Probation reform in Texas needs attention 

Photo by Illustration by Todd Wiseman

Promoting public safety is the most important function of the justice system, but we should scrutinize the policies and spending in our currently expensive system. It is encouraging that a bipartisan group — the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus— is already considering how to successfully tackle these issues in the next session of the Texas Legislature.

Any meaningful policy solutions must include much-needed probation reforms.

According to a recent Pew study, 1 in 55 U.S. adults was on probation or parole in 2016 (the most recent year for which data is available). That is a stunning increase of 239% since 1980. More than three-quarters of the 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole committed nonviolent offenses.

In Texas, this community supervision impacts an even higher proportion, with 1 in 43 adults on probation or parole. Nearly half of the people exiting felony probation are being sent to prison. The majority of those sent to prison from probation are being incarcerated not for committing a new crime but for technical rule violations.

Nationally, these technical violations of probation account for 1 in 4 admissions to state prisons.

Texas’ probation system has made improvements; yet more must be done to expand successful outcomes by limiting the number of people sent back to prison for violations of the rules of probation and by changing people’s behavior.A significant portion of revocations are a result of defendants choosing prison over probation due to the sometimes excessive and irrational terms of supervision. People on probation must be held accountable, yet all other avenues should be exhausted before someone ends up in prison.

Community supervision can be an effective alternative to incarceration. Yet, we must ensure evidence-based approaches to minimize revocations to prison.

Pew’s report found technical revocations are costly, and failure to comply with supervision conditions does not necessarily indicate that a person presents a public safety threat.

Studies have demonstrated that incarcerating people for breaking the rules of supervision fails to reduce recidivism. Yet, they have found that long periods of incarceration can make re-entry into society more difficult, causing people to lose their jobs, homes and even their families.

This undermines public safety and adds up to billions of dollars in wasteful spending — money that could be invested in effective safety solutions that are proven to reduce recidivism and stop the cycle of crime.

A recent Alliance for Safety and Justice survey found that Texas crime victims overwhelmingly believe the best way for the probation system to rehabilitate people is to use tools other than incarceration to hold them accountable. 

The survey found 7 of 10 crime survivors support strengthening incentives for those sentenced to probation to complete rehabilitative programs. Even more prefer ensuring that inability to pay probation fees and fines does not interfere with rehabilitation.

About 8 out of 10 crime victims support increasing the use of punishments other than jail time for probation violations. An equal proportion want changes to the way probation is funded, so earlier attention and treatment can be directed to people on probation.

In Texas, the largest number of people sentenced for crimes who could benefit from rehabilitation are under community supervision in the probation system.

Victims in the state prefer changes to the probation system that would encourage people to rehabilitate themselves and break the cycle of crime.

Through our work with crime survivors, it is clear that public safety policies need to be more driven by evidence-based approaches that are proven to stop the cycle of crime. This roadmap must include changes in the probation system to reduce recidivism and enhance rehabilitation and treatment services.

The new House caucus led by Reps. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano,can make a sizable impact and demonstrate national leadership by supporting stronger incentives for the completion of faith- and community-based programs and individualized conditions of supervision in the probation system. 

An effective probation system can improve public safety, reduce costs and help Texas. It is imperative we confront this challenge.

Terra Tucker

Texas state director, Alliance for Safety and Justice