Wednesday, May 18, 2016

More on probation, fees, absconders, and public safety

Here are links to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's written testimony from yesterday's hearings. Readers should pay particular attention to Doug Smith's presentation to the joint hearing of the House Corrections and Criminal Jurisprudence Committees on probation fees and revocations, I thought he did a good job. You can watch that hearing here; the action, such as it is, begins about 15 minutes in.

For my part, I found myself wishing it were possible to have assigned reading beforehand. In particular, the discussions of absconders would have been more fruitful if both those asking questions and giving answers had read:
Probation directors and TDCJ spoke of absconders as though all of them were '30s gangsters on the lam. Really, most just moved and stopped reporting but may or may not pose any particular risk of reoffending. People just find probation terms too difficult and a portion of them give up and stop complying, tempting fate and more importantly for our purposes, incarceration in TDCJ. Absconding is often a symptom of giving up, of fatalism, not inherently an expression of evil intent. So the tendency of probation folks to write off absconders as though, "What else can we do? We have to revoke them," was just a bit too broad and self serving for my tastes. The Bell County study linked above describes in more detail than I can here the nexus between the pressures of fee collection, probationers' fatalism, and their decisions about absconding.

Probation requirements have become so onerous that many people choose incarceration rather than endure them, a couple of probation directors told the committees. Many other defendants who do sign up for probation eventually decide they cannot, as a practical matter, comply with all of its strictures and stop reporting. Some, though not all, of those fall back into recidivism.

In the end, the solutions here involve both the Legislature and probation directors doing things neither of them want to do. For the Lege, overreliance on probationer fees has gotten out of hand and they need to pony up funds to reduce the burden. It's unrealistic to expect fees to be abolished, but they could be significantly reduced if the state replaced the funds and ponied up for more treatment programming.

Meanwhile some but not all probation directors may agree with reforms aimed at: a) shorter probation lengths with b) stronger supervision during the shorter period with c) improved programming and d) more meaningful outcome measures aimed at the offenders' successful reintegration into society. Caseloads are too high, probation terms too long, and there's too much emphasis on collecting fees to make local budgets. Old-school trail-em-nail-em-and-jail-em types will find that idea anathema and there inevitably will be pockets of resistance as change is imposed upon dozens of isolated, local cultures at different departments. Regardless, that's what's needed. And the state's experience imposing progressive sanctions through grant programs (97 percent of departments implemented the changes to get the grants) shows they have leverage to do the job if the Legislature would authorize it.

Such changes would also free up probation capacity to shift more low-risk offenders onto community supervision rolls and away from prison cells, which probably weren't the right place for them, anyway. So all of this plays into any future discussions of decarceration, prison closures, etc.. These are important if complex and obscure topics. I'm glad the two committees are taking a closer look at them.

RELATED: A rose-colored overview of community supervision.


Mommy Justice said...

We have no accountability in regards to the parole departments. They are power mongrels, not to say there are not a handful of good parole officers. I haven't dealt with probation, but as a prison minister I help facilitate reentry for many folks & it's discouraging & shameful the way many of our probation officers act. They are moody, unprofessional, they wield their power & apply restrictions & more just because they can & because they instill fear in those they are in charge of. Also the inconsistency is mind boggling!! We need an agency to oversee this department it's out of control!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To be fair, and give credit where it's due, they've done a much better job of reducing revocations for technicals on the parole side. But the probation revocation numbers remain stubbornly high.

Anonymous said...

The problem with absconding is that the system has no chance to work (change behaviors, rehabilitate, etc.) unless the probationer reports. There is a reason that reporting is the second listed condition, after not committing any new offenses. While they're not "gangsters on the lam", they have turned their back on a sentence that is an alternative to incarceration. A mere admonishment is not a sufficient deterrent.

Somewhere along the line here, Grits, you seemed to form an impression that all or most probationers are unfortunate souls who are simply being ground up in the gears of a mean and uncaring criminal justice system. As a 20 year veteran probation officer, let me say that maybe a small percentage are. Those few poor souls are far outnumbered by the drug dealers, thieves, wife-beaters, robbers, and serial DWI offenders who ought to be glad that probation was an option for them. Most of them do not want treatment, counseling, life skills, or to be drug tested. Many are not remorseful at all, except for the remorse at being caught. Their probation fee -- $60 per month, or roughly $2 per day -- seems a bargain compared to a cell in a TDC unit.

Now, can the system be better? Of course... but you get what you pay for. I would love for the State to subsidize substance abuse evaluations and counseling, along with mental health evaluations and counseling. Some larger departments have their own LCDCs and pysch counselors, but most of the smaller departments do not, and we're forced to refer probationers to providers who want to get paid a fee beyond the capability of many probationers. And yes, more probationers might have incentive to complete their conditions if there was a mechanism in place to release them early that didn't penalize the CSCDs for letting go their best "paying customers".

I am glad these committees are looking at this problem, but I have no faith that they will do anything to pay the bill for real improvements.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@10:43: It's not true at all that I've come to an impression that probationers are "unfortunate souls." Rather, I've reached the conclusion that probation officers and supervisors are jaded, overwhelmed bureaucrats, blinded by stagnation and inertia and generally unmoved by evidence. This foolish idea that probation is a "bargain" when so many fail because of the expense (treatment, GPS/SCRAM costs, etc., can far exceed the fees) - and so many more choose incarceration rather than endure community supervision - shows these are self-interested justifications that blithely sweep aside legitimate concerns by claiming they're just impossible to address. Except that that's not true.

Granting there's a problem but pretending it's impossible to do anything about it was the general theme from probation directors and TDCJ yesterday. I'm guessing you testified?

Anonymous said...

TDCJ doesn't want to fix the problem. It's almost as though TDCJ is still upset that probation was folded into their umbrella many years ago. If you put a group of probation officers in a room together and ask each individually about their motivations, very few will tell you that they're all about the old school "watch 'em 'til you catch 'em" ways of doing things. Today's breed of probation officer is truly all about helping probationers get through probation as smoothly as possible. We take revocations hard, especially when it was apparent that the probationer made a choice somewhere along the line that could have made a completely different outcome.

We also can't forget that defense attorneys and the probationers themselves have a role in the revocation procedure. Oftentimes, probation is recommending treatment, offered treatment to the probationer prior to filing the Motion to Adjudicate/Revoke, and continued to recommend treatment in court. But the defense requested prison. Is that really probation's fault?

The fees are outrageous. My director talks to me more about fees than about probationer successes, referral difficulties, or trends in the community. GPS/SCRAM are great tools but the state really ought to pay those costs, along with substance abuse treatment and sex offender treatment. If funding were increased, CSCDs could hire more officers to supervise smaller caseloads more effectively and out in the community which has been shown to help increase probation success rates. It can happen, but Austin needs to make it happen.

As for Mommy Justice, you're confusing two very different systems. Parole may be able to throw new restrictions on parolees, but probation officers can only enforce those conditions imposed by the court. We don't get to just show up one day and slam a probationer with new rules because we feel like it (progressive sanctions not withstanding).

Anonymous said...

No, Grits, not a Director nor did I testify... and while there are days I feel jaded, there are many more days when I can feel proud about what my fellow officers and I are doing to change behaviors of our offenders.

Here's a sample of our dilemma: an offender, recently fired (again) from his job, tests positive for meth and PCP, and has a number of other technical violations. Candidate for revocation? No. An alternative sanction like a couple of weekends in jail and referral to outpatient counseling? Sounds better. So in lieu of filing the motion to revoke, I set a court date for a judicial admonishment and to amend of his conditions to include the weekend jail time (the authority to refer him to outpatient counseling resides in the original conditions). Wanting to strike while the iron is hot, I conduct a home visit to hand-deliver the court summons. When I arrive at his house, at 11:00 am, I find him asleep, unconcerned about looking for employment or performing his required community service, and unconcerned about an upcoming date in child support court. Now, I really want this guy to get a job, get clean, and make better decisions about his life (like getting out of bed to seek employment), and we discuss these things when we meet. At what point does he not bear responsibility for his decisions and his actions? If probation is burdensome because we expect probationers not to re-offend, to report, to abstain from alcohol and drugs, to get up in the morning, go to work, support their dependents, and complete the court-ordered conditions you agreed to complete, then what is the alternative? There are many offenders with whom I sympathize because they want to work and do the right thing, but the shadow of their criminal record hangs over them like a storm cloud, an obstacle to good jobs for which they are qualified. And then there are offenders like the one I have described, and I would not categorize those like him as a small sample. My point is this: fixing the problem at the macro level (in Austin) is very different than fixing it at the micro level (where I am).

Steve said...

Revocations 101

Let’s take a look at some facts.

1. No adult probation officer or probation director has EVER revoked a single probationer. That is a decision made by a judge (with significant input by a DA’s office). When a judge says, “That person went through treatment and has a positive UA. I want a motion to revoke filed,” the only proper response is “Yes, your Honor.” As my colleague Terry Easterling of Amarillo has said, probation directors who say no to a judge do not have long tenure. That being said, I know probation has room for improvement. The philosophy of a director can have a significant impact on how violations are handled. If the attitude is, “We must hold offenders accountable” (i.e., punish the snot out of them), then revocations will be higher. If the attitude is “We need to do what works to change offenders,” then revocations will be lower.

2. Parole revocations are low because the Parole Board has direct control of that. However, parole revocation rates are a game of smoke and mirrors. They're low because they send parolees to an ISF time after time after time, and many parolees “serve all” (finish their sentence) through a secured incarceration setting. That’s not considered a revocation, but that is NOT successful supervision in a community setting.

3. A MUCH more meaningful indication of successful supervision is rearrest rates. If you don’t revoke people, but half of them get rearrested in 3 years, you have not done your job of protecting the public. Outsiders need to put their lazy minds to work and read the February 2015 LBB report on Recidivism and Rearrests. Yes, it shows parole has a revocation rate of 6.5%, but that’s because they send parolees to ISFs until they serve out their time. That LBB report shows that offenders coming out of ISFs had a rearrest rate of 57.5%. People released from prison (onto parole supervision) had a rearrest rate of 46.5%. In other words, just because you don’t revoke someone doesn’t mean you’ve actually done your job of protecting the public from crime.

Moreover, parole supervision is very minimal, based on "Hear no evil, see no evil." "I'm going to request a UA at your next appointment in June." Duh! "I'm going to come by your house on Thursday around 6:00." (Quick, Ernie, we need to get rid of that beeramid in the living room.) Often, those home visits consist of a drive by with a wave and a smile. And fee collections? Parolees are told, “If you can’t pay your $18 a month supervision/administrative fees, don’t worry about it, pay what you can.” Parole doesn’t see problems, so it doesn’t even try to correct problems, so rearrest rates are sky high.

I’ve had several probation officers who went to parole for higher pay and then came back because they didn’t like the negative culture of parole. I personally witnessed this in a TDCJ management training I attended when a parole supervisor said, "Well, when the scumbags come to report. Oh, we don't mean anything by that. We call them all scumbags." I can understand some of that. Parole gets the toughest people to supervise. Most parolees were those offenders who were too dangerous to be on probation, or they were on probation and wouldn’t change. They come out of a broken system in which they spend 24/7 for years with murderers, rapists and thieves, and society is expecting them to come out as better people. It’s insane. Nevertheless, I’ve heard many, many parolees who are now on probation talk about how poorly their parole officers treated them.

As long as outside people keep drinking that parole Kool-Aid, they're going to continue under the misimpression that parole is working better than probation. Probation certainly has room to improve. Nevertheless, GRITS, I invite you to come and spend half a day at my probation department, and I'll show you why we have one of the lowest revocation rates for technical violations in the state year after year.

Steve Henderson
Lubbock County CSCD

Anonymous said...

Adult probation in Texas is a unique service. 122 departments. Each one with varying and differing philosophies. Some departments serve one county while others serve multiple counties. Virtually every department answers to more than one judge. No matter what the legislature does and no matter what CJAD purports to do, each adult probation department does things in their own fashion.

The probation fee is necessary. Without it, there would be no probation. All the other costs don't count as revenue for probation departments. GPS, SCRAM, ignition interlock are private enterprises. The vendors who provide that service are who benefit from those costs, not probation departments. However, probation departments are expected to monitor those type of services. The reality is the vendor benefits greatly from the cost of things like GPS, SCRAM, etc. The reality is also that the probation department gains nothing financially from those services.

What people don't talk about enough is how long it takes for a person to get placed on probation. Most crimes misdemeanor or felony are more than 12 months old before there is a complaint/information and/or indictment filed. So, its not just probation departments who are overworked and underpaid, the same goes for prosecutors offices, police departments, sheriff's departments, etc.

When it comes to the word 'absconder', most people who work at probation departments don't even know what that means. The same goes with people like legislators, they are clueless as to what that word means in the world of adult probation. When it comes to finding the absconder, most probation departments don't put much effort into finding the absconder. Who knows why that is.

No matter what anyone says, serving a term of probation is a better deal than going to county jail or prison. I know there are those who will argue, but no one wants to be incarcerated.

Go all the way back to John Augustus. Think about his objective. Strip away the bureaucratic b.s.

Just like someone else said, judges revoke probationers, not probation officers. Probation Officers just don't have that kind of power.

Comparing parole to probation is a fruitless endeavor. They are two different things.

The solution is more funding. More funding for everyone involved in the criminal justice system.

Jim Stott said...

Unfortunately, debates such as this (funding, revocation rates, collections, etc...) have gone on for as long as I can remember. In the 70's, when probation fees were $10.00 monthly, they were issues.

I believe there are countless reasons probation is suffering the ills of an overburdened system. One is that probation departments have little control over their own successes or failures. Tough on crime judges and prosecutors rarely get kudos (or votes) from the community for being an advocate for treatment. Success and/or failure is also dependent on the offender doing what they are supposed to do. While no one may want to be incarcerated, fewer offenders are actually scared of being locked up anymore.

By and large, Joe Public still has the "lock them up and throw away the key" philosophy. And as Amarillo Terry said, arguing those philosophical differences with your judge can lead to a change you might not like.

As many have commented, most departments lack the resources to pay for the treatment or sanctions ordered by the courts. And some courts will throw the kitchen sink at the offender if they feel the need. (ignition interlock, GPS, counseling, alcohol monitoring, UA's, just to name a few). And usually, it falls on the offender to pay those unrealistic costs. And when they do not pay, probation terms can get extended. Probation departments then get criticized for keeping offenders active just to get probation fees. It will be a cycle as long as departments are fee dependent.

Probation has come a very long way over the past several years. Unfortunately, the only solution, (if we are to maintain the same level of supervision we now have) is to increase funding for departments and allow them to focus on the important task of rehabilitation.

Anonymous said...

Expecting everything to "be fixed" by focusing solely on how Probation Departments administer probation is like painting the exterior of a house to fix a busted foundation...