House lawmakers are considering a plan to privatize all of Texas' state jails for low-level felony offenders, a move they say could save the state up to $40 million.

"Government is not always the efficient provider," said state Rep. Erwin Cain, R-Como, who filed an amendment (page 272) to HB1 that would require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to seek private bids for the operation of all state jails. The department would be required to turn over the jail operations to private bidders if the result is at least a 10 percent savings to the state.

Cain said, though, that he would rescind his amendment because of technical concerns about the language. Instead, he will attach the proposal to a corrections-related bill by state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, the chairman of the House Corrections Committee.

Madden said he was "all for" finding out whether private companies can do the job cheaper than the state. Five of Texas' 20 state jail facilities are already privately operated; the new proposal would affect the remaining 15 facilities.

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Texas created state jail felonies — offenses that carry a sentence of up to two years — in 1993. In August 2009, there were more than 12,500 inmates in Texas state jails, according to TDCJ reports.

But state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, cautioned against the notion of more privatization, saying it could cost the state more in the long term. Past attempts at privatization, he said, have shown that companies are interested only in less expensive inmates. The state is left to shoulder the burden of housing the most-costly inmates: those who are sick and mentally ill. And, he said, there's no guarantee that private providers' rates won't skyrocket in the future.

Turner argued he has a more effective proposal. Many of the offenders in state jails, he said, are there because they committed technical violations of their probation terms. Turner filed a bill that would give probationers incentives to abide by the terms of their sentences and stay out of state jails in the first place. "To me, that is a much more novel approach," he said.

Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said privatizing jails provides a perverse incentive to continue policies that keep more people in jail, because it results in more profits for the companies running the facilities. "The real cost savings is going to come out of minimizing the number of people who don’t need to be there," she said.

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