Lawmakers Urged to Reform Parole With Technology

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*Clarification appended

The solution to saving money on the state prison system may be more spending on technology, experts and lawmakers mused at a Tuesday panel on criminal justice policy. 

In light of Georgia's success using new technologies in parole and probation, experts at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin-based think tank, are urging Texas lawmakers to follow suit. Reforming the methods of community supervision for nonviolent offenders, they said in a report published in conjunction with the panel, could reduce incarceration costs and recidivism. 

Georgia uses a voice recognition technology that allows low-risk offenders to check in with their parole officers through self-reporting. The state also eliminated parole offices in favor of virtual workspaces. With the technology, along with GPS monitoring and increasing the amount of time officers spent with their cases because they no longer have physical offices, parolees were much less likely to be revoked to prison or arrested for a new offense, the report said. Ninety-seven percent of offenders supervised under voice recognition successfully completed parole and those under cell phone-based GPS electronic monitoring were 89 to 95 percent less likely to be revoked. 

“The offenders are one of the biggest advocates of our system,” said Michael Nail, the executive director of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles. “They feel that they now have a stronger relationship with their parole officers.”

Nail, a panelist, said that in the three years since implementing the reforms, which also included conducting parole hearings via teleconference, parole officers increased contact with offenders by 22 percent.

The report by Marc Levin and Vikrant Reddy, policy analysts at the TPPF's Center for Effective Justice, recommended that Texas lawmakers consider not only Georgia’s efforts but also new methods of risk assessment and alcohol detection aimed to stop substance abuse. 

Aside from following Georgia's lead, the report recommended developing risk assessments that would help officials determine what kind of monitoring would work best for individual parolees. Such a screening would predict the likelihood of recidivism and assign the appropriate level of supervision for each offender. 

The report also suggests using additional tools to help parole officers detect alcohol over a telephone or through the sweat on an offender's ankle. Texas parole officers already use an ignition interlock device that prevents a car from starting if a second-time DWI offender's breath indicates a higher-than-allowed alcohol content after the parolee blows into a machine attached to the dashboard. 

“If Texas can move more low-level, nonviolent offenders from incarceration into community supervision, the benefits to taxpayers would therefore be considerable,” the report said. “Technology may provide that opportunity.”

But Carey Welebob, a panelist who runs the community justice assistance division at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the standardization of technologies at the state level might not be feasible or appropriate for Texas.

“It’d be challenging because we’re such a diverse state,” Welebob said. “It’s really going to depend on the local department and what their needs are.”

Welebob said that whereas Georgia's parole system is centralized, Texas is the opposite. Some counties, she said, may be paperless, while others rely on older technologies.

Texas already has made progress in terms of using technologies like using video conferencing for parole hearings, Welebob said. And the state, she said, uses a constantly evolving assessment process to sort offenders on parole as low, medium or high risk for revocation. 

Still, Welebob and the other panelists agreed that there is much to be done to improve parolees' success. Sixty-two percent of all discharged state jail inmates are arrested again within three years of their release. In 2012, incarcerating one offender cost the state $50.04 per day — and that’s a low estimate, according to the report. 

Spending on criminal justice totals more than 6 percent of the state’s general revenue budget, said state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, the final speaker on the panel.

Rodríguez highlighted recently approved legislation relating to community supervision, including Senate Bill 2340, passed in the 81st legislative session, which authorized counties to use an electronic monitoring system that saves money and preserves jail cells for dangerous offenders. He also discussed a bill that has failed in the last two sessions that would allow certain nonviolent offenders to be released under electronic monitoring or house arrest. 

“We have a lot of work to fix in this field,” Rodriguez said. 

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that 62 percent of all discharged state jail inmates are arrested again - not necessarily returned to prison — within three years of their release.