Being a criminal involves additional burdens not placed on the average citizen, which by design are neither ordinary nor convenient. Perhaps that is why Dallas County’s recent implementation of ATMs for probationers in lieu of meeting with probation officers has stirred controversy. After all, most people think criminals should endure something more painful than what most of us do every week to withdraw money.
Of the 900 Dallas County probationers reporting to a machine, half are on probation for driving while intoxicated while the remaining half committed other felonies, including drug dealing, burglary, engaging in organized crime and robbery.
Dallas’ program could spread to other Texas jurisdictions, as it was adopted with a state waiver of the human contact requirement. Although probation automation can improve the efficiency of the probation system if properly implemented, there are several flaws in Dallas’ approach.
First, the decision by the probation department to place an offender in this program involves no judicial oversight or knowledge. A judge should be required to approve, or at least be made aware of, the use of probation automation in each case.
Second, more than 100 offenders have already been terminated from the automation program, but there is no explanation as to why. Better tracking of participants is needed.
Finally, although only offenders who have already participated in face-to-face probation meetings are eligible, such interaction must be lengthy and substantive enough such that the offender has been forced to confront any attitudinal, mental illness or substance abuse issues. Unlike a machine, a good probation officer can ask tough questions and gauge the veracity of the responses. Rather than convert many offenders to a machine-only regiment, automated reporting could be interspersed with face-to-face meetings and small group sessions. Inappropriate use of probation automation risks saving money in the short run while increasing long-term costs through higher recidivism rates.
On the one hand, offenders who are not dangerous and have met all probation terms, which often include paying restitution and finding a job, should be on automated probation – or released entirely from probation.
However, those probationers who have not fulfilled their probation agreement and are not fully reformed need more human supervision, not less. If unreformed offenders are funneled into computerized probation, the underlying issues that led them to become criminals are unlikely to be addressed. These include a failure to comprehend the impact of their actions on others, which for more than half of offenders is partly a result of substance abuse or mental illness.
Texas currently spends 90 percent of its criminal justice budget on prisons, which are approaching their 150,000 capacity, and only 10 percent on probation and parole, even though there are more than three times as many offenders in the latter systems. Yet, because probation and parole revocations account for 46 percent of inmates entering prisons, greater investment in revocation-reducing programs can yield huge savings, as incarceration costs $30,000 a year per person.
Progressive sanctions are one way to reduce revocation rates. Thousands of probationers are revoked to prison after a series of technical violations, such as missing meetings or failed drug screenings. Instead of waiting for such infractions to accumulate and then incarcerating the probationer, progressive sanctions use intermediate measures such as curfews, a few nights in jail, or commitment to a residential treatment center to address violations as they occur. Utilizing progressive sanctions and intensive supervision, the Special Sanctions Court in Fort Bend County has reduced the number of probationers sent to prison for rule infractions by 63 percent.
But with greater investment in probation and parole services, we must also demand results. A recent independent report found the Dallas County probation department had allowed some 10,000 probationers to abscond. By privatizing probation services, contractors can be evaluated and partially compensated based on their success in monitoring and rehabilitating offenders. Texas has already realized the benefits of privately operated prisons, as studies show a 21 percent savings to taxpayers. Just as importantly, outsourcing probation and parole services would open the door to faith-based programs that have reduced recidivism rates by addressing the moral and spiritual needs of many offenders.
Even with the advent of ATMs, some banking needs, like obtaining a mortgage, still require talking to a human being. Similarly, probation automation is but one tool that must be properly used. Moreover, it must be accompanied by sweeping reforms in a bloated criminal justice system that currently focuses too heavily on incarceration instead of more effective and less expensive corrections strategies.
Marc A. Levin is the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit research institute based in Austin (www.texaspolicy.com).