I want to welcome my longtime colleague in covering the Legislature, Patricia Kilday Hart, to the blog. She will be posting on this site, but first we have some technology issues to work out. I’m going to publish her first post below, but later she will be posting here under her own name.
— Paul Burka
“My bad” is not a phrase you hear a lot at the Texas Capitol. If an admission of a screw-up is made, it’s usually oblique, tucked between the lines of some innocuous press release. And so it was with Gov. Rick Perry’s announcement last week that he was establishing a Texas Criminal Justice Statistical Analysis Center “to provide objective analysis and assessment of state criminal justice programs and initiatives.”
Does this mission statement sound familiar? It should. An agency called the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council performed precisely the sort of analysis described above before it was shut down in 2003. Guess who wielded the ax? None other than Rick Perry, who zeroed out the agency’s $2.5 million appropriation in a line item veto. The ambiguous veto message suggested that the council’s work was no longer needed since the state was no longer in crisis mode on prison issues, and that, at any rate, if the need arose, someone else could do the work.
Except that nobody else could, at least not as well as the agency’s former executive
director, Tony Fabelo, who was known for his uncommonly accurate projections on how various policies — a little more probation here, a few less parole revocations there — could prevent prison overcrowding, while reserving space for truly dangerous criminals. Lawmakers involved in criminal justice policy were stunned by the governor’s veto, as was Fabelo, who was on vacation at the time.
Ironically, Fabelo happened to be back at the Capitol last week, providing lawmakers with pragmatic solutions to consider as alternatives to the estimated $440 million in construction spending it would take to build enough prisons to head off a 17,332-bed shortage expected in five short years-the exact sort of problem that Fabelo used to prevent when he was around. Championing his suggestions were John Whitmire and Jerry Madden, chairs of the Senate and House committees that deal with prisons.
Since the 2003 veto, Fabelo has been traveling the country as a consultant to the Council of State Governments, helping other states get a better grip on their prison populations. Meanwhile, Texas has gone on an inexorable slide toward yet another overcrowding crisis-all because of Perry’s 2003 veto. We’ve been handicapped for good information,” Whitmire told me this week. “We wouldn’t be in this crisis about capacity if we had had good information. We’ve been hurt tremendously.”
Here’s the kind of information Whitmire is talking about: Instead of building new prisons, the state could increase its parole approval rate for low-risk offenders from 26 percent to 29 percent and totally wipe out the projected overcrowding problem. Another 1,900 inmates could receive parole after going through a six-month drug and alcohol program, but there’s a one-year waiting list for the programs. Above all, more lenient treatment of probationers could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars with little effect on public safety. Last year, 12,000 probationers were sent back to prison for “technical violations,” such as failing to pay a fine or missing a meeting with their probation officer. With so many moving parts, it takes an expert like Fabelo to analyze how incremental adjustments to sentences and to probation and parole policies affect the demand for prison space.
So why would Perry axe Fabelo to save a measly $2.5 million? The widely circulated story at the time held that the governor’s then-chief-of-staff, Mike Toomey, who lobbied for private prisons before and after his time in the governor’s office, asked Fabelo to “revisit” some projections, and Fabelo refused. Toomey denied playing any role in the veto when questioned at the time by the Austin Chronicle.
Perry’s new office will be directed by Janna Burleson, formerly a top aide for Royce West. I asked Whitmire if the new office will be able to recreate Fabelo’s reliable work. “I don’t have a clue,” said the chair of the Senate’s criminal justice committee. It seems that the governor’s office has yet to brief him.