Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Harris County probation department making big improvements, but it's still probation

As part of reforms implemented with its MacArthur grant, Harris County consolidated all of its state jail cases into one district-court docket called the "Responsive Intervention for Change (RIC) Docket." According to the Texas Comptroller:
Before the reforms, a disproportionate share of Texas' state jail felons (SJFs) were from Harris County — 26 percent in 2014, well in excess of the county's 16 percent share of the state's population. Five years later, its share of the total had declined by 90 percent, from 5,817 to 611. Harris County still sends more felons to state jail than any other county, but its overall share of the SJF population has fallen to 10 percent
The difference, May explains, is that the county has increased the number of defendants willing to accept probation through its RIC Docket, specialized caseloads (e.g., for substance abusers) and pre-trial diversion (PTD) programs offering mental healthcare, drug rehabilitation and work-release programs rather than prosecution. The county also significantly reduced the time defendants spend in jail awaiting trial, which greatly curtailed “good time” credit, removing the incentive to just sit idle or plead out to state jail, thereby reducing incarceration costs. 
"When defendants are not racking up a substantial amount of back time in jail awaiting disposition," May says, "they are more open to diversion or community supervision." 
Before their cases are decided, defendants' risk levels are assessed and their needs identified to target what's causing their criminal behaviors. The most common contributing factors, according to the CSCD, are attitude, peers, personality, family, education/employment, activities and substance abuse. 
On the back end, greater community supervision has helped to halve the re-arrest rate of the county's released SJFs, from more than 60 percent to less than 30 percent.
These are excellent outcomes and a great improvement over past practices. Grits finds particularly interesting the correlation between reduced pretrial detention and people's willingness to accept probation in a plea bargain. Reducing inefficiencies in one part of the system generated ancillary benefits in another.

Even so, there are moments when Harris County reminds us even the best probation departments are still doling out harm. This week, they tweeted out a success story of a woman named Sarah who completed probation and was released five-months early. HCCSCD praised her for having paid money to complete an "Effective Decision Making" class, then patted themselves on the back that, now that she has no fees, she can afford a new child's seat for her infant!

"How many people still paying fees are making similar tradeoffs to complete probation requirements?" Grits wondered aloud on Twitter. Certainly, more than a few.

The department's use of early release for successful probationers is commendable and deserving of praise, as is the new state-jail docket. But the perverse choices forced on this successful probationer - whether to pay for an "Effective Decision Making" class or a car seat for her infant daughter - are commonplace throughout the system. At this point, they're more a feature than a bug.

RELATED: From the state comptroller, "Texas state jails: Time for a reboot?"


Anonymous said...

On one hand, sex offenders on probation are spending around $2000 a year on "therapy," between $400 and $700 taking two polygraphs a year ($350 per test in Harris county), and an additional $5 perverts surcharge on their probation fees, and $20 every year for new drivers licenses...

On the other hand, they probably don't need that money to buy car seats or children's clothing! *Rimshot*

Seriously though, the PR person at Harris County Probation must be tone deaf.

Doug Smith said...

The RIC program is the best pretrial program in the state, and it is encouraging to see fewer people sent to the failed state jail system. However, pretrial programs, even programs such as RIC that emphasize decreased pretrial detention and peer recovery support, do nothing to stem the tide of arrests. Drug possession arrests have increased statewide. With increasing arrests, Harris County jail populations have not decreased as a result of RIC. I fear that we are endorsing probation assembly lines instead of addressing underlying issues of over-criminalization. What if every dollar spent on RIC was instead allocated to a community-based continuum of care for substance use disorder and mental illness?

Anonymous said...

RE: Doug Smith comment

It is doubtful Texas will ever address over-criminalization. The masses do not understand the full scope of what that means. No legislator will ever say "Vote for me as I am looking at reducing penalties for crime". People see a person commit a crime and want them in jail. There are a few people in the state who want probation to go away. Sadly, if that happens, understandably ADA's/judges across TX will basically only have few options: dismiss the case (no way), refer to community programs (which most counties do not have as funding is low) or incarcerate. Guess which they will choose?

The community-based continuum is a great idea, but unreachable. What are these small towns (mostly in Texas) supposed to do if they don't have any resources and the person cannot afford to drive 30-40 miles to nearest larger city? Tx is unable to fund various programs needed for every county. It is just unreachable. And they will not just let them break into a house, and say "Oh, there are no resources here, so let me slap you on the hand." Society will not tolerate that. Those people would not be re-elected and these actions are not helping the person learn about their bad behavior. And I believe many courts truly want to help. So, to prison or jail they go, which we all know sometimes makes people worse. Jails are warehouses. Offenders sometimes do need probation workers to help guide them. Yes, some suck...but let's fix the sucky ones and build on the backs of the good ones. We cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. I like your concept, but just having community based and not probation is not realistic or healthy.

Maybe instead of abolishing them, let's try and fix them and make them better? They do have issues at probation departments. Some extend for the wrong reasons, they revoke too quickly, or law enforcement minded, etc. We cannot just blame probation as being totally bad. Let's get some sensible probation reform as I am fearful for people if probation is killed as most will then be sent to jail or prison.

Yes, there was some recent legislation allowing offenders to report by video conference. Some probation departments could now say all their sex offenders can now report by video and never come into the office. You are on for aggravated assault against multiple women, no need to come in anymore…just Skype me. Twenty year Heroin addict with 4 children who recently tested positive? Nah, don’t need you to come in today, just Facetime me. Holy Crap we are not helping these people at all but instead leaving them unsupervised to potentially do harm to themselves or others. No community based program will take the time that is needed. It will be a generic one-size-fits-all type education. As a Texan, I say that is not helpful for people who need help.

Most people on probation or parole are good people who did something wrong. Many self-correct, but many do not. Maybe probation departments need closer over-sight to help them get in line with what is best for the offender as well as society. Too many special interest groups are just looking after what is best for the offender, when we need to find an agreeable common ground that is best for all parties.

No intent to offend you, it is just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

One improvement would be to make all probation deferred adjudication. Felony probation loses a lot of incentive if you're still going to be a felon when it's over, you're just an inmate at home.

Then instead of revoking someone to prison they can instead adjudicate them guilty, but compliant probationers can finish without a record.

Think about it, successfully completing ten years of probation with all the opportunities to reoffend, and choosing not to is deserving of something more than tough job prospects.

Anonymous said...

Question? Why is a DA allowed to put 10 years probation on his convictions even though the accused was innocent and refused parole (served full sentence) and now has to put up with harassment & embarrassment.

This former DA bragged about passing out 10 year probation to be able to yank "them" back to court when he campaigned for Judge at a Tea Party meeting.

Can anything be done in a bias Texas court?

BarkGrowlBite said...

Just a few comments.

Making probationers pay for their probation services is a great idea, but it disregards the inability of a poor person to pay them. There should be a means test before any fees are imposed.

People do not realize, including some of the practitioners, that the chief purpose of probation and parole is the protection of the public.

Probation is worthless if it consists only of useless office visits, and now video conferences. Those ankle monitors are not worth a shit either. In effect there is no supervision of probationers, and thus no protection of the public.

"Vote for me as I am looking at reducing penalties for crime." They've done that in California by reducing a number of felonies to misdemeanors in order to reduce the prison population. That has resulted in a significant increase in property crimes.

Finally if you are a criminal but don't want the stigma of being a felon, heat for San Francisco. Now in Nuttsville By he Bay, a convicted felon or an offender released from custody will be known as a “formerly incarcerated person,” or a “justice-involved” person or just a “returning resident.” A juvenile “delinquent” will now be called a “young person with justice system involvement,” or a “young person impacted by the juvenile justice system.” And drug addicts or substance abusers will become “a person with a history of substance use.”

Thus a rape victim would be known as "a woman who has come in contact with a returning resident who was involved with the justice system and who is currently under supervision with a history of substance use."

Anonymous said...

Crime does pay...
Has anyone considered that the public cannot see the total actual dollars probationers pay directly to private vendors at exorbitant rates; DWI classes, Sex Offender Therapy, BIPP, you name it? When offenders pay directly to vendors and not through departments the cost to the offender is off-the-books. When an offender does not or cannot pay the vendor, the vendor discharges offender(s) from the program/service unsuccessfully. Offender then gets revoked for unsuccessful discharge from the program/service. Entering into an MOU rather than negotiating a contract with private vendors doesn't drain departments' budgets from paying the bill for defendants who can't afford the costs. AND the state has no way of tracking or quantifying private vendor rates of service or how much is paid directly to private vendors from offenders because it is a direct transaction between private provider and defendant. Private vendors who provide services outside of a direct contract with a department should have a minimum requirement of being an approved State Vendor and on the state approved vendor list.