Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Prison Population

Mike Ward's article in the Statesman this morning, about the budget crisis and whether treatment and rehab programs will stay funded, prompts me to chime in, as I did in the CourTex newsletter back in 2007: 
The state’s continuing ability to match capacity with demand currently depends largely on the parole board’s release and revocation practices.  The options for addressing population pressure, short of new commitments to capacity, would appear to be:  attempt to affect parole approval and revocation rates; affect sentence lengths and release laws through legislation; reduce penalties or judicial discretion directly through legislation; dramatically increase funding for alternatives and hope for minimal “net widening”; or adopt a sentencing commission/guidelines model that was implicitly rejected in 1993. These choices are timely this session, but longer term they are cyclical and incessant. To meet this continuing challenge, and consistent with much that is happening and recommended around the country, Texas policymakers should develop a more consistent focus on sentencing policy and data collection, in some form.
As Ward reports today, the legislature responded in 2007 by funding alternatives to revocation of probation parole; more detail can be found in a report from Tony Fabelo and the CSG Justice Center in 2009:
In 2007, the legislature rejected plans to spend $523 million in additional prison construction and operations and instead, through its Justice Reinvestment Initiative, appropriated $241 million to expand the capacity of substance abuse, mental health, and intermediate sanction facilities and programs that focused on people under supervision who would otherwise likely be revoked to prison.
The piece that continues to be missing is what we had in 1993 and have not had since:  reliable, case-level data on what is happening at the front end of the state criminal justice system:
A critical companion to our [1993] work was the parallel effort by the Criminal Justice Policy Council to develop meaningful, case-level information about actual sentences in Texas.  This was a first in modern times, and has not been replicated since 1993.  The PSC’s work was thus uniquely informed by current, powerful information that everyone agreed was valid[.]
I am very pleased that Tony Fabelo has found a way to spread his inimitable work around the country (helping states like Indiana with incaraceration rates that are only two-thirds of the rate that Texas has achieved, so that our "equilibrium" is a more expensive one than many other states could achieve).  And, no offense to my friends at the LBB who now handle projections of the prison population for purposes of informing the budget debate.  But, I continue to be convinced that rational analysis of the policy alternatives will ultimately require consistent and reliable data collection on the sentence, offense, criminal history, and a few other salient characteristics, of felony cases across the state.

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