Texas’ prison reforms beginning in 2007 revolutionized the state's long-standing “lock-em-up” philosophy. Over the years, the reforms have been lauded for abating the pressures of overcrowded prisons and efficiently using taxpayer dollars. But how these reforms translate from county to county can vary.
One facet of these reforms was an outgrowth of research and studies that showed how strong probation programs can reduce the number of offenders who are sent to prison, released and then are sent back to prison.
Strong probation, or in Texas’ parlance, “community supervision” programs, can have a large impact on the rising cost of the correctional system in the state budget.And here's a more specific discussion of what strong probation means on the ground:
"If you can take low-risk offenders and send them to an outpatient program, if you can get them through there … it’s much better than them being (sent) to a prison," said Jed Davenport, director of Midland County's Community Supervision and Corrections Department, which administers court-ordered probation.
"If you take someone who's low-risk and you put them in a program with high-risk offenders, you just increased the likelihood (by 63 percent) of them reoffending," Davenport said.
The two major changes made in the CSCD boil down to the methods by which probation officers supervise offenders, according to Davenport.
"Traditional probation for years was just, what I call, straight-lined enforcement of probation," Davenport said. "What we know doesn't work -- or doesn't help the probabilities of people not reoffending -- is just coming in and just roll-calling probation. There's got to be more to it."
In previous years, Texas' criminal justice system relied on simplistic assessments for predicting future violence in offenders. These predictions were made with little or no scientific basis and too often were wrong, according to a study out of Sam Houston State University -- "Risk Assessments in the Texas Criminal Justice System" -- by Mary Conroy.
"It seems clear," the study reads, "that the potential for violence was overestimated in many cases."
The retooling of community supervision programs by the Texas Legislature in 2013 produced the Texas Risk Assessment System, which was made mandatory for all correctional departments to use as of Jan. 1, 2015.
Under the guidelines of the TRAS, probation officers are given the training and tools to take a more psychoanalytical approach to assessing risk-factors in offenders, Davenport said. These risk factors include anti-social attitudes, substance abuse habits, lack of empathy for others and impulsive behavior, he said. The assessment will classify offenders as low-risk, medium-risk or high-risk.
Rather than just rubber-stamping probationers as having violated or not violated their terms of probation, "officers are having 10- to 15-minute discussions or guidance and instruction with them saying, 'This kind of thinking leads to this kind of behavior; you gotta stop thinking this way,'" Davenport said. "Criminal thinking leads to criminal behavior."