How Travis County’s probation department was completely revamped and what effect the changes have had on recidivism
Dr. Tony Fabelo
In mid-2006, I wrote an article in this publication about efforts to rejuvenate the Travis County probation department. Three years later, data show that the program was successful in reducing recidivism and eliminating the need to build more prison beds (which many thought was the only answer to crowded prisons a few years ago). In fact, we’re about to embark on a similar overhaul of the Bexar County system.
I wrote a report this year for the legislature reviewing prison population trends;1 in a nutshell, it says that since we adopted the “justice reinvestment” plan in 2007—and despite the challenges of managing a large expansion in residential treatment—this initiative appears to be stabilizing the growth of the Texas prison population. The increase in treatment capacity and intermediate sanction facilities has connected more probationers with services and reduced the number revoked to prison. The legislation’s in-prison programs have reduced delays in parole releases, enabling the parole board to grant more supervised releases. And the infusion of resources for intermediate sanction facilities and the administrative policy changes regarding violations seem to be the main reasons for decreasing parole revocations. Texas had 77,990 parolees under direct supervision in 2008, but only 7,444 were revoked to prison, and, of these, only about 20 percent were revoked for administrative violations.2 As documented in another Justice Center report for prison officials early this year, this change is the result of the aggressive implementation of progressive sanctions and the use of ISFs in lieu of a prison revocation.3
The legislative session that ended in June 2009 recognized the success of this policy and re-authorized funding for all programs adopted in 2007, leaving in place the infrastructure to support these policies. The prison population is stable and declining (and yes, the state population continues to grow and unemployment has increased during this period). Recently, state prison officials notified county officials that they no longer need to contract with counties for close to 1,800 beds due to the population decline.4 Shutting down the county contracts will save an additional $28 million a year.
In the meantime, crime has not skyrocketed as usually suggested by opponents of these programs. In 2007, the latest full year crime figures are available, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) reported a decline of 1.2 percent in the violent crime rate and a slight increase in the property crime rate of 0.9 percent.5 At the time of this writing, there are no state crime stats from DPS for 2008, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has preliminary national figures for 2008 showing a decline in crime nationally. An analysis of the FBI’s figures shows the number of violent and property crimes in Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio to be relatively stable.6 For the record, crime increases can be the result of other factors that have nothing to do with the adoption of these justice reinvestment policies; difficult economic conditions, increased unemployment, cuts in local programs, and diverting youth formerly bound to the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) for the community can be contributing factors. (By the way, I had nothing to do with that last policy!)
How it all began
On a beautiful winter day in December 2006, John Bradley, District Attorney in Williamson County, and I were doing mental calisthenics outside a ballroom in an Austin hotel. While people were mingling outside drinking coffee, we were preparing to debate in front of all elected district and county attorneys whether Texas needed to build more prisons, and we were armed with our PowerPoints and ready to tear each other apart.
It was a hot topic at the time. A few months before, prison officials, in reaction to the legislative budget office’s projections, proposed a major prison construction project. The budget office estimated the need for 17,000 additional prison beds, requiring new construction by 2012 at a minimum cost of $2 billion. Prison officials had submitted a budget request to the legislature of $523 million to build prisons and an additional $184 million in “emergency” contracted capacity to rent detention space in county jails.7
John’s argument went like this: We can’t trust the state to fund diversion programs over the long term, and we can’t protect the public if we just release criminals early from a sentence. History has shown that rehabilitation programs, even if created, will die from lack of ongoing support and funding. Regardless, we need to expand prison capacity because the Texas population is growing and we need to keep up with this growth; if we fall behind the capacity curve like we did in the late 1980s, policymakers will simply deal with overcrowding by approving early release of criminals. Once that happens, the real cost will come in an increased crime rate.
My argument went like this: We don’t need to build more prisons. The main cause of the projected bed shortfall is not population growth but draconian cuts to probation and treatment programs (made by the legislature in 2003). The cuts created long waiting lists for substance abuse facilities, suppressed judges’ ability to sentence offenders to incarceration alternatives, and encouraged the parole board to release low-risk offenders because of few prison rehabilitation programs and weaker supervision alternatives. I stated that even if we wanted to build more prisons, we could not staff them (at the time the vacancy rate for guards was 14 percent), and given the prognostications on state revenues in the future, we could not pay to operate them. (Yes, I showed a bunch of number charts in nice colors.)
The legislature took action
Less than a month after our debate, the 80th Session of the Texas Legislature convened in January 2007. Elected officials faced a major dilemma: spend a half billion dollars to build and operate new prisons to accommodate the surging number of people expected to be incarcerated or explore options to control that growth. With the sponsorship of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a national foundation starting a project to assist states in controlling prison costs while maintaining public safety, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, I assisted the legislature through my work at the Justice Center.
Working with a bipartisan group of legislative leaders headed by Senator John Whitmire and Representative Jerry Madden, we conducted a comprehensive analysis of the state’s prison population. The data were used to shape policies that obviated the need to build more prisons and allowed for the reinvestment of roughly half the funds, earmarked for prison construction, for a rangeof strategies designed to increase public safety and reduce recidivism.
In May 2007, the Texas legislature adopted, and the governor approved, a budget that included greater treatment capacity in the prison system and expansion of diversion options in the probation and parole system. A total of 4,500 new diversion beds and 5,200 new program slots were funded.8 At the end of the 2007 legislative session, the state budget agency projected that the justice reinvestment policies, if adopted and implemented, would stabilize the prison population. Governor Rick Perry vetoed the second year of funding contract jail capacity, noting that this money would not be necessary due to the diversion and treatment funding provided in the state budget. Subsequent projections in January 2008 and June 2008 were consistent with these projections.9
The final budget adopted by the legislature for the 2008–2009 biennium reflected an increase of $241 million in funding for additional probation diversion and treatment capacity. The expansion of these programs translated into a net savings of $443.9 million in the FY 2008-09 budget by reducing funding for contracted bed space and canceling funding for the construction of the new prison units originally proposed.10
One area of no debate
Bradley and I are still talking and are friends, and we strongly agreed during the debate on one point: Unless we implement programs and diversion effectively, we cannot sustain positive results in reducing recidivism. This is particularly important in probation. A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Center for the States, shows that 1 in 31 people in the country are under correctional control, meaning locked up, on probation, or on parole. Most are on probation (4,293,163 on probation from a total 7,328,200 population under correctional control). In Texas, 1 in 22 people (797,254) are on correctional control with 54 percent of those on probation and another 13 percent on parole.11 Therefore, making community corrections more effective is critical to the success of any effort to control the prison population growth, as up to two-thirds of prison admissions are for offenders violating probation or parole.
I made my case about the need to strengthen probation a few months before our debate in an article in this journal that I titled “Rejuvenating Probation.”12 In this article I discussed the challenges that lay ahead for Texas’ probation system and discussed an effort to develop a model to address these challenges. I discussed my evaluations of the Dallas and Travis Counties’ probation departments and the findings that these organizations were operating under old models that emphasized the supervision of paperwork instead of people. I stated that unless we improve these organizations and how they supervise probationers, our progress in reducing the number of probation revocations by changing probationers’ behavior will be limited. Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso are among the 25 most populous metropolitan areas in the nation, and probation departments in these cities can no longer operate like they are judges’ fiefdoms. I made the case that judges must oversee probation department policy, just as a corporate board does, but they must also support the department’s professional independence to administer cohesive policies along evidence-based practices.
There is growing knowledge of what effective practices for supervising offenders in the community should look like. This knowledge is usually referred as “evidence-based practices” or EBP. Key to effective practices is the ability to identify, using scientific tools and well-tested interview protocols, the risk and criminal behavior patterns of those considered for community supervision (usually referred to as criminogenic characteristics). Once the population is properly identified, the conditions and strategies of supervision should be designed to match the population profile. In general, there is strong empirical evidence that the “most powerful impact on changing criminal behavior and reducing recidivism comes from paying attention to the risk, need, and responsivity principles: providing the greatest supervision and treatment to medium- and high-risk offenders, focusing on criminogenic needs, and using cognitive-behavioral and behavioral interventions.”13 There is also good evidence that the “quality of the interpersonal relationship between the probation/parole officer and the offender and the structuring skills of the officer may be as important as or even more important than specific programs in influencing behavioral change in offenders” and that “graduated sanctions (i.e., those that increase in severity based on nature and number of violations) decrease recidivism.”14
In the marketing culture that we live in, most community corrections agencies in the nation claim to have EBP practices. However, my experience is that there is more spin than effective adoption of these practices. Although growing evidence supports that certain supervision strategies are effective in reducing recidivism in community corrections, these practices cannot be easily instituted without methodically revamping a probation agency. And this revamping cannot easily occur without judicial players modifying practices to fit a more effective supervision model. Therefore, with funding from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) probation division (Community Justice Assistance Division or CJAD), and under the leadership of Dr. Geraldine Nagy, director of the Travis County Probation Department, we engaged in a two-year process to retool the Travis County probation system along these practices. The process started with an assessment of the department in 2005 and continued with a methodical plan to change key aspects of its operations in 2006 and 2007. This effort was supported by local judges, prosecutors, the defense bar, and county commissioners.
Making probation more effective
In Travis County we tested the implementation of an EBP model, and in a department that in general had a long tradition of professionalism and respect from the judges, it took three years to adjust all the nuts and bolts to have an integrated EBP model. I documented major aspects of the implementation in about a dozen reports.15 At the end of the day we were able to:
Create a central diagnosis unit. Travis County now has a centralized diagnosis process for all felony probationers and high-risk misdemeanants staffed by specialized “diagnosticians” dedicated only to this process. The diagnosis uses scientifically tested tools as opposed to the prior open-ended narrative of a PSI that could be written and interpreted in many different ways. Scientific assessment tools are a risk assessment, which identifies offenders by their propensity to be re-arrested or re-incarcerated, and a case classification tool, which determines the defendant’s criminogenic factors and how to address them. Criminogenic factors have been shown to predict future criminal behavior; they include antisocial thinking, impulsive personality, substance abuse, and relations with criminally oriented peers. These factors can be addressed through well-designed treatment or intervention programs.
Develop a diagnosis report to the courts. Based on locally conducted research, a diagnosis matrix was created with three categories, each reflected by three colors: yellow, blue, and red. The offenders falling in the yellow portion are generally low-risk offenders with pro-social factors. Those falling in the matrix’s blue section are low- to medium-risk offenders with generally pro-social factors but with skill deficits, substance abuse, and impulsive behavior. Those falling in the red are generally medium- to high-risk offenders with criminogenic and destructive behavior factors. “Off-grid” supervision adjustments are made for sex offenders, repeat DWI offenders, and repeat family violence offenders. A more detailed explanation of this system can be found in an article that Dr. Nagy and I published in the American Probation and Parole Association magazine.16
Design supervision strategies to fit diagnosis of population. There are six elements in crafting a supervision strategy: 1) expected contacts per month, 2) appropriate program utilization, 3) special conditions to support supervision requirements, 4) a sanctioning strategy for violations, 5) incentives for success, and 6) outcome accountability. These six elements were structured to fit the specific populations based on a diagnosis process as described above.
Design sanction strategies for violations. Following the logic above, a sanctioning grid for violations was developed to match each of the colors in the matrix. The idea is that the response to violations should support each strategy’s goals, with the yellow sanctioning scheme providing low to moderate responses to administrative violations, the blue scheme providing more restrictive responses directed at supporting compliance with participation in treatment programs, and the red scheme providing swift and restrictive responses to even minor violations.
Strengthen the department’s infrastructure. Changes in diagnosis, supervision, and sanctioning processes were backed by strengthening the department’s administrative support infrastructure. Personnel training and evaluations were revamped and new process and outcome monitoring reports were created to provide the tools that management needs to support the operational model.
Results to prove it
I will let you ask your colleagues in Austin if the changes in the probation department resulted in better assessments and supervision strategies. The word I hear is that it has and recently County, the magazine of the Texas Association of Counties (TAC), published a feature article with positive testimonial regarding the “probation experiment,”17 but we also have some empirical information to share.18
The third year of the project started in April 2008. During this phase measuring the impact of the initiative on outcomes and measuring fidelity to the model were completed. The analyses shows that Travis had the largest decline in felony revocations to prison compared to the other four largest metropolitan probation departments in Texas (Bexar, Dallas, Harris, and Tarrant Counties) from prior to the implementation of the Travis County project in 2005 to after the implementation of the TCIS project in 2008. Specifically:
• Travis County felony revocations declined by 19.6 percent while there was a 0.4 percent increase statewide;
• the Travis County revocation rate declined from 10.2 percent in 2005 to 9.0 percent in 2008, the lowest revocation rate of the largest urban probation departments;
• Travis County experienced the largest decline in felony technical revocations compared to the other four largest urban departments (a 47.7-percent decline), from 5.9 percent in 2005 to 3.4 percent in 2008, resulting in a cost avoidance of $4.8 million in state incarceration costs;
• reduced jail days associated with a reduction in offenders jailed for motions to revoke produced an estimated cost avoidance of $386,000 for county jail costs in one year; and
• new felony absconders declined by 9 percent from 2006 to 2008. This may also be associated with better supervision practices and the creation of a new absconder caseload.
Research was also conducted to determine if re-arrests after placement on felony probation changed with the implementation of the TCIS project. The evaluation groups were developed from all offenders placed on felony probation. Those placed from January to June 2006 were considered the pre-reform group, those placed from January to April 2007 were considered the transition group, and those placed from July to October 2007 were considered the post-reform group. The last period was selected to allow enough time for a one-year follow-up. The recidivism analysis shows that the percent re-arrested in the one year after placement on probation declined from 29 percent of the pre-reform group, to 26 percent for the transition group, to 24 percent for the post-reform group. These numbers represented a decline of 17 percent compared to the pre-reform group.
Is the justice system ready for real change?
We are working on translating this experience into national documents to guide these types of reforms in other localities. In Texas, with the funding support of CJAD, we are starting the same project in Bexar County with an in-depth evaluation of the probation department and its relations to other aspects of the justice system there. This process will be completed by January 2010, at which point we will have a good idea of whether Bexar County is ready and able to adopt an EBP model. A former association president and Criminal District Attorney in Bexar County, Judge Susan Reed, is providing guidance and support in this effort. County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson is a great fan and some district court judges are already well-versed in the EBP model. Moreover, the department leadership is fully invested in the process and ready for change.
This probation department is substantially larger than the Travis County department and is driven by different judicial traditions. Therefore, we are now testing if larger departments can really be aligned along EBP in a reasonable period of reform time (three years) and if larger judicial systems can accommodate these changes. If we can do this in Bexar County, I bet then we can do it in any other place in the country.
Wish me luck. If you compare my picture in this issue to the one in the 2006 article, that will give you a clue of what happens when you invest in one of these projects! By the way, tough-as-nails John Bradley has implemented an effective diversion program for mentally ill offenders in Williamson County that has reduced the jail population and related costs and provided more humane interventions for these folks. So if we keep moving in this direction, maybe our next debate will be a love fest. I hope we will have less to debate and more praise to go around!
Editor’s note: Mr. Bradley has a bit more to add to Mr. Fabelo’s memory of the legislative process: “My memory is that Texas prosecutors seriously engaged in the legislative debates of 2005 and 2007, strongly influencing criminal justice leaders to avoid simplistic proposals to reduce prison populations by decriminalizing felony crimes to misdemeanors and expanding early release to dangerous levels. In fact, a 2005 bill by Rep. Jerry Madden, which would have released over 50,000 felons from any supervision, was vetoed by Governor Perry at the request of many Texas prosecutors. The net result of that collective effort was to influence legislators to act more cautiously and to restore the proper balance between confinement and treatment resources necessary to fulfill the promise of deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation contained in the Penal Code adopted in 1994. That balance will not continue unless we all remain vigilant. By the way, Tony Fabelo is a great Texan, by way of Cuba, and has a magnificent memory for dirty jokes.”
1 Council of State Government Justice Center, March 2009. Assessing the Impact of the 2007 Justice Reinvestment Initiative, www.justicecenter .csg.org.
2 Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Annual Reports FY 2000-2006. TDCJ-CJAD, Annual Statistical Report FY 2007.
3 Internal Report to TDCJ, Justice Center, Texas Parole System: A Case Study of Progressive Sanctions and Risk Reduction Strategies at Work, February 2009.
4 “Prison guard shortage eases; officials attribute progress to economy and pay incentives,” by Mike Ward, Austin American-Statesman, June 27, 2009.
5 Texas Department of Public Safety, Crime in Texas, 2007.
6 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report, January-June 2008, Table 4, www.fbi.gov/ucr/2008prelim/down-loads.htm.
7 Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Legislative Appropriations Request, Fiscal Years 2008–2009, August 2007.
8 Figure 2 as presented in Council of State Governments Justice Center, September 2007. Justice Reinvestment Texas: A Case Study, cited above.
9 Legislative Budget Board, Adult and Juvenile Correctional Population Projections, January 2008 and June 2008, www.lbb.state.tx.us/Pub-Safety_CrimJustice/PubSafety_CrimJustice.htm#.
10 Council of State Governments Justice Center, September 2007. Justice Reinvestment Texas: A Case Study www.justicecenter.csg.org. The savings represent the difference between the original request for appropriations by the administration and the final adopted plan and do not consider potential future savings or cost-avoidance due to the impact of the plan on the projected prison bed shortfall and reductions in recidivism.
11 The Pew Center for the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, Pew Charitable Trusts at www.pewtrusts.org.
12 “Rejuvenating probation,” The Texas Prosecutor, Volume 36, Number 3, May-June 2006.
13 A upcoming publication presently under development will provide a good review of all empirical evidence behind EBP. “DRAFT: A Framework for Evidence-Based Decision Making in Local Criminal Justice Systems”. Project for the National Institute of Corrections from Collaborative Project between Center for Effective Public Policy, Pretrial Justice Institute, the Justice Management Institute and the Carey Group, 2009. Check www.cepp.com/work.htm or www.nicic.org for the final published copy later this year.
14 Ibid, footnote 13.
15 See: Travis Community Impact Supervision, www.co.travis.tx.us/community_supervision/TCIS_Initiative.asp.
16 Dr. Tony Fabelo and Dr. Geraldine Nagy, American Probation and Parole Association, Perspective Journal, Fall 2009. “Streamlining and Strengthening Assessments with Evidence-Based Practices: The Travis County Experience.”
17 County, A Publication of the Texas County Association, Volume 21, Number 3, May-June 2009.
18 Council of State Governments, Justice Center. Travis County Community Impact Supervision Project: Analyzing Initial Outcomes May 2009.