Broken Travis probation department getting fixed

Travis County probation officers are so bogged down with paperwork and heavy caseloads that they do not have time to focus on ways to keep the probationers they supervise from committing new crimes, according to a recent consultant’s report.

The analysis of the department that oversees about 11,500 people who might otherwise be in prison or jail also found other problems, including:

•Probation officers gather a wealth of computerized data that could help identify effective programs and plans for probationers, but those data are not regularly analyzed.

•Many probation officers do not leave their offices for home visits, a valuable way to develop relationships with probationers and spot potential problems.

•Many low-level offenders are too strictly supervised, increasing officers’ workloads and diverting resources from probationers who need to be watched more closely.

Now, Director Geraldine Nagy has begun a two-year overhaul of Travis County adult probation, officially called the Community Supervision and Corrections Department. Nagy said she asked for the analysis as a starting point.

“The officers are real excited about this,” said Nagy, who was hired early this year. “Most of them want to make a difference.”

Her plan sounds simple: Let research and analysis guide how strictly people on probation are watched and determine what combination of programs gives them the best chance to stay out of prison and jail. Making that happen in a department that has a $22 million budget and in which many of the 143 probation officers keep tabs on 133 probationers each will be far from simple, Nagy said.

Travis County is one of only a handful of probation departments nationwide implementing such changes, which are known in criminal justice parlance as evidence-based practices, she said.

The effort comes as the Legislature has shifted some of its focus from building prisons to beefing up probation.
Supervising someone on probation costs about $2.27 a day; housing them in a Texas prison costs $40 a day.

To lighten the workload on probation officers and enable them to develop better relationships with probationers, visit them at their homes and spot potential problems before they occur, Travis County soon will hire at least 13 new probation officers using an $800,000 state grant, Nagy said. In return, local officials pledged to reduce by 10 percent the number of people who have their probation revoked and are sent to prison by the end of next year.

In fiscal year 2004, the most recent year covered in the report, about 2,000 people had their probation revoked in Travis County.

About two-thirds of the people on probation in Travis County have that status because they committed felonies, according to the report, which cost the county $23,500 and was done by the Austin-based JFA Institute, headed by well-respected former state corrections expert Tony Fabelo. Most of the felons committed a drug-related offense.

Being on probation in Travis County means taking regular drug tests and sometimes performing community service or getting treatment for things such as mental health problems or drug and alcohol abuse. Failing a drug test or breaking other rules can mean a trip to jail or prison.

The consultant’s report said the current system has not lowered the number of probationers who re-offend.

“There’s a tendency to just put somebody in probation and almost automatically follow a certain number of programs,” state District Judge Mike Lynch said. “What you want to do is look and say, ‘Who needs those? Does everybody need the same things? Does everybody go into the right program?’ ”

The key to the new Travis County plan, Nagy said, is sharpening the process of evaluating people entering the probation system. Do they use drugs? How often do they change addresses? Are they motivated to change?

The answers to those questions and others help officers put probationers into categories. Under the initiative, research then will show which treatment plan gives them the best chance of succeeding, Nagy said.

Nagy noted that the JFA report found that the department has committed employees, is well-organized and collaborates well with prosecutors, law enforcement and community groups in trying to reduce crime. The report also praised the leadership of Nagy, a former probation officer who has a doctorate in psychology from Kansas State University and previously worked for the arm of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that sought to improve probation departments statewide.

“In some cases, it’s like trying to look into a crystal ball” to see what programs will help people on probation cease committing crimes, said Buddy Meyer, trial chief in the Travis County district attorney’s office.

“We all want to set them up on a track where it’s more likely they’ll succeed instead of fail.”

Click here for the full story as reported in the Austin American Statesman

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