Thursday, February 03, 2005

Haggerty bill smart on probation policy

As regular Grits readers know, Texas prisons are full, and the biggest reason is an increase in revoked probations, mostly for "technical violations," not for commission of new crimes. Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, a former chairman of the House Corrections Committee, filed HB 575 last month, which adjusts Texas probation laws to provide more incentives for good behavior by probationers and to relieve the overincarceration crisis.

Currently about 455,000 Texans are on probation, in addition to the 151,000+ who are incarcerated in Texas prions and state jails. (And that doesn't even include county jail populations.) Probation can last for as long as ten years, meaning that, even if a probationer stays clean and out of trouble for nine of them, they can still be imprisoned for small mistakes during that tenth that don't rise to the level of criminal behavior.

Plus, the state is 1,000 probation officers short, and in the midst of a prison overincarceration crisis. Ironically, state leaders have said the only way to avoid building more prisons, at a potential cost of billions of dollars, is to use probation services MORE, and incarceration less.

That's where Rep. Haggerty's new bill comes in. His especially smart fix, which he also proposed in 2003, would not only resolve immediate, functional problems with the system but would acrtually establish incentives for better behavior. Under HB 575, "unless in the judge's opinion the best interest of society and the defendant will be served," or if the probated offense is drunk driving or requires the probationer to register as a sex offender, probation would end after completeing one third of the term if no new crime was committed. It would also charge probationers who were released under this provision a $500 early termination fee.

For probationers who were drunk drivers, sex offenders, who commit new crimes (even low-level misdemeanors), or who the judge simply thinks should remain on probation, they must serve out the full probation term received. And of course judges may still terminate community supervision for new crimes.
Indeed, any judge can decide any individual probationer should not be released after one-third of the probation period -- all they have to do is include a statement in the record stating why.

That makes a whole lot of sense -- in the big picture, society wants probationers not to commit new crimes. One's messy personal life -- missing meetings or having marijuana show up in a urinalysis -- doesn't justify prison time, especially since such people currently would be taking up space the state needs to house more dangerous offenders.
If probationers know they can get off community supervision completely, they have a lot more reason to comply with the rules than if they're stuck for 10 years no matter what. I'm not a big fan of that $500 fee, and I'd like to know what happens for probationers who can't pay it, but overall this bill is a dramatic improvement over current policy.

Fixing probation might cost some new money, which is the reason for that $500 fee, but other sources of funds have been identified. In any event, spending a little now would stave off much bigger expenses later. The only other option: spend up to $2 billion on new prison beds by the end of the decade. With the state's school finance crisis looming over the budget like the sword of Damocles, that seems quite a foolish way to spend that much money.

Libby from Last One Speaks sent me a lovely and much-appreciated note yesterday that mentioned she was impressed when Grits broke stories that weren't in the Texas papers. I have to say, that ain't too damn hard. This bill, which easily is one of the most important pieces of criminal justice legislation in the 79th Texas Legislature, was filed January 25, but has not been covered yet in the Texas media, though his hometown newspaper, the El Paso Times talked to Haggerty about the idea before he filed it.

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