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Report: Adjust Policy on Who Gets Sent to State Jails

A new report recommends reforming the state-run jail system by mandating probation for certain types of nonviolent felony offenders and only using the jails for those who violate their probation.

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A new report argues that state jails aren't meeting their goal of helping to reduce crime by intensively treating short-term, nonviolent inmates, and it recommends that judges no longer be able to sentence felons to state jails without a rehabilitation plan.

The report, published Monday by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, says that those convicted of nonviolent felonies and normally sentenced to months in a state-operated jail should instead be released with community supervision. That can include treatment programs, community service, strictly enforced probation conditions and the threat of incarceration if certain conditions are violated. The report's suggestions were based on recent data concerning the number of felons who commit crimes after being released from state jails.

Jeanette Moll, who authored the report, said that the people who commit these crimes, which are normally financial or drug-related, are seldom dangerous and don't need to be automatically incarcerated. “They have a job, they have a family, they have a community,” she said. “Putting them in a state jail is going to make them lose all of that.”

Instead, she believes, they should get a chance to return to their communities on probation. “If they don't attempt to stop violating the law, that judge still has all the power to revoke their probation,” she said, but “it's the stake [in getting released] that makes probation work, the feeling among state jail felons that they have a chance.”

"We're not doing anything for these people while they're in state jail,” she said, citing the fact that 31.9 percent of state jail inmates released in 2007 were convicted of new crimes within three years, according to a study by the Legislative Budget Board. "We're doing nothing to break the cycle of criminality."

Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials did not have an immediate comment on the report.

“State jails were about intense treatment and education, or ‘get in get out,’” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who in 1993 proposed the legislation that created the state jail system to relieve overcrowding in state prisons. “The problem is now people getting in and out without much treatment and education.”

“I've been concerned for some time that they've got a good distance from some of their original concepts, particularly with treatment,” he said.

The report's primary recommendation is to require probation as a first resort for sentencing the felons who now go directly to state jails. As a result, Moll argues in the report, “the immense success Texas counties have shown with community supervision and treatment of felons can be applied to state jail felons.”

“Currently, state jail felons are not provided any community supervision following their state jail term,” Moll wrote. “Such supervision would ensure that offenders stay on the right track and obtain housing, employment, or desist from drug use.”

Judges would still be able to sentence some of those convicted to “shock incarceration,” or a short stint of "up-front" jail time. But sometimes, Moll said, “it’s not needed.”

Whitmire says that the proposal echoes much of what he and other lawmakers envisioned in 1993 and that he's open to legislation to address the high levels of reincarceration. “Something between what we do now and what they propose would make sense,” he said.

But he cautions that there are many practical implications on the rest of the criminal justice system to consider before changes can be made. Increasing the number of people on probation will increase the workload for judges and community supervision departments.

Moll wants to see increased funding for those departments, and finding that money might have implications in other areas of the criminal justice system. “I've got to make certain we don't have unintended consequences,” Whitmire said, “that it doesn’t impact probation and the courts in a negative way.”

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