DALLAS -- A massive prison construction program that will double the size of the Texas incarceration system within 18 months is expected to provide only a temporary respite to counties faced with severe jail overcrowding, according to Standard & Poor's Corp.

In a CreditWeek Municipal article, rating agency analysts wrote that Texas' building program to increase prison beds to 152,000 from 75,725 this year would not be sufficient to house a growing inmate population.

"While corrections officials expect that the expansion will nearly eliminate the backlog by the summer of 1995, they predict the buildup of excess inmates will reappear by 1996 and expand in subsequent years," the June 13 article said.

The backlog, which now stands at almost 30,000 prisoners, could grow to 36,000 by 1996 and 54,000 by the year 2000 because changes in the Texas penal code are resulting in longer sentences for criminals and more time between sentencing and parole.

That means that the county jails could again house many state prisoners in two years after a temporary respite next year.

"It cannot be determined at this point if these events will affect the credit quality of specific counties, but it is an issue S&P will monitor over the next 12 to 14 months," CreditWeek said.

Standard & Poor's analysts said the repercussions from having state prisoners removed temporarily from county jails could cut two ways. "Some of the financial burden of housing state inmates certainly would be relieved. On the other hand, state reimbursements paid to counties that hold state inmates will be reduced," the article said.

"Many counties have expanded existing jail facilities -- expansions financed with general obligation debt -- to take greater advantage of the state funds. A decrease in backlog could leave some counties with unused capacity and reduced revenues in the short term," according to CreditWeek.

In fiscal 1994, Texas will fork out an estimated $192 million to 211 counties for jailing state prisoners, a 69% increase from fiscal 1993 and a 203% increase from fiscal 1992, Standard & Poor's said.

Meanwhile, Texas voters have authorized the state to issue billions of dollars of general obligation debt in recent years.

This fiscal year alone, the state is expected to issue more than $825 million of general obligation bonds as it embarks on both an emergency and a regular prison construction program.

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