Sens. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and John Whitmire, D-Houston, clashed over the value of prison-made goods in the Sunset Advisory Commission meeting on Tuesday morning.
The possible reorganization of the state's four criminal justice agencies was the big topic of the interim meeting, including recommendations on various agencies to be forwarded to the legislature for final votes. Sunset Commission staff has posted an initial list of recommendations for the advisory commission to consider.
Nichols has protested selling prison-made goods on the open market, something that was curtailed back in 2008. In his own Senate district, Nichols saw such practices hurt local businesses like Lufkin Industries. Sunset staff estimated prison-made goods generate an estimated $3 million a year.
Recommendation from the Sunset Commission staff this time is to sell offender-made goods to contractors of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. That would mean selling goods such as beds and desks used in the prison system back to vendors. Such efforts could cut per diem costs for prisoners, said Whitmire, who serves as the chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Members of the committee raised other concerns. Sen. Joan Huffman, a former prosecutor, had concerns about the standards for approving parole. About 77,000 are reviewed by the Parole Board each year. Of those, about 24,000 are released. Thousands of decisions fall to a handful of people, Huffman said.
Whitmire was skeptical of recommendations to restructure the four agencies under one umbrella. Such an arrangement would only push the buik of the money toward incarceration costs, Whitmire said.
He also had questions about high-cost medical care for a fraction of inmates. The prison system spends up to $2 million a year for health care on a single inmate, Whitmire said. Those people should be released, especially when they presented no threat to society. In cases such as a sex offender released because he has been in a coma for multiple years, that becomes a politically hard decision, he said.
The Sunset Advisory Commission will review two dozen agencies this biennium. The commission's vote on recommendations for criminal justice agencies is scheduled for September.
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