The Houston Chronicle's Andrew Tilghman reports this morning that Harris County is struggling to improve supervision of probationers and lower its probation revocation rate, despite Governor Perry's veto of legislation to strengthen the probation system. Their goal of reducing revocations is welcome, but it'd be a lot easier to accomplish if Gov. Perry had not vetoed new tools to better supervise probationers.
Just as the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee found in last year's interim report, Harris County's high revocation rate leads the state and is a major driver of Texas' overincarceration crisis:
If the debate over strengthening Texas' probation system did nothing else, at least it has busted a hole in the argument that weak probation benefits society or reduces crime. This "shift in perception" largely stems from the big-picture reality that right now Texas' probation system isn't adequately supervising anyone, much less those most likely to commit new crimes. Revocation and imprisonment represents an expensive failure of the system, not a "tough" outcome. Among big Texas counties, here are the 2004 revocation rates:
Roughly one of every seven Harris County probationers was put behind bars last year for failing to comply with court-ordered conditions, the highest revocation rate of any major Texas metropolitan area, state data show.
Once viewed as a respectable sign of a tough criminal justice system, a high revocation rate is increasingly considered a liability that fills costly jail space with low-level offenders and drains tax dollars.
That shift in perception puts mounting pressure on judges and probation officials at a time when the county probation department, formally known as the Community Supervision and Corrections Department, is ailing. ...
Last year, Harris County judges sent 15.8 percent of the county's felony probationers to jail for violating court-imposed rules or committing new crimes. The statewide average is 9.8 percent.
Probationers from Harris County end up behind bars at a higher rate than those from other Texas cities. Listed are counties and the percentage of felony probationers sent to jail after revocation in 2004:
Harris: 15.8 percent
Tarrant: 15 percent
Dallas: 11.9 percent
Travis: 9.3 percent
Bexar: 8 percent
El Paso: 6 percent
Texas Department of Criminal JusticeThat's a pretty impressive range. To me, it shows that probation can supervise people more successfully than they're doing it in Houston. After all, El Paso's not revoking one in seven probationers. Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, blamed Harris County judges for the high probation revocation rates, but Tilghman reported those jurists may yet want to change their stripes:
Others, however, say it is the judges, who impose probation conditions and ultimately decide whether to revoke, who drive Harris County's high rates.That's welcome news. Governor Perry's veto of HB 2193 was a grave disservice to public safety and to the taxpayers, but the issues raised by the bill haven't gone away. Tilghman's article shows that now local governments must wrestle with this looming state crisis, which the Governor knew existed but refused to provide leadership to resolve.
"The (county) bench is made up of very conservative people, most of them former prosecutors," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. "Elements of the judiciary are applying their own theories and philosophies, contrary to what a lot of experts and advisers would suggest works."
State District Judge Belinda Hill disagrees.
"I can't imagine that (Harris County judges) are any more rigorous than any other place," said Hill, who heads the judges' subcommittee on probation matters.
Hill said the county's 22 felony judges, who oversee the probation department and hire its director, are working to reduce the revocation rate. They are discussing plans to create a system of "progressive sanctions" that will give low-risk probationers more opportunity to stay out of jail, she said.