This commentary originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on May 8, 2017.
Texas has gained national acclaim for closing prisons while achieving declines in crime that exceed the national drop. Since 2005, crime has fallen 33.4 percent in Texas while the incarceration rate has declined 16.6 percent.
How did it happen? In 2005, the state launched a grant program whereby probation departments could receive additional funds to reduce caseloads if they adopted graduated sanctions to respond to technical violations like missing appointments and using alcohol or other drugs. Graduated sanctions, such as increased reporting, curfews, electronic monitoring, and weekend jail, are designed to promote compliance and thereby reduce the number of people revoked from probation to prison for technical violations. Then in 2007 Texas lawmakers opted against building new prisons and instead adopted a justice reinvestment package, which included expanding drug courts and substance abuse and mental health treatment programs to which judges could divert people to instead of prison.
Since then, Texas has closed four lockups and, with more than 6,000 empty beds, pending House and Senate budgets call for closing at least two additional prisons, saving tens of millions of dollars. However, these budgets also include cuts to adult probation that threaten to stop this trend from continuing. The cuts are based in part on a faulty assumption that fewer people will be on probation in 2018 and 2019. The budget conference committee members must rectify this.
Texas has been down this road before. In 2003 facing a revenue drop due to a recession, Texas lawmakers cut probation by 20 percent, which was immediately followed by a spike in people being sentenced and revoked to prison. Why is this? First, if probation caseloads are unmanageable and there are waiting lists for treatment beds, prosecutors and judges will opt for prison instead of probation. Second, probation officers supervising 250 people instead of 125 people don't have the bandwidth to impose graduated sanctions to bring the probationer into compliance.
There are two primary sources of a probation funding shortfall. First, correctional population projections from the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) on which the budget is based assume that there will be 4,000 fewer people on felony probation in fiscal year 2018 than in 2017. This is used as the basis of a $6.7 million annual cut to basic adult probation funding in both budgets.
Yet, the LBB report notes that placements and term lengths are trending slightly higher and acknowledges that because data was unavailable at the time, they did not count people being supervised by probation as part of a pretrial diversion program that Harris County started in 2016. Under this program which has 1,600 participants and is growing by 200 a month, people charged with a first-time state jail felony offense for possession of less than a gram of drugs are not convicted or sentenced if they successfully complete a year-long supervision and treatment regimen which is operated by the probation department.
This program has reduced the number of offenders choosing a short time in state jail over many years of probation, because they have the incentive of no criminal record if they complete it. Second, recidivism rates are two-thirds less than those for similar offenders discharged from state jail. Indeed, Harris County is effectively being penalized despite accounting for 55 percent of the 2,482 statewide decline in state jail admissions between 2014 and 2016.
The other pending hit to adult probation is that both budgets fail to fund a projected $22 million biennial increase in health insurance costs for current and retired probation officers. Unfortunately, probation is legally obligated to cover these costs and these increases simply track national trends.
The impact of the basic probation and health insurance funding shortfalls is dramatic. Harris County's probation caseload size will spike from 160 per officer today to some 260 per officer in August 2018. In contrast, state parole caseloads are less than 80 per officer. County probation director Teresa May rightly warns that prosecutors and judges will simply opt for state jails and prisons if probation caseloads preclude adequate supervision.
Texas has saved billions and become safer by thinking outside the cell. Now, state leaders must act to write the next chapter in this criminal justice success story.