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):
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
"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.
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.