Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Diversion program reduced new prisoner numbers from revoked probationers

There's good news and bad news in a new report (pdf) detailing the effects of diversion grants to local probation departments from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), authorized by the Lege since 2005: The good news is it worked where agencies accepted the grant money. Those local probation departments (CSCDs) reduced felony technical revocations by 14.5% and felony revocations overall by 3.6%, despite their caseload going up by 8%.

But those effects were mostly counteracted by an array of smaller agencies who declined the grants, stuck with their old ways and increased both technical revocations (6.9%) and overall felony revocations (9.1%) over the same period. The overall result, then, was minimal - about a 1% reduction in felony revocations since 2005. That's not bad with probation rolls swelling, but not all that was hoped for, either. Statewide, "In FY2011, there were 23,881 felony revocations to TDCJ, of which 48.5% were a result of technical violations of community service conditions." A little more than a third (36%) of those revoked for technical violations were absconders.

Also, the goal of reducing probation caseloads has not been achieved and fears that declining probation rolls would reduce state funding for local probation departments as a result of grant incentives never materialized. "The felony direct community supervision population increased 8.0% from August 31, 2005 (157,914 offenders) to August 31, 2011 (170,558 offenders)." While the incarceration rate is declining, the number of probationers in Texas is keeping pace with population growth, seemingly unswayed by crime declines over the last decade.

Even so, the grant program did achieve its goal of reducing felony probation revocations to prison. Bottom line: "more felony offenders were under community supervision in FY 2011 than in FY 2005, but fewer offenders were revoked to TDCJ during the same period. CSCDs that did not receive additional diversion funding showed increases in felony revocations to TDCJ."  In other words, agencies that took the diversion funding simply began revoking a lower proportion of the probationers they supervised: "The percentage of offenders revoked within two years of placement decreased from 76.9% in FY 2005 to 67.4% in FY2009 in CSCDs receiving additional diversion funding."

There were a couple of counties that took the money but never seriously tried to achieve the goals of diversion funding. From 2005-2011, felony revocations increased 79.5% in Bexar County (San Antonio) and 99.6% in Collin County (McKinney). Without their bad examples, the results from counties that took diversion funding look even better.

So the idea of using financial incentives to local government to reduce state incarceration rates actually worked. The program's effectiveness was mitigated by local non-participation, but the incentive-laden funding structure for the most part functioned as it was supposed to when and where it was applied. (Grits has argued in the past that it would be an even greater incentive if the state eliminated Bexar and Collin's grant funding for noncompliance, but don't hold your breath for that to happen.)

Problem is, too many other factors mitigate in the other direction, causing prison population projections to creep past TDCJ's capacity over the next biennium. Conceived in 2005, this grant program among other new initiatives helped stave off new prison spending over the last several years. But without doubling down on the concept, those diversion programs likely aren't big or comprehensive enough to do much more than they've done already. Instead, the Lege this spring chose a different path, thus ensuring that much of the state-level dialogue over the next two years surrounding TDCJ will come down to a familiar theme: Build more prisons ... or ... what? The other short-term options are increased parole rates, front-end diversion, or going California.

If history is any guide, part of the solution lies in programs like this one that create financial incentives for counties and local probation departments to help the state reduce incarceration costs. Sending someone to prison is easy; helping them stay in the community and reform is much harder. So it requires incentives for locals to undertake the task, but probation departments have shown through this experiment that many of them are willing to try, if given resources and support, and when they do it can reduce the state's incarceration costs.


A Texas PO said...

Grits said: "So the idea of using financial incentives to local government to reduce state incarceration rates actually worked."

In my own Department, I know our reduction in felony revocations, especially for those involved in programs utilizing diversion funding, was less about a financial incentive and more about funding that helped create programs for these program participants or funding that paid for contracted treatment/education services that were sorely needed or under-utilized prior to receiving the funds since probationers were required to foot the bill in those days. We've known for years that if probationers complete rounds of substance abuse treatment or other forms of counseling to deal with their needs/issues the more likely they are to succeed. But TDCJ and the Lege for years stood firm on the idea that probationers should have to pay their court costs, fine, appointed attorney's fees, restitution, Crime Stoppers fee, urinalysis fees, monthly probation fees, and all program fees. Blood from a turnip? Is that possible in Austin?

Anonymous said...

Grits said "From 2005-2011, felony revocations increased 79.5% in Bexar County (San Antonio) and 99.6% in Collin County (Denton). "

I believe Denton is in Denton County.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks 4:47, I don't know why I always have a brain fart when it comes to the Collin County seat, which of course is McKinney. Fixed it.

Thanks for the copyediting.

Good comment, TPO, I couldn't agree more about all the fees, etc..

Bob Hughes said...

Grits, Collin County takes a hit every time this report comes out due to an inaccurate 2005 revocation number. As the Director I have disputed the 2005 number every year since I took over in Collin County in August 2006. I have sent documentation to CJAD multiple times and will share that information with anyone who cares to see it.

Granted the 2005 number given to CJAD was inaccurate due to an antiquated software system we no longer use. Nevertheless my attempts to change the inaccurate number has failed and CJAD continues to roll out a skewed report.

We have had a progressive sanction model here for years and take it very seriously. We have been audited by CJAD multiple times in recent years and faired quite well on each review. In addition I had The University of North Texas come in and complete a study on our revocation cases and no glaring issues were found. Incidentally the the UNT report was sent to CJAD as well and I heard nothing from them. If you compare our revocation numbers year to year (excluding the inaccurate 2005 number) we stack up well with any county. We espouse the philosophy of filing on the right defendants keeping public safety in the forefront.

Grits, this is not sour grapes on my part. I do not want to throw CJAD under the bus because I believe they work very hard at what they do. Carey Welebob and her staff at CJAD have a tough job and I do not envy their position. I just want to express the revocation issue is more complex than comparing some statistical data and drawing conclusions that CSCDs are not doing their job.

I have several issues with the way revocation numbers are viewed and reported to the LLB and would be happy to talk with you about my concerns. My number is on our website give me a call.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Bob, would you mind emailing the stuff you sent to CJAD and the UNT report to me at shenson[at]austin.rr.com? Be sure and include what you think the real 2005 figure should have been under your newer methodology.

Thanks for commenting; I'm pleased to hear the outlier figure from Collin might be overstated and yall's problems may not be so grave.

Anonymous said...

It is hard for me to believe that Bexar and Collin County are the only counties with the increaseing revocation rates?

If Collin County numbers are off, doesn't that make everybody's numbers questionable?

GFB - would be a little hesitant to publish numbers from "CJAD" if in fact these numbers aren't accurate and still incorrect since 2005.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:48: All criminal justice data in my experience is "questionable," particularly stuff where each individual jurisdiction self-reports and may use different methodologies, have staff assigned to compiling them of greater or lesser competence, etc.. That argues for caution when interpreting the data, but that doesn't excuse us from examining the facts as we understand them, however imperfectly. Without such data, everyone, including and especially legislative decisionmakers, are flying blind. When, as in this case, there are explanations for outliers, fine. That doesn't mitigate the overarching conclusions from the report. Indeed, if Collin really has been on board and their revocation increase is overstated, that strengthens the evidence that the program mostly worked where applied.

Also, to clarify, I did not say Bexar and Collin are "the only counties with the increaseing revocation rates." There are other counties that saw much smaller increases, but Bexar and Collin were outliers by a wide margin among the ten largest counties.

Finally, the 2005 data Bob says was incorrect was provided by his own agency, regrettably, so I can't blame TDCJ-CJAD for using it, just as he said he didn't. Should they have changed it in ensuing reports? Maybe. I'll have a better sense after looking at the stuff he's sending.

A Texas PO said...

These problems with inaccurate reporting were supposed to be corrected through the use of CSTS. It's my understanding that CSTS was ordered into place nearly 20 years ago and only recently has actually been pushed forward in any sort of significant way. For years, CJAD compared CSTS information and hard-copy monthly reports from each CSCD, and this showed the glaring inconsistency in record-keeping, especially among those Departments that "fudged" their numbers to show they were supervising more offenders in order to get more funding. But there are still problems with CSTS due to incompatability with several county software programs. Is one unified, statewide system too much to ask?

Jim Stott said...

Also, in the 82st legislative session, and in response to a statewide survey, probation departments were provided with incentive pay to help retain qualified staff, and hopefully not lose their experience to other careers. Not saying that the additional caseload reduction funding was not a very important part of the reason for the success in reducing revocations, but the retention of experienced staff surely assisted with more evidenced based programs being utilized rather than revocation being recommended. So Grits statement that "using financial incentives to local government to reduce state incarceration rates actually worked" is very true, but may not be tied to the caseload reduction funding alone.

Anonymous said...

The infrastructure at CJAD and every CSCD is not large enough to keep up with the needs surrounding what is necessary for CSTS ISYS etc.

John McGuire said...

In my opinion, so much of your chances for success in reducing revocations for technical violations depend upon if you can get buy-in from your district attorney's office. Over the years, we have worked very hard in cultivating a relationship of trust and transparency between our department and the DA's Office, especially with regards to using progressive sanctions, and I think that it's working. At the state level, technical revocations for absconding need to be culled out from the rest, and those should not be held against us.

Anonymous said...

John, agreed about culling out absconders from the revocation statistics.

But, as you are well aware, it is the Judge who revokes defendants, not the probation department.

Transparency is great and IMO necessary, but until the DA's Office has a funding stream in jeopardy of being sliced and diced based the number of probationers that are sent to prison by revocation, the DA has no reason to really be invested in alternative sanctions and diversion programs.