Dallas County judges have ordered an extensive review of felony cases after discovering that probation officers failed to report probationers violating repeated drug and alcohol tests.
The audit is designed to tell the extent of the breakdown and whether potentially dangerous criminals have remained free instead of facing probation revocation.
“This is a failure of supervision in the field. It’s extremely dangerous for Dallas County,” said state District Judge Tracy Holmes.
Holmes’ concerns already have triggered an overhaul and staffing changes in the county probation department.
The decision to have an outside agency examine current probation files also signals courthouse efforts to move quickly to uncover cases that could pose a risk to the public.
The probation department chief acknowledged the errors.
Dallas probation director Michael Noyes fell on his sword and has begun the obligatory reshuffling of employees and duties that such incidents inevitably engender:
“Regardless of the number, the quality of the supervision was indeed unacceptable,” said its director, Michael Noyes.
Holmes began questioning probation practices after finding 34 cases in which the department didn’t tell her probationers had been repeatedly drinking or using drugs in violation of their sentences.
She was most outraged to learn about the case of a drunken driver who, over 18 months, saw at least eight probation officers. He tested positive for alcohol more than 30 times, but she was never told.
With 450 probation officers and supervisors in charge of 50,000 probationers, the caseload is high. But Noyes said that doesn’t excuse the “system failures.”In general, high caseloads do seem to be the main culprit. Though the felony DWI probationer in question had eight probation officers over 18 months, "testimony showed that none appeared to have read his complete file before meeting with him." That's directly related to excessive caseloads, even if it's not politically correct at the moment for Noyes to say so.
The probation department already has shuffled its staffing, including reprimands, a firing, more training and more personnel.
With the department having admitted fault, DMN columnist Jacquielyn Floyd took the easy shot, opining, "If probationers realize they can ignore the rules without getting hauled back to court, then probation is no longer the closely monitored second chance it’s supposed to be – it’s a free pass. If that’s the case, then what’s it for?"
Though we'll learn more from the audit, from what's been reported IMO that's the wrong lesson from the episode. Grits responded to Floyd in the comments: "A big part of the problem is [that probation departments] give drug and alcohol tests to too many people and the volume swamps them. Felony DWI cases, sure. But requiring it for every single case overwhelms the system. Do less drug testing and it's easier to focus on violations in cases where it's used. Do it for everybody and there simply aren't enough resources to effectively monitor or sanction every violator." That's especially true when the department is understaffed.
That's similar to what IMO was the main issue last year when the Harris County probation director was forced to resign over drug-test results falsely attributed to the wrong probationers, a fiasco that ended up getting some innocent people's probation revoked. There, the department's sweeping use of drug and alcohol testing on non-high risk probationers overwhelmed the under-resourced system. It won't surprise me if an audit shows the same dynamic underlying the mess in Dallas.
The News reported that Dallas County judges have discussed "creating a standard for all 17 felony courts about when probationers should be sent to court for violations." They would also do well to standardize and limit the type of probationers for whom they order drug and alcohol testing in the first place, and to identify probationers eligible for early release. Otherwise, the most likely solution will simply be "spend more money," a suggestion for which there is no obvious or ready revenue source.