About 20,000 Texas probationers are revoked to prison every year – half for new offenses, the rest for “technical violations.”

In 2005, we worked with lawmakers to reallocate some probation funding to performance-based grants for departments that use progressive sanctions to reduce technical revocations, resulting in net savings of $55 million from fewer technical revocations. Last year, lawmakers followed our recommendation to avoid new prisons; the alternative package included expanding intermediate sanctions facilities, which lock up technical violators for an average of 90 days, usually as the final sanction before revocation.

Inspiration for the next phase of Texas probation reform could come from across the ocean. I recently attended a presentation on Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program, an innovative probation approach to control revocations and promote compliance featured in The Wall Street Journal.

Participants – either drug possession offenders or property offenders with a drug problem – agree to strict rules, including attending mandatory drug treatment and calling into an automated phone system every morning to find out if they will report to the court for drug testing. If they test positive, they are immediately jailed for several days to a week. If this happens repeatedly, the probationer is revoked. The program has reduced the revocation rate from 31 percent to 9 percent and cut drug use by 91 percent.

While Texas probation departments can use “shock jail,” there is a disincentive to do so because most county jails are full and the county pays for them, while the state picks up the prison costs – about $360 million attributable to technical revocations per biennium. This illustrates the need for further changes in probation funding that would encourage, rather than discourage, initiatives like HOPE in Texas.

– Marc Levin