Sunday, September 24, 2006

Harris County: 43% of DWI offenders choose jail over probation

Probation or incarceration - which would you choose?

For 43% of DWI offenders in Harris County (Houston), incarceration turns out to be the preferred alternative, reports the Houston Chronicle ("Hit with DWI, many pick jail," Sept. 23):

The prosecutor offers a simple deal: Instead of going to trial, you can plead guilty to driving while intoxicated and get probation. That's an easy one, right?

For a surprising number of first-time DWI offenders in Harris County, however, the choice isn't so clear.

Facing the stiff costs and strict rules that come with probation, thousands of convicted drivers in recent years have decided spending time behind bars is the better option.

And in a county already struggling with crowded jails, that's a disturbing trend. Sentences can be short enough to mean losing only one weekend and a vacation day, but some end up behind bars as long as half a year.

"Because of the number of sanctions and what the defendants feel is the 'hassle factor,' many opt not to go on probation," said County Criminal Court at Law Judge Sherman Ross. "Financially, it's more expensive."

The choice of jail time also may mean fewer options for treating the alcohol problems that land many drivers there.

"Probation has become so onerous that there's no incentive to take it," said Bob Wessels, manager of the county criminal courts at law. "If we really want people in treatment, we aren't providing incentives."

Of the 6,685 DWI defendants in the county who accepted plea agreements last year, 2,894 (43 percent) took jail time rather than probation, Wessels said. In 2000, fewer than 10 percent (479 of 5,034) chose jail.

No wonder the Harris County Jail is overcrowded - the probation system is broken. Clearly many Harris County DWI defendants believe probation is actually tougher to complete than a jail sentence.

That's probably an accurate, rational analysis of the situation: As I've reported in the past, Harris County leads the state in revoked probationers. About half of probation revocations statewide occur for technical violations of rules, not because of a new crime. Texas has the longest probation terms in the country, and probationers have virtually no way to earn their way off supervision early through good behavior. Defendants can stay on probation as long as ten years.

I wonder if many Houston attorneys advise their clients to refuse probation, or if defendants have figured out these counterintuitive incentives through more grassroots, viral sources? Chronicle writer Brian Rogers quoted at least one local attorney who is actively giving such advice:
[Robert] Pelton, a defense attorney for 31 years, said he generally advises clients to take the jail time because probation can be so arduous, financially and otherwise. Probation for DWI carries another risk: If it's revoked, a judge can pile on even more jail time than originally would have been ordered.

This, added to the fact that Harris County has the highest per capita rate of probation revocations in Texas, means it may make more sense to burn some vacation time behind bars, Pelton said.

Those incentives are perverse. Too often our criminal justice system focuses on what "message" we're sending rather than real-world public policy outcomes. In this case, if the goal is to reduce the number of people who endanger the public by driving drunk, being "tough" on probationers has left Harris County with an overcrowded jail and DWI offenders less likely to receive treatment.

That is the most expensive, least beneficial result for these offenders - the worst possible outcome for the most money.

6 comments:

Rusty said...

When you have unjust laws and law enforcement making their OWN LAWS and with rigged courts one is left with few options.

Alcohol Prohibition didn't work in the 20's and will not work today NO MATTER HOW IT IS DISGUISED, FACT!!!

Except instead of the mafia feeding on our people IT IS THE COURTS AND THOSE SWORN TO PROTCET AND SERVE!!!

Our courts and laws have be manipulated by special interest groups mainly MADD!! How they can use the loss of their loved ones to cause so much misery on others is DISGUSTING AT BEST! Did you know the founder of MADD quit, because what she started was hijacked and turned in to a prohibition organization, FACT!

The only way to beat a corrupt system is to OVERLOAD IT! If everybody started refusing plea bargains and demanded their day in court and then refused probation, THE TRUTH WOULD COME OUT AND THIS BIASED SYSTEM WOULD CRASH IMMEDIATLEY! Maybe some of these bigoted, self righteous laws would be FORCED TO BE REMOVED!!!

If we could teach people today the ways of our elders, which was MIND YOUR OWN DAM* BUSINESS and hold people accountable for their actions NOT OTHERS BIASES AND BIGOTED FEARS AND SELF RIGHTIOUS BS we would be in this mess, FACT!!!!

Anonymous said...

Every court in Harris County is so corrupt, it smells worse than rotten eggs. All the Judges want to do is get re-elected and the DA makes all the decisions. Are you people in Harris Co. not tired of being the laughing stock of Texas? Get rid of the DA and some of the Judges who are afraid of him. Next year is your chance, make some changes.

Anonymous said...

We need a thorough investigation in the 4 quads around Houston to answer the question as to *why* "harrass county" is number one in probation revocations.

I overheard some PO's talking of a 'pool' game, (sort of like a football pool kind of thing), where they had a race going as to whom could get the most PO revocations. So many times while visiting my PO, she is running late and apologizing because she was busy revoking someone's probation. This needs to be checked out and I intend to contact the Chronicle paper and ask them to investigate it and my hope is they will write a story on it. Some will argue it is too much work to revoke a probation but the fact is, if the 'price is right', it is surely possible that this is going on, and I didn't just make this up. I overheard some people talking of this it at the North quadrant.

anon

Brad Walters said...

My client nearly had his DWI probation revoked. The PO gave him a breath test that showed.16. She called HPD to have him arrested for PI. HPD gave him an HGN test which he passed. She then gave him another test that showed .00. She then had him start his truck with an interlock device (all within an hour). HPD asked the PO's what they wanted to do. "arrrest him for PI" and they did! The judge after spending a half an hour with the PO called me in an told me my client was going to jail. When I questioned the PO on the facts it became apparent that she had not told the judge the whole story. Can you say Section 1983?

Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with probation really.
When they changed the laws and made DWI's automatic convictions they took away the incentive to take probation. If you are already convicted and can get time served or spend a weekend in jail as opposed to 1 to 2 years on probation why would you choose probation? The only reason to take probation is to either avoid a long prison or jail sentence or to avoid a conviction. None of those incentives apply for DWI's - stop blaming probation for what is a legislative problem. Also, high revocations may perhaps be due to granting probation to persons who should have never been placed on probation - possibly so DA"s can clear their dockets? If you have already been locked up several times for the same behavior that you are charged with now why give that person probation? or were previously revoked why is probation on the table? They have already shown they have no regard for rules??

No probation officer ever revokes someone's probation - no officer has that authority. Judges are the only authority that can revoke probation - and that is done after a hearing where evidence is heard or client pleads true to the allegations in the motion.

Anonymous said...

Since the laws were changed making DWI's automatic convictions it removed the incentive to take probation. Why would anyone take 1-2 years probation when they could get time served or a few days in jail. The only incentive to take probation is to avoid a long prison sentence or long jail term or to avoid a conviction - none of this applies to MISD DWI cases. Stop blaming probation for what is a legislative problem. Probation officers do not revoke probation - no officer has that ability. This is done by the judge after a hearing in which evidence is heard or the defendant pleads true to the allegations in the motion. Number of probation revocations going up could be directly related to people being placed on probation whom should never have been placed on probation in the first place possibly so DA's can clear their dockets. I you have been previously revoked, have been to TDC for the same offense, have multiple prior convictions for the same offense why would probation be an option? A lot of these people take probation just to get out of jail with no intention of ever even reporting to the probation department - yes that is a technical revocation. Better screening of offenders placed on probation should be a priority not just dumping everyone one on the probation department for the overworked and underpaid officers to sort out.