Saturday, November 24, 2007

Seliger: Max probation for most crimes should be five years

Legislation passed in 2007 reducing probation lengths for state jail and third degree felonies is working well, but now the same changes need to be applied to a broader array of crimes, Amarillo state Sen. Kel Seliger told the Midland Reporter Telegraph ("Texas Senate mulls probation reforms," Nov. 21). He supports reducing probation lengths for most criminal offenses to five years, and expects legislation to that effect to be introduced at the Texas Legislature in 2009:

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Plano, sponsored a bill to shorten the maximum probation for third-degree and state jail felony theft and narcotics offenses from 10 to five years.

With 4,000 drug criminals put on probation for longer than five years in 2006, Seliger said the changes didn't go far enough.

"Probation officers around District 31 say they know in three years if a probationer will re-offend or not," the Senate Criminal Justice Committee vice chairman said.

"Some under a super long term have a technical violation, but it doesn't protect the public to fill up the prisons with technical violators. New prisons are expensive and it could be we'd be better off to raise the salaries of correctional officers and take care of our understaffing first."

Seliger is presently considering reforms in general terms and wants more input from legal officials before getting specific.

When asked if voters might be more concerned about crime, he said, "We conservatives are trying to get the most bang for the buck and take as little of people's hard earned tax money as possible."

He said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, has indicated he may support '09 legislation to limit probation for most offenses to five years.

The Midland DA raised a common fallacy about Seliger's proposal: "Midland County District Attorney Teresa Clingman is concerned about crime spawned by the oil boom and doubtful the system should be less strict." Perhaps it's counterintuitive, but the irony here is that long probation terms are what has made probation "less strict." Statewide, general probation caseloads are still well over 100 probationers per officer, meaning most probationers don't receive significant oversight and their P.O.s spend most of their time doing paperwork.

By moving to shorter, stronger probation, P.O.s can do home and work visits, check to enforce curfews, give more help to probationers who need to access job placement or other services, and generally provide a lot more oversight during those first three years when data shows all probationers are most likely to re-offend. That's the approach to public safety the Amarillo Republican is advocating, and the reality is Seliger's suggestion would make probation substantially more strict.

Though it seems relatively minor, this is one of the most important changes that could be made to reduce unnecessary incarceration and improve public safety. Offenders who succeed for 5, 6, 7 years or more on probation shouldn't then be revoked on felony charges for technical violations or minor offenses - they're just taking up bed space that could go toward housing more dangerous offenders.

The more important benefit, though, will be to improve safety by more closely supervising probationers during the period when they're most likely to re-offend, and ensuring Texas has ample prison space to house more dangerous offenders. That approach is both smarter on crime and easier on the pocketbook.


Anonymous said...

As a former probation administrator, I agree with Sen. Seliger's proposal. In most cases, probationers who survive a five year period of supervision do not need to have an officer monitoring their behavior. With their woefully limited and inadequate resources, probation officers need to devote their time to high risk offenders.

Jim Stott said...

This past legislative session was landmark for a couple of reasons. First, it placed more emphasis on treatment. Residential treatment, but nontheless, treatment. Getting that treatment is what helps the offender successfully complete their probation term. Secondly, it finally said to the masses what has been discussed for many years. A ten year term of probation is only necessary in a few cases, such as payment of restitution and if the offender poses a continuing threat to public safety. It was wonderful, but unfortunate that a vast majority of the new funding last session was for treatment beds, and not new programs, such as Drug Courts and Sanction Courts. Perhaps during the next session, more emphasis can be placed on the needs of the basic probation offender, so that the special probation populations do not become the dumping ground for technical violators that the prisons have become.

Anonymous said...

What do you think is the ultimate goal in shortening the period of probation? Surely, it is not to reduce the caseloads of the overworked and underpaid probation officers! This last legislative session took away money from probation departments when a probation was revoked for other than a NEW offense. Talk to any District Attorney and they will tell you they routinely dismiss a NEW offense and make a deal on the technicals so they don't have to go through the hassle of a trial. Shorter probation periods are OK as long as the objective isn't to defund probation departments, which seems to be the norm. Stop blaming probation officers for CRIMINALS who WON'T follow the conditions of probation! After 22+ years, it still amazes me that CJAD and CSCD administrators think they know what goes on during an officers daily duties. Most departments don't allow officers to go in the field and do home visits. So, how do they really know what probationers are doing?

Jim Stott said...

I don't think the reasoning behind reducing the period of probation had very much to do with reducing the caseloads of officers at all. I think it had a great deal to do with the amount of time many offenders unnecessarily spend on probation. And I have no idea about funding being taken away from departments for technical revocations. I remember it was proposed in a new funding formula last session, but that died at the end of the session. I think it will raise it's head again next session. Also, I have never heard anyone blame the PO for the failure of an offender. Most of the time, that failure is on the shoulders of the offender. As an administrator, I can say for certain that I do not know everything that a probation officer does daily. I do know that it's a lot more than I had to do when I started. What I have found out about field visits over the years is that they are only beneficial if they are unnanounced. Observing an offender when they know you are coming does nothing more than allow you to make a mark on your caseload report. If your department has the luxury of having partnered field work, I say work them in if possible. If not, you are posing more danger to your staff than is necessary.

Anonymous said...

The Senator's proposal is the worst idea I have ever heard. It will cause more offenders to be sentenced to jail because 5 years is not enough time on probation in the eyes of the public and prosecutor. The current system allows for early termination if these people indeed only need 5 years of a 6 or more year sentence. There is no reason to make probation a bigger joke in the eyes of the public than the legislature and lack of pay already has.

Jim Stott said...

I'm sure it's a bad idea to a lot of people, especially prosecutors, who are much more interested in how much time they can give as opposed to finding a lasting deterrent for continued criminal activity. It's a fact that the more people a department has on probation, the more funding they receive from fees and the State. While I do not believe there are a lot of departments out there who intentionally keep people on to beef up fee collections, I'm sure it does happen. I believe a shorter probation term will encourage more people to accept a plea bargain for probation. And in the future, we will receive State funding based on placements, rather than numbers. I think it's a good deal all the way around. While it may not be as much "punishment" as some would like, it makes a lot more sense. The general public is never going to view probation as punishment, because that is not the way most people think. They view incarceration as punishment, because it is the worst thing that could happen to them. A jail sentence to many ofenders is just another fact of life, and it bothers them a lot less than having to be a responsible, law abiding citizen.

Pay for probation officers fortunately lies with the local department and not the state of Texas. The departments pay what they can afford to pay. If people are unsatisfied with salaries, they should take it up with the local department head.