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Proposals Could Make It Harder to Leave Prison

Danny Bell sat on a brick ledge outside the plain, beige Greyhound station a block from the prison complex in Huntsville and, from behind dark shades, soaked in the sights and sounds of a world he had not seen in more than two decades.

Mr. Bell spent 21 years in prison for murder, the result of “a youth of ignorance,” he said. He was arrested in 1989 at age 24 and left prison March 4 at age 45 with $100 in his pocket and a bus ticket to Dallas to see his favorite girl: his grandmother. “She ain’t gonna let me out of her sight,” Mr. Bell said, flashing a wide smile with one missing front tooth and another capped in gold, with a star cutout in the center.

Even if it meant a job taking out the trash at McDonald’s, Mr. Bell said, he was determined to stay out of prison. “You go through too much,” he said.

But like many of the nearly 130 men who walked out of the Walls Unit that day, Mr. Bell had only a vague notion of how to re-enter the free world. He would stay with his grandmother, take any work he could find and get a lawyer to sue the state for keeping him locked up too long — a paperwork mix-up by the state, he said, kept him behind bars an extra 17 months. “I always said to myself I wanted to work with teenagers,” Mr. Bell said, thinking aloud about what kind of career he might like to have.

Bill Kleiber has met and prayed with thousands of Danny Bells in the decade since he got out of prison and started working with the Restorative Justice Ministries Network in Huntsville to help other ex-convicts. They come out hoping never to return, but find few resources to keep them from repeating the mistakes that got them there to begin with.

“It may not be criminal, but it is immoral that we are stranding people like that,” Mr. Kleiber said. What is worse, he said, is that state lawmakers are considering major cuts to fledgling re-entry programs.

Texas legislators, looking for ways to plug an estimated $15 billion to $27 billion budget hole, are considering proposals that would cut as much as $162 million from rehabilitation and treatment programs meant to help criminals avoid going back to prison. For instance, the $100 Danny Bell received when he was released — the so-called gate money handed to prisoners who have completed their sentence — would be cut in half. Financing for Project Reintegration of Offenders, known as Project RIO, which helps released inmates find jobs, would be eliminated. So would money for educational and vocational programs in prisons and for re-entry transition coordinators. Financing for substance abuse and mental health treatment programs would drop sharply.

Criminal-justice advocates say the cuts would reverse years of reforms in Texas that have helped reduce recidivism and drive down the size of the prison population. “We’re taking away the basic tools that they need to live responsibly,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The state initiated its reforms in 2007 after lawmakers got some stunning news: Budget writers estimated that the state would need some 17,000 additional prison beds by 2012. It would cost about $2 billion over five years to build and maintain enough capacity. The expected growth was attributed to high probation revocation rates, low parole rates and a lack of access to treatment programs in and out of prison.

Legislators decided to try a new approach. Instead of building more prisons, they invested $241 million in community treatment and diversion programs meant to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison and to ensure that those who served their sentences would not come back.

 

This article was written by Brandi Grissom from the Texas Tribune.

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