The Texas Lyceum, a non-partisan leadership organization, conducted a survey of 725 Texans in late September 2010 and the results to one question were particularly striking:

Which of the following would be your FIRST priority for maintaining or increasing funding during the next round of state budget negotiations?

First Choice         Second Choice

27%                         26%                 Aid to public schools (K-12)

20%                        22%                  Supplements to local school districts

13%                        11%                  Funding for universities and junior colleges

30%                        33%                  Health care for the elderly, mentally ill, and children

3%                          7%                     Funding for prisons

6%                          2%                     Don’t know/Refused/NA

The poll also found only 4% of respondents felt that crime and drugs were the most serious problem facing the state.

The results of the budget priorities question, however, are most striking. The phrasing of the question is untimely because it was clear then and even clearer today that all parts of the budget are going to be cut. Whatever the wording, the heart of the question is about priorities. On that score, it is clear that Texas voters overwhelmingly rate other functions of government as higher priorities than maintaining business as usual in our prison system.

Certainly, Texans almost universally would agree that public safety is a core function of government – perhaps the most important one – and that prisons are needed to protect individuals from dangerous criminals. Accordingly, this result should be interpreted perhaps as an indication that Texans believe that too much taxpayer money is already being spent on prisons because their role has been overextended.

It is no secret that Texas has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, though it has dropped from the second to the fourth highest rate in the last couple of years. Most Texans would probably guess that the primary cost driver when it comes to prisons is that Texas has 156,000 inmates, of which two-thirds entered for a nonviolent offense. This includes about 5,200 incarcerated for drug possession with no prior felony and more than 1,000 locked up for hot check writing. Texans may also intuitively know that, as with most areas of state government, Texas is less inefficient than other states – Texans spend $18,000 per inmate per year compared to the national average of about $27,000. So while operational efficiencies can and should be achieved, such as by consolidating units, the way to achieve the most savings is by reducing unnecessary incarceration and redirecting appropriate nonviolent offenders into community supervision programs that provide more public safety per dollar spent.

The public is right. The 2011 legislative session and the shortfall are a great opportunity to enact reforms that will both save money and, more importantly, make Texans safer.