The Texas criminal justice system came under intense criticism yesterday as legislative leaders made clear that building prisons every few years will no longer be a solution to an increasing shortage of cells and operating problems, reports the Austin American-Statesman. Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, said, “If we don’t change the course now, we will be building prisons forever and ever – prisons we can’t afford.” A joint meeting between House and Senate panels overseeing corrections seemed to mark a significant shift in legislative support for rehabilitation and treatment programs, perhaps the greatest in two decades.
A new study by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center found that if Texas were to expand treatment and rehabilitation programs, it could avoid building expensive maximum-security prisons. Although the 6,550 new treatment and rehabilitation beds would cost an estimated $78 million in 2008 and 2009, putting inmates in less expensive facilities and avoiding prison construction would save taxpayers more than $543 million by 2012. Texas had 6,910 empty prison beds in 2001, but they were filled within a year. The new 13,083 beds since 1997 have been insufficient for the fastest-growing prison system in the U.S. said Tony Fabelo, a former Texas criminal justice official who oversaw the study. The study said “high-stakes communities” are disproportionately filling prisons. Ten of 88 Houston areas account for almost $100 million in prison costs annually. Those neighborhoods have low-rated or poor-performing schools, high dropout rates, poverty levels of 40 percent of more, and high numbers of parolees and probationers.