Within her first year, Nagy had launched what was initially dubbed the Travis County Experiment, an ambitious effort to integrate evidence-based practices into every aspect of the county’s probation department. Over the past four years, the department has standardized the way it evaluates offenders, tailored supervision to the specific risks they pose and reworked the way that officers interact with them.
In 2009, the department completed the last phase of the experiment — statistical evaluation — and the results were encouraging. The department saw the recidivism rate drop by an average of 17 percent. Revocations for failing to meet the terms of probation were down by 48 percent since 2005. The results led the Texas Legislative Budget Board to conclude that Travis County would save the state more than $4.8 million over three years.
At a time when local and state budgets are tight, the county’s reforms to probation, officially called Travis Community Impact Supervision, are being held up as a model. It is producing a curriculum with the Council of State Governments Justice Center so counties across the country can start their own probation reform experiments. Some of its methods are being adapted for smaller Texas counties through Sam Houston State University; the probation departments in San Antonio and Houston are slated to integrate aspects of the model.
“For years probation was like medicine from 150 years ago, where you stuck a leech on it and hoped it worked,” says Travis County District Court Judge Mike Lynch. “By monitoring these things and implementing them in a way where you can check things statistically, it just seems like a much more intelligent way of doing business than flying by the seat of our pants, which is what we did for many years when it came to probation.”
Probation diverts people convicted of crime from jail or prison, but it’s not a free pass. It imposes “conditions” on an offender that range from the relatively minor — checking in with the probation officer once a month or so — to rigorous schedules of curfews, drug treatment programs and community service regimes. Although it makes up a significant piece of the criminal justice puzzle — 4.3 million Americans are on probation — it’s historically been the unloved stepchild of the corrections system because it’s commonly viewed as ineffective and politically risky.
“People don’t understand what probation does,” Nagy acknowledges, “and while generally there’s the perception that we have probation because we can’t put everyone in prison, people aren’t sure that it’s effective enough in changing people’s behavior.”
This misapprehension is likely why, even though probation’s cost is a fraction of incarceration’s — in fact, probationers generally pay for the privilege of being monitored — states have historically dedicated few resources to it. In 2008, only about 12 percent of corrections spending nationwide was directed at probation and parole.
This division of criminal justice resources is beginning to change. “The social-worker types that are interested in rehabilitation have gotten a second wind with the idea that you can do things more scientifically and be more effective. And on the other side, legislators see this as a cost savings — putting people on probation is a lot cheaper than locking them up in the penitentiary,” Judge Lynch says.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Nagy lauded for strong probation reforms in Travis County
Bernice Yeung at Miller-McCune new service has a profile of Travis County probation director Geraldine Nagy, featuring strong probation reforms in her department which have become a national model ("New Conditions of Probation," April 13). Here's a taste from the story: