Told to prepare a budget that cuts spending by four percent, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is drawing up a legislative request that would slash its operating budget by about $250 million. reports the Texas Tribune. The agency won’t say what potential savings — including closing prisons or figuring out how to release more non-violent inmates — might be in the mix, but its request will launch the biennial dance with lawmakers over funding for the nation’s largest prison system. With a more than $3 billion annual operating budget, 40,000 employees and close to 150,000 inmates, the agency could chase that goal by closing prisons, reducing the inmate population and changing how Texas uses its state jail system, policymakers and analysts say.
In 2013, the agency shut down two privately run state jails after the legislature cut almost $100 million from its budget. More closures may be in the offing, said Scott Henson of the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast. “The reason [some people] don’t want to close prisons is ’cause it’s jobs,” he said. Outdated and dilapidated units might also be prime for closure, Henson said, such as one where inmates have sued over high arsenic levels in the drinking water. Money might be saved by cutting down inmate populations in state jails, said Michele Deitch of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. The 19 state jails hold low-level offenders for up to two years. It was designed as a backup for people under community supervision. The jail system has “moved so far from it’s original conception that it’s unrecognizable,” said Deitch. “It has not been a success at all. It has the largest recidivism rate of any part of the criminal justice system … there’s a lot of people who are locked up in state jails that really don’t need to be there.”