Faced with a possible $20 billion budget gap, Texas legislative leaders had hoped to discuss closing some state prisons to save money. However, prisons that for months have had empty bunks are slowly filling back up, says the Austin American-Statesman. Most officials agree that if the trend continues, it could make decisions about slashing state spending more difficult when the legislature convenes in January. Full prisons can’t be closed without releasing convicts, a politically unthinkable solution. That leaves treatment and rehabilitation programs – two areas where Texas has expanded its funding and has been successful in recent years at reducing its prison population – as the likely targets for cuts that by some estimates could reach 15 percent of current spending.
About $6 billion of the state’s $87 billion general revenue fund is spent on prisons. “If that happens, just like it did in 2003 when Texas had its last big budget shortfall, then we’ll see the prison population growing again and the costs increasing again,” said Tony Fabelo , a criminal justice researcher who in 2003 headed the Texas agency that predicted prison growth. Back then, Fabelo issued a similar warning to Texas leaders, in a PowerPoint presentation that concluded with a blunt warning: “If you significantly cut treatment programs  you can kiss your ass goodbye.” He soon got the boot; the prison numbers rose. The Legislative Budget Board, which monitors prison population trends, says that since May, when 153,977 convicts were housed in 112 state prisons, the number has grown less than 1 percent. Last month, Texas prisons held 155,022 convicts; prisons are now 97 percent full.