Borderland Monday, February 14, 2005
More probation money sought
Prison system near 'meltdown,' judge says
Gary Scharrer and Tammy Fonce-Olivas
El Paso Times
AUSTIN -- Texas taxpayers face another round of prison building and a likely "meltdown" of the state's prison system unless lawmakers increase funding for probation programs, an El Paso judge said last week.
"This meltdown will include prison population increases never before imaginable that will result in astronomical amounts of state funds being spent on the building of new prisons," 41st District Judge Mary Anne Bramblett said at a Capitol news conference.
Bramblett is vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Advisory Council, which advises the Texas Board of Criminal Justice.
Probation programs, including substance abuse treatment and counseling, cost 97 cents a day per client, compared with $44 a day for incarceration. Bramblett and other probation experts contend that current caseloads are unmanageable. El Paso probation officers each have about 132 cases, and the state average is 152.
"These are not safe numbers," Bramblett said. "Caseload numbers must come down or judges will be forced to send more people to prison to safeguard your community."
Probation officers should have caseloads of 75 offenders, according to the Texas Probation Association. Texas has about 440,000 people serving probation.
Lawmakers should appropriate an additional $60 million a year to reduce caseloads instead of accepting a $4 million cut recommended by the Legislative Budget Board, said Fred Rangel, president of the Texas Probation Association.
The association also recommends $28.2 million to add 500 beds designed to treat offenders for substance abuse.
Cuts to the West Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department, the adult probation department in El Paso County, would boost the number of probationers Betty Elizabeth Jacquez has to supervise. More importantly, it could strip Jacquez of some of the tools she uses to try to rehabilitate the 134 probationers she monitors.
"The cuts concern me a great deal because it would make it very difficult to supervise them without these resources," Jacquez said of education, vocational and substance abuse programs. "What treatment are we going to have in place for these individuals?"
Jacquez said the substance abuse treatment and counseling programs are the ones she relies on the most because so many probationers need them. "If they were to take that away, that would seriously hurt us," she said.
About 45 percent of probationers in El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties are on probation because of drug and DWI offenses, said Stephen Enders, executive director of the West Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department.
To avoid cutting programs intended to rehabilitate probationers, Enders has tried to prepare for possible funding cuts by not filling job vacancies. But he acknowledges that his department can't handle much more loss of manpower because it would mean increasing the caseloads for probation officers.
"I try to advocate for more funding whenever I can. I think people need to know that they can put the money into building more prisons or they can put it in the community supervision and hopefully keep families together," Enders said.
Enders said the majority of people on probation in El Paso successfully complete their sentences. "I wouldn't be in this line of work for 32 years if I didn't believe that people could change," he said.
El Paso offenders last year paid $6.7 million in restitution, probation fees and court costs. They also serve the community by removing graffiti, picking up litter Downtown and participating in other community service programs.
Bramblett said community supervision, also known as "adult probation," should be the preferred sanction for nonviolent criminal offenders.
Most probationers in El Paso County committed offenses involving substance abuse, drunken driving or property crime. About one in five probationers was convicted of crimes against persons, such as robbery, aggravated assault or sexual assault, Enders said.
Probationers who have committed more serious crimes are supervised by probation officers from specialized units. Each probation officer in those units monitors an average of 50 offenders who are mentally impaired, involved in gangs, were convicted of sex crimes, were convicted of child abuse or have serious substance abuse problems.
The smaller caseloads for probation officers in the specialized units allow them to work more closely with probationers who have been convicted of serious crimes, Enders said.
The probationers of the special units must report to their probation officers more frequently than other probationers. Most regular probationers must report once a month.
Adult probation is the only part of the criminal justice system "that really works," Bramblett said. "And it could work so much better with adequate caseloads, resources and facilities. It is up to the Legislature to prevent this meltdown," she said.
House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, said he agreed with Bramblett and others in the call for more state funding for adult probation programs.
"I think the recommendations will be fairly highly received, knowing, however, that we have that thousand-pound gorilla over our heads called 'school finance,' " Madden said.
Texas spent about $2.3 billion to build prisons in the 1990s, increasing the capacity from fewer than 50,000 beds to 154,000 today. The state's current prison population is about 150,000.
In El Paso, about 35 percent of felony probationers foul up and land in prison. "The majority of them are successful while on probation, but if you don't have the alternatives, if you don't have the counseling, the treatment, the sanctions, then they could end up" back in prison, Bramblett said.
Gary Scharrer may be reached at gscharrer@ elpasotimes.com (512) 479-6606.; Tammy Fonce-Olivas may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
; 546-6362.; For more information: www.epcounty.com/wtc/