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.


Anonymous said...

Why haven't you acknowledged that the consultant is Tony Fabelo, former Executive Director of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To be honest, I thought about mentioning that, but I figured only insiders know who Fabelo is, and the post was already covering a lot of ground -- I wasn't concealing it, though, for any reason other than to limit clutter in the prose.

Is there some reason it's particularly relevant?