Monday, October 12, 2015

Nature of the Crime – Community Supervision

The sad truth about the criminal justice system is that it often serves its own purposes.
 One of the most confusing moments for me during the most recent legislative session was when I advocated for an improved funding formula for probation departments.  The bill merely called for a study of the current funding allocation formula to reward positive outcomes and move past the overreliance on probationer fees.  The goal was to improve quality, rewarding departments that lowered probation revocation rates.  It would have led to an increase in the number of people on probation because exorbitant fees are often the primary reason people choose state jail time over probation. 

What was the response by many of the members of the Texas Probation Association to the prospect of more clients and financial incentives for good outcomes?  They came out in force to oppose the bill.  
I was shocked. A general rule of thumb in the Texas Legislature:  when an interest group opposes a study bill, they either have something to hide or they are afraid that potential changes will make things worse. 
It saddened me that the Association was so unwilling to discuss improvements to the system, because we all have something to gain if community supervision is successful.  Making probation more effective is one of the most important things we can do to decrease incarceration rates in Texas. Moreover, effective community supervision ends the cycle of relapse and reoffense that characterizes untreated addiction.

I was on probation at one point in my downward slide toward addictive destruction.  While grateful for the chance to remain in the community, I continued to struggle with addiction. I often wonder whether I might have succeeded on probation had the department supervising me utilized best practices. In fact, I have no recollection of them ever conducting a risk and needs assessment, an essential element in effective supervision; nor did they check on my progress in recovery.

They did indeed make sure I paid my fees on time. I paid a monthly fee, roughly $50, just to see my probation officer.  On top of that fee, I paid $130 per month in victim restitution.  The latter fee was a form of amends for the crime I committed, and I paid it without resentment.  However, the combined fees and community service requirements proved to be a challenge, especially when I relapsed.  

The challenge I faced is typical. It is not uncommon for people to be required to pay the probation fee, restitution, treatment costs, and electronic monitoring fees. Some people have to pay out of pocket for classes that allow them to renew their drivers licenses.  Increasingly, probation has become a significant obstacle to recovery instead of a resource to overcome the root causes of criminal behavior.  
I know of professionals charged with Driving While Intoxicated who gladly chose jail time over probation because the community supervision requirements are nearly impossible.  
People living at or near the poverty line often view probation as a trap. Probation costs alone will exacerbate economic challenges.  If one has children, the classes and community service requirements are often too difficult to balance. Knowing that their inability to meet probation requirements will lead to probation revocation and a longer prison sentence, defense attorneys routinely advise clients to accept county jail or state jail time over community supervision. This is one of the reasons that the number of people on probation in Texas has decreased by 40,000 since 2005.

It’s critical for my own recovery not to blame anyone for my own relapse. I had family support and help from the Veteran's Administration.  Probation did not help me to deal with the problems I was facing in terms of addiction and mental illness, but I take responsibility for not embracing the tools of recovery offered to me.  
What I can say affirmatively is that improving community supervision standards will likely prevent someone from having to experience what I did. 
The decline in the number of people taking community supervision as well as the high probation revocation rate will derail any effort to end mass incarceration in Texas.  For more information about fixing the community supervision system in Texas, click here