Monday, May 07, 2018

Plummeting probation numbers leave fewer Texans under corrections control than nationally

Grits recently calculated the ten-year change in rates for the proportion of adults under control of the correctional system in Texas from 2008 to 2018, defined as everyone in prison, in jail, on probation and on parole, comparing that total to the total adult population. Texas' rate of people under government-control was one-in-22 adults in '08, compared to one-in-41 in 2018.

Let's revisit the question after the Washington Post publishing a similar analysis using national data for the period 2006-2016. According to them "In 2016, 1 in 38 adults were under one of these forms of “correctional supervision”; 10 years earlier, the figure was 1 out of every 31."

By these lights, Texans overall are supervised in 2018 at slightly lower rates than the 2016 national average. That surprised me.

How could that be? Texas' prison population remains the largest in the country. And parole numbers grew slightly over this period (Texas releases nearly 70,000 inmates per year).

That means the big reductions have come on the probation rolls, and to a much lesser extent, at county jails. By the numbers:

In 2008, the total probation population in Texas, felony and misdemeanor, stood at 429,689, according to TDCJ's annual statistical report.  Earlier this year, a TDCJ legislative handout put the number at 232,278, representing an astonishing 46 percent reduction!

Jail numbers also declined, though far less dramatically. On March 1, 2008, the statewide jail population was 69,397. On March 1st of this year it was 64,537. So just a seven percent reduction, which was entirely offset by an increase in the number of parolees being supervised.

Notably, most of the change in probation numbers is relatively recent. After a step down in the total cohort of probationers following reform measures passed in 2007, their numbers remained relatively high: In 2016, according to TDCJ, the total number of felony and misdemeanor probationers was 374,980. So that's a 38 percent drop in the last two years!

Grits cannot explain the plummeting numbers from 2016 to 2018 - certainly I can't think of any change in state policy which would justify it - but the fact of it helps clarify many political dynamics surrounding decarceration reforms.

In recent years, the most vocal opponents of sentencing reform in Texas have been probation directors, who fear that shifting non-violent offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor will reduce their funding. That's because they receive more money for supervising felons than misdemeanants, and felony probation generally lasts longer.

But Grits had underestimated the extent to which probation departments were feeling the squeeze. They survive on probationer fees and a per-probationer stipend from the state. So reducing numbers means reducing revenue. If their probationer numbers really dropped 38 percent in two years, then so did their budgets. No wonder they're in a panic about their money!

This news doesn't justify probation directors' regressive stances, but it explains some of the self interest behind them. And perhaps it will help state leaders put probation directors' advocacy for tough drug penalties in context as more a plea for budget relief than for public safety.


Theft reductions explain much of probation decline

On Twitter, Doug Smith from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition offered this explanation for the reduction:
It's a decline in misdemeanor placements. Felony placements are up slightly 2016-2018. Over past 10 years, felony placements ↓ 8% and misdemeanors ↓ 25%. Index crime rate ↓ 29% over same period, so felony placements should be lower, but possession cases up 30%+.
Digging a little deeper, much of the decline in misdemeanor probation appears to stem from reductions in theft cases, a trend made more pronounced when the Legislature in 2015 adjusted property-theft thresholds to account for inflation. According to the Office of Court Administration's Annual Statistical Report for FY 2017, "The number of new misdemeanor theft cases filed [in FY '17] fell 28 percent from the previous year and was the lowest number filed in at least 30 years."

An accompanying chart (p. 27 of the pdf) showed misdemeanor theft charges maxxed out in Texas in 2004 at >120,000, but came in at less than a third of that (38,377) last year. By contrast, "The number of new misdemeanor drug cases filed [ed. note: almost all marijuana possession cases] increased 1 percent from the previous year, reaching a new peak in filings in this category."

In the five years ending in 2017, misdemeanor theft filings overall declined by 41 percent. This trend was led by a 76 percent reduction in "theft by check" charges. The theft-by-check part of that trend is technologically driven, but the decline in theft charges exceeds the amount which can be explained by that reduction. Texas has a larger population that's simply accused of stealing at much lower rates than in years past.

Notably, this has been a period when many types of petty criminal cases in Texas have dropped like a stone. The number of traffic and parking tickets issued, for example, maxxed out in 2006 at 12.1 million, declining more than 50 percent to 5.5 million last year. Non-traffic citations declined from 2.1 million to 1.1 million over the same stretch (p. 31 of the pdf).

Nobody has been able to fully explain that traffic-ticket drop, which occurred across agencies and jurisdictions, seemingly without any coordinated effort.

But other types of cases have fallen, too. The number of new juvenile cases of all types maxxed out in 2008 at just more than 53,000 and has fallen to 29,153 last year (p. 33 of the pdf). Led by a reduction in truancy-related cases following legislative reforms, all non-traffic categories of Class C tickets given to juveniles declined radically over the last five years.

So, as Doug described, Texas has just gone through an era when crime declined quite a lot, and the number of case filings - except for drug cases, which accounted for 32 percent of felony charges in 2017 and 21 percent of misdemeanors (p. 26 of the pdf) - has mostly gone down with it.

Grits' conclusion from these data: The failed War on Drugs is propping up mass incarceration in Texas. That's why Texas probation directors oppose right-sizing penalties for low-level drug possession. That's the only growth-area in their business.


Anonymous said...

Grits do you have any access to Pretrial Diversion numbers? I know Pretrial Diversion numbers have significantly jumped in the past 4 years. Until this last legislative session Probation departments did not receive any funding for misdemeanor pretrial diversion cases, but have seen numbers skyrocket. Even with this last session, pretrial diversion is not funded across the board and only a handful of departments received grant funding for it. Historically those misdemeanor pretrial diversion numbers were not counted in probation populations reported by the state, I believe.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That data, to my knowledge, isn't gathered statewide, 9:36. But the data in the addendum/second half of the post from the Office of Court Administration was tracking new cases filed, regardless of the outcome, and those have dropped like a stone. So my sense is that, even if pretrial diversions have increased, those larger crime-reduction trends are the bigger factor.

Anonymous said...

Are arrest rates trending the same direction as probation placements for the period being studied?

Jails are overcrowded in many parts of the state. Could there be a significant backlog prosecuting cases causing the drop in probation placements?

Anonymous said...

1. Misdemeanors and felons are often placed in the Count and District Offices In House PreTrial program. In other words they have started their own Probation Offices where they collect the $500 pretrial fee. They can use this money anyway they want and don’t answer to anyone! I know of one county In West Texas that collected over 1 million dollars in one year!

2. Rural Probation Offices are hurting financially due to #1. Probation offices are cutting programs and laying off Officers due to #1

Steve said...

You might also want to look at DWI arrests as part of the reason for the decrease in misdemeanors. According to DPS records, there were about 95,000 DWI/DUI arrests in 2010. In 2016, that had dropped to less than 63,000. That's a 33% decrease. In addition, many of those DWIs are reduced to reckless driving or other lesser offenses because DAs and defense attorneys realize how draconian the surcharge laws are.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Excellent points, Steve, and 5:19.

Re: DWI arrest stats (see historical statewide arrest data here):

2010 Texas adult DWI arrests: 94,236
2016 Texas adult DWI arrests: 62,216

Also, arrests for "drunkenness" (public intoxication?):

2010: 130,564
2016: 64,120

And as you know, traffic ticket numbers have significantly declined.

For that matter, on "all other" offenses, excluding traffic:

2010: 320,492
2016: 225,924

So @ Steve, I have to wonder if the DWI reductions are part of broader trends involving alcohol, as implied by reductions in drunkenness, part of a trend in traffic enforcement, as implied by the reduction in overall traffic tickets, part of a more generalized crime reduction, as implied by the reduction in the "all other" category, or, as you imply (and as I've suggested before), maybe it's a policy shift in part reacting to excessive surcharges, as some Texas prosecutors and judges have suggested. Or none of these things. Or all of them, and more. ¿Quien sabe?

But you're 100% right, that's a big reduction, and one of which the press and the public are largely unaware.

Anonymous said...

Here is a question for you. If crime is going down, then why are the number of cases pending on courts dockets growing annually?

Anonymous said...

Probation population includes direct and indirect cases – this is important for your math. Please don’t mix the two, they mean different things.

The 2018 PowerPoint handout states there were 232,278 under direct supervision.

The 2016 Statistical report states there were 241,265 under direct supervision.

The two-year reduction was only about 3.87%.

Anonymous said...

follow the money---when inmates are now paroled they have to take classes at alcoholics anonymous and substance abuse even if they have never suffered from drug or alcohol addiction

one man I know is blind and deaf but he has to take a class in preventing sex abuse even though he can't see or hear the class instructor that is a few feet away from him. absolutely hilarious. (el paso)

your tax dollars at work.

Anonymous said...

Could the reduction in "theft by check" charges be because local DA's are being called out for and no longer acting as a collection agency for payday loan companies?

Anonymous said...

If young men learn to party at home and stay off the roads the crime rates might be cut by over a third----and prison populations more so. Penny ante traffic stops---expired plates and decals, failure to use a turn signal, etc.,---lead to the arrests that are the life blood of the bar associations. What stronger argument can these be for using mass transportation?