Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Harris County probation cleaning up its act, but judges could still screw it up

Since March, the Harris County probation department "has cut its drug testing volume in half" thanks to efforts of its new director, Dr. Teresa May, who was appointed in February and previously worked for adult probation in Dallas County, reported the Houston Chronicle yesterday. Upon her arrival, May "hired a consultant who found that many probationers had for years tested negative on hundreds of tests. The abnormally high test volume was a big part of the problems revealed last year."

To be clear, Harris County judges' excessive drug-test requirements had been documented well before last year. But judges ignored the warnings and refused to change their ways until the issue blew up in their faces. By then, the volume had so overwhelmed the department they could no longer reliably match sample results to probationers. At that point, judges scapegoated the previous probation director, blaming him for a situation their own policies and mismanagement had created.

These issues had been well-known for years. Describing the findings of the the Justice Management Institute (JMI) from 2005, Grits pointed out that, "Urinalysis requirements in particular, while popular among prosecutors and judges, take up a huge amount of staff time and cause delays throughout the system." JMI recommended back then that "The courts should seek to develop cost-effective common policies concerning when drug testing should be ordered, for what types of drugs, how and by whom the tests should be conducted, what responses should be made to test results, and when (under what circumstances) the drastic step of [revocation] should be taken." It took a crisis, though, for judges to reconsider their approach.

The new director is also implementing a risk-assessment system that will hopefully prevent judges from applying cookie-cutter probation conditions to every defendant:
May, 52, came from Dallas County's probation department, where she helped implement a model that significantly reduced the number of offenders who ended up behind bars after their probations were revoked. The result was a lower jail population and a savings of millions of dollars.

May, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Southern Methodist University and had worked as a clinical assessor for the Dallas probation department, is working with judges to devise a similar model for Harris County, where the jail population swelled this year and the case load is nearly twice as high.

The model will depend on comprehensive assessments of offenders early in the probation process to determine whether they are at low, medium or high risk of reoffending so judges can set appropriate conditions, including whether to place them in treatment programs if they have drug, alcohol or mental health problems. ...
May said all probationers eventually undergo state-mandated risk assessments, but usually only after their probation terms are set and months after their initial arrests. That much lag time is not good for people who have substance abuse problems, she said.
"The probation conditions should be driven by what we identify in our risk assessment tool and in our evaluation," May said. "The offense alone doesn't tell you a lot."
The data show, for example, that intensive supervision or treatment programs can significantly reduce the recidivism rate among higher risk offenders. Lower risk offenders who have no drug, alcohol or mental health problems and a relatively stable life, however, often do worse when they are put into residential treatment programs where they can lose their jobs and homes and come under the influence of higher risk criminals.

A rough estimate May provided to the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council shows the model could save the county $6.84 million a year in the short term. ...
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, though, said probation terms in Texas - with Harris County being "the worst" - are far too strict, setting up offenders for failure and creating a "broken" system.
This is all good news, and kudos to Dr. May for getting the judges (so far) to buy into efforts to make their decisions more data-driven. But no one should be fooled that just hiring a new probation director will solve these problems. Harris County judges created them by ignoring good advice in the past and if they ignore Dr. May's evidence-based approaches going forward, in a few years they'll find themselves right back in the same spot.

H/T: Kuff.

MORE: While we're on the subject of judge-created clusterf#%ks in Harris County, Mark Bennett and Robb Fickman both have good posts up about the excessive use of pretrial detention in Harris County which is driving their too-high jail population. Fickman's comes in the form of an open letter to Harris County misdemeanor court judges that's a must-read for anyone concerned with the topic.


Banker said...

I have been charged with check fraud 5 years ago and got it dismissed through probation. I was required to do drug testing to my surprise because I had never abused drugs in my life and that wasn't my vice. They make a one size fits all rule like drug testing for probationers when that temptation doesent apply to some. Having people who do not abuse drugs, or are there for some totally unrelated charge, and whom don't have the temptation for it serves nothing for justice or safety. That is just flushing money down the toilet, literally.

Anonymous said...

I am on probation in Ft Bend County for an offense that did not involve drugs or alcohol but am tested on regularly. I think the reason is that someone makes a lot of money selling the tests to the county. I get charged $15 for each test, and I guessing that the county pays less than that and so makes a profit on each test. If the county is not making a profit, it is even stupider than I imagine.

Will Yablome said...

The new director is wrong regarding intensive supervision programs. Enhanced supervision, if done properly, has been shown to increase revocations rather than decrease them. Back in the day, receiving felony probation was a defendant's "one bite of the apple" and compliance was expected. Over the years compliance expectations have eroded resulting in offenders who do not take their probation obligations seriously. This has also been true of parole supervision going way back to the 1970s.
Regarding drug testing, I found that regular testing served as a deterrent for some offenders.I agree with the notion that everyone does not have to be tested on every office visit.
Felony probation is not hard to do if the defendant will modify his behavior so as to not break the law. Period, end of story.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Will, of course enhanced supervision increases revocations - that's axiomatic. But I think you're missing some nuance: Historically, they've maxxed out probation conditions on everybody. The new director is saying that's only justified on the highest risk probationers and that requirements should be reduced on the others.

As for "compliance expectations," part of what's going on is we've scaled up the criminal justice system in the era of mass incarceration to the point where it's physically and financially impossible and wholly unreasonable to revoke probation for every non-compliant person, particularly when judges routinely tack on lots of extra conditions. That's the logic behind the HOPE program - use lesser sanctions for noncompliance that are actually enforced instead of maximum sanctions that seldom are.

Anonymous said...

People are again falling prey to half-truths and smoke and mirrors regarding the supposed accomplishments of the esteemed Dr. May. Ask her specific questions regarding probation policy and practice or about the foundations of risk assessment--once she finishes stammering for a response you'll see that she is all fluff and no substance-

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

Enhanced supervision increases revocations? What outdated studies are you reading? Yes, studies in the 90s showed that Intensive Supervision Probation (ISP) by itself is a waste of time. All it does is teach people how to report more often. However, increased supervision with treatment programming is VERY effective in reducing revocations. Look at Drug Courts. If your attitude is "Hold 'em accountable" or "Trail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em," then increased supervision will increase revocations. If your purpose is to change the lives of the offenders in a positive way, increased supervision with treatment will be significantly more effective.

As for the attempted character assassination on Teresa May, it's WAYYYY too early to form judgments. It takes at least 2 years for a director from the outside to turn a department around. My money is on Dr. May. From my many conversations with her, there is much more than just fluff there. It's a whole new world when you become a director, but Dr. May not only has the academic credentials, she also has common sense.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, 8:20, there are pretty substantive, evidence-based foundations for risk assessment these days. The biggest barrier to its success is usually the failure of policymakers to finance programming in response to identified risks. I've little doubt that's true in Houston. But there's been a ton of research over the past couple of decades on what works in probation and the field is a lot better developed than it used to be.

Dr. May's problem is that she doesn't control what the judges do and can't speak for them, so I'm sure she does shy away from specifics. They're her bosses and she can't trash them publicly by articulating best practices that the judges refuse to follow. She's in a very delicate situation.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Steve, your response wasn't up when I commented at 9:04. I agree with you that enhanced supervision coupled with treatment and programming aimed at mitigating identified risks - as in the drug court model - doesn't necessarily increase revocations. But if extra supervision is broadly applied to higher risk offenders, especially when programming resources are short-changed (as is too often the case in Texas), I do think that makes revocation more likely, for the same reasons you cite with ISP. They're high-risk for a reason, after all. But eliminating unnecessary conditions on probationers with lower risk more than offsets that in the big picture.

R.S. Gates said...

I'm thankful for people who take the time to consider important issues. Thanks Grits for another great article.

Anonymous said...

Listen to this.... I received a second dwi in Comal County (New Braunfels). I admit I was over the limit and I accept responsibility. They did a forced blood draw on me. The judge suspended my license for another year (DPS already suspended it for two years and get this, the Judge refused an occupational permit. He also ordered the blow patrol to be put on my truck. So get this, if I don't put on the blow patrol as ordered, he said he would send me to jail for a year. He also said If I drive that vehicle, I would get that year. So if I don't put on the blow patrol, I'm arrested. But the minute I blow in that damn thing and start my truck, I just operated a vehicle and I'm gonna get arrested. So I am corned. My only way out? Sell the damn truck which I am doing tomorrow. They are running checks with TXDOT to see if you have a registered vehicle in your name. I am leaving Texas when this is all over with man.

Anonymous said...

That's why I don't like judges.

Anonymous said...

ISP works if it is done correctly.

Probation Departments have always overused the collection of urine. Now, it has gone to hair follicles, secure continuous alcohol monitoring, electronic monitoring, global positioning, ignition interlock, etc. All of which are corporations who taut public safety but are really about profit. The judges, prosecutors, and Joe Q. Public are who are usually hoodwinked into buying into the corporate b.s. surrounding all the technology. Probation officers who are true community corrections professionals know better. Much of the technology gives a false sense of security, has nothing to do with risk reduction and everything to do with risk containment.

Early intervention is always the key, if intervention is even necessary.

The risk needs assessments are what determine "what" type of intervention is necessary, "if" intervention is necessary, "how" much intervention is necessary, etc.

However, assessments aren't routinely done prior to sentencing. Most probation departments, the vast majority don't have the resources to have an assessment unit. Maybe Harris County, Travis County, El Paso County, Dallas County, can pull that off, but there are many departments with less than 10 employees. Even departments with as many as 50 officers won't have the resources for an assessment unit.

Also, with assessment units, they fall flat on their face after the term of supervision begins, because if the assessment unit is to always assess the offender (what about when it is time to reassess), that takes away from the relationship the supervising officer has with the offender. Prior to sentencing, sure it is a good idea to assess an offender, but what about reassessment time?

Defense attorneys don't want a defendant being assessed prior to sentencing. Prior to sentencing is prior to trial. Whatever is divulged before sentencing by a defendant to a probation officer could be used by the prosecutor at trial, right?

Prosecutors could care less what probation officers think, and the last thing they want is probation officers slowing down their docket routine and offering insight into what a defendant needs. Prosecutors would prefer to have a plea agreement where they have full control. Most prosecutors don't even understand that probation is a separate entity from the District Attorney. Many probation officers also have no idea that they don't work for the district attorney.

Judges don't want probation officers assessing defendants and then telling the Court what to do with an offender. Probation works for the Judge, not the other way around.

Judges might be in charge of Probation Departments budgets, but Judges' salaries aren't tied to probation department's budgets, so their investment really is minimal regardless of statute.

It is true the crime isn't what will tell the community corrections professional how to change the behavior of the offender, it is the criminogenic need that will tell the community corrections professional how to supervise the offender; but whether probation likes it or not it is the crime that is before the court, guilt or innocence of the crime is before the court.

Everyone meaning judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and probation departments have to be on the same page before the assessment process will ever make a difference prior to sentencing.

It is better to assess the defendant after sentencing. Then, regardless of the crime related to the probated sentence, the criminogenic needs can be investigated, the probation department can develop supervision plans with the offenders, and community resources can be used to assist the offender in making changes to get out and stay out of the system.

Maybe in Harris County, they will have an assessment unit and will do the assessment pre-sentence, maybe the prosecutors will pay attention, maybe the Judge will listen; but I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

6:10, you sound confused. Why don't you call your attorney and get some clarification.

Anonymous said...

Hey 8:21 - my attorney is the one who told me. She's the one who told me to sell it. They trapped me. It just justifies the whole reason why we moved 185 mil. out of Comal county and investigated other revenues where our clients don't come and visit and leave on probation. Comal County is nothing more than the third Reich,