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Cuts in prisoner re-entry programs could hit city’s 2011 budget

Friday, February 11, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Jeri Houchins, administrative director of the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable, came to the City Council on Thursday to report what her group has accomplished over the past 12 months. However, her presentation quickly morphed into a look at the dramatic impact that proposed state budget cuts will have on prisoner reentry in the region.


“The reentry specialists that we got in the last legislative session are now being totally wiped out, as well as Project RIO, which was the employment division for (the Texas Department of Criminal Justice) – that’s being done away with,” said Houchins. “So the new legislative session is cutting all those programs that we know have really reduced recidivism rates.”


Houchins’ presentation marked the first specific, public hard look that the Council has taken at what is assumed will be drastic state-level cuts to a wide swath of Health and Human Services programs. It is generally believed that local governments will be left to pick up those pieces. That could leave a large hole in the 2011 operating budgets of such entities as the City of Austin and Travis County.


For Council Member Bill Spelman, the issue with prisoner reentry was clear. “We’ve got 4,000 people returning to Austin and Travis County every year,” he said.


“Many of them have been involved historically in substance abuse and would like to stop that,” he said. “They all need a job. RIO is slated to be eliminated, so they’re going to need a lot more help getting a job than they’ve already had. They all want a place to live and, although I’m very happy with the work we’ve done so far on supportive housing, 225 units for that population is only between five and six percent of the total need. We’ve got a lot of work to do, it sounds like.”


He asked Houchins what the city could do. She was realistic.


“I know everybody’s in a bind,” she said. “But when we all get together it’s not just a matter of money – sometimes it’s just a matter of pooling resources. It’s letting us in the door, inviting us to their meetings, and not having a closed mind and saying ‘oh no, we don’t want to talk about that population’ because they’re there, and they’re not going away.”


In response to a question from Council Member Sheryl Cole, Houchins said that she couldn’t yet name a specific amount for what would be cut. She then returned to her sensible prodding.


“Y’all can’t afford to pay for all of those services, but you can afford to fork up a little bit of money to be able to get that volunteer force,” she said.

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