A consultant has finally gotten to the bottom of the astronomical "absconder" numbers from the Travis County probation department. Grits had reported earlier that Travis' percentage of probationers absconding was the highest in the state.
It turns out, Travis County's rate of probationers who "abscond," or who quit reporting to their probation officer before the end of their term, isn't that much greater than other jurisdictions when time periods are compared apples to apples. But Travis keeps low-level absconders on the rolls for many years after they should have finished their probation term, artificially boosting the county's numbers. According to the consultant's report (pdf):
Travis has the largest percentage of its probation population absconding [of any Texas county]. While the percentage of the population absconding statewide is 18%, the same percentage in Travis was 39% in February 2005. ...Actually, the rate of absconders in Travis County seems pretty low when you consider they "rarely receive the attention from the police department that would result in an offender’s apprehension." The policy of not taking probationers off the absconder rolls contributes directly to overcrowding at the Travis County Jail, since probationers whose terms should have ended 10 years ago might be arrested at a routine traffic stop and booked.
Of the 7,512 offenders classified as absconders, 60% had a probation start date more than ten years old. A departmental analysis indicated that over 50% of the absconders would have discharged from probation prior to 1995. Without these older cases, the absconder rate in Travis would fall to approximately 18% of the total probation caseload, exactly in line with statewide norms.
Two policy issues are related to the high number of absconders on the caseload in Travis. First, it is departmental policy in Travis not to drop absconder cases from the books until the offender has been located. Second, one of the focus group sessions revealed that misdemeanant absconders rarely receive the attention from the police department that would result in an offender’s apprehension, even if the probation officer has located the absconder....
Approximately 57% of absconders (4,294) had been charged with a misdemeanor offense, while 43% (3,218) had been charged at the felony level. Of particular interest is the fact that approximately 17% of all absconders (1,297) had been charged with Driving While License Suspended, and subsequently absconded from supervision.
Most probationers who re-offend do so in the first few years, and those who commit new crimes automatically rotate back into the system. There's no public safety justification for that kind of policy, especially for misdemeanants, and no other large Texas probation department operates that way. Travis already has begun to close out many of those older cases through its newly established "Absconder Apprehension Unit," but an easier route would be to take probationers off the official "absconder" rolls if, when their probation term would have completed, they had not re-offended or otherwise re-entered the system.