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May 28, 2007 - Dallas Morning News (TX)

Senate OKs Bill To Reduce Prison Need

Early Releases, Other Steps May Show New Lockups Not Needed

By Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN - A bill that permits early release for certain prison inmates and gives those on parole a chance to shorten their terms passed the Senate on Sunday, but it may not make it to a House vote today before the Legislature adjourns.

The bill, crafted by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, aims to reduce prison populations and keep the state from having to build new lockups.

It also calls for a Sunset Advisory Commission review of the state's criminal justice agencies within four years instead of the requisite 12 "largely because of all the new programs funded in the budget," Mr. Whitmire said.

The measure would:

* Let judges recommend early termination of parole or other community supervision for the lowest-risk offenders.

* Allow judges to release state jail inmates early for severe health reasons.

* Force the state to develop and use a more accurate risk assessment tool when categorizing sex offenders.

* Establish a criminal justice oversight standing committee to make recommendations on the state's prison and rehabilitation systems.

* Authorize fetal alcohol screening and education for women in state custody.

The bill also would rearrange the probation funding structure with the intention of making it more cost-efficient and forcing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide better health care information to its inmates and to lawmakers.

TDCJ officials have argued that there's no avoiding the need for construction of three new prisons they predict a shortfall of 11,000 prison beds by 2011.

But Mr. Madden and Mr. Whitmire say they can cope with that shortfall by moving thousands of low-level or parole-ready prison inmates into supervised community programs, and by bolstering substance-abuse programs to free up beds used by minor drug and alcohol offenders.

The budget includes funding for many of these programs, including adding 8,000 prison beds in the next few years for drug treatment programs.

Despite the new programs, the budget does include funding for three new prisons, but only if the legislative budget board deems they are necessary.

Earlier language forcing the TDCJ to evaluate the effectiveness of diversion programs before building new prisons was stripped from the budget.

Once the funded programs are in place, Mr. Madden said, "I think they'll see that they don't really need new prisons."

"All of our programmatic issues are in the budget," he said.

Texas prisons already hold 153,000 inmates, and the state is short about 3,500 corrections officers.

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