Prison cuts prove fleeting

Critics say state can't afford to lock up so many people

By Mike Ward
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Published 10:21 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011

 

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. It was a first big step, they said, toward saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in coming years.

Meanwhile, 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 some excess capacity as a cushion against crowding.

Because those beds will likely fill up — empty prison beds almost always do — Texas taxpayers could be in line for some whopping additional costs come 2013.

The situation illustrates how difficult it is to significantly reduce prison costs in a fast-growing state like Texas 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, an Austin attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. "Ultimately, the problem is that we're incarcerating too many people for too long." 

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