Corrections officials say they are already working to bolster treatment programs and provide housing alternatives for low-risk inmates. They want more money for in-house substance abuse treatment facilities, halfway houses, mental health services and local community supervision programs, some of which were slashed in 2003 budget cuts.
But even with such solutions, the officials argue, new penitentiaries are unavoidable. The state needs two new general-population prisons and another emphasizing alcohol treatment to house a combined 5,000 inmates, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says. "We're not just suggesting building new prison units -- we're looking for ways to transition them back into society," said Michelle Lyons, an agency spokeswoman.
A push to expand the state's prison system nearly a decade ago tripled capacity to more than 150,000. Already, the state has more inmates than it can manage and is contracting with county jails to house inmates -- the result of rising conviction rates, longer sentences and declining parole approval rates in that time period, according to a state Sunset Commission report on the prison system.
"It's not an ideal situation. We would like to be able to house the inmates in our own custody," Ms. Lyons said. The new prisons, "coupled with the expansions of existing programs, are what we're looking to do to alleviate capacity issues."
Formidable opposition But corrections officials have a formidable -- and bipartisan -- opposition. Rep. Jerry Madden, the Plano Republican who serves as Mr. Whitmire's counterpart on the House Committee on Corrections, jokes that the two unlikely bedfellows are an "allied front -- the compassionate Republican and the fiscally responsible Democrat."
Both say they fear pouring money into new prisons just to watch them fill -- what Mr. Madden calls the "build it and they will come" phenomenon. They're ready to take a more progressive, preventive approach, they say. Low-level, nonviolent inmates could be placed in intensely monitored community probation programs, instead of left in prison, Mr. Madden said. There are 900 inmates currently approved for parole, he said, but not enough halfway houses to hold them.
"We need to think about what the alternatives are for people you and I are not afraid of," he said. "That's giving them assistance to straighten out their lives."
Getting imprisoned drunken drivers and other drug offenders into treatment programs, Mr. Whitmire said, instead of letting them take up general population prison beds. According to the Sunset Commission report, nearly 60 percent of inmates have a chemical dependency but only 5 percent are admitted to substance abuse programs in prison. In some cases, they can't be released without finishing the rehabilitation program -- but the waiting lists are six months or longer.
There are about 5,500 inmates with drunken driving convictions "housed with murderers and rapists," Mr. Whitmire said. "The easiest thing in the world would be to just build another prison. You have a whole damn prison you could release tomorrow."
Vowing To Stay Tough
Corrections and parole officials say it's not that cut-and-dried. Even with improvements in rehabilitation and shorter waiting lists for programs, officials say, more prison space will be needed within four years. And many of those inmates aren't ready for supervised release into the community, they say -- which is why it hasn't happened yet. And in Texas, where criminal justice trends have included tougher penalties and longer minimum sentences, some experts say a more flexible parole and probation system might not be politically palatable. But legislators say their proposals are anything but a softie approach to criminal justice.
When it comes to murderers, rapists, child molesters, Mr. Madden said, "we'll lock them up and throw away the key." But they firmly believe these efforts will cut costs in the long run without jeopardizing safety. According to the Sunset Commission report, a combination of in- and out-patient rehabilitation programs could result in 2,000 fewer incarcerations a year and save $31.9 million annually. It would also delay the need for new prisons, the report says -- which rack up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt service bills and annual staffing and maintenance costs.
"The tragedy, during the buildup, was that we did not provide more funds for rehabilitation," said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. "Now we end up with prisoners who, upon their release, are no more skilled, but meaner and tougher than when they entered."
Legislators say they plan to start working out the appropriations details this month, as well as designing a bill to fix an ailing parole and probation system. They're asking corrections officials to reconsider their request for new prisons.
Ms. Lyons said the agency is ready to come to the table. They just don't want to find themselves out of beds in 2011.
"Hopefully, we won't find ourselves in that situation," she said. "Everyone in the game knows what the challenges are and realizes we have a capacity issue."
Differing Views On Prison Solution
A quick look at the prison issue:
Proposal: Influential Texas legislators want to solve overcrowding by getting parole-ready inmates out of state beds and into treatment programs and halfway houses -- not by building more prisons.
Obstacle: State corrections officials say that even with those improvements, they'll still need three new prisons or else they won't have room for up to 11,000 inmates by 2011.
Key Players: Rep. Jerry Madden, the Plano Republican who chairs the House's Committee on Corrections and opposes building more prisons. Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who agrees with Mr. Madden and serves as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Prospects: With bipartisan opposition to building prisons and strong support for overhauling the state's parole system, corrections officials are facing an uphill battle. They won't get everything they ask for.
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