Wednesday, March 22, 2006

House Corrections Highlights

All the usual players in the room at the Texas House Corrections Committee hearing this morning, plus newly minted House member Kirk England who just won a special election to fill Ray Allen's seat in District 106. Welcome to Rep. England, and congrats. The wireless appears to be working fine, but I didn't get a seat for blogging purposes for the first few invited speakers, and I have to leave during the noon hour. The full hearing is linked here for those who are interested, otherwise here are a few brief highlights from testimony I sat through this morning describing Texas' probation system:

Bonita White, TDCJ Community Justice Assistance Division (probation)

This is the sixth "charge" this committee has had since 1999 on strengthening the probation system in Texas, Sen. Whitmire has done it four times over the years. She gave them a report listing all the charges and what legislation resulted. Bottom line: Texas needs to reduce caseloads, increase access to drug treatment and increase use of "evidence based practices" and progressive sanctions to better supervise probationers.

There was an infusion of money last session for more treatment in conjunction with a progressive sanctions model. Counties receiving the money had to target a 10% reduction in probation revocations and implement a progressive sanctions model. They prioritized agencies with caseloads above 95 per officer. The money was granted and the new programs have been implemented over the last five months. Judges, prosecutors and probation officers are excited right now for change, and this money "greased" that. They've already seen results, she said. Where the money did not go, the revocations are stable; in counties that got the money there was a 12.6% reduction in revocations so far, though data is preliminary.

TDCJ is trying to improve its ability to track the 429,000 people in Texas are on probation right now, overseen by 121 local probation departments.

In January 26 CSCDs selected to receive money from these budget riders came to Austin to lay out their evidence based practices models to share and learn from each other and compare their programs to current research. "This is a huge state with a huge number of stakeholders," she said, especially with the large number of district judges in Houston and Dallas, making the politics of local reform complex.

"It's more successful to give rewards than sanctions, but we've built a criminal justice system mostly around sanctions." Evidence shows they could reduce the likelihood of probationers entering prison by as much as 30%, limiting prison for those who were more dangerous.

Peering from beneath long white bangs, Rep. Scott Hochberg asked, "Should we change the rules about who gets revoked?" "That's your decision," replied White, but she said more money for the agency would help. Hochberg suggested that the Lege should just be more specific about when people could and couldn't be revoked.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy, Travis County CSCD

She's in the middle of a two year Travis County process to re-engineer the Travis County probation system. Got a grant from a foundation to do ongoing reporting about the process. When she was a probation officer there was no way to measure effectiveness. Now evidence based practices allow them to measure their performance. Using scientific evaluations of programming has resulted in new body of knowledge about best practices: She expects that a 30% reduction in revocations would be a realistic goal.

Delwin Jones asked if increased caseload was because of increased staffing. Yes, she said, they've hired 40 new officers recently, 13 of whom were entirely out of the new probation funds. Rep. McReynolds asked if the reduced caseloads were allowing closer supervision, home visits, etc. Dr. Nagy replied that field visits and closer supervision is "absolutely essential" to progressive sanctions working, but probation officers must also be trained to deal with offfenders differently. The goal isn't just to revoke wrongdoers but to help offenders succeed.

It's important to use the right approach in the right situation Low risk offenders should be cycled out of the system quickly, "social problem" offenders should be monitored closely, and high-risk offenders may well cycle through the process and be revoked fairly quickly if they don't behave. Each of these three categories have about 5-6 subcategories, each with their own protocols.

Caseloads in Travis County are currently 108 but will soon be down to 95.
She said though that to have maximum benefit, new money for probation officers must be leveraged by switching to evidence based practices. More intensive supervision of high risk offenders should increase public safety, and many departments are spending the new state money that way

She fears current practices waste resources on the wrong people and don't fund other effective tactics like outpatient drug treatment, where appropriate. Currently Travis County has more than 500 people on a waiting list for outpatient treatment with a need for additional funding.

Michelle Connolly, Legislative Budget Board

LBB is studying spending in five Texas counties that revoke probationers most often: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. LBB did field interviews and data collection for probationers revoked in October, partnering with TDCJ's Community Justice Assistance Division and local probation departments. Studied 877 felon probationers - collected profile information, offense information, violation report information, terminating offense. Officially scheduled to release the report in January before next session. Chairman Madden wants the information by the special session.

"What's our prison population?" asked Chairman Madden. "Full," replies Connolly. Right now it's at 151,585, she said. "But there's an execution today," deadpanned Rep. Jim McReynolds, "so that's 151,584."

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