Tuesday, February 08, 2005

$100 million, mas o menos, to fix system say probation officers

Mike Ward reports today on the Statesman's legislative blog about proposals from the Texas Probation Association for solving the state's overincarceration crisis. The group held its lobby day at the capitol today, and probation officers from all over the state were there. Their message, reports Ward:

“Reduce the caseloads of probation officers with additional funding for programs and supervision . . . and we will save the taxpayers of Texas millions of dollars,” said Fred Rangel, president of the statewide Texas Probation Association, a trade group for local probation officers. ...

Needed, they said, is an additional $60 million to reduce probation officers’ caseloads to 75 offenders, from more than 150 now; $20.1 million more to provide more local detention beds for those who violate probation rules; an additional $7.2 million to provide up to 4,000 beds for those who need substance-abuse treatment, and additional funding for rehabilitation programs to keep non-violent offenders from occupying expensive prison beds.

And that's the cheap option, they told legislators. El Paso state District Judge Mary Anne Bramblett said the alternative is to build more prisons “and the cost of doing that will be astronomical.”

Those numbers might be inflated a little if they assume the state should solve the entire probation officer shortage by hiring more P.O.'s. -- right now we're 1,000 shy. Perhaps more realistically, some combination of hiring new probation officers and reducing the overall number of people on probation would be necessary. Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso has proposed a method for reducing probation caseloads by giving incentives to probationers who comply with the rules and don't commit new crimes to get off probation.

Behind the scenes, some local probation agencies question Rep. Haggerty's bill because, under the current system, departments are paid based on the number of probationers they serve. It's hard to say whether the one-time $500 early release fee he's proposed would fully make up the difference. Plus, fees from "good" probationers, one hears repeatedly -- those who've been in the system a long time, who meet all their requirements and who haven't been revoked back to prison -- are a reliable source of income, subsidizing the rest of the system. But in the scheme of things, nobody's talking about cutting funds to probation departments; these are small, structural problems with how funding is allocated that could be resolved to everyone's (relative) satisfaction. They shouldn't get in the way of a reform like H.B. 575 that could stave off billions in new prison spending.

For more background, see this handout (pdf) from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees Texas' probation and parole systems, which was included in the Probation Association's press packet.

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