* To avoid spending two billion dollars on building and operating new prisons, the 80th Legislature strengthened probation, including adding 1,400 beds at probation and parole intermediate sanctions facilities. These “ISFs” are typically located in major urban areas, such as one across from Minute Maid Park in Houston, have average stays of 60 days, and primarily house probationers and parolees who would otherwise be revoked for technical violations or misdemeanors.
* Probation costs $2.99 per day, about 54% of which is paid for by offenders in probation fees. Prison costs $50.04 per day, all of which is paid for by taxpayers.
* Require probation with mandatory treatment for first-time, low-level drug possession offenders with no prior violent, sex, property, or drug delivery crimes. This could apply to offenders convicted of possessing less than four grams of drugs such as cocaine. Those convicted of drug delivery were excluded, as were drug possession offenders who had a previous conviction for any offense other than drug possession or a traffic violation. Those covered would be sentenced to mandatory probation and treatment, which they would have to pay for. The judge would determine whether the offender would go to a residential facility, which could be the state’s six month secure Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities (SAFPFs), or day treatment, or a combination. The bill specifically included faith-based treatment programs that meet state standards.
* Revise probation funding formula. Currently, state basic adult probation funds are distributed based solely on the number of individuals under direct supervision in that department. Distributing funding based on the number of adult probationers provides an incentive to keep probationers who have been compliant for many years, pose no risk to public safety, and are fully paying their fees on probation longer than necessary. Also, because the current funding formula does not incorporate risk, there is a disincentive to put individuals on probation in lieu of prison who could be safely supervised but only with a lower caseload, specialized treatment, electronic monitoring, and/or other interventions that are costly, though far less so than prison. In 2015, the Legislature should require implementation of a formula that includes factors such as: 1) the number of felony probation referrals; 2) an incentive for early termination of compliant probationers who have fulfilled all of their obligations and do not pose a risk to public safety; 3) adjusted funding based on risk level of the caseload; and 4) an incentive to reduce technical revocations so long as new crimes by probationers either remain the same or decline.
* Enhance use of problem-solving courts. Evidence has established that drug courts, mental health courts, DWI courts, and other problem-solving courts can reduce recidivism and lower costs to taxpayers by diverting appropriate offenders from incarceration while still holding them accountable. State funding and oversight for these courts should be consolidated into one agency, focus on felony offenders, and be based on guidelines that ensure the lowest-risk, low-level drug possession offenders who can succeed with basic probation do not take up slots in problem-solving courts that could be better used to divert offenders who might otherwise be incarcerated.