Texas today incarcerates more Texans than at any time in the state’s history. As of April 2006, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), the state’s prison agency, houses in 115 state prison facilities about 151,741 adult inmates occupying most of the system’s 154,702 bed capacity (the Texas Youth Commission houses another 5,000 or so juvenile inmates). Private for-profit companies run nineteen of those prisons under contract to the state. Texas county jails with a combined capacity of 80,642 beds house another 70,505 inmates. In addition to the incarcerated population, the TDCJ also tends another 344,560 under some type of direct community supervision or parole. All told in fiscal year 2006 the TDCJ will spend about $2.5 billion housing or actively supervising a half-million people, the vast majority of them African American or Hispanic men. Adding county jail inmates to this number, the Texas prison system will actively control the lives of at least 1 of every 29 adult Texans this year, not counting affected families, relatives, and friends.
Not surprisingly, annual Texas spending on criminal justice constitutes one of the larger chunks of the state budget. Only spending on public education, health and human services, and transportation exceeds state spending on corrections. But despite massive spending, a prison crisis is brewing. In what seems a replay of the 1980s, the prison system today is plagued with problems. A short list includes a limited budget, overcrowding, understaffing and poor staff training, gang problems, prison violence, high rates of disease and illness including AIDS, hepatitis, and psychiatric disorders, high recidivism rates, and the persistent rumblings surrounding capital punishment.
Compounding current problems, Legislative Budget Board projections released in June 2006 show that in five years the TDCJ will exceed its capacity by over 11,000 inmates unless the state builds more than $1 billion in new prisons or makes substantial changes to the criminal law, sentencing guidelines, and the supervision and parole system. Clearly, the Texas prison system needs some correction. Since the TDCJ is undergoing sunset review by the Legislature in 2007, we can expect to hear more about prison problems in coming months. But what is to be done?
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