In a surprise move to reverse a 23-year-old merger of Texas’ criminal justice agencies, a key legislative committee moved Wednesday to shift all parole operations and programs from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the Board of Pardons and Parole that now just votes on releases.
In addition, a Senate working group writing the first draft of the 2014-15 state budget proposed closing two private prisons that house state convicts to save $97 million over two years, and hinted it might push to close or mothball even more lockups in a system that now has thousands of empty bunks because of a declining convict population.
“It’s time to move ahead with doing what needs to be done,” said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, who a day earlier had castigated prison officials for what he said were almost 11,000 empty prison beds.
“The parole board should oversee parole operations, instead of having that managed by the prison system. I know we merged it in 1989, but that was then and this is now,” Whitmire said. “The system has changed.”
Wednesday’s move is the first in more than two decades to downsize or to split off parts of the corrections agency — one of the state’s largest, with a $3-billion-a-year budget — in any significant way. It also marked the latest bad news for the corrections agency, which in recent weeks has faced increasing criticism from Whitmire, a powerful lawmaker whose committee oversees corrections programs in Texas and who sits on the budget-writing finance committee.
The parole board — which now has seven board members, 12 parole commissioners and just over 550 employees — has a $25-million-a-year budget. The parole division of the corrections agency has more than 2,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $156 million to supervise more than 87,000 parolees. Both entities are headquartered in Austin.
Without a vote, Sens. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the vice chair of the committee, and Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, seemed to agree with Whitmire’s proposal that will now go to the full Senate Finance Committee for review and discussion — and a likely spot, in some form, in the Senate version of the budget.
Brad Livingston, executive director of corrections agency, appeared stunned by the proposals. He said after the meeting that he had heard the shift of parole supervision had been looked at earlier, but he did not expect it to be proposed.
“We look forward to working with the leadership as we move ahead,” he said.
Several weeks ago, Whitmire proposed breaking up the independent school district that operates inside prisons, in favor of cheaper adult education programs that do not require as much bureaucracy, and he has suggested that additional prisons could be closed.
But removing parole supervision from the justice agency would be the biggest proposed shift in state corrections policy in decades. In 1989, to correct years of turf battles between the parole board and prison system that were blamed in part for overcrowding prisons, the Legislature merged prison, parole and probation agencies into a new criminal-justice department.
Only the parole board itself stayed separate, after a change in 1999, mostly because it was created as a separate agency under the Texas Constitution. Its new job was just to approve paroles and clemency cases, while supervision of parolees was given to the justice agency.
Friction has occasionally surfaced between the parole board and the parole division of the criminal justice department — over the conditions under which convicts are supervised, over who sets and enforces the rules, over legal matters, over who has the most authority and who answers to whom.
Parole Board chairman Rissie Owens, who earlier Wednesday began quietly shopping the transfer plan to Whitmire and other legislative leaders, said she thinks giving the parole board control over the entire parole system “makes sense.”
“Prisons and parole each have their distinct and separate operating correctional strategies,” Owens said in talking points distributed to lawmakers. “While the original purpose of the consolidation may have worked, Texas can go beyond just working, and strive for a more cohesive, efficient, streamlined, research-driven and present-day parole system.”
One agency, she said, would provide authority over all parole matters, a “seamless system” that could enhance responsiveness and “consistent legal guidance,” and perhaps even savings for taxpayers.
CORRECTION: This story reflects it was John Whitmire, D-Houston, who proposed breaking up the independent school district that operates inside prisons,
PAROLE SYSTEM IN TEXAS: At a glance
Board of Pardons and Paroles
Votes on parole, pardons and clemency cases
$25 million annual budget
Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Parole Division
Supervises 87,000 parolees
$156 million annual budget
Source: Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Texas Department of Criminal Justice