Naked City

Probation reform in the Senate

On May 23, a bipartisan measure that would reform the state's probation system, save the state millions, and, theoretically, stave off the need to build more prison space went to the Senate floor for consideration. HB 2193, authored by Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson (chair of the House Corrections Committee), concentrates on relieving Texas' stressed prison system by retooling the community supervision system in an attempt to reduce the number of defendants on probation and the number of probation revocations. Specifically, HB 2193 would cap probated sentences at 10 years for some first and second-degree felonies, place a five-year cap on most third-degree felonies, including lower-level drug offenses and property crimes, and a two-year cap on misdemeanor probation with few exceptions. Additionally, the law would mandate the creation of new drug court programs (which emphasize counseling and rehab), impose new fees to fund them, and create a system of "progressive sanctions" for medium- and high-risk probationers.

If the measure becomes law, nearly 50,000 probationers would reportedly be eligible for release from their sentences. Supporters argue that the retooled system would reduce the workload for caseworkers, and thus create more time to oversee individual offenders. Opponents fear that the bill could place the public in jeopardy, reduce the amount of money the system makes through various probation fees, and ultimately lead to an increased prison population. "[T]he law is foolish and removes the ability of trial judges to appropriately apply sound discretion on a case-by-case basis, corresponding to the seriousness of the offense and the criminal history of the defendant," Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, said on May 13, as the bill made it off the House floor. He was one of 19 legislators, including Central Texas Reps. Mark Strama, D-Austin, and Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, who registered their disapproval of the bill as it passed to the senate. "The potential danger to the public is obvious," Keel said.

The bill's supporters, however, say the current system is what poses the real danger, wastes money, and fails to reduce recidivism, leading to an overburdened prison system. "Our probation system, as it exists today, is broken," Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, one of the bill's co-authors, told the Forth Worth Star-Telegram last month. "It's not working because no one is being watched." Allen told the paper that each probation officer currently must keep track of about 150 offenders; reducing the rolls and increasing the number of probation officers would mean closer scrutiny of the probation population.

In March, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced that the state's prison system was at capacity and that the state would need to contract with individual counties to lease space for the overflow while it considers whether to find a way to reduce the prison population, or come up with the money needed to build new prisons. Meanwhile, TDCJ reported that Texas' probation terms are 67% longer than the national average, and that in 2004 the number of probation revocations had soared to 8,000, of which 41% were for technical violations. According to the Legislative Budget Board, the reforms in Madden's bill would save the state $6.6 million through 2007, and more than $6 million per year thereafter.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

criminal justice, Probation, HB 2193, Jerry Madden, Terry Keel, Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, TDCJ, Sylvester Turner, Ray Allen

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