Thursday, March 20, 2008

Collin County's push toward stronger probation not as flawed as earlier, reported data implied

Earlier today I published data from a TDCJ-CJAD (adult probation) report (pdf) in December, citing the results from several counties that received state grants aimed at reducing probation revocations. I mentioned how surprised I was to find one county - Collin, where McKinney is the county seat - had not only more probation revocations after getting its grant, but 48.8% more! Compared to 16% declines in revocations in Dallas and Houston, that seemed hard to believe.

Not wanting to throw the department under the bus for a statistic that, the more I thought about it, seemed odd and unlikely, I called Collin County probation director Bob Hughes to find out the reasons straight from the horse's mouth. I left our conversation satisfied that the massive increase in revocations reported (a 48.8% bump), is surely an inaccurate number.

Not that it wasn't the data his department reported. The CJAD report compared the '05-06 biennium to '07-08 numbers, noted Hughes, and the first batch of data for the '05-06 biennium was severely underreported, he said, for several reasons.

Primarily, before recent legislative changes made revocations a factor in agency funding, nobody really kept track of them closely (!) and revocations often just weren't logged into the system. Hughes said they've corrected that gap in data collection, and he's confident the second biennium's data (and data produced thereafter) will be more complete.

Another factor that contributed to such high revocation rates, he said, was that 61% of probation revocations granted during the last biennium in Collin County were actually filed with the court before legislation in the 79th Legislature placed a new emphasis on limiting them. From this point going forward, he said, all the revocation cases at Collin CSCD have been brought under the new criteria.

As for what his department did with the grant money, I think it shows exactly why strengthening community supervision, particularly for felons, considerably increases public safety. Collin CSCD hired eight additional officers with the grant money, and placed all felony cases (they were previously mixed), under 10 POs. Collin POs previously averaged 130 probationers on their caseload, but under the new system the county now assigns a PO just 90-95 felony probationers.

In practice, that means POs are keeping a lot closer eye on felony probationers than previously, devoting around 44% more time each month to each clients' case than they'd otherwise be able to do. That means they can do home visits, check in at a probationers job, and in general provide more supervision to offenders who pose the greatest risk of committing serious offenses.

Who can argue that's not a serious improvement to public safety?

Collin County is also utilizing a progressive sanctions model, he said, with sanctions including evaluation, counseling, jail time, ed classes, and community service. He said they were lucky in Collin County to have quite a few counseling and other community based resources to which they could refer folks.

The county operates a DWI/Drug Court, he said, but only for misdemeanants. That's a bit odd, since all but marijuana charges (and perhaps some prescription drug violations) in Texas are felony raps. He said in practice 95% of the cases were DWIs.

The probation department's other important prison alternative program, Hughes told me, is its "Score Program," which houses 25-36 folks (including 5 beds that are part of a "restitution center") for 180 days in the county jail, sort of a county-run version of an intermediate sanctions facility. These are felony offenders, many of them drug offenders, who would otherwise have been revoked straight to prison.

In all, said Hughes, he does not expect similar results on revocations the next time such numbers are reported, and I was satisfied with his explanation of why the initially reported numbers looked so bad. Though I don't mind criticizing government actors when its warranted, I've no interest in portraying anyone in a falsely negative light, so I appreciate Mr. Hughes taking time to chat with me and clear up the misconceptions from that report.


don said...

Scott: I think most if not all drug courts focus more on misdemeanors. Because they want to focus on the people who have the best chance of success. So they basically cherry pick, which is one reason for the glowing success rates they report. I'm not criticizing them for that, and I think they are a good thing, but they are not rehabilitating any hard core criminals. The criteria are pretty strict for getting into a drug court. They do a lot of evaluation to determine the sincerity etc. Frankly, many of the people who get into drug courts would have a good chance of not reoffending anyway. Sounds like Collin County had been doing a little creative reporting, at some time or another. This happens a lot, larger departments can get away with a little of it. They underreported before, and when they got the grant they had to report it correctly because of the scrutiny. You know what they say about statistics.

Anonymous said...

In Bexar County the money was put on misdemeanors and felonies. So the felony officers never got a chance to work the program because the money went to the County Courts also. Officers remained in the 130's- with no extra help. Sorry Bexar missed the whole mission.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don, actually I'm not sure that's right. The only misdemeanor drug charges in TX are for pot, and since it's not actually addictive pot smokers aren't usually sent to drug court. 0-1 grams is a state jail felony, and 1-4 grams is a third degree felony - those are the categories of drug users you most often see in drug courts. That's certainly who're populating the one's in Austin and Dallas, which are the ones with which I'm most familiar.

Good tip on Bexar, their numbers didn't look too good, either.

Anonymous said...

The last comment stated marijuana was the only misdemeanor drug charge in Texas; that is incorrect. Possession of substance in Penalty Group 3 without valid prescription is class A misdemeanor if less than 28 grams. Also possession of Penalty Group 4 less than 28 grams without valid prescription is class b misd. don't forget possession of drug paraphenalia is misd. as well.

Anonymous said...

McKinney is actually the county seat of Collin County

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks on the county seat tip, I fixed it in the post.

As for prescription meds and paraphernalia charges, I'll certainly grant that's right, though I don't consider prescrption meds "illegal drugs," which is probably the distinction I should have made.

That said, if someone has established a drug court that's taking paraphernalia cases or that's filling up with misdemeanor prescription drug arrestees, I sure haven't heard about it. Most drug courts target users of hard drugs with felony convictions.

Anonymous said...

I beleive you are right on the drug courts not filling up with misd. prescription drug cases or even marijuana possession cases. one comment on felony drug courts:The felony drug courts take a tremendous amount of resources to do it right. The funding is lacking and district courts in most juridictions are already choking with criminal cases. Most district judges do not have the time or resources to get involved in drug courts.

don said...

Scott: You are right about the felonies vs. misdemeanors in drug courts. I was remembering talking to the counselor who was first involved in the Lubbock county drug court, and they had a very small amount of money. She got a misdemeanor or two for her first cases, because, as I said, she wanted to show success on the first cases. However, misdemeanor cases are limited to 10% of the total case load. It did surprise me when you made the statement "since pot is not actually addictive" so matter of factly. I only have 25 years substance abuse counseling experience, so I'll not go out on a limb and say it IS addictive, but most of my peers certainly would. They haven't taken "Cannabis Dependence Syndrome" out of the DSM IV yet, as far as I know. I know counselors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and drug warriors overstate the case, but I couldn't just categorically declare it non-addictive. Heavy pot smokers can fit the same criteria as for other drugs. I will spot you that it is doubtful that a misdemeanant would be an addict. I mean, if it were addictive.

don said...

Also must question downplaying Rx drugs. Actually, narcotic painkillers are one of the really serious problems. Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, etc. I have a friend who is in terrible shape because of abusing these drugs, plus Xanex. It is heartbreaking to watch, and the denial is so frustrating, because the DOCTOR gave them to him. This man was not long ago one of the best guitar players I have ever heard. But last Friday nite he almost fell out of his chair in the middle of a gig. These pills are on the street, along with the meth and the crack and the powder. The Rx problem has always been understated, while the pot problem is blown out of proportion. I think we may lose this guy, and it is a damn shame. In one treatment center where I worked, 30% of the patients were Rx drug addicts.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don, if you've got 25 years experience in substance abuse treatment and aren't willing to go "out on a limb" and say pot is addictive, that says a lot right there.

Quite honestly, the list of politicized diagnoses that have been removed from the DSM over the years as ideology gave way to science (particularly in the behavioral health realm) is long and terribly undistinguished. One of these days, IMO, Cannabis Dependence Syndrome will likely join them, so that argument, while a good point, only goes so far for my money.

The political nature of the diagnosis, to me, is demonstrated by the fact that virtually all referrals to treatment for marijuana addiction come through the criminal justice system. The idea is a political construct, not so much a medical conclusion. (Though I'll surely grant that's a personal, and probably a minority view.)

If pot is "addictive," it certainly does not generate withdrawal and other symptoms associated with addiction to alcohol coke, heroin, meth, certain RX medications, etc. If it creates a "dependency," then it's an especially mild one, indeed, and has no physical manifestations, unlike the harder drugs. I know there is a difference of opinion among experts, but here are a couple of relevant "expert" quotes on the topic that support my view:

"Any drug that causes euphoria and diminishes anxiety can cause dependence, and cannabis is no exception. However, heavy use and complaints of inability to stop are unusual."
- The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, Section 15. Psychiatric Disorders; Chapter 195. Drug Use and Dependence.

"In summary, although few marijuana users develop dependence, some do. But they appear to be less likely to do so than users of other drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), and marijuana dependence appears to be less severe than dependence on other drugs...."
- U.S. Institute of Medicine's March 1999 report Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, page 98

"unlike for nicotine, alcohol and hard drugs, there is no clearly defined withdrawal syndrome, the hallmark of true addiction, when use is stopped."
- Colin Blakemore, Ph.D. and Leslie Iversen, Ph.D.s, writingin The Times [United Kingdom] on Aug. 6, 2001

Finally, I don't mean to downplay RX abuse - the stats I've seen say it's as common as smoking pot, and certainly poses greater health risks by a country mile. My only point was that RX addicts aren't who're filling up drug court dockets. And anyway, at root addiction is a public health problem that IMO is probably counterproductive to manage through the criminal justice system in the first place. best,

Don said...

Ok, I can't tell that we actually disagree on any of what you just said. And it really doesn't seem to contradict anything I said. Your last line "anyway, at root addiction is a public health problem that IMO is probably counterproductive to manage through the criminal justice system in the first place". BINGO!
You absolutely nailed that one. That's exactly why I retired early. In the mid 90's, public funding got shifted from treating addiction as a health issue to a criminal justice issue. Let's see. What happened in Texas in 1994? An election? A Gubernatorial election? Hmmm...

Anonymous said...

Speaking about drug courts,skewed sucess rates and murky waters, we had something happen here in Potter and Randall Counties that has me a bit confused.
Last month,West Texas A&M University, along with several community coalition members, applied for a state planning grant( through the governors office) with West TexasA&M University as "evaluators" for the drug court program.
Both Potter and Randall County judges( John Board and Ernie Houdashell) were in favor of the drug court planning grant program, but the program was apparently stopped dead in its tracks by Amarillo County Judge Arthur Ware. It might have something to do with the fact that Potter and Randall county lines divide Amarillo.I remain uncertain how County Judge Arthur Ware would have the power to stop the planning grant process(or why)? Does anybody have a possible answer?

Michael O'Neal said...

1st about Collin CSCD. I work with a lot of Bob Hughes' officers every day and I don't think they could do a better job. Despite their case load size I find them patient, involved and determined to help and to see their defendants succeed.

A recent story to illustrate: I spent almost 2 hours on the phone with a young man (a client of mine who was failing outpatient rehab)He was with his PO officer and the assistant director. We were doing an intervention, persuading him to go to to inpatient rather than jail. When we finally succeeded his officer followed the client and his dad to the rehab center to make sure he got checked in!

Try finding that kind of dedication everywhere. As they say... it starts from the top down ya know?

As to're wrong buddy. Cravings, irritability, anxiety, even panic attacks months after you stop using. I see it everyday. The brain damage we now know it causes thanks to SPECT scan imaging is frightening. (Look up Daniel Amen MD for the detailed images)

The problem isn't the politics of keeping it illegal. The problem is the politics of wanting it to be legal while ignoring the facts about it...its addictive says the drug counselor of 20 years experience.

Anonymous said...

I come from the other side of the fence. I'm a heroin addict and have been clean for some time. However, I do still smoke pot. My experience has been that any addictive symptoms experienced by pot smokers are purely psychological. Physical symptoms imagined being a product of the users on mind that usually stem from other psychological issues.

Unknown said...

I have to say, at first glance this seems to be a program that ensures the privatized incarceration system remains profitable for the controlling parties. How is this advantageous to the community? How are these offenders able to support their dependants? Why are nonviolent offenders incarcerated, when a judge already ordered probation? Also, why do these hours incarcerated not count as probationary hours, when an inmate is receiving 3 to 1 against their sentence? While thus program may have good intentions, I believe it fails the community as a whole.