Gaining Ground

Criminal Justice


The rate of violent crime in Texas has fallen since 1991. Murder, rape, armed assault, burglary and theft are all dramatically down. Parole policies, once among the most lenient in the nation, have been toughened. A massive prison construction program is underway. And Texas has by far the highest rate of incarceration of any state in the union.

None are willing to declare the battle over, of course. Juvenile crime continues to increase, and needs to be a priority for the state. But years of almost single-minded focus from federal, state and local officials, law enforcement professionals, criminal justice experts, victims' rights groups and community leaders have begun to pay off in a sense of cautious optimism as crime rates drop.

In 1992, Texas Crime, Texas Justice portrayed the full range of our criminal justice system between the covers of a single report. Later that year, Schools Behind Bars recommended ways to raise the effectiveness and lower the costs of a specific part of that system -- the prison school system for state inmates. This year alone, we've published Forces of Change, in which we called for strategies to increase parental responsibility and redirect our criminal justice efforts away from just warehousing prisoners toward reducing recidivism, and Behind the Walls, a comprehensive look at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), offering hundreds of proposals for improving its performance while saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

In Gaining Ground, we present a series of new recommendations in the area of criminal justice. Some are major, and some are minor. But all designed to safeguard every Texan -- and every Texan's pocket-book.

Streamlining juvenile justice. There's one frightening crime category in which the news is considerably worse -- crimes committed by young Texans. In the decade of 1980s, juvenile arrests rose by 34 percent, and the trend has grown worse in the 1990s. Arrests of young Texans for violent crimes outpace the national rate, up 98 percent since 1981, compared to just 8 percent for the country as a whole.

These dismal statistics are sometimes written off to a theory among criminal justice experts that young people commit more crimes and that criminals generally outgrow their illicit careers around age 35. But whether we accept the theory or not, the fact is that Texas has the nation's largest pool of young people, and they'll continue to be a sizable segment of the state population long after folks in other states have gone gray. Already, 15- to 34-year-old males, at just 17 percent of the Texas population, account for 59 percent of all arrests. And the outlook doesn't improve when we consider the state's higher-than-average birth and child-poverty rates.

How are we confronting this challenge? With the Texas juvenile justice system, a fragmented state bureaucracy.

The Texas Youth Commission (TYC) provides rehabilitation and training programs for delinquent young Texans, and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (TJPC) channels state aid to 184 county juvenile boards, where the funds are in turn funneled to 161 local juvenile probation departments. Together, TYC and the much-smaller TJPC administer the state's juvenile justice system. Well, not exactly together.

At the county level, for example, agencies often decide to use their own funds to build long-term detention facilities. This is laudable, and no one suggests that TYC should exercise approval or veto power over county construction decisions. But it should at least be able to track them so that it can take them into account when planning its own construction projects. Moreover, some counties send nearly all their youthful offenders to TYC institutions, while others assign only those who commit the most serious crimes. TYC and TJPC, meanwhile, duplicate many functions, including training, research and management information. The lack of coordination between the two state agencies and among them and county departments makes it nearly impossible to provide officials with even the most basic information on youthful offenders and the effectiveness of programs designed to rehabilitate them.

We propose that the Legislature create a permanent joint long-range planning process, made up of TYC and TJPC board members and local juvenile justice experts, to institutionalize the recent steps taken by both agencies, to their credit, toward increased cooperation. Lawmakers should require the joint planning committee to coordinate their budget preparations, so that waste and duplication can be easily eliminated and long-term planning coordinated among all state and local juvenile justice entities.

TPR also proposes a plan for merging certain functions among the state's juvenile justice authorities, including a centralized database and a progressive-sanctions model designed to offer local communities a full range of punishment and treatment options for youthful offenders.

In addition, we recommend that TYC improve parole services by expanding its contracts with local juvenile and adult probation departments. Most of the state's parole officers and their parolees are based in urban areas, but officers must also travel to outlying counties to supervise a relatively small number of juvenile parolees. We believe TYC could increase its efficiency by concentrating on urban "hot pockets" while providing the resources for more rural counties to handle their own juvenile offenders.

Finally, we encourage the development of a central database for juveniles. The two separate databases currently maintained should be merged and made sufficiently compatible with the adult system to allow authorities to track juvenile offenders when they enter prison directly from TYC or after being convicted for new crimes as adults.

Tracking the performance of juvenile justice programs. Each year, TJPC distributes some $37 million in state funds to local juvenile probation departments. Most of the money is allocated according to rigid formulas based on population, little of it requires any meaningful accountability to state taxpayers, and few efforts to evaluate the effectiveness or quality of the programs is ever undertaken.

As for TYC, the agency lacks access to state criminal justice records and the ability to track graduates over the long term. TPR recommends that the Legislature help TJPC and TYC establish the same criteria for their program evaluations and development plans for regular reviews in the future. As part of this process, TJPC should ensure that local juvenile probation departments include performance evaluations as part of their yearly financial reports. And both agencies should coordinate their databases with TDCJ to allow criminal justice experts to track juvenile offenders over the long haul.

Coordinating juvenile detention facilities. Long-term detention centers for juvenile offenders have proliferated across Texas. Most are financed by county taxpayers, operated by private firms -- and built with no regard to state construction plans for similar facilities. This lack of coordination not only costs money but diminishes the effectiveness of statewide juvenile justice strategies.

Perhaps even more important, the role of local detention centers is often unclear. We believe their most effective contribution is in the area of enforcement, providing the means for swift sanctions to ensure that juvenile offenders comply with local requirements. But whatever the role, a lack of coordination among counties and the state blunts the intended effect of a well-understood continuum of sanctions, from drug and alcohol treatment to incarceration.

To ensure that juvenile justice planning encompasses county plans for juvenile detention facilities, an advisory group of county officials from around the state should work with the joint subcommittee of TYC and TJPC experts, proposed above. These county representatives should have a voice in developing new policies and making sure that county efforts aren't inadvertently working at odds with the interests of the state.

Funding youth corrections with federal dollars. Both TYC and TJPC receive about 94 percent of their funds from state taxpayers. Counties also play an important role. But Washington chips in very little.

The Emergency Assistance Program is a federal initiative that could be used to increase funds for Texas youth corrections. It allows states great latitude in defining what constitutes an emergency for children and families, and it obligates the federal government to pay 50 percent of the costs of responding to the situation.

Juvenile crime is an emergency in Texas. Washington should help pay for its costs.

TYC and TJPC should work with the Department of Human Services, the sole state agency authorized to seek Emergency Assistance funds, to expand the current definition of "emergency" to youth corrections and local probation needs. This would allow state and county justice departments to draw down matching funds from the federal government.

State taxpayers would save some $60 million over the next five years, while local taxpayers would realize more than $95 million in gained revenue.

Boosting security while cutting staff. TPR believes the prison administrators could increase security, cut staff and save taxpayers money all at the same time.

In Behind the Walls, we noted that the prison system has classified more than 13 percent of its secu-rity positions as utilities. Five people are hired for every job position covering three 8-hours shifts around the clock. Many of these extra hires are known as "utility" positions, filled by men and women who give other corrections officers breaks, and substitute for those who are vacationing, ill or attending training classes. They are often deployed for vacant positions, as well.

TPR strongly recommends that the prison system's percentage of utility or substitute staff be reduced to 9 percent, a reduction of almost 850 employees. These utility staff members should then be used to fill some of the more than 1,120 full-time security positions that currently exist. No jobs would be lost, and former utility employees would receive new posts.

Pressing for other savings behind the walls. While we're on the subject of substantial savings, TPR strongly urges TDCJ to implement the remaining savings ideas contained in Behind the Walls. That report, released earlier this year, held an underlying message that disturbed many Texans: While state spending for public safety and corrections has risen by more than 50 percent in the past decade, total state spending for education has actually dropped by 18 percent -- a trend, we believe, that should be reversed.

Behind the Walls generated a great deal of controversy. And though TPR and criminal justice officials disagreed about some issues, we remain in accord on fully 80 percent of the recommendations in the report. The Legislature should clearly express its intent on these issues to TDCJ and its board, and all state officials should get about the business of saving Texas taxpayers' money. The top priorities include:

If these and other relatively simple reforms were enacted, taxpayers would save nearly $400 million over the next five years, and the state could hire 2,000 fewer full-time prison employees than would otherwise be necessary by the turn of the century.

Getting our fair share of PIE. Texas makes only limited use of the Prison Industry Enhancement program, or PIE, a federal initiative that allows the interstate commerce of eligible prison-produced goods and services.

PIE is designed to provide state inmates with valuable training and work experience by putting them together with private companies. To qualify for certification from the federal government, prison programs must show, among other things, that they won't displace local workers. They are required to pay offenders a prevailing wage, offer workers' compensation and require participating inmates to make financial contributions to the costs of their incarceration and to victims' compensation or assistance groups. They must also involve the private sector closely in their efforts.

Simply put, PIE offers inmates real training for real jobs upon their release, while deducting a portion of the costs of their incarceration from their wages. PIE should also improve institutional security and lower the number of disciplinary infractions by providing economic incentives for appropriate inmate behavior.

TPR urges the Legislature to expand the PIE program in Texas from its current paltry enrollment of some 90 inmates to 6,000 over the next five years. We also recommend that PIE be offered not just in facilities overseen by the state's Pardon and Paroles Division, but by traditional prison facilities, drug treatment units and the new state jails, too.

PIE doesn't have to be mandated, either. The prison system, supported by other state agencies and the business community, could realistically achieve this goal without strict legal requirements.

If our proposals are enacted, taxpayers will save more than $16.5 million during the next five years, and an additional $4 million a year between now and the turn of the century will be shaved from prison operating costs through lower recidivism rates.

Automating inmates' calls. Every other state provides telephone services for prisoners in central areas. Today's automated systems provide excellent security. They require no prison operators nor security personnel to monitor calls. Even better, inmate phone services help prisoners maintain ties and even strengthen rela-tionships with their families while behind bars. That's particularly important in an age when state corrections facilities are located in seemingly every corner of the state.

With the type of service proposed by TPR, all calls are collect. A computer-generated message advising the person answering on the other end of the line tells them, in English or Spanish, who's calling and from where.

TPR recommends that TDCJ enter into contracts with telephone service providers willing to pay the state a commission per call for the privilege. We suggest that 10 percent be deposited in the Compensation to Victims of Crime Fund, a like amount into TDCJ's account to offset any costs and 80 percent into the state's General Revenue Fund. Based on conservative estimates, an additional $13.6 million could be generated by this proposal for the Victims of Crime Fund, and an equal amount for TDCJ -- at no cost to the state. In fact, between now and the year 2000, state taxpayers would gain $131 million.

Turning state prisoners into taxpayers. State inmates cost an average of more than $16,000 a year to keep behind bars. That's enough to send most young Texans to Yale for a couple of semesters, even longer if we make the wiser choice and enroll them in one of Texas' own outstanding universities. Not that state prisons are resorts, but at least inmates receive three full-square meals a day there. Shouldn't they pay a little something in return?

State prisons, substance-abuse facilities, transfer units, state and county jails, private prisons and other correctional facilities all maintain commissaries to provide inmates with such personal items as toiletries, cigarettes, candy and soft drinks. The inmates, who aren't allowed to carry cash, pay for these items from accounts maintained by their families or friends. Incredibly, there are a number of items on which ordinary Texans pay sales tax every day at the corner grocery that inmates who purchase them in prison are excused from paying by law. If you buy a Snickers bar at the corner store, you pay the state sales tax. If a convicted criminal buys a Coca Cola from the prison commissary, he pays less -- because he's exempt from sales tax.

TPR recommends that the Legislature amend state law to require that all adult state, local and private correctional facilities collect and remit sales tax on all normally taxable items sold to inmates. Besides the benefit to the state from increased sales tax revenue, city, metropolitan transit authority and county sales tax collections would also rise under this proposal. Treating retail sales to inmates the same as they're treated when ordinary law-abiding Texans buy the same items would simplify accounting procedures and save state and local taxpayers a combined $5.5 million over the next five years.

Obtaining Texas' share of federal dollars. In 1991, Texans approved $672 million in bonds to buy or build new prisons, including substance abuse treatment facilities for 12,000 inmates. Two years later, the Legislature appropriated another $650 million for additional prisons and state jails.

All this money is for construction alone. It costs even more to operate the facilities -- including the cost of feeding the inmates who are housed in them.

Prevailing law suggests that inmates in drug or alcohol treatment programs or education programs may qualify for federal entitlements and federal grants that Texas could use to help cover the costs of incarceration. New York and Florida, for example, received $1.1 million and $2.1 million, respectively, this year.

TPR proposes that TDCJ direct its federal funds committee to explore and aggressively seek the full range of federal funding available. The total savings to Texas taxpayers from these recommendations would be more than $63 million by the year 2000.

Deporting non-violent foreign criminals. Finally, prison operating expenses -- not including their original construction or debt-service costs -- have ballooned by more than 2,000 percent in the past decade. They will rise by another two-thirds between now and the turn of the century. From 1992 to 1995, 85,000 new beds will be added, bringing total capacity to 145,000 -- larger than any other Western nation's prison system but one: the U.S. itself.1

That's not all. We will still need room for 206,000 convicted felons by the year 2000, a population larger than all but eight Texas cities. And some 20,000 state inmates haven't even arrived in prison yet. They're backed up in dangerously crowded county jails.

Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for it all. We will shell out $4 billion over the next two years alone, or more than 6 percent of the total state budget.

You might wonder, then, why we're spending millions to construct and operate enough prison space for anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 illegal immigrants -- depending on whose estimates are used -- who have disregarded immigration laws to enter the country in the first place and have subsequently been convicted of breaking other laws? It's a good question.

Under current Texas policy, illegal immigrants convicted of state felonies are identified based solely on their own self-reporting when they arrive in the prison system. Those who admit to being foreign citizens are then subject to the full length of their sentences, after which they're supposed to be deported by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Not only does the self-reporting identification method almost certainly undercount the true numbers in the state prison system, it also undermines the amount of federal funds Texas receives to help defray the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants.

TPR recommends that TDCJ cooperate with federal and local authorities to identify all illegal immigrants in prisons and in county jails who are awaiting transfer to state facilities. TPR also recommends that the state develop, in coordination with the federal government, clear policies and specific steps to deport certain nonviolent criminal aliens before completion of their sentences.

At a time when Texans are struggling to maintain enough prison cells to keep dangerous criminals locked away, we believe the resulting savings -- $70.5 million over the next five years -- and the space freed up by deporting certain convicted non-violent criminals -- perhaps enough to empty an entire new prison -- will help us manage our prisons more effectively.

Endnotes

  1. Comptroller of Public Accounts, Behind the Walls: The Price and Performance of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (1994).