Asked to identify the biggest challenge for Texas' criminal justice policy in 2010 and beyond, it's hard not to consider the coming budget crunch as a potentially pivotal moment.

Projected revenue shortfalls have already led Lt. Governor David Dewhurst to suggest state agencies trim 2.5% from their budgets — at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, that would amount to $218 million in cuts over the next biennium. During the 82nd legislative session, the state may be forced to choose between continuing recent investments to strengthen probation (where most offenders are sentenced) and funding the state's vast prison system.

We're not alone, of course. Tax revenues are down in 44 states, at least 26 of which have cut corrections spending and at least 17 of which are closing prisons or reducing inmate populations. Corrections costs recently have expanded faster than any other portion of state budgets except Medicaid, driven largely by prison staffing and growing medical expenses from housing older, sicker inmates.

During the past two sessions, Texas lawmakers made a bipartisan investment involving hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen probation and parole supervision. Judges and probation officers have begun to use evidence-based interim sanctions instead of sending petty violators back to prison, and the result has been less crime and less cost.

But there's a risk that lawmakers in 2011 might feel compelled to scale back funding for treatment and diversion programming in response to shrinking budgets. That's what happened during the 2003 budget crisis, when Texas' probation, treatment and anti-recidivism programs were slashed to the bone in the face of budget shortfalls while prison populations grew at startling rates that seemed to defy crime trends.

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By 2007 and 2009, facing dangerously understaffed prisons and projections that inmate population growth would require billions for new prison construction by 2012, Texas shifted course to make historic investments in treatment resources and prison diversion programs which have been widely credited for staving off new prison building costs and limited anticipated inmate-population growth through reduced recidivism. These programs have been such a great success (and will only fully roll out this spring) that it would be a mistake to shut them down or scale them back just as taxpayers begin to see a return on their investment.

Instead, it's time for the state to seriously consider closing one or more of the 112 prison units it currently operates. The inmate population trend is already headed in that direction. Just last summer, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) was able to eliminate contracts for 1,900 beds in four county jails because population loads had declined and they were no longer needed.

Cost per prisoner at TDCJ units varies widely. A handful of older units – some of them built in the 19th century, have per-prisoner costs up to twice as high as more modern facilities. Other units, like the one in Dalhart, suffer guard shortages so chronic they can't safely staff them. Those two facility categories seem like the logical places to start when considering which prison units to close.

Though staffing shortages have improved as the economy tanked, TDCJ is still more than 1,000 guards short systemwide so such cuts could likely be achieved without eliminating existing jobs, and with the added benefit of improving staffing and safety in other units.

By investing more in diversion strategies and expanding on successes from recent reforms to probation and parole, the state could actually close older, more expensive prison units — as we've seen in other states — and use those employees to bring other facilities up to adequate staffing.

In years past, when budget cuts were required, lawmakers shielded TDCJ's “institutional division” (which operates the prisons) from reductions, which meant cost savings instead had to come from treatment and probation programming. But if the state cut off funds for all the new diversion infrastructure created over the last two sessions, we wouldn't actually save money because that's what's kept the prison population in relative check, and the diversion programs are much cheaper than building more units to house low-level probation violators.

State leaders must figure out soon how to safely cut the corrections budget while preserving recent investments in treatment and anti-recidivism programs. They'll need a plan when crunch-time comes, and this time the option of closing prison units needs to be kept on the table.

Scott Henson writes the award-winning blog Grits for Breakfast, which focuses on Texas criminal justice politics and policy. He is a former journalist and political opposition researcher who's been active in criminal-justice reform politics for the past fifteen years.

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