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.


Anonymous said...

Anyone else having problems with the .pdf link??

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Try here for the report.

For some reason blogger is adding before the url when it publishes the pdf link. I've tried fixing it over and over, but it appears correct on the wysiwig page. Quite annoying. If anybody knows what that's about, let me know.

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