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Legislature’s investment in community corrections showing good returns

illustration of man watering tree with words "Community Corrections". When Texas legislators resolved to make a sizeable investment in community corrections, they were looking for good returns. And that’s what they got. So a year ago, during the 80th Legislative Session, lawmakers decided to invest even more public funds in probation programs.

“Probation placements are up, early terminations are up, and revocations are down,” said TDCJ Community Justice Assistance Division Director Bonita White. “That’s what the Legislature wanted. We got results, and they said we want to keep going down this road. So we’re investing more money in community supervision.”

Legislators last year approved the spending of $134.4 million to further strengthen community supervision in Texas. That is on top of the $55.5 million they appropriated in 2005 in a successful bid to reduce probation caseloads, increase early discharges, and lower felony revocation rates. Statewide, felony probation placements increased 4.1 percent in 2006-2007, while revocation rates fell 2.1 percent. The average population of the state’s 36 community corrections facilities rose 10 percent during the two-year period, and the number of probation officers employed statewide increased 4.3 percent to nearly 3,500.

“Legislators really want to strengthen community supervision,” White said. “They want to keep people in the community and keep them successful. Over the long term, it’s much more cost-effective and a good thing if we can keep people working in the community, supporting their children there, and getting the treatment they may need.”

White points out that fewer revocations and more early discharges mean that fewer low-risk probationers end up in prison. She said the average stay at a less-expensive community treatment facility is four to six months.

“The Legislature knows there’s a percentage of people that are going in and out of prison because they need treatment,” White said. “You can cycle two to three people through a treatment bed in a year as opposed to cycling one person through prison. So if you just put somebody in prison, and they come out and go back again, that’s the most expensive thing you can do. Community treatment beds are not cheap, but they’re cheaper than somebody consistently going to prison.”

Additional appropriations for Fiscal Year 2008-2009 will provide 1,500 new Substance Abuse Felony Punishment (SAFP) treatment beds, 800 residential treatment beds for probationers, and 1,400 Intermediate Sanction Facility (ISF) beds for both probationers and parolees. Approximately $20 million of the total appropriation is earmarked to increase basic supervision funding for probation departments and to boost outpatient substance abuse treatment services for probationers. Additional funding was also appropriated to increase access to mental health treatment services. TDCJ will contract for the operation of the SAFP and ISF beds, while local probation departments will operate the residential treatment beds.

White said strengthening the state’s probation system was a smart choice for a state that was predicted to face a shortfall of 17,332 prison beds by 2012 without new diversionary programs. She said the goal now is to reduce prison revocations by 5 percent in 2008 and 10 percent the following year. To do that, she said, each of the state’s 3,500 probation officers would have to reduce revocations by just one over the two-year period.

“I think that a lot of people are understanding that prison is not a long-term fix,” White said. “Locking up people that may be ‘aggravating’ but not ‘aggravated’ doesn’t make sense for Texas. It makes sense to try to work with them where they have a life, where they’re doing the things that we’re doing. For people on probation, the goal is that they will be good citizens.”

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Policy governing offender phone use approved by Criminal Justice Board

The Texas Board of Criminal Justice in January approved a policy governing offender access to telephones that will take effect once a new offender phone system is operational.

Previously, policy allowed well-behaved prison inmates to make one five-minute phone call every 90 days. Under the new policy required with the passage of Senate Bill 1580 last year, eligible offenders can make an unlimited number of phone calls not to exceed a maximum of 120 minutes each month. Each call cannot exceed 15 minutes in duration, and offenders may call only people on their approved visitor’s lists or an attorney who is currently providing them legal services. As a safeguard, calls are to be recorded, except when placed to an offender’s attorney, and subject to periodic monitoring, primarily by staff with the Office of Inspector General.

Telephones are expected to be installed in common areas such as dayrooms and other locations as designated by TDCJ, and be made accessible for a set period of time each day. The policy calls for one telephone to be installed for every 30 offenders, who will either make collect calls or pay for them with prepaid cards.

Offenders eligible to use phones must be free of major disciplinary violations for 90 days (30 days for state jail felons) and have either a job or be enrolled in school or a treatment program. Officials estimate that approximately 120,000 of the 155,000 offenders incarcerated within TDCJ facilities will be eligible to make calls.

The vendor chosen to install and operate the telephone system will set the cost offenders pay for making calls. Correctional Institutions Division Director Nathaniel Quarterman said a private vendor is expected to be selected later this year. The date in which the offender system will be installed and operational remains to be determined.

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