To be clear, Harris County judges' excessive drug-test requirements had been documented well before last year. But judges ignored the warnings and refused to change their ways until the issue blew up in their faces. By then, the volume had so overwhelmed the department they could no longer reliably match sample results to probationers. At that point, judges scapegoated the previous probation director, blaming him for a situation their own policies and mismanagement had created.
These issues had been well-known for years. Describing the findings of the the Justice Management Institute (JMI) from 2005, Grits pointed out that, "Urinalysis requirements in particular, while popular among prosecutors and judges, take up a huge amount of staff time and cause delays throughout the system." JMI recommended back then that "The courts should seek to develop cost-effective common policies concerning when drug testing should be ordered, for what types of drugs, how and by whom the tests should be conducted, what responses should be made to test results, and when (under what circumstances) the drastic step of [revocation] should be taken." It took a crisis, though, for judges to reconsider their approach.
The new director is also implementing a risk-assessment system that will hopefully prevent judges from applying cookie-cutter probation conditions to every defendant:
May, 52, came from Dallas County's probation department, where she helped implement a model that significantly reduced the number of offenders who ended up behind bars after their probations were revoked. The result was a lower jail population and a savings of millions of dollars.
May, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Southern Methodist University and had worked as a clinical assessor for the Dallas probation department, is working with judges to devise a similar model for Harris County, where the jail population swelled this year and the case load is nearly twice as high.
The model will depend on comprehensive assessments of offenders early in the probation process to determine whether they are at low, medium or high risk of reoffending so judges can set appropriate conditions, including whether to place them in treatment programs if they have drug, alcohol or mental health problems. ...
May said all probationers eventually undergo state-mandated risk assessments, but usually only after their probation terms are set and months after their initial arrests. That much lag time is not good for people who have substance abuse problems, she said.
"The probation conditions should be driven by what we identify in our risk assessment tool and in our evaluation," May said. "The offense alone doesn't tell you a lot."
The data show, for example, that intensive supervision or treatment programs can significantly reduce the recidivism rate among higher risk offenders. Lower risk offenders who have no drug, alcohol or mental health problems and a relatively stable life, however, often do worse when they are put into residential treatment programs where they can lose their jobs and homes and come under the influence of higher risk criminals.
A rough estimate May provided to the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council shows the model could save the county $6.84 million a year in the short term. ...
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, though, said probation terms in Texas - with Harris County being "the worst" - are far too strict, setting up offenders for failure and creating a "broken" system.This is all good news, and kudos to Dr. May for getting the judges (so far) to buy into efforts to make their decisions more data-driven. But no one should be fooled that just hiring a new probation director will solve these problems. Harris County judges created them by ignoring good advice in the past and if they ignore Dr. May's evidence-based approaches going forward, in a few years they'll find themselves right back in the same spot.
MORE: While we're on the subject of judge-created clusterf#%ks in Harris County, Mark Bennett and Robb Fickman both have good posts up about the excessive use of pretrial detention in Harris County which is driving their too-high jail population. Fickman's comes in the form of an open letter to Harris County misdemeanor court judges that's a must-read for anyone concerned with the topic.