Five years ago, the Texas prison system was nearing a breaking point in terms of capacity.
When the Sunset Advisory Commission was tasked with determining the future of the state prison system in 2007, the commission did not recommend the construction of more prisons. Instead, the commission recommended the expansion of parole, probation and offender treatment programs.
“Because of that, Texas closed its first prison facility, which is historical,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an advocacy group. “That doesn’t happen in Texas. Usually it’s ‘How many prisons can I build in my backyard?’”
The Sunset Commission considers the reforms largely successful. From 2007 to 2008 alone, as Texas’ incarceration rate declined by 4.5 percent, the state also experienced a drop in murders and other violent crime.
However, in reviewing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the commission on Tuesday said that there is significant room for improvement at the department, particularly in the areas of accountability, budgetary efficiency, response to inmate grievances and communication between the agency’s divisions and the independent Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The full report on the Sunset Commission’s recommendations can be viewed here.
The Sunset Commission emphasized that TDCJ will need to create a comprehensive re-entry plan for inmates returning to the free world, aiming to decrease the number of offenders who return to prison. Such a plan has been required under state law for about three years but has yet to be completed by the agency’s re-entry steering committee.
"We did suffer some funding reductions in re-entry that resulted in reduction in force and some of our staff," said Brad Livingston, executive director of TDCJ. "We lost some of the momentum that we had begun to regenerate with respect to re-entry. We are absolutely committed to regaining that momentum ... and we absolutely embrace those recommendations."
The commission also recommended that TDCJ decrease expenditures by updating the parole standards in regard to offenders with severe medical conditions, a proposal echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
“It doesn’t make any sense to keep seriously infirm and dying offenders behind bars,” Matt Simpson, an ACLU of Texas policy strategist, said in a prepared statement. “The costs to the state are exorbitant, and with recidivism rates among this population so low, parole is a less-expensive, safe and more humane alternative.”
As Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, noted during the commission's hearing, certain terminally ill offenders are ineligible to be released in most instances. Sex offenders, for instance, only become eligible for release if they are essentially in a vegetative state. Some terminally ill inmates cost the state up to $1 million every year.
“He’ll never touch another person again because he can’t get out of bed,” Whitmire said of such a severely ill inmate. “I would take [those millions] and put it on border security. I think that’s the better use of public money.”
Whitmire also said improveoment is needed in communication and coordination between the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the TDCJ's parole division.
Livingston said that the board and the TDCJ communicate well and have "a significant number of intersections."
Also discussed was the installment of an independent ombudsman to communicate with the public and inmates’ relatives, and to review inmate grievances. The proposal was made by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The current ombudsman works within the agency.
“Y’all have got to communicate with your inmates better,” Whitmire told TDCJ representatives. “I have family telling me they don’t know [when an inmate is] going to get out, when they’re going to pick him up. I get 300-plus letters a month, and it’s questions like that. ... I get more than my share of letters that I think could be served by an ombudsman.”