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Some budget cuts can be a force for good

If there’s one place where something good can come out of the current budget mess, it’s with the criminal justice system, where recent trends, economic realities, and the hard-won lessons of 2003 are contributing to an environment where good policies can come from the decisions that will need to be made.

“One in every 22 Texans are in the criminal justice system — on probation, on parole, in prison,” said state Rep. Jim McReynolds , who chairs the House Corrections Committee . “Because we invested in treatment and re-entry and rehabilitation programs starting several years ago, Texas is in a position to have those drive the discussion for the first time that I can remember, instead of just incarceration or building new prisons. That’s a big change from the past.”

Whereas the average cost of keeping one felon in prison is about $47 a day, the cost of alternatives is much less, according to state statistics. Probation costs an average of $1.24 a day; parole supervision is $3.74. Various community-supervision programs range from $5.56 to $47 or more, depending on the type of program and whether secure housing is provided.

McReynolds remembers when the tide began to change. Seven years ago, with Texas’ economy in a downturn and its budget awash in red ink, lawmakers were forced to whack funding for probation and rehabilitation programs in the 112 state prisons.

“The result was that our prison population went up, and it ended up costing us more in the long run,” said McReynolds, D-Lufkin, explaining how cutting community-based programs and recidivism-reducing programs drove up the prison population.

Now, with the Legislature facing a possible $18 billion budget shortfall in 2012-13, McReynolds said he hopes his colleagues remember that lesson: “This should be a no-brainer. We can’t afford to do that again.”

From your lips to God’s ears. The stars are aligning, and the policy choices are clear, but there are still many powerful forces that will work against these sensible reforms, including the TDJC itself. But at least the committee chairs know which way is up, and so there’s hope. There are also potentially big savings to be had here, the kind that will carry over to future bienniums. One can hope that will be a sufficiently powerful lure for the Lege.

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