The latest demand for 10 percent in spending cuts by all state agencies has raised a possibility once unthinkable in Texas: closing some prisons.
The Austin American-Statesman reported in its Sunday editions that some officials say a reduction in the number of state prison beds is on the table as a possible measure in the struggle to balance the state budget by next year's Legislature.
One in every 22 Texans are in the criminal justice system - on probation, on parole, in prison," Texas House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds told the newspaper.
"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," the Lufkin Democrat said.
The state tripled the size of the prison system during the 1990s under the decades-old criminal justice doctrine centered on building more prisons. Now, state officials have found that expanded treatment and rehabilitation programs have shrunk the inmate population, leading to about 2,000 empty prison beds. They have also said that greater use of in-prison treatment programs and community-based probation and rehabilitation efforts have reduced the number of imprisoned nonviolent offenders.
Housing one felon in prison costs the state an average of about $47 per day, while probation costs an average of $1.24 per day, parole supervision costs about $3.74 per day, according to state statistics. Community-based supervision programs cost the state from $5.56 to $47 per day or more, depending on the program and whether secure housing is provided, the newspaper reported.
McReynolds said lawmakers made the wrong choice the last time they had to make spending cuts across the board, cutting spending on the probation and rehabilitation programs at 112 state prisons instead of the prisons themselves.
"The result was that our prison population went up, and it ended up costing us more in the long run," he said.
He said he hopes lawmakers avoid that mistake when they grapple with a possible $18 billion budget shortfall for 2012-13 in next year's Legislature.
"This should be a no-brainer. We can't do that again," McReynolds said.
His counterpart in the Texas Senate, longtime Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, said, "We should not close any prison just to save money."
However, the Houston Democrat said that does not mean prison closings would be off the table.
"If we can do it for efficiency and maintain public safety - which should be the No. 1 priority for anything we do - then you'll see us getting serious about it. We may be in the position at some point where we may not need one, two or three (prison) units. It's a place I can't ever remember Texas has been in."