- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas, Feb. 20 (UPI) — Texas prison officials Thursday looked for emergency capacity to handle 4,000 more inmates at the same time they were cutting spending.

Texas prisons are currently at 97.5 percent of capacity with 147,565 inmates. The system receives an average of 5,500 new inmates a month while releasing only 5,000, according to officials.

State leaders say they can come up with the 4,000 additional beds through several temporary measures, including the conversion of a little-used juvenile facility into an adult prison, freeing up 1,000 beds.

"We are going to stay ahead of the problem," said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, assuring that public that safety was the top priority at the prison system.

Officials also plan to shorten the term of offenders in prison drug treatment programs from 9 months to 6 months, which would free up 2,000 beds. Prison officials say they can find another 1,000 beds at existing prison facilities.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said the shortening of the inmate time in the drug program would not do any longtime harm as long as inmates continue to receive treatment outside the prison system.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice operates 51 prisons and more than 100 jails, medical facilities, and other units. The system is also under pressure to cut spending because state government is facing a record deficit like many states.

Texas is looking at a $1.8 billion shortfall in the current fiscal period and a $9.9 billion gap in the 2004-05 biennial budget period. Gov. Rick Perry has called for 7 percent cuts in the current fiscal period and 9 percent cuts in the next budget.

Dewhurst said the 9 percent cut in the budget for the next fiscal year might be too deep for the prison system. He said he might support an increase in the parole of nonviolent offenders if it could be done safely. The parole rate recently dropped from 25 percent to about 18 percent.

Prison officials have proposed $127 million in cuts from their current 2002-2003 budget of $5.1 billion and about $607 million in the next budget cycle.

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