Page 3


Prisons Bill Shows That Lock-‘ em-up Mentality Still Prevails The Texas Legislature seems more willing to fund prisons than public schools these days. Whereas the mere mention of the education finance bill provoked vicious partisan fights, Democrats and Republicans both agreed in an omnibus prison bill passed at the end of the session that Texas needs to spend more than $1.6 billion in the next five years to construct bigger and better incarcerators. Some politicians argue that money should go more to rehabilitation than expensive prison construction, but Texas has a nasty concrete and steel habit. This session, the Legislature enacted a law that will put $29 million into communitybased drug and alcohol treatment programs for felons as an alternative to prison \(partially due to a study showing that as many as half of Texas’ felons need such treatment, but won’t be effective until September 1993. Somehow, spending more than a billion dollars on prison construction now makes more sense in the Capitol than mere millions on treatment programs that could keep people out of prison. “We have a long-term comprehensive jail plan with one of the most aggressive jail building plans in the world,” said Rep. Mark Stiles, a concrete executive who actively lobbied for a jail in his hometown of Beaumont soon to be called the Stiles Unit whose concrete will be supplied by Stiles’ own company. \(“Set in Concrete,” TO, 3/8/91 Gov. Ann Richards has spoken up a few times about prison reform. In one speech she questioned whether Texas was locking up 6 JUNE 28, 1991 “sinners” and letting the real “criminals” loose in the streets. She also argued that the sentencing system needs to be revamped, that in the last six years 60 percent of all penal code violations have been upgraded to felonies. Legislation passed in the final moments of the regular session did address this issue; it calls for the repeal of the penal code in 1993 to spur reform in sentencing practice. But a much more demanding logistical problem has diverted attention from reform efforts, and probably will continue to do so. First ‘of all, the state prison system must operate at a maximum of 95-percent capacity because of a court order under Ruiz v. Estelle, an 18-year-old landmark prison reform case. Even after the ambitious prison construction plans of the 1980s, supply has never caught up with demand; the “war on drugs,” in this case, results in more people in prison for longer periods of time. The state prison system has shunted off surplus felons to county jails \(funded and administered by the counway. Twelve counties have, in turn, sued the state to recover the added cost of housing prisoners who were never meant to stay in the county system anyway. In the case of Harris County, 3,000 out of 8,000 prisoners are supposed to be in the state system. Legislators added language to their prison bill meant to assuage the litigant counties by allotting $62 million in state funds as cornpensation to them over the next two years. By 1995, the bill states, the state will finally accept total responsibility for the extra prisoners. The bill passed the Legislature, but under its terms, Richards’ signature was contingent upon all 12 counties dropping their suits against the state by June 16. The Harris County Commissioners Court refused, arguing that the bill does not even cover the ex KELLY JAMISON penses incurred. The plan may be revived, as negotiations continue. Meanwhile, state Attorney General Dan Morales has asked U.S. District. Judge William Wayne Justice to release Texas from its Ruiz court order, and Chief U.S. District Judge Jay DeAnda has ordered Harris County to rent empty cells elsewhere to hold its excess prisoners and mail its bills to the state. Richards said she authorized payments for the Harris County arrangement “under protest,” so watch for county and state officials wrangling over the structure of prison funding in the near future. Bailing Out County Jails Arguably the most controversial and farreaching legislation covering criminal justice public policy were the companion bills, HB 841 by Rep. Mark Stiles, D-Beaumont, and SB 248, by Sen. Kenneth Armbrister, DVictoria. The idea was to allow counties to contract with other jurisdictions to house outof-state inmates in county jails, and private industry to finance, build and maintain prisons to house Texas and out-of-state prisoners. It started out as a bail-out for counties that speculated on private facilities for which there weren’t enough county and federal prisoners. But as it was debated and amended, it en.: couraged counties to think of jails as economic development projects and prisoners as commodities by creating a new business of jailing out-of-state prisoners. The incentive is economic $35 to $45 per out-of-state prisoner per day. In essence, Texas would open a whole new market of prisoners. HB 841 passed the House easily, and became the operative bill in the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, where it was amended to place some responsible limits on