Thursday, August 18, 2005

"Trash in, trash out"

Checking in a little earlier than planned to post a correction: it turns out the number of probation absconders in Texas probably isn't as high as the official 77,000 figure cited during legislative debates over HB 2193. Indeed, Texas probably doesn't know the exact number of probation absconders because our system is so screwed up, though the number is likely less than 77K.

Here and here, Grits cited stats from a recent consultant's report that based its estimate of the number of absconders on the same source as state legislators. After I posted this item about Travis County's high absconder stats, I received word that the local probation department, although it was the source for the the statistics in question, didn't consider the numbers accurate. They apparently say the Travis number is so high (39% of the supervised population) because no one is ever taken off the absconder roles, so some probationers' names from the sixties are still there. Those criticisms made their way to me third-hand, and I haven't seen the stats yet to know for sure.

Meanwhile, though, the Dallas probation department was also interrogating the absconder numbers. The Dallas News had reported from the same source
Grits used, which it turned out more than doubled the actual number of absconders in Dallas last year. Like Travis, they're apparently keeping absconder names on the roles going back many years. Monday, Dallas News reporter Brooks Egerton revisited the absconder question:

Judge [Vickers] Cunningham and some department officials said they thought the report overstated the problem of unaccounted-for probationers.

The 10,000-plus figure is cumulative dating to the mid-1990s, Dr. [Jim] Mills said, not an annual number for 2004. The annual total for 2005 will be about 4,200 absconders, according to calculations he showed a reporter last week.

Dr. Mills acknowledged that his department's own faulty data, which had been submitted to state officials, formed the basis for the report's conclusion.

"Trash in, trash out," Judge Cunningham said.

A consultant who prepared the report said the uncertainty about the numbers is another sign of a department in disarray.

"They don't have any quality control," said Dr. Tony Fabelo, former director of the state's Criminal Justice Policy Council. "They cannot deliver the product."

So Dallas still loses about 11% of its probationers per year, a far cry from 22%, but still pretty poor. If it's true Travis' absconder list dates to the '60s, that would explain why their number looked like such an outlier compared to the others. Who knows how many probationers they really lose per year? It would also mean their quality control was even worse than Dallas'. Plus it's a waste of scarce county jail space to incarcerate an "absconder" whose probation term ran out 25 years ago.

Report author Dr. Tony Fabelo is the premier expert on Texas incarceration policy, and usually a stalwart source of quality analysis on these topics. But his conclusions can never be better than the data he's given to work with, and when probation departments report these loosey goosey numbers, they have only themselves to blame when the public asks, "You lost HOW many probationers?"

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