Monday, October 01, 2007

Texas jail overcrowding: 'The system may be starting to feed on itself'

Here's a section from the National Institute of Corrections consultants' report (pdf, pp. 16-17) on the Nacogdoches County Jail that could be written about most local jail systems in Texas:
Officials are consumed with the task of disposing of cases. Officials say they are uncomfortable with the compromises they seem forced to make. There is immense workload pressure to make decisions just to move cases—so much so that achieving dispositions is gradually replacing other values and becoming a goal of the system. The need to reduce jail crowding, too, is gradually being elevated to the status of a goal.

The system has become dependent upon offender fees for financing. This is because it craves additional resources. This is having unintended consequences. For example, a number of people who were interviewed note that the financial requirements being placed on many offenders sets them up for failure to comply with an aggregate of payments: court fees, fines, restitution, probation fees, fees for a variety of treatment programs, and, perhaps, child support and other obligations.

Non-compliance is a growing problem. When these offenders fail to meet these obligations they are in violation of a court order. They may stop reporting to a probation officer because they know they cannot make the payments or meet their many other requirements. All this generates more work for the system and, indeed, the data confirms that non-compliance is a growing problem. This will not show up in fresh arrests but, rather, in an increase in jail admissions for failure to comply with a court order, and in an increase in technical probation violations. The system may be starting to feed on itself.
Nacogdoches has an extraordinarily high rate of incarceration compared to other counties its size, said the consultants, with arrests, court dockets, and overall local jail population dramatically rising over the last six years, even as crime declined.

Nacogdoches' problems are exactly those the Legislature attempted to address in 2007 through a series of probation reforms, shortening probation lengths and creating mechanisms for letting offenders earn their way off probation through good behavior. Problem is, the new laws are mostly volitional; if local judges don't use their new tools - offering offenders carrots rewarding positive behavior to go along with the incarceration stick - then the changes won't much with help jail or prison overcrowding.

The Texas Legislature in 2007 gave counties more tools to face the problem (though Gov. Perry unexpectedly vetoed a key provision), but it's ultimately up to the locals to solve their own problems.

12 comments:

Donahue said...

Prison overcrowding has become an issue everywhere. Does Texas have the 3 strikes law?

I suggest checking out Breaking Point, its a special on Discovery this Sunday about this very topic. Thought you might be interested.

Anonymous said...

Judges just don't get it. They are why these programs fail, including intermediate sanctions. If they're targeting low risk offenders, which I assume they are, they need to stop. Recidivating because of fees, etc. is a debtors prison.

Anonymous said...

There is a progressive movement in Bexar County to convert any outstanding monetary obligation (at the time of termination of probation) to a civil judgement lien. This will free up the courts to concentrate on other violations, reduce the revolving door problems at the local jail (bonding out), and will eventually bring in revenue to assist in the costs of crime.

Hopefully, this will come to pass as it is written pursuant to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Article 42.22. This is one solution out of many possible solutions and will be looked at more favorably by victims and taxpayers in assuring criminal accountability.

A great idea that seems to be underused by Counties.

Anonymous said...

So how does this jive with teh Office of Court Administration's fine collections program, which claims to alleviate the very problem of judicial oversight of probation compliance?

Anonymous said...

So how does this jive with teh Office of Court Administration's fine collections program, which claims to alleviate the very problem of judicial oversight of probation compliance?

The Restitution lien and the Collections program aren't per se at odds. Both are collection tools with the same goals, IMHO:

(1) Offender accountability
(2) Increased collection of court-ordered payments

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying those two provisions are at odds. In fact, I think a debt collection office as proposed by OCA programs would probably be the best to transition these restitution liens from the criminal to the civil system. If that's how it's handled, I see no conflict either. I guess I can't enunciate my concern very clearly. I just have a gut feeling that the OCA's program may be contributing to the fact that the programs are feeding on fees to fund themselves. Whether through restitution of the OCA, too many fees is too many fees.

Anonymous said...

There is a draconian movement in Harris County to turn the Harris County Jail into a debtors prison.
If a probationer fails to pay the agreed upon fines and fees, the judge will issue an arrest warrant, and the poor probationer will sit in jail for breaking the conditions of their probation.

Don said...

Where I live in rural high plains texas, I don't think I've ever seen a revocation for fees alone. The non-pmt of fees and fines is sometimes used in conjunction with other technical violations. I have worked for 20 years in and around probation departments as an LCDC, and I thought I was on board with the "don't revoke for tech violations" to ease crowding. However, CSO's don't have much leverage to get people to comply as it is. What's the point of graduated sanctions if they decide to ignore them, then just get more sanctions? becomes a vicious cycle. At some point you're going to have to revoke to jail those who refuse to comply.

Anonymous said...

Revocation for fees alone is tough to do if you're ethical. (I think the Leg addressed this not this past session but the one before.) In order to successfully prosecute a motion to revoke/ adjudicate for alleged violations for failure to pay only, I believe the State has the burden on revocation of proving (preponderance) that the defendant had the money to pay and just didn't do so.

I agree with Don. Most Motions to Revoke contain at least other technical violations in addition to the allegations of failure to pay. As Don alluded to, most probationers who are not paying are committing other violations and at some point, additional sanctions are ineffective.

Restitution liens are nice tools to use when a probationer has done everything ordered by the court except pay all of the monies. The person may be released from probation, and there is still an opportunity for victims and the court to be paid. I believe this is a win/ win for those defendants that truly want to do the right thing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To Don and 9:34, I don't think the consultants said revocation over fees alone was the problem, it's that probation fees contribute to additional non-compliance because offenders "may stop reporting to a probation officer because they know they cannot make the payments or meet their many other requirements."

IMO high probation fees are a fiasco. Probation is so much cheaper than prison, the state should just pay for it. Then you'd have less revocations, greater victim reimbursement, and a reliable funding source for probation departments that didn't create perverse incentives.

Anonymous said...

A solution many may not agree with is to combine all 121 CSCD (probation departments) covering 254 counties, into 1 department overseen by the governor and given specific guidelines and administrative rules by the legislators. Texas is the 2nd biggest state in the country with a diverse population that should require specific guidelines and oversight especially with budgets and rules. As of now, each politically motivated county judge dictates or influences local policy which has resulted in an ineffective out of control system. Charges to offenders have gone to unrealistic levels. Setting a mandate and guidelines statewide will reduce most of this problem and make a future "Texas Probation Department" more manageable with a stronger impact with our communities. This can only be done with the oversight of our elected state officials. I believe this can bring Texas up to the national standards of professional officers and use what we now know with combining fiscal responsibility and accountability with protecting our citizens. Reform is a must, and those who are proponents of a state-wide Texas Probation Department have the vision to correct the obvious mismanagement of local authorities. This can bring common sense to fees and use civil liens freeing up the jails and allowing officers to do their business of protecting the public instead of motivating offenders to pay court costs.
b

Anonymous said...

@ 8:39 AM

A solution many may not agree with is to combine all 121 CSCD (probation departments) covering 254 counties, into 1 department overseen by the governor and given specific guidelines and administrative rules by the legislators.

Have you not read about the fiasco that is the reorganization of the TYC? Haven't the governor and the legislature done a bang up job with that little project?

There are already guidelines, rules, policies, procedures, and laws that address the operations of probation departments. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, and Standards for CSCD's to name two such standardized guidelines.

Texas is the 2nd biggest state in the country with a diverse population that should require specific guidelines and oversight especially with budgets and rules.

There are many checks and balances already in place with respect to budgets. CJAD has a voice, the legislature, the LBB and so on.(Please see above about rules)

Our population diversity is exactly WHY there is so much local control and input of CSCD's from local elected officials who know about the local resources. Dallas and Dalhart don't have the same resources yet they have to go by the same rules and laws.

This can only be done with the oversight of our elected state officials.

I do agree with some of what you say. If things don't change they remain the same. Change can be good and I believe that we must ALWAYS be seeking to get better and do better; however, to suggest that giving more of a hands on oversight to the governor and legislature is irresponsible at best.

I'm listenin' to what you're sayin' but I'm not buyin' what you're sellin'. Keep talkin', though. "Cause I am listenin'.