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When cutting the budget increases your costs

From the deja vu all over again department.

Texas legislators, looking for ways to plug an estimated $15 billion to $27 billion budget hole, are considering proposals that would cut as much as $162 million from rehabilitation and treatment programs meant to help criminals avoid going back to prison. For instance, the $100 Danny Bell received when he was released — the so-called “gate money” handed to prisoners who have completed their sentence — would be cut in half. Financing for Project Reintegration of Offenders, known as Project RIO, which helps released inmates find jobs, would be eliminated. So would money for educational and vocational programs in prisons and for re-entry transition coordinators. Financing for substance abuse and mental health treatment programs would drop dramatically.

Criminal justice advocates say the cuts would reverse years of reforms in Texas that have helped reduce recidivism and drive down the size of the prison population. “We’re taking away the basic tools that they need to live responsibly,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The state initiated its reforms in 2007 after lawmakers got some stunning news: Budget writers estimated the state would need some 17,000 additional prison beds by 2012. It would cost about $2 billion over five years to build and maintain enough capacity. The expected growth was attributed to high probation revocation rates, low parole rates and a lack of access to treatment programs in and out of prison.

Legislators decided to try a new approach. Instead of building more prison facilities, they invested $241 million in community treatment and diversion programs meant to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison and to ensure that those who served their sentences would not come back.

More felony offenders were put on probation, and more prisoners who qualified were released on parole. As access to treatment improved and probation and parole officers had options to impose intermediate sanctions, fewer offenders were sent back to prison. Last year, Texas had the lowest parole revocation rate of the decade, with about 8 percent of parolees returning to prison. The crime rate in Texas dropped to the lowest level since 1973, even as the population increased. There are about 7,000 fewer inmates in Texas prisons now than what had been projected in the alarming 2007 report.

Tony Fabelo, research director at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, told lawmakers at a recent hearing that the cuts they are considering would undo that progress. Prison population, he said, would rise. Crime rates would spike. By 2013, he said, the state could be short about 8,600 beds. Compounding the problem, he said, are plans to close prisons at the same time treatment and diversion programs are cut. Troubling, too, are proposals to trim other areas of the budget like mental health and substance abuse treatment, public education and jobs programs.

“You’re really going to have a perfect storm developing,” Fabelo said.

State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano and chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee, was a chief architect of the criminal justice reforms that face decimation. He said he planned to fight to keep every dollar Texas has invested in re-entry, treatment and diversion programs. “The statistics clearly indicate we’re doing a better job,” he said.

The main difference between now and during the budget crisis of 2003 is that now we can’t claim we don’t know what will happen when we make these budget cuts. We saw what happened the last time, we know what will happen again, and we know perfectly well what we should be doing instead. We have no excuses. How stupid are we about to be? Grits has more.

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