DPS, PRISON OFFICIALS TESTIFY BEFORE FINANCE COMMITTEE
|Senator John Whitmire of Houston talks with Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini at Thursday's Finance Committee meeting.|
(AUSTIN) — Last session's prison and parole reforms have been successful in slowing the growth of Texas prison populations, according to testimony offered before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday. Numbers showing more inmates, fewer paroles, and more probation revocation from September 2007 have drastically changed, said Legislative Budget Board analysts. Projections for 2009 show that inmate population growth has flattened, and more prisoners are paroled and fewer are sent back to prison for violating terms of probation. Intermediate sanction facilities, which are aimed at incarcerating lower level offenders in facilities close to their community, and more space at substance abuse treatment programs have contributed to the favorable trends. Committee member Senator John Whitmire of Houston praised corrections officials for successfully implementing the 80th Legislatures reforms. "We've got a lot of work left to do, we've got some problems, but overall I think the health of our criminal justice system is very good," he said.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) Executive Director Brad Livingston did present some areas where more funding is needed. At the top of his list is money for a 20 percent pay raise for prison guards and parole officers. Though TDCJ has reduced the number of staff vacancies from 3,900 in September of 2007 to 2,350 in January of 2009, Texas is still in the bottom ten states when it comes to prison worker salaries, said Livingston. He also wants to implement a system of retention and transfer bonuses for guards who voluntarily work at understaffed facilities.
Officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) also testified before the committee Thursday, telling Senators that they need money for additional employees, including commissioned police officers. DPS wants to give a pay increase to its troopers. Texas Public Safety Commission Chairman Allan Polunsky pointed out that a trooper working at the Capitol building can make 40 percent less than his counterpart working for the Austin Police Department. Higher salaries will help DPS keep the best and brightest officers on the job, he said.
Polunsky highlighted a budget request for 450 additional marked patrol cars, and an effort to streamline computer systems between the various enforcement agencies under DPS to improve communication. An outside consultant just completed a study of DPS, suggesting ways it can use modern technology to enhance law enforcement efforts, and Polunsky said his agency is looking to implement many of the recommendations. We are in the middle of, for lack of a better term, reinventing this department," he said. "You have my personal assurance that these changes will be effected, and that we will modernize this department and bring it into the 21st century."
The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 23, at 1:30 p.m.