“Probation placements are up, early terminations are up, and revocations are down,” said TDCJ Community Justice Assistance Division Director Bonita White. “That’s what the Legislature wanted. We got results, and they said we want to keep going down this road. So we’re investing more money in community supervision.”
Legislators last year approved the spending of $134.4 million to further strengthen community supervision in Texas. That is on top of the $55.5 million they appropriated in 2005 in a successful bid to reduce probation caseloads, increase early discharges, and lower felony revocation rates. Statewide, felony probation placements increased 4.1 percent in 2006-2007, while revocation rates fell 2.1 percent. The average population of the state’s 36 community corrections facilities rose 10 percent during the two-year period, and the number of probation officers employed statewide increased 4.3 percent to nearly 3,500.
“Legislators really want to strengthen community supervision,” White said. “They want to keep people in the community and keep them successful. Over the long term, it’s much more cost-effective and a good thing if we can keep people working in the community, supporting their children there, and getting the treatment they may need.”
White points out that fewer revocations and more early discharges mean that fewer low-risk probationers end up in prison. She said the average stay at a less-expensive community treatment facility is four to six months.
“The Legislature knows there’s a percentage of people that are going in and out of prison because they need treatment,” White said. “You can cycle two to three people through a treatment bed in a year as opposed to cycling one person through prison. So if you just put somebody in prison, and they come out and go back again, that’s the most expensive thing you can do. Community treatment beds are not cheap, but they’re cheaper than somebody consistently going to prison.”
Additional appropriations for Fiscal Year 2008-2009 will provide 1,500 new Substance Abuse Felony Punishment (SAFP) treatment beds, 800 residential treatment beds for probationers, and 1,400 Intermediate Sanction Facility (ISF) beds for both probationers and parolees. Approximately $20 million of the total appropriation is earmarked to increase basic supervision funding for probation departments and to boost outpatient substance abuse treatment services for probationers. Additional funding was also appropriated to increase access to mental health treatment services. TDCJ will contract for the operation of the SAFP and ISF beds, while local probation departments will operate the residential treatment beds.
White said strengthening the state’s probation system was a smart choice for a state that was predicted to face a shortfall of 17,332 prison beds by 2012 without new diversionary programs. She said the goal now is to reduce prison revocations by 5 percent in 2008 and 10 percent the following year. To do that, she said, each of the state’s 3,500 probation officers would have to reduce revocations by just one over the two-year period.
“I think that a lot of people are understanding that prison is not a long-term fix,” White said. “Locking up people that may be ‘aggravating’ but not ‘aggravated’ doesn’t make sense for Texas. It makes sense to try to work with them where they have a life, where they’re doing the things that we’re doing. For people on probation, the goal is that they will be good citizens.”