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.


Anonymous said...

If they are taken off the official "absconder" roles when their probation would have ended, if they had not re-entered the system, what do you suggest Travis County should do with them? Take them off the probation roles altogether? That would be giving them a free pass on not completing their punishment - and essentially telling low-level probationers that if they stop reporting and don't get caught during the remainder of their probation term, they'll get away with it. And I understand that you're only talking about low-level misdemeanor offenders, not violent felony offenders.
So, back to my question - should Travis County just let them go free and clear?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

md thinks I'm: "essentially telling low-level probationers that if they stop reporting and don't get caught during the remainder of their probation term, they'll get away with it."

No, what sends that message is the failure to pursue absconders DURING their probation term. That's the point - the system is sending mixed messages. Our words say tough on crime, but our budgets say supervising probationers isn't a priority.

Other big Texas counties that don't keep such folks on their absconder rolls haven't seen the sky fall, and Travis wouldn't either. At some point, reality rears its ugly head and one must make pragmatic choices. Bottom line: Either fund the probation department to keep up with probationers, including tracking absconders, or shorten probation lengths to reduce caseloads so POs can start to do their jobs.

It's the CURRENT system that's failing to track probationers adequately, IMO, not the fault of any proposed reforms. Best,

Anonymous said...

Although I still think that releasing any absconder from probation is a bad idea and deviates from the ideal of justice, I also think that you're right - at a certain point, especially with limited funds, you have to make a choice about what's more important. Partly because of funding, justice is, IMO, about making choices among the lesser of evils. And relatively speaking, releasing low-level offenders isn't so horrible (even though I still would rather we did not have to). Believe it or not, I agree with everything else you said in your response. Funding that matches the rhetoric of campaign speeches would be ideal.
It would also be nice if the lawmakers were the ones who had to explain it to their constituents why we don't have the funds to pursue people who decided they didn't want to continue their punishment any more. I've had to tell several victims of misdemeanor and felony offenders that the reason why the defendant was not in court was because the authorities simply could not find him or her. The victims don't tend to accept that as a reasonable excuse. To them, their case is the most important.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

How 'bout this, md: Use the early release provisions in current law for every probationer who is eligible to reduce probation caseloads. That would free up time for POs to better supervise everyone who hasn't earned that privilege, including absconders. Whaddya think?