Monday, October 31, 2005

Texas Book Festival Does Criminal Justice

It seemed to be criminal justice day yesterday at the Texas Book Festival, a terrific annual literary event held in Austin in and around the state capitol building, so I wandered downtown to hear several authors talk about their new criminal justice-related books out this fall.

Nate Blakeslee is a friend, and I'm about halfway through his book,
Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, but it's getting great buzz already, including reviews last week in the New York Times and the Austin Statesman. Nate spoke to a standing room only crowd in a legislative hearing room in the capitol, interviewed by NPR's Wade Goodwyn. Without having finished his book yet, I can already tell you that it's extremely well-written -- almost novelistic, save for it's rigorous sourcing. I can also say that, as somebody on the inside of Texas' political movement surrounding drug task forces and the Tulia scandals, I'm learning a LOT about what happened I didn't already know, so I can pretty much assure you that if I'm learning new stuff on this subject, just about everyone who reads it will.

Another fascinating and well-attended panel I was privileged to see
(as with Nate's event, the room was jam packed) featured three authors with new books about different pieces of the Texas justice system.
  • Steve Liss, author of No Place for Children: Voices from Juvenile Detention, spent two years taking photos and interviewing kids, parents and detention officers in the Webb County Juvenile Detention Facility in Laredo. He showed a few dramatic pictures depicting kids warehoused in conditions he accurately described as similar to "dungeons." Most of the kids he photographed were there for minor offenses like shoplifting, but those were housed with more dangerous ones, including gangbangers charged with capital murder. Dramatic, moving, stuff. The book is oversized with beautiful photo plates sprinkled throughout.
  • John Hubner, author of Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth, has written an account of a program at the Texas youth detention facility in Giddings that uses treatment models to combat antisocial behavior among Texas' most violent youth. Many of the kids Hubner described actually killed someone -- all had histories of serious violence. Yet many were transformed, he said, through a system that forced them to confront what they did, even role-playing the part of their victims in murder re-enactments, which Hubner said, as a theater fan, were some of the most moving dramatic performances he's ever seen. He commended the Texas Youth Commission as a national leader, basing its approach on a "treatment" model rather than a punitive approach. Comparing it to California, where he's from, he thought Texas was doing a pretty good job, though that message was muted, if not mooted, by Liss' dramatic presentation. Still, Hubner's out there looking for good programs that work, and thinks he's found one in Giddings.
  • Finally, former Huntsville prison warden Jim Willett, the eponymous author of "Warden: Prison Life and Death from the Inside Out," spoke about his role as the warden in charge of the Walls Unit, which houses Texas' death chamber. He personally oversaw 87 Texas executions, a process that must be absolutely grueling on those forced to participate as part of their jobs. Willett, who speaks with a soft, East Texas drawl, said he spent time "listening" to each one of those doomed inmates, "as long as they wanted to talk," on the afternoon before their deaths. He teared up when telling the story of standing over a dying inmate who cracked good-natured gallows humor at his own expense while the poison began to flow through his veins. Willett's book described the blow-by-blow details of what the execution process is like, as well as a taste of prison life as viewed by a lifelong corrections officer who, as warden, actually lived with his family in a residence connected to the prison grounds.
I'm glad to see the Texas Book Festival highlighting criminal justice subjects so prominently, and there was more going on than I was able to see. Another interesting-sounding panel I couldn't attend because it conflicted with the other two was titled, "River of Violence: Death and Drugs on the Border."

All of these books seem like worthy reads. If
Grits readers decide to pick one or more of them up, I hope you'll let me know what you thought about them, and what you learned.

Attend Tulia Book Signing Events

Former Texas Observer editor Nate Blakeslee has a speaking and book-signing tour scheduled around the state to promote his account of Texas' most infamous drug task force scandal, Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town. Nate's the journalist who first broke the Tulia story, and his book represents the definitive account. Go hear him speak and purchase a copy of his excellent new book. (If you're a blogger in one of these cities, I'd encourage you to promote your local event, attend, then write about it.) You can find him at these times and locations:

Tuesday, November 1 / DALLAS, TX
7:00pm @ Borders Books and Music
5500 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75206

Thursday, November 3 / AUSTIN, TX
7:00pm @ Book People with Karen Olsson
603 N. Lamar
Austin, TX 78703

Monday, November 7 / LUBBOCK, TX
7:00pm @ Hastings
8209 Slide Road
Lubbock, TX 79424

Tuesday, November 8 AMARILLO, TX
7:00pm @ Hastings - Wolflin Village
2001 S. Georgia
Amarillo, TX 79109

Wednesday, November 9 / SAN ANTONIO, TX
6:00pm @ The Twig Bookshop
5005 Broadway
San Antonio, TX 78209

Saturday, November 12 / HOUSTON, TX
7:30pm @ Borders Books and Music
570 Meyerland Plaza
Houston, TX 77096

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Blogging and the death penalty

On Saturday, I spoke at a couple of workshops on the subject of blogging and web activism at the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty here in Austin. A lot of what I had to say about political blogging was included in a couple of pieces I wrote this summer:
But for this particular audience, I felt some additional suggestions were in order. Of all the criminal justice issues out there, opposition to the death penalty perhaps remains the one topic most in need of re-thinking or "re-framing," as the currently faddish rhetoric would have it. In Texas, depending on how you ask the question, around 70 percent of the public supports capital punishment. Bottom line: That means that activists haven't yet found the messages that, if it ever comes to pass, will ultimately will cause the death penalty to be abolished in this country.

To me, that's where blogging by individuals could be really helpful reformulating a rhetorical approach toward this complex topic. We need lots of folks blogging about the death penalty, I told them, from lots of different perspectives -- libertarian, pro-life, progressive, legal, you name it -- because right now the winning arguments that will convince the public simply don't exist, yet.

In professional politics, pollsters take "messages," essentially themes and arguments for and against a proposal, and test them using opinion research to identify the most persuasive ones. But one can only test messages that one knows about, and on the death penalty the arguments being made out in the world today just aren't persuasive to the majority of the public. Abolitionists need new arguments to be developed, new messages that appeal to widely held values, "wedge" messages that cut across ideological and party lines.

Bloggers could be a big help developing those new messages, particularly individual bloggers not affiliated with organizations who are free to try innovative rhetorical approaches, make mistakes, and experiment with message in a way that organizations realistically can't.

Blogging is a media strategy, for the most part, not a vehicle for activism -- email is much better than blogs at driving people to act. But blogging could play an important role in political message development, especially on issues like the death penalty where the terms of debate are caught in deep, seemingly intractable ruts.

I hope we see lots of new abolitionist blogs cropping up in the future -- the movment's message makers need the help.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Saturday criminal justice roundup

Before heading off to speak at a couple of workshops on blogging and web organizing today at the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, I wanted to share a few quick hits that were piling up throughout this busy week:

Texas prisons expanding without Lege approval?
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has proposed a rule change to allow adding up to 3,000 beds to Texas' existing 106 prison and state jail units without approval from the Legislature, reports the Statesman's Mike Ward. (New rules proposed for filling prisons, Oct. 28) "[P]rison officials would have the authority to approve a small increase of up to 2 percent at each unit, so long as the change doesn't increase the gross payroll of that prison by more than $500,000." So under the new rule, they couldn't add more than $53 million to the state budget without legislative authorization?! In Texas, my friends, that's what we call budget discipline.

Task force's demise won't STOP drug enforcement.
The multi-county, Byrne-grant funded STOP ('Stop The Offenders Program') drug task force based in Johnson City dissolved October 1, and has been replaced by a county-level task force ("Johnson County drug crime unit organized," Oct. 28). "The Oct. 24 agreement created a board of directors consisting of the police chief of each participating city, the county sheriff, the county attorney and the district attorney. The program may trade officers with other counties and cities in mutual-aid agreements, [Cleburne officer Adam] King said." I'm not too sure about trading officers with other counties -- that kind of cross-county work by officers, under HB 1239 passed this year by the Texas Legislature, comes under control of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Not just liberals want drug task forces gone
. debunks the notion that criticisms of Byrne-grant funded drug task forces only come from liberals and the ACLU. The program's supporters include John Kerry and Russ Feingold, notes Slingshot, while:

opposition to the Byrne Grants spans the political spectrum. The ACLU, the Open Society Institute, the National Taxpayers Union, American Conservative Union, Citizens Against Government Waste, the Heritage Foundation – even Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform — oppose the program. President Bush’s budget proposes eliminating the grants. Texas has already seen its Byrne Grant funding cut from $31.6 million in 2004 to $22.7 million in 2005. In a sense, the “Soros funded” ACLU and other liberal organizations – which are working to increase oversight and accountability of the Byrne Grants – are to the right of President Bush. Strange bedfellows, eh?"
Corpus cops seizing vehicles. Asset forfeiture laws were first sold to the public as a way to go after "kingpins" in the drug trade. In practice, though, seizing lots of vehicles from individuals accused of lower-level crimes generates more revenue. That's what they've figured out in Corpus Christi, where police are seizing vehicles when they are deemed to have been used in a crime ("Police: Vehicles used in crimes may be seized," Oct. 25). And who cares about culpability? Corpus police chief Peter Alvarez, "warned people not to lend their vehicles to others, because the vehicle could be confiscated if it was used in a crime." How arrogant. This policy stinks to high heaven.

Sheriff setting bail bonds?
The El Paso Sheriff just learned that his department, not local judges, has been responsible for setting bail bonds in El Paso County for the last decade, and he's told officials he'll quit accepting new jail inmates if someone else doesn't start doing it ("Sheriff wants new jailing procedure," Oct. 26). The county's lawyers say it's legal, but I've never heard of such a thing. Giving the sheriff control over bonding would place the decision more squarely in the hands of those concerned about conserving jail space, but surely judges should decide whether defendants should be incarcerated, not the agency that arrested them.

NY mayoral candidate liked his Grits.
Rochester, NY Mayoral candidate Chris Maj linked on his campaign blog to a couple of Grits posts on snitches discussing the trend of "Stop Snitching" t-shirts. Maj, a 26-year-old political rookie who helped found Students for Sensible Drug Policy in college, wrote that "
When we've got this many people breaking the law, witnesses being killed, more drugs on our streets, and more people in our prisons, we need to stop doing what we keep doing. It's just not working. We need a rational discussion about alternatives, including opening up debate about the specifics around ending Prohibition."

Tasering ambulance patient okay.
The Baytown police officer who tasered a man strapped to a gurney in an ambulance has been cleared by a federal judge, reported the Baytown Sun ("City cleared in taser case," Oct. 27) The taser subject wasn't a suspect, but a medical patient whose wife had called because he was having seizures. The judge, however, said the officer's actions were justified as part of his "community caretaking function."

Brutality victim didn't complain, officer prosecuted anyway.
Here's something you don't see every day, but if you did it would go a long way toward repairing sometimes strained police-community relations. In Montgomery County, a Shenandoah police officer beat the crap out of a motorist, who declined to file a complaint. The beating was captured by the in-car camera, though, and his supervisors at the police department forwarded the case to prosecutors who have indicted him on charges of aggraated assault and official oppression ("Officer facing excessive force complaint resigns," Oct. 26). People often don't file complaints with the police because they rightfully believe that departments don't take misconduct seriously -- if they were to start, this is what that looks like.

Statesman: Police union "21st Century colonials."
The Austin Statesman editorial board opined this week against the main obstacle to combating police abuse in the Texas capital -- the Austin Police Association ("Austin's police force should listen to the community," Oct. 27). "Most of the police union officers don't live in Austin. Through the union, however, each of the 14 officers who live in San Antonio commands more influence over the Austin City Council than does the average Austin voter. They're Austin's 21st-century colonials." Ouch! The editorial accused the city of ignoring police abuse in order to pander to the politically powerful police union. "These are issues the council should stop avoiding. Since 1998, 14 citizens died during encounters with police, including the June shooting death of 18-year-old Daniel Rocha. All but one of those was minority. In some of those incidents, police used deadly force appropriately — to safeguard their lives or the lives of others. But several episodes involving shootings or excessive force raised serious questions about the officers' judgments."

The beauty of the grand jury.
Injustice Anywhere explains why she likes grand juries even if prosecutors supposedly can "indict a ham sandwich."

Crime is down, fear of crime is up
: Reports Mark Godsey at CrimProf blog.

Of lawyers and web browsers.
I enjoyed Mike's essay on why lawyers and webmasters must judge their products by others' points of view.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Vote 'No' on Travis County Jail Bonds

The Travis County jail shouldn't be expanded until other methods have been tried for combating the current overincarceration crisis. For that reason, I'd encourage Grits readers living in Travis County, for what it's worth, to vote "No" on Bond Proposition 3 on the ballot Tuesday week.

The Austin Chronicle this week
endorsed the measure, arguing "As long as we're jailing them, we should at least try to do it right." That's a faulty assumption, though -- there's no need for Travis to be jailing many of these inmates. The Chron worried that inmates presently are being housed, on contract, at the troubled privately run jail in Frio County at significant expense. That's a real concern, but not a reason to approve new bonds.

Travis officials don't deserve new jail bond authority because they haven't taken available steps to reduce overincarceration pressures short of new building. In particular, more than 60 percent of Travis jail inmates are incarcerated awaiting trial. Other counties have addressed this problem by
boosting their use of personal bonds. That's also what Travis County should do -- it'd be a lot cheaper than building more jail space.

Right now, Travis does not comprehensively screen defendants during the pre-trial phase to identify those who are low flight risks, but if they did it would significantly affect the jail population numbers. Harris County has a fine pre-trial screening program that interviews most defendants. Though its utility is limited because some of their judges won't use the system, Harris County's pretrial detention rate is lower than Travis' -- 42.4 percent of jail inmates as compared with Travis' 60.7 percent. (See current statewide jail population report.)

If Travis County started screening inmates and releasing petty defendants on personal bond as often as in Harris (and nobody ever accused Harris County law enforcement of being soft on crime), it would lower the jail population by more than 500 inmates; since about 100 inmates are presently housed in Frio County, that simple reform could completely resolve the immediate crisis.

A decade ago, only 30 percent of inmates in county jails statewide were defendants awaiting trial, but the number shot up since then, contributing significantly to the statewide jail overcrowding mess. If Travis could reduce pretrial detention to those levels, it would free up more than 800 jail beds and solve the problem for the foreseeable future.

What's more, there's a real question whether Travis County can be counted on to fix the problem, even if voters authorize new bond money, since past jail-bonds were supposed to have already solved the capacity problem.
Reported the Statesman in 2001:
Travis County voters approved $67.7 million in bonds to boost the jails' capacity to 3,600 by 2003. But much of that money was diverted to pay for large budget overruns on the new downtown Criminal Justice Center.

The county scrapped most of the proposed Del Valle beds, at the advice of a project manager it later sued, to make way for other jail services such as a health center. Fewer than half of the extra beds materialized. At other facilities, some beds wait empty because of a lack of guards.

"The issues we're talking about now are the same issues we were talking about in 1972," [Austin attorney Bobby] Taylor said. "There's a history of these problems."
With about 2,800 inmates currently in the Travis County jail, that earlier bond issue should have already fixed Travis' overcrowding problems. But here we are. So why would anyone think additional debt will be spent well? The timing, too could contribute to predictable cost overruns thanks to higher costs for building materials caused by the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There's just no guarantee Travis taxpayers, in the end, will get what we pay for.

Travis County could have fixed this problem the last time voters authorized jail bonds. Or it could spend money to improve pretrial screening of defendants to manage its jail population better. But it's premature to issue $23 million in new debt when other options exist to reduce the jail population.

Thanks to Bob for reminding me to write this.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Governor getting one-sided advice from appointees

Yesterday I attended a meeting of Governor Rick Perry's new Crimnal Justice Advisory Council, or part of it, but it was hard not to be disappointed in the one-sided approach the Governor's appointees are taking. The group was created to identify flaws in Texas' criminal justice system and suggest possible reforms "from the initial stage of investigation into a crime to appellate and post-conviction proceedings." After seeing them in action, though, cliches about foxes and henhouses come to mind.

Most of the group's work is happening in subcommittees, not the full meetings, so I attended a subcommittee headed by Wichita Falls District Attorney Barry Macha that addressed the subjects of consent searches at traffic stops and in-car police cameras. (Regular readers
will recall that the Governor vetoed legislation that would have required consent to search at traffic stops to be written or recorded.) The other two subcommittee members were lobbyists for the police chiefs association and CLEAT, the state's largest police union. Not surprisingly, a district attorney and two full-time lobbyists for law enforcement interests just didn't see any need for new consent search restrictions. (I know, gentle readers, you're as shocked at that as I am.)

My presence there was an anomaly -- for some, even cause for mirth. At one point a Governor's representative laughingly suggested they beat me up and take my notes. But this group was appointed to "assess our system of justice and make improvements," a much-needed function, so the fact that they're only soliciting the opinions of law enforcement interests to evaluate these topics isn't a laughing matter.

Anybody who wonders why Texas can't break away from it's short-sighted, budget busting, crime creating, lock-em up approaches that are disrespectful of human rights and civil liberties, this process exemplifies the reason: All the parties in my subcommittee were there with their hands out. The unions wanted money for training, the chiefs wanted grants for in-car cameras, DA Macha wanted centralized crime-scene analysis -- so the special interests only could identify problems that could be solved by giving THEM more money.

None of the discussion, though, centered on the rights of drivers, and possible abuses were only raised (by the police union rep), for the purpose of claiming they never occurred, or if they did could only be solved by more training.

When Governor Perry first appointed this panel, I
suggested he was "passing the buck." Now it's clear who he was passing it to: the same special interests who created this mess in the first place.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Very Cool Hand Luke

For you nostalgia buffs, check out these links to neat pictures of 19th century Texas jails, plus some grim photos of old-school "strap-iron" jails/cages (left).

Very Cool Hand Luke.

Blame game misses point on Hidalgo jail overcrowding

Commissioners in Hidalgo County say they can't find an answer to the overincarceration crisis at the county jail, but they're ignoring the most obvious solutions, instead looking for someone else to blame.

The McAllen Monitor's Victoria Hirschberg yesterday quoted officials
blaming the failure of the state prison system to pick up 37 inmates for the overstuffed status of the 1,150+ bed Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center ("Procedural kinks keep county jail packed," Oct. 24). Another 200 inmates have been convicted of felonies requiring prison time, but the county hasn't processed the necessary paperwork to send them to the state prison system.

So, inmates who are actually overdue to be transferred -- the 37 -- make up just 3 percent of those in the county jail, hardly a drop in the bucket. Even if you include the 200 inmates who aren't ready -- and it's hard to blame the state prison system for the county's failure to process cases -- the inmates Hirschberg describes make up about 20 percent of jail inmates, a sizable number but not the bulk of prisoners.

Like a
recent Grits commenter who similarly blamed rising jail healthcare costs on prison-bound inmates awaiting transfer, officials told Hirschberg that

Once an inmate is "paper-ready" — the file is completed, sent to the state and approved there — Texas law requires state criminal justice officials to pick up that inmate within 45 days.

But it’s not so simple.

In some cases, 45 days have turned into months, and as inmates sit in county jail, exacerbating an already overcrowded system, local taxpayers are picking up the tab.

Right now, there are 37 inmates who remain in the Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center past their 45 days. More than 200 inmates are "paper-ready," but might not be ready for transfer into the state system. Many inmates face multiple charges and remain in Hidalgo County until their court date. Sometimes, little details like a missing signature in the packet or a mail delay can halt the process.

The state usually tends to pick up prisoners in 25 days, seldom taking the full 45, reported Hirschberg, but Hurricane Rita has temporarily clogged up the pipeline until two prison units near Beaumont come back on line.

Focusing only on those few inmates, though, ignores the most statistically significant source of Hidalgo jail overcrowding: large numbers of inmates sitting in jail pending trial. That's something the county, working with local judges, could actually do something about. With Hurricane Rita leaving prison bed space at a premium, there's no guarantee the state can pick up those 37 inmates anytime soon. But Hidalgo County can change its policies to supervise more inmates awating trial in the community instead of in jail, especially misdemenants and certain non-violent, low-level drug offenders.

If Hidalgo officials were serious about reducing jail overcrowding, they wouldn't be pointing fingers at state government. Three out of five Hidalgo jail inmates -- 61.2 percent, as of October 1 -- are there awaiting trial, not serving a sentence, compared to the statewide average of 46.6 percent, according to the monthly jail population report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. (See
current month's report.) With budget-busting jail space at a premium, that policy benefits no one but the bail bonding companies.

Officials should look to create a pre-trial screening program to advise judges setting bail when it would be appropriate to release defendants on personal bond, meaning a promise to appear rather than a "cash bond" where defendants must post bail. Such assessments can reduce county jail populations without harming public safety. In Harris County, for example, "likelihood of misconduct"
(defined as "nonappearance or pretrial crime") by defendants whom Pretrial Services identified as "lowest risk" was just three (3) percent, according to a recent consultant's report.

Indeed, nobody's accused the Harris County justice system of being soft on crime lately, but there just 42.5 percent of jail inmates are awaiting trial. Simply reducing the ratio of jail inmates awaiting trial to Harris County levels (keeping in mind the consultant told Harris judges they could safely reduce that number even more) would lower the Hidalgo jail population by more than 200 inmates, saving the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the past, Hidalgo County judges have been sensitive about anyone examining their bail assignments, but across the state the practice is in need of serious reform. Perhaps, if local officials can stop pointing fingers at others for problems of their own making, Hidalgo County could take this opportunity to re-examine its policies regarding bail and personal bonds to make the system both cheaper and more fair.

For an overview of pretrial services programs around the country, see
this 2001 federal report (pdf), and this FAQ from the Pretrial Resource Center.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Hurdles to stronger probation face new Travis chief

This is the third in a Grits for Breakfast series analyzing the Travis County probation system based on a report (pdf) by consultants at the JFA Institute. See the first two installments here and here.

Travis County's new probation department director, Dr. Geraldine Nagy, wants to change the way probation operates in the Texas state capital. To that end, she hired consultants from the JFA Institute earlier this year to "assess the department's strengths and weaknesses," "assist her in developing management strategies for the department, and "to identify the organizational challenges of implementing an Evidence Based Practices (EBP) organization and supervision model" for probationers. (See their
full report here [pdf]).

That directive anticipated handily
provisions attached to new probation funding, approved this year by the Texas Legislature, requiring probation departments who want the money to strengthen their supervision using such an EBP model -- in other words, the Lege wanted probation departments to use intermediate sanctions short of incarceration to handle minor violations by probationers. Departments hoping to receive the new funds must commit to a goal of reducing revocations by 10 percent.

It's important that Nagy wants change, because her department desperately needs an overhaul. Right now, the "main focus of the probation officer is to 'push paper around' and make sure all the paper work is done. As one person put it, 'we supervise paperwork instead of people.' The main task of managers is to make sure that probation officers do the paperwork. Their personnel evaluations, and that of the officers, are driven by that requirement." How grim!
Shifting to "Evidence Based Practices," consultants said, "requires a methodical and strategic shift in the organizational culture," where "officers are encouraged to motivate offenders to seek change; they must play a function and purpose that is more than just surveillance and information gathering."

Probation officers no longer do home visits for regular probationers and provide little meaningful oversight outside monthly meetings and urinalyses. Said JFA, the employment atmosphere "was usually described as a 'culture of fear' and 'culture obsessed with process taks,' and a culture that 'did not empower managers' and 'when you spoke [sic] your mind, it will backfire.' " That's sure an ugly description -- indeed, it's hard to imagine P.O.'s doing much good for anybody working under such oppressive job environs.

So it's welcome news that Dr. Nagy seems committed to the kind of organizational change needed to improve the system: "Managers and staff are seeking empowerment and are excited about the new director and direction for the department," JFA reported. With luck, the new focus on motivating offenders for change will improve the department's morale problem, benefitting both P.O.'s and their clients.

The EBP model adopted by Travis County views probationers as members of one of three classes -- low risk offenders, "social problem" offenders, and high risk offenders. Low risk offenders "are mainly pro-social citizens" who "need minimum supervision." By contrast, "social problem" offenders are "mainly pro-social people that have gotten in trouble with the law because of a substance abuse or mental health problem. These offenders require a supervision strategy oriented at changing their behavior with the use of programs and progressive sanctions." Finally, "high risk" or "last chance" offenders "need a controlled environment in which non-compliance with rules of supervision leads to a revocation."

That all sounds logical, but it can't happen without a dramatic shift in approach. Before now, Travis County's probation department treated everyone basically like high risk probationers, where "non-compliance with rules of supervision leads to a revocation." As a result, revocations skyrocketed in recent years, as paper-pushing probation officers utilized the only tool then available to them.

The number of people whose probation was revoked shot up more than 40% in Travis County from 2002 to 2004, JFA reported, for both felony and misdemeanor probationers: the department witnessed a 41.3 percent increase in felony revocations, and 43.5 percent for misdemeanants during that period. A majority of those were for "administrative" violations, not because a probationer committed a new crime.

Basing decisions on risk assessments
creates its own problems because "the risk assessment is not used properly and the population is oversupervised in Travis." JFA explained that departmental policy actually required misuse of the instrument: "probation officers mentioned that they routinely override the risk assessment to move offenders to a higher level of supervision, usually medium level. According to officers that have been with the department for a long time, a policy was instituted by the prior administration because they felt that probation officers did not have enough information to properly assess a new probationer until the probationer was at least six months into his supervision." JFA found such probationers don't typically have their risk levels reduced after six months, though, or even reviewed, resulting in a systematic misallocation of supervision resources toward low-risk offenders.

Thank heavens folks like Dr. Nagy are rethinking how probation services work, because the system is broken. The new focus on EBP and use of progressive sanctions will be a welcome
mitzvah for probationers, for probation officers, for public safety and for the taxpayers.

For more informaton on Evidence Based Practices models, see reports here and here from the National Institute of Corrections.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

As task forces fade, the "next Tulia"?

A few brief items of interest as I leave town for a pleasant time in Dallas tomorrow watching the pig races and the sheepdog trials at the state fair:

Texas House releases interim charges
: Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick has released the interim charges for committees in the Texas House of Representatives, which means he's announced the topics House standing committees will study in the interim, between now and the next regular session in 2007. See summaries of interesting criminal justice items compiled by the ACLU of Texas and the District Attorney's Association.

Drug Task Forces Seen As Expendable Pork
: Read the ACLU of Texas' Liberty Blog on why hurricanes and scandals might doom Texas drug task forces. While you're there, check out this cool, 20-minute video on the history of the drug task force scandal in Hearne, TX, which resulted in ACLU litigaton settled this spring.

The "Next Tulia"?
: Be sure to check out this terrific story by the Austin Chronicle's Jordan Smith detailing the story of 29 defendants accused by a single confidential informant, and the black folks in Edna, TX, who are fighting back against an imperious DA. The estimable Jeff Blackburn, lead attorney in the Tulia cases, is heading the defense.

After Innocence, Before the Next Wrongful Conviction
: For my commenters who enjoy reciting alleged details of horrific crimes as though it were prima facie evidence of a defendants' guilt, I'd urge you all to check out the movie reviewed yesterday in the New York Times, After Innocence, telling the story of seven wrongfully convicted men cleared by DNA evidence, collectively losing decades of their lives to false charges. This growing phenomenon, to me, should generate a little humility among the tuff-on-crime set, but it hasn't seemed to have had any such effect so far.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Defending defense lawyers defending the Fourth Amendment

If you spend much time in public talking to folks about the topics covered on this blog, before long someone will ask, "Why would a criminal defense attorney want to make their living defending criminals?"

From the Brownwood Bulletin's crime beat reporter Steve Nash comes this interesting column about local defense attorney Rudy Taylor, whose family and friends criticized him after he successfully got the results of an unlawful search thrown out in a drug case where his client would otherwise
have been found guilty. Wrote Nash:
Taylor said the questioning from his family made it a “soul-searching kind of issue” for him, but then he rephrased it as forcing him to validate the philosophy he developed in law school.

“My response is, that this is bigger than any one case,” he said. “It’s about protecting all of our rights in the long run. We’re the checks and balances to law enforcement.”

If defendants’ constitutional protections are violated, he said, “what would be the consequences to my law-abiding family?”

“If you don’t find your voice, your philosophical voice, where your heart really is ... how do you explain yourself?” Taylor asked. “How do you feel good about your job?”
That's necessary for every defense attorney, I'd imagine. But in a day and age when judges are mostly politicians and too often favor draconian, counterproductive tuff-on-crime policies over the Bill of Rights, I think it also behooves defense attorneys, once they find that voice, to use it more often in the public square, so I'm glad to see Mr. Taylor talking to the press on these subjects. As he explained to Nash:
“My job as a criminal defense attorney is to make sure that the checks and balances set forth in the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Constitution are applied to every case. Without that, we would revert back to the days of Nazi Germany and storm troopers who could go and kick in doors of innocent people.

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without checks and balances, police could decide they don’t like you or me and manufacture evidence.”

Perhaps a month has elapsed since Taylor’s court victory in the suppression of evidence hearing. He said he has no regrets.

“I’m really not soft on crime. Generally speaking, we have fair laws in this country. I am a strict law advocate. On the other hand, I am a strict constitutional rights advocate. They counterbalance each other.”
The demonization of criminals in a society that's managed to label nearly 2,000 separate acts "felonies" (in TX, anyway) and countless more misdemeanors has proven to be a nearly endless pastime for many in the public. But the reason to protect criminals' rights is that, some day, your own rights might need protecting.
I think Ken Lammers put the idea as well as anyone in this memorable post from last year:

If I choose to defend only the Righteous,
When the Rigtheous are accused,
What tools shall I have to defend them?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Don't Kill Luis Ramirez

Barring intervention from the courts, Governor Perry, or God, Luis Ramirez will die tonight for the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife's lover. Many consider that justice. They're entitled.

As I
wrote here recently, though, none of us are as good as our best act or as bad as our worst one. If you don't think that's true, read this essay by Luis Ramirez about his first day on Texas death row, "What's in the brown paper bag?" Can you guess what he found there? I couldn't have. "I found caring, kindness, love, humanity, and compassion of a scale that I've never seen the 'good people' in the free world show towards one another," he wrote.

You may think killing Luis Ramirez is justice. And you're entitled. But for me, I'm embarassed to live in a society where the only time in his life Luis Ramirez was shown simple compassion was when he was gathered together with other doomed men aboard the Texas executioner's assembly line.

Christ forgave the thief on the cross after he repented, but Texans can't seem to muster the same impulse for mercy. I certanly urge you to
contact Governor Perry to ask him to stay the execution. But knowing our courts and our Governor, at this point one imagines Luis Ramirez can only look to God, not the Texas justice system, for his salvation.

1000 Executions and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

UPDATE: Ramirez was put to death.

Minuteman switches teams

Via the Immigration Law Blog (which I've much enjoyed since it launched in September), I found an oddly hilarious article from the El Paso Times' indefatiguable Louie Gilot ("Minuteman sent home for aiding immigrant," Oct. 18), who reported that "a Minuteman has been dismissed from the volunteer border patrol group for giving a ride, food and water to two undocumented immigrants."

Didn't see that coming, did ya? :-)

Meanwhile, ACLU of Texas' Liberty Blog has a write up of a great editorial from the Marshall New-Messenger criticizing Kay Bailey Hutchison's plan to make local government foot the bill for immigration enforcement.

UPDATE: The New York Times reports on President Bush's just-proposed immigration plan.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

New Jersey to require taping confession

Blonde Justice reports that interrogations must now be recorded in New Jersey, from the Miranda warning afterward. BJ's commenters noted that Massachussetts, Minnesota and Alaska already require taping defendants' confessions. That's an absolutely critical reform which would prevent a lot of police misconduct. Read more on the need for taping interrogations here.

Counties have no one but selves to blame for jail health costs

The Texas Association of Counties wants to portray the cost of healthcare for inmates in county jails as an "unfunded mandate," but it's hard to see the logic. Counties own their own jails. Their sheriff and muncipal police forces are hired and managed locally, and law enforcement has always been primarily a local responsibility.

That would seem to make jail health costs a local problem. Certainly litigation over the years has required counties to actually provide healthcare -- after all, if the state chooses to deprive someone of their liberty, that person's health justly becomes the government's responsibility. But there's no new mandate: indeed, there's never been a time when counties weren't liable for those costs, even if they prefer to avoid them.

San Antonio Express News reported recently on the Medina County jail's health budget ("Counties feel ill over inmate health budgets," Oct.16), and a strident debate among county commissioners over prisoner health costs:
Presented Monday with a dental bill for $1,570 — which included $600 for "deep sedation" to extract the inmate's teeth — County Commissioner Beverly Keller said, "They don't need deep sedation. Pull them out when they're awake."

Commissioner Chris Mitchell said, "It pays to be arrested."

Commenting later, Mitchell said it's not right that the county provides better health benefits to suspected wrongdoers than it can afford to give its own employees.

One wonders who, exactly, besides the commissioners court, chooses their employees health plan? I mean, if county workers' healthcare is inadequate, who is to blame but county government?

In any event, those comments indicate a deep level of frustration, but little understanding of why these costs are being borne. No one is forcing the county to incarcerate so many people --
like most counties in the state, the majority of inmates in the Medina County Jail are there awaiting trial (see the 9-1-05 county jail population report, pdf), not serving a sentence. Where appropriate, many of those could be released on bond, and then the county wouldn't pay for their healthcare. But if counties choose to incarcerate people unnecessarily, then commissioners shouldn't complain about the costs. Maybe the commissioners court needs to have a talk with the local judges about reducing bail or releasing more defendants on personal bond.

In bigger counties, the costs escalate rapidly with the size of the jail. Reported the Express News:

Treating detainees in Bexar County cost the University Health System $9 million in fiscal year 2004-05, spokeswoman Leni Kirkman said Thursday.

The system has clinics at the 4,000-inmate county jail and at two juvenile detention centers in Bexar County, and it maintains a secure ward for inmates at its hospital.

"We do about 90,000 patient visits a year by detainees," she said.
Like Medina County, Bexar County is paying for healthcare for many more inmates than absolutely necessary. Out of a jail population of about 4,200, a whopping 2,355 were awaiting trial as of September 1st, unable to make bond (9-1-05 jail population report, pdf). That includes 572 misdemeanants, and 369 accused of low-level state jail felonies (mostly commonly possession of less than a gram of controlled substance).

As Grits noted elsewhere, a decade ago pretrial defendants made up 30.3% of the statewide Texas jail population. Today the number is nearly half, at 48.3%. Those percentages are even higher in Bexar and Medina counties -- that's a huge source of both higher medical costs and jail overcrowding pressures.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, officials are debating whether Parkland Hospital or a private prison health company should run the county jail's medical facility ("Can Parkland go it alone on jail care?, Oct. 17). The county historically spent $14 million annually on jail healthcare, but that figure jumped to $23 million in the latest budget after a series of mishaps exposed serious flaws. (The Tarrant County Jail has experienced similar problems.) Now Dallas County is considering hiring a private firm to provide jail health services, but the Morning News quoted experts who feared such care would be inadequate:
Dr. Robert Cohen, who directed care for New York City inmates through a private hospital in the 1980s, said medical staff must be able to make decisions based on patient needs, without pressure from a company concerned about shareholder profit.

"I don't think these companies represent good models," Dr. Cohen said. "They have a bad track record. Those kinds of problems wouldn't happen if Parkland were running jail care. I think Ron Anderson at Parkland knows how to provide quality medical care to an underserved population."
The UT Medical Branch currently provides healthcare at the Dallas jail, and also for Texas prisons. But they've backed out of the arrangement as of February of next year after suffering heavy losses, and Parkland has hesitated at hanging that albatross around its own neck too quickly.

Costs are even higher for the state prison system, reported the Express News:

Inmates in state prisons received more than $400 million in treatment last year, said Mike Viesca of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Since 2002, the average daily cost of care per prison inmate has fluctuated between $7.92 and $7.42 last year, he said, while the inmate population rose steadily in recent years, to 151,056 now.

All this should serve as a reminder to public officials: If you're not very smart about it, and in Texas we haven't been, being tough on crime pretty quickly becomes pretty darn tough on taxpayers' pocketbooks. That's partly why state Rep. Ray Allen (R-Grand Prairie) has argued that Texas should only incarcerate those we're "afraid of," not those whom the public is merely "mad at." Texas just can't afford to continue its policy of indiscriminate incarceration, especially for low-level offenders, and inmate health costs are a big reason why.

Inmate healthcare is a huge cost driver for the criminal justice system. But if county and state politicos plan to continue Texas' high levels of incarceration, they must be prepared to pay the piper.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Tom DeLay, Ronnie Earle, and everyday Texas justice

One wonders whether GOP criticisms of coercive plea bargaining practices by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle against former House majority leader Tom DeLay might create a political space to revisit the unseemly practice. DeLay's getting his own taste of what other defendants in Travis County courtrooms see every day.

Indeed, the prosecutorial tactics DeLay's defense team are
complaining about most recently are used so commonly against typical defendants that it's hard for the public not to see the irony: "Before the first indictment you tried to coerce a guilty plea from Tom DeLay for a misdemeanor, stating the alternative was indictment for a felony which would require his stepping down as majority leader of the United States House of Representatives," DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin complained in a recent letter.

Compare that to how the average defendant (who can't afford Dick friggin DeGuerin to represent them) is treated. A recent consultant's report (pdf, p. 46) analyzing the Travis County probation system declared that frequently Travis County prosecutors "may not push for a prison sentence knowing that there is not enough evidence for getting a conviction to prison in a trial but there is enough to force a plea for a probation sentence."

In other words, prosecutors under DA Ronnie Earle routinely "force a plea" for crimes they know they can't prove in court!

That's just what Tom DeLay accuses Earle of doing to him! So if it turns out that a jury doesn't convict DeLay
, the only thing that should be considered extraordinary would be the acquittal.

Otherwise, welcome to everyday Texas justice.

Talk Left.

Stop snitching, or reform it?

I just posted an item on ACLU of Texas' Liberty Blog asking whether we should "Stop Snitching or Reform It?," reacting to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story this morning about a witness who ended a trial by wearing a "Stop Snitchin'" t-shirt into court. Regular Grits readers may recall a prior post discussing the work of Prof. Alexandra Natapoff, who is quoted extensively by the Post-Gazette.

Thug or hero?

This story of a youthful drug offender from New Orleans who stole a schoolbus and rescued 60 of his neighbors from the rising floodwaters reminds me of a truism driven home through years of watching police abuse cases: No person is as good as their best act or as bad as their worst one, from the preacher in the pulpit to the killer on death row. We're all capable of acts of goodness and heroism, and also tremendous evil and sadism, under the right circumstances. We all have lessons to teach and lessons to learn. Or, as the Tao Te Ching put it:

Sages always consider it good to save people,
so that there are no wasted humans ...
So good people are teachers
of people who are not good.
People who are not good are students
of people who are good.
Those who do not honor teachers or care for students
are greatly deluded, even if knowledgeable.
This is called an essential subtlety.

Via Norweigianity.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The real talent in the family

If, gentle readers, you'll indulge an off-topic moment, I'm awfully proud that my wife Kathy just produced a wonderful new online video for Consumers Union (where she runs their national e-advocacy program) titled "The Tower." It's part of a campaign urging folks to sign a petition to the FCC calling for greater public input on proposed media consolidation rules. The music is an original, commissioned tune by the Austin Lounge Lizards, and the art is from Austin's own Animation Farm, both wonderful homegrown Texas talents. Check it out.

Some Grits readers might recall the succesful video Kathy produced for Consumers Union earlier this year, also with the Lounge Lizards and the Animation Farm, called, "The Drugs I Need." That video was featured on the Today Show and has been downloaded by more than 3 million people.

Congrats, Kathy, and I hope "The Tower" reaches even more folks.

For more information about Consumers Union's work on media consolidation and "communications choice," see the group's website,

Keel: Congress would end drug task forces without reform

If you ran a drug interdiction agency that failed to reduce drug crime throughout its 17-year existence, you might be defensive, too.

San Antionio Express-News' Zeke McCormack offered a piece about the recent demise of several Texas drug task forces funded by the federal Byrne grant program in yesterday's paper ("Drug agencies in transition," Oct. 16). As has become common when task force closings are announced, agencies tried to blame the Tulia episode and Texas' HB 1239 which passed this spring (proponents called it the "Task Force Beautification Act") for the collapse of the task forces. "'I think you had a few bad apples and it's killed the rest of us,' said Richard Dolgener, county judge in Andrews County, one of three rural West Texas counties in the Trans-Pecos Drug Task Force until it disbanded Sept. 30."

Dolgener's finger pointing shows a distinct diconnect from reality, indulging in extremist scare tactics that read much more into the new law than one would assume from the black and white letters on the page. Blustering with unfounded objections, he actually told the reporter law enforcement agencies couldn't even speak to one another anymore, but DPS said that's a wrong-headed view:

"We're just going to have a lot more drugs and contraband flowing free across the state because they've taken the task forces away and they've made it where you can't hardly work narcotic cases anymore," he said. "They've hurt us real bad."

He's been advised that his deputies can't confer with deputies in another county on a drug case unless they seek and receive DPS oversight, because otherwise their actions would constitute an illegal task force.

That's not how the DPS interprets the statute, agency spokesman Tom Vinger said.

"In our view, it's referring to formal task forces," he said. "Routine cooperation between law enforcement regarding crime is not prohibited."

I can understand why task force backers who decided to disband would misrepresent the law. It basically says they have to comply with rules they were supposed to comply with before, anyway, but many outright refused. DPS wants them to go after actual criminal organizations, but most of them would rather bust low-level drug users. Indeed, House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman and Court of Criminal Appeals candidate Terry Keel (R-Austin) said that if Texas hadn't acted, Congress could have gotten rid of drug task forces entirely for the Lone Star state:

"Multijurisdictional task forces would eventually have been wiped out entirely if we had not instituted professionalism in administration of those grants," said state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence.

"The U.S. Congress, in regard to their oversight of Byrne grant funding, had expressed concern about the problems in the old way that we had been doing things here, and there was serious discussion about whether Texas was going to receive any more funding for these kind of programs," he said.

"The changes were instituted in order to give Texas the best chance possible to receive these kind of funds to continue these kinds of operations," he said.

Keel doubts the law will hasten the demise of task forces.

"They were going away under the old law, not just because the left was looking at it and the feds were concerned about it, but because the local law enforcement in rural areas were not being well-served by this arrangement," he said.

"These were originally set up to do narcotics interdiction in rural areas where it was not being addressed," he added. "Instead they were gravitating toward more populated areas because that's where the money was, and the seized money often went to help fund their operations."

The biggest irony to me is that nobody, not even the task forces' most ardent backers, actually think they do anything to solve Texas' drug problems. Task force commander Bill Hill, head of the 216th drug task force in Kerrville, told McCormack, "The drug problem is not going to go away and anybody in law enforcement will tell you that law enforcement is not going to solve the problem ... But at least we served as a deterrent to a great many people, to either not get involved in it or to keep their heads down." Is that really true, though? Since arrests of low-level drug users by his agency and others increased every year, with no end in sight, it seems hard to justify claims that drug task forces have deterred drug use by Texans at all.

UPDATE: See the recent Texas Observer editorial, "No More Tulias."

Friday, October 14, 2005

Friday Criminal Justice Roundup

Several criminal justice items from Texas and elsewhere deserve Grits readers' attention:
  • Reducing street crime: Crimprof Blog points to an article describing a new study by the British Columbia working group on reducing street crime. The working group called for increased use of community courts and stronger probation systems instead of increased incarceration, advocating an approach "that shifts the focus away from determining guilt or innocence, to instead place the emphasis on treating the illnesses and addictions of criminals." I can't find the report itself online, so let me know if you see the full thing.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

McLennan County "snuffs" Agriplex task force

Texas' Tulia-style regional drug task forces are dropping like flies.

Most recently, officials decided to "snuff" the Agriplex narcotics task force based in McLennan County (home to Crawford, President Bush's vacation spot; Waco is the county seat) based on word that Byrne grant funding might cease next spring. Earlier this year, the Waco Herald Tribune
called the Agriplex task force a "menace," and reported on why drug task forces carry with them tremendous liability for local taxpayers.

The task force based in Midland also
shut down this month, and several others -- including the one covering Harris and Fort Bend counties -- closed recently. In addition, I received word yesterday that the 216th Judicial District task force based in Kerrville also will close its doors soon.

None of these counties should stop with "snuffing" their task forces. They now need to apply to use the same federal funds for other allowable purposes like drug courts, treatment programs, and strengthened probation services that could let officials draw down new state funds.

In the meantime, somebody cue that old tune from
Queen, "Another one bites the dust."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Travis County should cut probation caseloads through early release

This is the second in a Grits for Breakfast series analyzing the Travis County, TX probation system based on a study by consultants at the JFA Institute. See the first and third installments.

Travis County probation officers' caseloads are so overloaded that probationers who abscond are almost never pursued. Even probationers who come to meetings and pay their fees receive little additional supervision, said consultants from the Austin-based JFA Institute in a recent report (pdf). The "department has not used field visits for most probationers in years; regular probation officers are not trained in how to do this well."

The system is broken. Most probationers in Travis County aren't receiving significant supervision at all.

There are only two possible solutions: Hire many more probation officers, or reduce the number of probationers to a manageable number. Probation terms in Texas last up to ten years, much longer than most other states. But research shows most folks who reoffend do so in the first two to three years. So thousands of people remain on probation long after they are likely to reoffend.

The JFA Institute noted that state law "gives discretion to judges to terminate offenders early from probation for good behavior ... 'at any time after the defendant has satisfactorily completed one-third of the original community supervision perod or two years of community supervision, whichever is less, the period of supervision may be reduced or terminated by the judge.'"

That's an important tool for reducing probation caseloads without harming public safety. In fact, rewarding good behavior by probationers has many positive benefits. The JFA Institute reported that "Early termination can be an integral part of a positive reinforcement strategy for offenders who are doing well on probation and have faithfully completed all the probation requirements."

In Travis County, a whopping 7,391 probationers -- 63.6% of offenders under direct supervision -- meet the minimum state guidelines for early discharge from probation. However, "The department has a policy against the early termination of eligible cases and, therefore, an insignificant number of early discharges from probation." That makes little sense when your probation officers are so overworked they can't do field interviews or track down absconders.

Travis County's jail is overcrowded and its probation department is too swamped to supervise offenders, but neither situation is inevitable. Both problems would be helped by expanded use of the probation law's early release provisions.

We have a winner! Habeas appeal approval first Roberts court decision

Doc Berman brings news of the first opinion (pdf) issued by the new John-Roberts-led Supreme Court, and it's a bench-slapping: The court reversed a denial of habeas by the Sixth Circuit in favor of murder defendant Paul Allen Dye. (For you non-legal-beagles, that means the Supremes agreed to hear the final appeal of a convicted murderer after the appellate court rejected his claims.)

One pro-defense ruling means little in the scheme of things, but as my Dad used to say, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye. Here's hoping that, when the story of the Roberts court is finally told,
history regards this ruling as foreshadowing, not irony.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

La Pistola y El Senador

Chingao! Texas State Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa was detained by security for carrying a 9 mm pistol into the McAllen airport. That's classic, especially considering just this spring Sen. Hinojosa sponsored new legislation creating a defense to prosecution for Texans carrying handguns in their cars.

If you don't know
El Senador Chuy, folks, this guy has big brass balls. Via PinkDome.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Travis absconders stay on probation rolls too long

This is the first in a Grits for Breakfast series analyzing the Travis County probation system based on a study (pdf) by consultants at the JFA Institute. See also the second and third installments.

A consultant has finally gotten to the bottom of the astronomical "absconder" numbers from the Travis County probation department.
Grits had reported earlier that Travis' percentage of probationers absconding was the highest in the state.

It turns out, Travis County's rate of probationers who "abscond," or who quit reporting to their probation officer before the end of their term, isn't that much greater than other jurisdictions when time periods are compared apples to apples. But Travis keeps low-level absconders on the rolls for many years after they should have finished their probation term, artificially boosting the county's numbers. According to
the consultant's report (pdf):
Travis has the largest percentage of its probation population absconding [of any Texas county]. While the percentage of the population absconding statewide is 18%, the same percentage in Travis was 39% in February 2005. ...

Of the 7,512 offenders classified as absconders, 60% had a probation start date more than ten years old. A departmental analysis indicated that over 50% of the absconders would have discharged from probation prior to 1995. Without these older cases, the absconder rate in Travis would fall to approximately 18% of the total probation caseload, exactly in line with statewide norms.

Two policy issues are related to the high number of absconders on the caseload in Travis. First, it is departmental policy in Travis not to drop absconder cases from the books until the offender has been located. Second, one of the focus group sessions revealed that misdemeanant absconders rarely receive the attention from the police department that would result in an offender’s apprehension, even if the probation officer has located the absconder....

Approximately 57% of absconders (4,294) had been charged with a misdemeanor offense, while 43% (3,218) had been charged at the felony level. Of particular interest is the fact that approximately 17% of all absconders (1,297) had been charged with Driving While License Suspended, and subsequently absconded from supervision.
Actually, the rate of absconders in Travis County seems pretty low when you consider they "rarely receive the attention from the police department that would result in an offender’s apprehension." The policy of not taking probationers off the absconder rolls contributes directly to overcrowding at the Travis County Jail, since probationers whose terms should have ended 10 years ago might be arrested at a routine traffic stop and booked.

Most probationers who re-offend do so in the first few years, and those who commit new crimes automatically rotate back into the system. There's no public safety justification for that kind of policy, especially for misdemeanants, and no other large Texas probation department operates that way. Travis already has begun to close out many of those older cases through its newly established "Absconder Apprehension Unit," but an easier route would be to take probationers off the official "absconder" rolls if, when their probation term would have completed, they had not re-offended or otherwise re-entered the system.