Sunday, January 13, 2008

When probation is a "free ride," it means local leaders have failed

On Thursday at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's briefing, I heard Bexar County DA Susan Reed describe offenders who receive probation sentences instead of jail as getting a "free ride," which always strikes me as an odd thing to say, though you hear it a lot (an audio of her remarks has been posted online). She made the comment to criticize a bill passed in 2003 (described here) requiring probation for first-time offenders for low-level drug possession.

Probation, or "community supervision," doesn't have to be weak and ineffective, even if that's how she ran things when she was a judge (and how many counties operate). Given that more than three times as many Texans are on probation as locked up in prison, if it's really true that probation is a "free ride," it speaks more to the failures of folks like her running the criminal justice system than it discredits the idea of supervising offenders in the community.

In reality, Reed's description isn't always accurate, at least when probation functions like it should. More than a few offenders reject probation deals, preferring to accept incarceration sentences because probation is too tough.

Here's a great example from Dallas of how stronger probation programs can generate superior outcomes to incarceration for low-level, mentally ill offenders ("'Jail diversion' gives those with mental illness a chance to take control of life," Dec. 19, 2007):

"If they can stay out of the criminal justice system for a year or two, that's a success," said Judge [Kristin] Wade, a county court appellate judge who was recruited by former County Judge Margaret Keliher to lead the program three years ago.

The notion is sterling in its practicality: For some people, close supervision is much more effective than jail.

Minor offenders with mental illness are often revolving-door inmates. They're arrested, incarcerated and released, and they promptly return to their old habits.

The state-authorized "jail diversion" program offers them a chance to stay out of lockup and have the charges against them dismissed. In exchange, they have to submit to a program of close supervision much more demanding than most probation programs.

Case managers make sure they stay on their medications and off drugs and alcohol. They must attend counseling sessions, stay out of trouble, prove they're keeping doctor appointments. They have to find housing and jobs – many are homeless when they start the program – and submit to drug testing.

The star of the party was Jerome Benavidez, who was a crack addict living under a bridge when he enrolled in the diversion program.

"I got stable on my meds. That was the first thing," said Mr. Benavidez, 36, whose bipolar disorder was gradually brought under control with monitored medication.

The court program provided the resources and support – a step-by-step guide for returning to ordinary, law-abiding, independent life. Mr. Benavidez had to do the work himself, but the tools and the instruction manual were there.

Today, he's a preppy-looking student working toward a degree in bilingual education (he earned two A's and a B this semester).

"I'm on a level playing field now with everybody else," he said. "I can make my life as good or as bad as I want it."

Jail diversion doesn't work for everybody, but it works. Judge Wade estimated that 65 percent of the program's participants stay out of the system for at least a couple of years, easing the crushing incarceration burden on county resources.

These aren't average offenders; mentally ill, homeless people may wind up in and out of the jail many times per year, so if 65% stay out of jail for two years, that's a highly successful program

Judge Wade's court's example shows that stronger probation can work better than incarceration, even for (some of) the most difficult recidivist offenders. If a probation sentence ever turns out to be a "free ride," it's because the judges who run the probation department and the DA who negotiates probation terms aren't doing their jobs as well as they should.

20 comments:

Jeff said...

There has been plenty of time when I've recommended to a client that they just do the jail time instead of probation, especially for "career criminal" types that likely to get revoked. It's just easier for them to do some time and get it over with.

jsn said...

What I found is that persons on parole are four as likely and persons on probation are twice as likely to be unemployed as normal for Iowa judicial districts. The barriers for reentry are higher for persons who have been in prison than they are for persons on probation.

The police take a professional interest in people on parole and probation but the parolees get more attention and the POs tend to devote more attention to parolees than probationers. In other words a parolee is more likely to be revoked than a probationer.

I hope you take that into consideration when you advise your clients.

Anonymous said...

Funny Reed seems to be out of touch with her own County. Probation did not use to be a free ride with the old drug court it is now. Wake up Reed go look at files now!!! Look at the sex offender files - look at the abuse with that grant. How often do they do a field visit? The ua lab is a joke. The defendants rule and the probation officers are all working on apps for new jobs that pay more than a pitance. If you had a defendant that wanted rehab you wouldn't have a trained probation officer to notice or care. You have to work to get the defendant in rehab and you have created a culture were all want out and case upon case slips right through the cracks. When will Texas pay probation and parole officers to stay, work and care. They can develop all the programs in the world but when the officers are not engauged the system fails.

DAC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DAC said...

More prisons, and we need some work houses too. They are not going to get jobs, then we should make sure they stay in prison, as they will just violate the probation and parole anyway. And even after they do serve time, god, they will be back in the criminal mainstream so better make sure they get longer sentences too (if not mandatory life without parole) Sure a few might squeak by and find a job with the help of the internet workforce office, but it would probably be on a stolen computer.
I think that research has shown that those children of criminals are more likely to commit crimes, so what happen to the Nice Anglo legal tradition of putting the whole family away?

Pardon my sarcasm; I guess I just don't see the "free-ride". Sure there are those that will violate, but your alternative is to give no one a chance?

Anonymous said...

All I can say regarding Reed's comment is ... TYPICAL. Every program in Bexar County attempting any form of rehabilitation whether it be drug court, mental health court, needle exchange or restoritive justice has to hurdle the wall of "tuff Reed". Just ask ... she doen't care about jail population, she doesn't care about the cost to the tax payers ... if it isn't Rodeo or Fiesta, she just doesn't care.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"she doen't care about jail population, she doesn't care about the cost to the tax payers"

If you listen to the audio file of her comments, that's absolutely right. She doesn't believe in rehabilitation, either, and has nothing but disdain for evidence-based best practices. She made all that perfectly clear.

Jim said...

People have been watching way too many television shows if they believe that locking someone away is anything other than a temporary solution. Most proecutors and many judges want to strike fear into the hearts of ALL criminals by threatening prison time. I guess they assume it strikes a nerve. What really strikes a nerve is to make them accountable and productive. If they knew how lame the typical criminal thinks of that analogy, it would blow their socks off. I attended the forum Thursday night and was truly impressed with Dr. Fabelo's comments regarding funding of community corrections. It's a message that probation officals have tried to convey for at least 25 years now. Attitudes will not change until probation is removed from the Big Brother that is TDCJ and officials can focus on making prison an alternative to community corrections.

Anonymous said...

If probation is supposed to be supervisory, why not instill transition programs, like probation helping them to find a home and a job. They instill all these fees, but don't make sure the offender has a way to paying it. So before a couple of months, off they go to jail again. They've been in jail for X amount of time, so obviously they've lost any job they might have had, and possibly any contacts they may have had that would have helped them get a job. So of course, in a desperate attempt to pay the fees to stay out of jail, they turn back to illegal means. It's a terrible circle unless we implement transitional tools. Now it is, "congratulations. Your free. Now start paying your fines, and good luck."

Charlene Cheek said...

Dac... Well, of course they will go to prison without drug treatment. And... since most are "brain damaged" from some form of drug use, to a greater or lesser extent, they simply are not able to complete the terms of probation. I don't get it that probation officers don't get it. They keep expecting an elephant to fly.

Anonymous said...

I've probably done more field visits than anyone at the Bexar County CSCD, AND I work in the SAFE unit which supervises sex offenders. So, the anonymous poster erroneously intimated (slander) that we don't do FIELD VISITS. What they should have said is that we are NOT allowed to do field visits after dark and until recently weekends. Offenders are able to do what they want to do on nights/weekends (violate probation) due to the fact they KNOW we aren't allowed to be out in the field. I do my job the best I can with the rules I'm given.

Anonymous said...

Probation in San Antonio (Bexar County) is weak due to the new administration. The new Chief, has disabled the entire department from doing it's job that the community pays them to do. So, District Attorney Susan Reed, why don't you come out and publicly criticize the administration, instead of the hardworking officers who aren't allowed to do their jobs.

Anonymous said...

For all of you that don't know how probation is funded, you couldn't be more wrong when you say officers don't try to help probationers. When a probationer is revoked for anything other than a NEW offense we lose funding and are penalized. AND everyone knows we aren't paid very well anyway. I will agree that CJAD should'nt have anything to do with probation though.

Anonymous said...

There is no need for CJAD! Sunset needs to put it out to pasture. Probation funding is broke beyond repair. Stop wasing money on rehab programs until you can pay and train officers to be able to react to the needs of the defendants.

If you have 4 differents belts to move a product- good -but when the person who puts the product on the belt is not able to do the job - the business fails??

So if officers are leaving or overwhelmed the whole grant /rehab/ overincarceration system runs a muck!!! Get officers who can relate to the defendants to change the behavior. Big clue is those people will not work for 29,000 a year. Get the officers to stay on the job with better pay and buy into rehab or cjanging the defendants behavior. The low pay keeps the good officers moving on and gives the I don't care attitude because I'm leaving soon workers in the majority.

Also, stop letting all these State Reps and probation chiefs make the calls. The officers need to stand up and give ideas. They know what works. Officers can change the whole feel of probation for a defendant if the defendant feels the officer cares. We could save so much in prison funding if we would just start the probationers in the right direction and care.

Jim said...

It has been really amazing to me over the years (32 now) how few people actually want to get involved in their future. Associations like TPA, TCA, JJAT, etc. all beg for people to come up with ideas and talk with their local representatives about the issues. Rarely does it ever happen. The people who make the rules, such as the state legislature, listen to the people who do the talking. Unfortunately, that is generally CJAD, the afterthought of the criminal justice system in Texas, who knows very little about the real world of community corrections. Only when more people start taking an active role in determining their future will things ever change. If no one works for potential solutions to the problems that face probation officers and we constantly complain about paperwork, salary, etc, (generally to people who can't do anything about it), we will never be anything more than a bunch of disgruntled people who leave the field at the first opportunity.

Anonymous said...

CJAD Director Bonita White was only a probation officer for 10 years before ascending to the director position. Makes you kind of wonder if she really deserved that job or was rewarded by someone. I have tried to talk to her and CJAD employees but just get a customary smile and am told THANKS. Nothing changes and NO one at CJAD really gives a damn what the officers are going through in reference to low wages, high caseloads and constant turnover. I will say many officers at my department really do care and are good at thir jobs.

jerome benavidez said...

apologies in advance. it's not your job to keep us clean/ sober and on our meds. all the threats in the world won't change a thing. most of us have heard the gamut of frothy emotional appeals to get us to stop using/drinking from everyone in our lives, loved ones, po's, and friends. what made the difference for me is that i heard the truth about my disease from someone who's been there and done that. that gave me the desire to get stable on my meds so that i could understand more clearly what was going on with me. the truth of the matter is that we are physiologically different from 'normal' people. i've got a physical allergy to drugs and booze in any form. but what's worse is i've got this mental obsession that tells me i can still do drugs recreationally or have beer. HELLOOOO... allergy!!! powerless over the way my body reacts to booze and drugs. i crave more like a heroine user craves more. THIQ (tetrahydro isoquinilone). a person allergic to peanuts can't chew and swallow a handful, close his eyes and say "don't break out, don't break out." once it's in our bodies our chemistry will take over and override all thoughts of managing our consumption. we're screwed! and until we get recovered from the obsession that wins everytime we're going to stay screwed. that's the message of the first step of aa. too many groups and rehabs support the theory that it's a choice.... Not when your as hopeless as i was. thaught i was choosing to live under the bridge and commit petty crimes to support my habits. when someone explained to me the truth about alcoholism and drug addiction it gave me an answer to why i couldn't stop even when i wanted to. then we have these non-alcoholic 'professionals' telling us that we can't sponsor people 'til we've got a year or more soberiety. hellooo! if i don't get busy and get through the work (12 steps) within a month, the obsession will return and the last 'spree' won't look that bad a month later, especially if i've been hold up in a rehab where they feed me clothe me and tell me i have a choice in the matter. for all you guys do, unless you're one of us, you can't understand. you see, once i heard the truth about my disease, i wasn't worried about completing my probation. i was concerned about working with others who were as helpless as i was. following the probation guidelines was just a thing to do. my passion lies with going to a 'wind up joint' where other hopeless alcoholics like i was are still suffering because they don't know that they are hopeless. helping someone to recover from the helpless state of mind and body is where it's at for me. no drug or drink ever did for me what being of service to others does for me. i would love to type more, but i've got homework to do and my words per minute are in the single digits. i felt it was worth the time to try and help you guys understand a little about the true alcoholic/addict. btw i'm jerome.

jerome benavidez said...

I said all of that to pose these questions to you in the probation supervision field... how much easier would your jobs be if your guys were helping each other to recover and repeat the process in a positive dominoe effect? How successful would the probation program be then?

Anonymous said...

Probation would be more effective if the officers were as consumed with their clients as they are consumed with finding new jobs. The pay in Taylor County isn't a problem, but the director is. People are leaving there in droves, and brand spanking new officers aren't up to the demands of a caseload of 120-150 people.

Not to mention if an offender is paying, there will hardly be any UAs taken, and very rarely will any classes be mandated. The classes that are taught are a joke, Commitment to Change is simply a video series, and we're doing nothing other than teaching criminals to regurgitate the "right thing" to make us feel like we've done our job. Just because they can repeat something back to you doesn't mean that will be reflected in their actions.

There are also too many "wanna be" cops in the probation system that would rather "cuff em and stuff em" than "rehabilitate" them. POs are overloaded, and many are leaving to take LOWER paying jobs simply to get out of the dictatorship that currently consumes Taylor County Adult Probation. The Judges have repeatedly turned a blind eye to the verbal abuse and sexual harrassment that many officers are subject to from some of the higher ups in the department. Most people have refused to report the abuse for fear of retaliation.

Unfortunately, until the director quits playing politics and makes an obvious mistake while the Judges are watching, officer positions in Taylor County will continue to turn over at a high rate. The real losers here, of course, are the offenders who could gain some valuable lessons from long term officers who've seen it all. Instead, officers are forced to be concerned about money, and only money, rather than the successful rehabilitation of offenders.

Kind of sums up the entire justice system of Texas...money makes the world go round, but it doesn't lower the recidivism rates. Some people would say that makes for job stability though...

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