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:
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.


Anonymous said...

Interested in how the reforms have been greeted by the line staff? I know the detention initiatives in Dallas County juvenile met with a great deal of resistance.

Anonymous said...

The efforts utilized in Travis County were partially required across the state in adult probation called "progressive sanctions and incentives." These are responses to technical violations that probation has used for years, but now requires, in writing, that every officer go over the potential violation responses with every probationer, supposedly to bring the two onto the same page (although, many probation violators act surprised at the response). The program Travis County (and the other larger counties as well) are utilizing helps reduce revocation rates which is a step in the right direction for those probationers who are actually willing and ready to change. These efforts are a move in the right direction, but are also spurred on by CJAD's insistence that if revocation rates in different courts rise above an arbitrary level, the judge and CSCD will be fined. Nothing like a hit in the wallet to change CSCDs and offender alike, right?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@1:22, reforms based on incentive grants do effect other CSCDs, especially the large ones, but not every department embraced them and some (like Bexar) openly bucked them.

Also, you write: "if revocation rates in different courts rise above an arbitrary level, the judge and CSCD will be fined."

I don't believe that's accurate. I've never heard that and don't remember seeing it in any of the legislation that passed the last two sessions. Rather than a "fine," there's an implied risk that grant funds will be rescinded (county wide, not court by court) if CSCDs don't comply with program goals, but nobody has ever lost their money over noncompliance.

To 7:17, I only have anecdotal evidence on that question. I talked to one grumbling PO a couple of years ago and all other Travis CSCD folks who've expressed an opinion to me have been positive about the changes. That doesn't mean there aren't internal critics, they just haven't expressed their views to me.

Anonymous said...

CJAD Director Carey Welebob sent Bexar County Probation Department a letter in March 2010. The letter directs Chief Jarvis Anderson to provide his plan for department improvements. The plan must be submitted within the next few weeks. The letter goes further to say if the plan is not acceptable, CJAD will stop providing funding to the Bexar County Probation Office.

I would imagine progressive sanctions and incentives will be required by CJAD. Chief Anderson, department administration, and Bexar Judges were originally opposed to the progressive sanction plan and Tony Fabelos recommendations. It is amazing what the threat of stopping funding can do.

Chief Anderson did not allow Tony Fabelo to return to the Bexar County Probation Office for the completion and evaluation of his recommendations. This obviously has pissed off CJAD since they provided funding for a nationally recognized criminal justice expert (Fablo) to assist the department.

Chief Anderson has big challenge to please CJAD and institute a plan CJAD will approve. He replaced the top administration with new people and is currently requiring all mid management managers to reapply for their positions. I hope this does not prove to be distraction.

I say this because many employees believe Chief Anderson owes favors to the union and it's members. The selection process for mid management managers has placed a lot of stress on current managers and applicants. Several employees, John Barfield and Larry Rodriguez, have already stated publicly they will be chosen for a manager position. Their friendship with Chief Anderson and or their affiliation with the union may have something to do with this.