Last summer, when tough-on-crime Texas closed its first prison ever, legislative leaders were jubilant over downsizing one of the nation’s largest corrections systems by more than 1,000 beds. Meanwhile, says the Austin American-Statesman, prison officials were adding bunks to the other 111 state prisons, which house more than 156,000 convicts. By last week, Texas had about 2,000 more prison bunks than it did a year ago, thanks to a state law that requires the prison system to maintain excess capacity as a cushion against crowding.
Because those beds will likely fill up, Texas taxpayers could be in line for some whopping additional costs come 2013. The situation illustrates how difficult it is to reduce prison costs in a fast-growing state without confronting a tough political question: Can society afford to keep so many criminals behind bars? “This is the adult discussion that the legislature is going to have to have,” said Scott Medlock of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Ultimately, the problem is that we’re incarcerating too many people for too long.” To reduce prison populations significantly, laws could be changed to reduce penalties for some crimes or to limit judges’ discretion to mete out long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes — both of which would be unpopular politically. About 35 percent of the convicts in prison are serving time for nonviolent crimes.