Thursday, September 20, 2012

Probation departments serve too 'many masters,' but Harris judges mainly responsible for UA mess

In the wake of a scandal over false positives in urinalysis tests that rocked the Harris County adult probation department, spurring the resignation of its director and other top administrators, the Houston Chronicle published a story yesterday titled, "Probation department a no-man's land when it comes to oversight," which included this quote from your correspondent:
Scott Henson, a criminal justice activist and blogger who works with the Innocence Project of Texas, said the oversight structure for probation departments statewide is "incredibly weak."

"The judges are supposed to provide oversight, TDCJ is supposed to provide oversight, but, in practice, none of it is very effective or consistent, and the probation directors are sort of left out there on their own," Henson said. "Everybody knows who runs the jail, everybody knows who runs the prison system. When you ask about the probation department, they serve many masters and, simultaneously, none."
That quote accurately reflected my comment, but failed to include another layer to the issue I tried to convey in my conversation with the reporter: The extent to which individual judges - not just in their role as the board of directors of the probation department but in their decisions in cases that come before them - bear the bulk of responsibility for the mess in which Harris County finds itself.

The Chronicle reported that "The judges last week released a statement saying state law limits their role to establishing the department, approving its budget and appointing a director and fiscal officer. Those limits are to shield the judges from lawsuits." But that doesn't relieve them of responsibility.

Judge Michael McSpadden had earlier told a local TV station that "When you're overwhelmed, what you do is go to the judges is [sic] say don't make the requirements in every single case, we are overwhelmed. We never heard that." But as I'd described previously on this blog, in 2005 a consultant's evaluation (reported here on Grits) told judges that requiring urinalysis in so many cases was consuming too much staff time and causing delays throughout the system. The consultant, Justice Management Institute, specifically recommended that "The courts should seek to develop cost-effective common policies concerning when drug testing should be ordered," but that never happened. In other words, judges knew the department was overloaded by too many drug testing orders but willfully ignored the problem.

So while I agree that, in general, oversight of probation departments is fragmented and incoherent, that doesn't absolve Harris County judges from responsibility for this debacle. The county paid good money for consultants to tell them that overuse of urinalysis in the name of being tuff on crime was overwhelming the system, and they just kept doing it. As a consequence, the county has had to stop relying on the probation department's drug test results entirely until the issues can be resolved - a situation made more difficult by the untenable leadership vacuum at the top of the agency.

It's true the probation department serves too "many masters." But in the end, it's judges who bear most of the responsibility for letting tuff-on-crime politics subsume their good judgment when it comes to the volume of UAs swamping the department's ability to effectively oversee them.


Lee said...

Scott for the last couple of decades out industry of jurisprudence and criminology just cant stay out of trouble. Harris county is always in some kind of mess whether it be financial havoc (Enron), HPD Crime lab, scandal in DA's ofice, compromise in the probation industry, prosecutorial misconduct and the list goes on. Do other cities of our size have these problems? Are other cities just looking at the incompitency of Harris County and laughing? What is it about this city and that it cannot just behave? Is it the water or something?

Anonymous said...

What kind of caseloads do these overburdened workers have?

Anonymous said...

Our prison population is backed up into our local and county jails with convicted prisoners awaiting an empty bed while they argue about which prisons to close due to lack of funding.

Something is going to have to happen soon,or we can just put bars on every house in the nation and lock everybody up.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Our prison population is backed up into our local and county jails with convicted prisoners awaiting an empty bed while they argue about which prisons to close due to lack of funding."

With respect, that's not remotely true. I generally agree with your second sentence's (hyperbolic) critique of mass incarceration, but the first graph is just factually false.

Anonymous said...

The judges in Harris County are using every Texas peace officer in the state as their personal process server, when they continue to issue arrest warrants for all probationers with technical violations that they want to see in their court. The Texas CCP allows the judge to issue a summons for these violations. Urine tests are not the only violations that have gross errors. Not holding a job will get you violated and thrown in jail in Harris County as well.

Anonymous said...

Are failed ua's technical violations?

Prison Doc said...

6:41 I don't think it is a legal term, just a functional one. If someone is on probation for DWI and is arrested driving drunk, THAT'S a violation. But they may also be supposed to stay away from ALL ALCOHOL, so if they were with a friend who was drinking, or at their parent's house where there was a wine bottle--they could also be "violated" even if they were cold stone sober. To me that is a "technical violation".

If some legal eagle out there knows the real answer, please post!


How are prosecutors getting off the hook on the HC UA Mess?

Aren't they the ones who insist on revoking every dirty UA? Yes its true that a judge can refuse to grant the revocation but when does that ever happen?

Anonymous said...

Motions to revoke aren't filed by the DA's Office. A motion to revoke is filed by a probation officer who, naturally enough, is influenced in his/her actions by the individual court's policies.

So much for the notion that the judges do not exert influence on day-to-day operations. So much for the notion that you're going to be treated the same, regardless of the court you wind up in.

Anonymous said...

From which branch of government do probation departments draw their authority? Executive? Legislative? Judicial? or just necessary and/or convenient?

Anonymous said...

Your article only addresses a larger concern that is symptomatic of the actual problem. The more specific concern is in the collection process and mishandling and incorrect labeling of samples. The lowest paid people in the Harris County probation Department are those who collect specimens. They only have about 5 minutes of training.

Anonymous said...

9:35 are you sure about that? Probation is responsible for notifying the court of when violations occur but did not think they could "file" an Motion to Revoke.
Yes I will agree that there is much variation from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some Judges allow probation dept. to modify probation in accordance with progressive sanctions. Others have a zero tolerance policy whereby any and every violation is brought back to court. Bringing every violation back to court has been a money maker for Office of Court Administration.

Anonymous said...

Prison Doc: a violation of any of the probation conditions set by the Judge are considered "technical violations" unless it is an arrest for new offense". So, positive UA is a technical violation
Also probation department does not file motions to revoke probation, they give the details of the violations to the DAs office who submits (files) the motion to revoke to the court.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

AND, for those probationers arrested on a new charge that are tricked into plea bargaining or do so willingly, either way, it's revoked the second you sign.
The 'Motion to Revoke will not be in your entire certified case file. It won't even show up at the H.C. District clerk's website as being filed. You most likely won't see any of the Motions filed by your defense team either.

You aint appealing squat so get that out of your head. You darn sure aint getting no friggin post conviction assistance from anyone ever. Unless, you have a Senator, State Rep. church / ministry orgainization or project in your back pocket or corner.

Sadly, these crooks were allowed to resign & won't be on any probation for taxpayer funds misappropriations (Fraud). The judges will be re-elected as history repeats. Thanks.

Christoffer Eldrich said...

It would make a lot of sense if they just ship off inmates to other states. Wait, no it won't. So do something about it!