Washington. But what are the chances of winning it? “Slim and none,” says Garcia”two fellows you’ve met be fore. Mack Wallace Austin Rep. John Whitmire has recently proposed legislation to change the name of the Texas Railroad Commission to the “Texas Energy and Transportation Commission”a label more appropriate for this powerful agency, whose chief function today is to act as the state’s energy regulator, with direct authority over oil and gas production, natural gas utility rates, and strip mining. But if Whitmire had gone to Austin’s Hilton Inn on March 20 and witnessed all three commissioners engaged in a handholding, tongue-clucking, public wailing session with the energy giants they are supposed to regulate, he would now be sponsoring a bill to change this triumvirate’s name to “Defenders of the Seven Sisters and Allied Brethren.” The occasion was the annual “state of the industry” meeting, an event hosted by the RRC at public expense for the past 35 years. To attempt a straight who-what-when-where-and-why account of this amazing spring rite is to invite charges that the author is making the whole thing up. The very idea of the meeting is oddregulators inviting their charges to use the public agency as a private pulpit. But the experience was even more fantastic than the idea suggests. Let me set the scene: a typical hotel meeting room with about 250 upper-level managers of energy firms sitting on folding chairs, facing a slightly raised platform on which Commissioners John Poerner, Mack Wallace and Jim Nugent are perched. Everyone in the room is white, all but four are male, everyone is dressed in shades of gray, and everyone seems to have the personality of corporate bureaucrats and lawyers trying to move up the ladder. There’s no flamboyance or even diversity hereno Texas wildcatters, no Western} hats, no pointy-toed boots, no life. No consumers, workers, environmentalists or other outsiders, either. This is a club meeting of the national energy establishment, and \hey’ve come on behalf of their multi Back to the sources This skirmish over the new prison has, however, served to divert attention from the real problem, the overcrowding itself, and the real solution: reduce the population. Both the Legislature and TDC have been assuming that they have to keep finding new ways to warehouse an ever-expanding population, and TDC officials repeatedly point out that they don’t control the number of prisoners. To a large extent they’re right: judges and juries sentence convicted offenders to serve time in TDC, where they stay until they’re paroled or their sentences are up or they die. But TDC policies do affect matters. The administration of discipline and the classification of inmates affect both the amount of “good time” prisoners earn their parole eligibility. Many critics charge that TDC’s -policies in this area are overly strict and a loosening-up could speed the release of large numbers. TDC officials also have frequently testified in favor of legislation whose effect has been to increase the inmate population. One such law, passed in 1977, deals with parole policy and is expected to result eventually in a 6 to 7 percent population increase. But TDC is only one part of the criminal justice system, and the other parts deserve a look. At the front end are Texas’ tough sentencing laws and their tough enforcement. There is also Texas’ relatively infrequent use of probation and other alternatives to prison. The creation two years ago of the Texas Adult Probation Commission, which promises to greatly increase the quality and availability of local probation services, should help. But the Legislature is again showing signs of shortsightedness. For one thing, money spent on probation services goes a lot farther than money spent on prisonsa cost per day per offender of about 60 cents versus some $7 \(this calculated cost doesn’t even include TDC’s capital investment in prison buildTAPC’s budget request. For another thing, there are large numbers of offenders arriving at TDC because of probation violations who could be kept out of prison if some local residential facility were available. TAPC has funded just such a place in El Paso; local judges can commit probation violators to the “court residential center” in lieu of sending them to Huntsville. Open since December, it’s already kept more than 40 in their home city. The House security and sanctions committee recommended a $6 million appropriation for TAPC to spend this way in other corn 10 APRIL 13, 1979 gdr ,t , orz.. ” munities, an amount that, over the course of the biennium, would keep at least several hundred probationers out of TDC. Predictably, the House appropriations committee chopped this program from the budget, but TAPC director Don Stiles told the Observer an attempt will be made to reinstate these funds on the floor. At the other end of the system is the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and here we find the agency that has taken the most flack for its contribution to TDC’s population explosion. In.fiscal year 1978, a year when the number of inmates increased by 18 percent, and the parole system’s budget increased by 88 percent, the number of inmates released by the board actually decreased by 35 percent. TDC director Estelle told a legislative committee last summer that if the parole board had met its projections of releasees, he’d be able to house the prisoners. Even parole employees concede charges that their agency is at least partially responsible for the overcrowding are “somewhat fair.” A number of factors are involved. One not in the board’s control is the extraordinarily high number of paroles vetoed by Gov. Dolph Briscoe during this period; the numbers vary depending on the source, but some 15 to 20 percent of recommended paroles were denied by the former governor. A second factor was turnover in two of the three board positions, caused by a death and a resignation, and the resulting disruption in routine. But most knowledgeable observers say the fundamental reasons for the poor performance are within the board’s control and have to do with the way it’s structured and the way it operates. The parole board has been studied to death in recent years by management consultants and at least four legislative committees, and there are bills in the hopper that would redesign it. Chief among these are three different proposals authored by Reps. Jerry Benedict, Craig Washington and Bob Close, respectively, all of which sit in subcommittees of the House criminal jurisprudence committee and, at this writing, have yet to get a hearing. Benedict told the Observer he expects they’ll be able to get a decent compromise reported out of committee. But it’s anybody’s guess whether such a bill will find a place on the House calendar before the end-of-session madness sets in. At any rate, there are practical alternatives to more construction of more big prison farms to house more and more criminal offenders, whether they involve keeping them out in the first place, under community supervision, or getting them out sooner and more efficiently when their time is served. By any measure, these options are more humane and make more sense as state policy. They’re also cheaper.
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