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."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 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."
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.