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Steve Chiotakis: As states struggle to cut their budgets, one place to look is prisons. It’s expensive to lock people up — about $80 a day per prisoner. But politicians can end up paying a dear political price for letting prisoners out. So it’s interesting that one of the places that’s had the most success stabilizing their prison population is Texas, a state with a reputation for having some of the toughest penalties in the country. From Austin, Michael May reports.
Michael May: Over the past 30 years, Texas’ prison population has grown about eight times faster than its population — there are more than 150,000 people in Texas prisons today. Two years ago, the Legislature’s Budget Board released a projection that Texas would need to house 17,000 more prisoners by 2012. Republican Representative Jerry Madden is chairman of the House Committee on Corrections.
Jerry Madden: That’s very expensive. A new prison holds 2,000-2,500, and runs $250-300 million to build, and another $40-50 million to run and man.
Here’s the math. The state would need to spend $2 billion building prisons, plus $300 million more a year to run them. So in 2007, the legislature overwhelmingly passed a series of reforms aimed at keeping people from rotating in and out of prisons. Madden says they are smart without being soft.
Madden: It was definitely tough, we put people with drug problems in treatment, which is much tougher than spending a short time in state jails and going out without treatment. We haven’t made it easy in our prisons, or reduced anything, other than putting programs out there that may change lives.
The state invested in drug courts and programs for the mentally ill. Judges were given the flexibility to punish probation violators with community service instead of jail time. Scott Henson is a longtime criminal justice advocate in Texas. He says lawmakers should focus on probation, because it costs less.
Scott Henson: And with a lot more bang for the buck. Because their rehabilitation occurs in the community, when it’s done, they’re already there. There’s isn’t the re-entry barrier to get back over.
But Henson says there has been a barrier keeping other states from following Texas’ example. He says rehabilitation programs often get caught up in political squabbles.
Henson: Most of these issues are not very partisan when you get down to it. There’s a lot more common ground then the partisan game playing would have you believe.
And here in Texas, the change in incarceration policy has had an economic return — the state won’t need to build another prison until 2013.
In Austin, I’m Michael May for Marketplace.
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