After I had to leave, my colleagues from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and ACLU of Texas spoke to the committee about how to strengthen probation. I didn't get to hear them but TCJC's contribution was summarized yesterday afternoon in a press release. Here's what it said:
“The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition today testified before the House Corrections Committee that Texas cannot sustain a broken probation system and the burgeoning costs of prison overcrowding that it produces.
Today, Texans are bearing a huge, unnecessary cost due to a failed probation system; a system in immediate need of improvement,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, Executive Director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “Unfortunately, the cost is an increasing crime rate. Many Texans would be shocked to know that bad probation policies in our state are only serving to waste tax dollars while actually diminishing public safety.”
Specifically, Yáñez-Correa focused on the need to relieve overwhelming caseloads carried by Texas probation officers by reducing the number of non-violent low risk probationers in their charge. The inordinate number of cases officers must keep up with is affecting their ability to perform site visits and maintain contact with more dangerous probationers. Currently, some officers have a caseload of as many as 150 probationers.
“Texas’ community supervision resources are stretched to the limit,” stated Yáñez-Correa. “The stress created by overburdening probation officers with non-violent offenders can allow higher risk probationers to slip through the cracks. Texas can change this by investing in programs, such as drug treatment, that could pull as many as half of our probationers out of the criminal justice system and put them on the road to becoming productive citizens.”
Ann del Llano, also on behalf of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, urged committee members to play an active role in solving the prison overcrowding crisis. House Bill 2193, from the last session, would have empowered judges by granting them greater discretion over probation decisions for low risk offenders while strengthening probation supervision for violent and sexual offenders. The bill would have increased support for community supervision, decreased probation officer caseloads, and increased funding for drug courts which have proven to reduce crime where they are used.
House Bill 2193 --authored by House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden (R-Plano), Reps. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin), and Pat Haggerty (R-El Paso), and Rep. Ray Allen (R-Grand Prairie) in the House, and sponsored by Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) – overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the Legislature during the 2005 Regular Session. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, along with over a dozen conservative, religious, and civil rights groups, was joined in supporting the legislation by the editorial boards at the Austin American -Statesman, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Houston Chronicle, and other newspapers around the state. Nevertheless, HB 2193 was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.
“It is unfortunate that House Bill 2193 was stopped by Governor Perry,” said Ann del Llano. “I would have liked to come here today to report to the committee that probation officers are keeping up with caseloads, public safety is improved, the recidivism rate is dropping and violent criminals are being adequately supervised. Sadly, that’s just not the case. Texas’ probation system is riddled with weaknesses and, if strong action is not taken, it is hard to see how we will avoid wasting even more tax dollars and, worse, more lives.”
We could have less crime in Texas if we simply followed current research about “what works.” The Coalition cited the need for evidence-based treatment programs as effective means for reducing crime. According to a study by the state’s Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, offenders who received appropriate treatment were four times less likely to commit more crime and return to prison than those who did not.
Even more alarming, a mega study by the United States Department of Justice, National Corrections Institute, found that Texas-style “tough on crime” penalties actually result in an increase in an individual’s inclination toward criminal activity. On the other hand, treatment and programs, such as cognitive skills programs, resulted in a 15–29 percent decrease in an individual’s criminal behavior. [Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections ; reported by Minnesota Judge and scholar Dennis Challeen]
“The greatest benefit our probation system can provide is to break the costly and destructive cycle of low risk probationers returning to prison,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa. “Today, we spend billions of dollars to keep these people behind bars, yet relatively little to prepare them for probation and a successful return to society. By making proven, pro-family changes to Texas’ system, it is possible to be smarter and safer when it comes to probation.”