State Prisons Almost Full, Emergency Money Needed - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

1/24/05

State Prisons Almost Full, Emergency Money Needed

Texas prisons are just a fraction of a percent away from maximum capacity. The state will have to build as many as five prisons over the next six years, if the prison population continues increasing at its current rate. That's according to the latest report from the state's Legislative Budget Board.

"I don't think it's right for the taxpayers to have to continuously pay for people who choose to break the law," Donna Travis, a local taxpayer, said.

State Representative Leo Berman, (R) of Tyler, is on the Criminal Justice Subcommittee. He says they'll look at alternatives to prison time.

"Before we spend millions of dollars on new prisons, we'll start looking harder at why judges are not giving probation to more individuals, rather than sending them into the prison system," Berman said.

Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith says, even while major crimes have gone down, there are several reasons why state prisons are filling up so fast. He says judges are handing down longer sentences; new types of crimes are on the rise, like identity theft and credit card abuse; and three out of four prisoners who are let out will be back in prison within two years.

"It's going to be expensive, but what's the other choice? Let them go? I sure hope not," he said.

Right now, the Smith County Jail is overcrowded. But if a new jail is built, the sheriff says the county may lease space to house state prisoners and that would help pay for the costs of the building.

"If they were treated like prisoners, instead of a social club, then there wouldn't be as many people in prison," Ken Wells, another local taxpayer, said.

Officials say there's no easy solution. For now, expect the state to shell out millions of taxpayer dollars, diverted from other programs, to build several new prisons.

Julie Tam, reporting.

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