Sunday, November 28, 2010

On the possibilities of police 'hook books' for probation supervision

Tanya Eiserer at the Dallas News has an interesting story today on the Dallas PD's electronic revival of the old-school idea of "hook books":
Police have made at least 700 arrests since January through the program of using color-coded charts to track offenders at the street level.

"In Dallas, we have a huge ocean of arrestees and criminals," said Officer Joe King, who pioneered the concept at the city's southeast patrol station. "What we've done is taken a small piece of that ocean and set it aside and created a small pond so we can place small criminal groups under the microscope to better study and track."

The concept has since spread to include electronic hook books for monitoring robbers and another tracking drug dealers. All seven Dallas patrol stations have adopted hook book programs, and the department's auto theft unit will soon roll out one tracking auto thieves, chop shops and auto theft rings. 
In general, I think this is a good idea to the extent it focuses scarce police resources on the most serious offenders. The Chief of the Lancaster PD told Eiserer that "It's a simple thing that I think police departments have gotten away from because they were focusing on call to call to call." These "hook books," though, are only as good as the data entered into them, and historically Dallas doesn't have a great record tracking all its crime data properly, sometimes even altering data for political purposes.

Also, they'll work better if focused on folks assessed as high risks as opposed to spending their time chasing down workaday probation violators, which were the two specific examples given in the story:

The southeast patrol is tracking more than 400 burglary offenders.

They include David Graham, a convicted burglar known to police as "Diamond Dave." Prison officials released him from a drug treatment program in July.

Recently, a tip led officers to Graham's whereabouts as he slept inside an abandoned van in the junk-filled backyard of a squalid Pleasant Grove home. Police arrested him on a probation violation warrant for burglary and drug charges.

"I didn't even know I had a warrant," said the glassy-eyed Graham, who denied that he does drugs or steals anymore.

Or consider the case of Broderick Merritt.

Merritt received probation for attempted burglary and robbery in 2008. In October, prosecutors sought to revoke Merritt's probation because he violated the terms, including failing to report to his probation officer and not paying fees.

His arrest warrant popped onto Officer Matthew Bacon's radar during a routine check. Merritt had been wanted for two days when officers captured him; in the past, it could've taken months.

"You might not even have known that he had a warrant unless you ran across him," said Bacon, who has made about 30 arrests using information gleaned from the hook books.

Merritt then spent about two weeks in jail before prosecutors agreed that he should continue on probation.

At the southeast patrol, the average burglary offender monitored in the hook book spends about 21 days in jail, with many spending far less. But police count every day in jail as a small victory, because that's one day when offenders can't commit new crimes.
Ironically, there are others at the county - notably Commissioner John Wiley Price and those charged with paring down the county's budget - who would consider every day less such offenders spent in jail a "small victory." Dallas is nearly to the point where the jail is so full they must ship overflow prisoners to Waco. Government here is working at cross purposes.

There are strong arguments, familiar to Grits readers, against filling local jails with probationers solely for "failing to report to [their] probation officer and not paying fees." What's needed here is not more jail time but stronger, more meaningful, evidence-based community supervision. And the courts need to act more swiftly. It's great that the guy is picked up 2 days after the warrant is issued, but then it shouldn't take sitting 14 days in jail to process a probationer for technical violations who's going to be released again, anyway. That inefficiency is wasting taxpayers' money and needlessly filling up the jail. It's one thing if a judge orders jail time for a probation violation, but it's a waste for probationers to spend weeks in jail just because of inefficiency in the courts before a decision can be made.

Even according to the criminological theory attributed to police in this story -  that "every day in jail [is] a small victory, because that's one day when offenders can't commit new crimes" - unless there is some intervention to change offender behavior, arrest and detention only postpones instead of prevents new crime, and not for very long, either. In reality, neither the county nor the state cannot afford to incarcerate everyone arrested indefinitely as a preventive.

This brings to mind a conversation on this blog recently where I made this related point: "There's a false but common belief that jail or prison is 'punishment' and community supervision is somehow escaping punishment. In reality, for many defendants it's more difficult, and a more significant 'punishment,' to require them to live straight in the free world than to spend a short period of time in lockup, after which they'll get out and resume their old behavior. It's actually not that difficult to sit in jail, at the end of the day, compared to changing your friends, lifestyle and attitude."

Though Tanya's story is about the police, the problems I'm describing are more attributable to local judges and how they run their dockets, as well as the probation department which judges collectively control. When cops improve efficiency at one point of a log-jammed system and that has served to highlight another in the local judiciary. But it's also worth asking if arresting technical probation violators, which is basically all police are presently empowered to do, is really the right approach? Perhaps it'd be possible to give officers more discretion to deal with probationers guilty of only technical violations to avoid incarceration and promote renewed compliance.

Certainly where there is reason to believe the probationer, when not in custody, is actively out engaging in an ongoing crime spree, it may be true that every day the offender spends in jail prevents more crime. That's not necessarily accurate for the average probation violator, though, and probably not in the two instances described above unless there's something more to the stories than conveyed by the Dallas News. In both cases, lesser sanctions would likely have succeeded at renewing compliance with supervision requirements, which in the end should be aimed at promoting success, not just punishing failure. But through no fault of their own, police officers' authority in such circumstances is limited - basically all they can do is arrest someone when the court issues a warrant.

I'm spitballing here, I don't know exactly what an alternative might look like, but perhaps the dated silos of authority distinguishing police officers and probation officers could be somehow broken down for this single, narrow purpose, using this virtual "hook book" tool in creative ways to both improve probationer compliance but also to reduce jail overcrowding. Perhaps, for example, officers could take past fees via credit card and schedule a next appointment with a probationer's PO (or the court) while there with the offender before sending them on their way with a summons. Maybe instead of taking them to jail, police could transport probation violators to some sort of day-reporting center like Judge Cynthia Kent helped create in Tyler where small-time cases could be handled on what amounts to an outpatient basis. In Bexar County there's a facility called a "Crisis Care Center" where some offenders are taken instead of jail for basic medical care, psychiatric screenings, detox and community treatment connections. None of these analogies are exact, and of course any suggestion that costs money will be viewed as suspect in this era of super-spare budgets. But it seems like there ought to be some clever way to tweak the system to keep technical probation violators from filling up the county jail.

The simpler solution, of course, since it wouldn't require re-imagining anyone's job duties, would be for the Dallas judiciary to more promptly dispose of probation violation cases, perhaps creating special dockets to facilitate more prompt decisionmaking in cases like the ones described above. That should be possible and if not, given the practices described, the jail will likely continue to fill up even as crime overall declines.


John Regan said...

"special dockets to facilitate more prompt decision making"?

Only banks get that.

Anonymous said...

“Diamond Dave” was living in an abandoned van when arrested for a probation violation warrant. Despite the Hollywood sounding name, Diamond Dave sounds more like a junkie in need of treatment rather than a criminal in need of incarceration.

A Texas PO said...

Probation officers do not regularly request warrants for arrest when probationers miss appointments. They have to fail to report for at least 3 months before they can be considered absconders, but during that time POs are required to do whatever they can to contact these folks. Oftentimes, POs are forced to request warrants for this technical violation since the probationer, while not reporting, cannot be successfully supervised and therefore cannot receive therapy, treatment, or cognitive intervention. Sometimes, due to the probationer's decisions, jail is the only option the PO has.

It would be great if the system worked as described, where police officers can detain a probationer who ahs failed to report and drop them off at a day reporting center or having the officer schedule an appointment with the PO. Unfortunately, the probation system in Texas is not designed around the latter option. Many of us work 8 to 5 and are not allowed to work beyond that. It will take a fundamental shift in the field in order to make such a change, but those are great ideas that would make my job so much easier!