Sunday, November 1, 2015

Nature of the Crime – Motion to Revoke

In 2014, more than 24,000 people were sent to prison in Texas due to probation violations.[i]  That is a number greater than the size of the entire federal and state prison population in 31 states.  
Probation revocations account for one-third of all people received by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice every year.  Moreover, nearly half of those people sent to prison based on probation violations did not even commit a new crime. They were simply unable to meet the conditions of probation, so the probation officer issued a Motion to Revoke based on “technical violations.”  Technical violations can include anything from not completing treatment to failure to report.

If Texas is going to achieve significant reductions in its prison population, it has to start with making probation more effective. Putting aside all the acclaim associated with drug and other specialty courts, probation is the primary diversion strategy to keep people out of prison.  There are about 221,000 people on felony probation in Texas, a number that is dropping for the reasons I discussed in the previous post.  Further, the felony community supervision revocation rate was higher in 2014 than it was five years ago.[ii] 
Fewer people diverted and a higher revocation rate will reverse the limited progress Texas has achieved in terms of reducing its prison population. 

The issue is about more than just reducing the size of our prison population.  It’s about helping people to address the problems that led to criminal justice system involvement, so that crime rates decrease and people can live productive lives. Successful community supervision reduces the effects of addiction and mental illness, increases employment stability, and improves the quality of the community. Probation officers who define success in this way are providing a valuable service in their communities. 

I met with the Chief of a medium-sized Community Supervision and Corrections Department (CSCD) last week, and hope to meet with several others in the near future.  I asked what it would take to reduce probation revocations and ensure that probationers never return to the criminal justice system. The Chief had a number of interesting ideas. He emphasized incentives over sanctions. Many probationers struggle with fees, so he allows people on his caseload to do additional community service hours in lieu of fees. He goes a step further. He counts participating in rehabilitative programming, from addiction recovery to GED classes, as community service.    

The Chief emphasized the need to improve services to people with special needs. He wants all of his officers to be trained in “trauma-informed care,” recognizing the correlation between past trauma and current addiction and mental illness. He also wants to see more specialty officers for a variety of caseloads, including people with substance abuse issues and veterans. He suggested that every CSCD have a social worker on staff to assist with housing, employment, counseling, and other issues that arise during the course of supervision. 

How a CSCD handles violations is critically important. Studies have indicated that it’s not just harsh sanctions for minor violations that is the problem.  Probation departments that are inconsistent or even lenient when it comes to violations tend to have high revocation rates, just as those departments that are overly harsh or punitive. Studies have shown that anticipated sanctions should be swift, certain, and progressive.[iii] Those states that have communicated expected sanctions for specific violations and are consistent when imposing sanctions tend to have lower revocation and recidivism rates.[iv]

Even when probationers continue to violate or even abscond, however, judges still don’t have to send them to prison. Probationers often abscond due to relapse, unpaid probation fees, or other factors that can be addressed without sending someone to prison.  Judges can refer probationers to Substance Abuse Felony Punishment (SAFP) Facilities (SAFP), which are operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). When SAFP placements are combined with halfway house placement and aftercare, the recidivism rate for those who complete the program is 17% lower compared to those with similar needs who do not receive these services.[v]  Further, judges may also send probationers to TDCJ Intermediate Sanction Facilities for several months instead of sending them to prison. 
The emphasis should always be on helping people to be successful in the community, but judges must exercise every diversion strategy available before even considering prison placement. 
Even CSCD’s that embrace the goal of helping probationers to overcome addiction and become productive citizens know that they can’t do it alone. During my interview with the Probation Chief, someone passed by the office. The Chief called to the man and asked him to join us. The man had worked in the community supervision field for 37 years and was about to retire. Seeing a wonderful opportunity to learn from the best, I asked him, 
“What will it take to lower revocations and help people to succeed on probation?”  Without missing a beat, he said, “Help them to get jobs.”
Most employers remain entrenched in blanket bans on hiring anyone with a criminal history, particularly a felony record . The veteran probation officer said to me that probation departments need better collaboration with the Texas Workforce Commission and local employers.  The single leading factor in preventing someone from committing another crime is employment stability. 
Probation success leads to safer communities and fewer people in prison, but it will take the entire community, including employers, supporting the work of CSCD’s for them to achieve their goals. 

[i] Texas Department of Criminal Justice, “Report to the Governor and the Legislative Budget Board on the Monitoring of Community Supervision Diversion Funds,” December 1, 2014,
[ii] Legislative Budget Board, “Statewide Criminal and Juvenile Justice Recidivism and Revocation Rates,” February,2015, p. 3,
[iii] Kleiman, Mark A. R., “Justice Reinvestment in Community Supervision”, Criminology and Public Policy (2011), Volume 10, Issue 3.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Texas Department of Criminal Justice, “Evaluation of Offenders Released in Fiscal Year 2011 That Completed Rehabilitation Tier Programs, April,2015, p. 15, file:///C:/Users/Douglas/Downloads/TDCJ-Evaluation%20of%20Rehabilitation%20Programs%20-%20April%202015.pdf