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Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Reinventing Probation in Harris County Reforms key to recovering drug addict's turnaround

By Patrick Graves Published August 2019

Editor's Note: This Line Items story is an online exclusive companion piece to our Fiscal Notes' deep dive into how the concept of state jails, unique to Texas, is being re-examined. Learn more in the latest edition of Fiscal Notes.

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Industrial radiographer Steven Serrano at a pipeline transfer station in Katy.

Teresa May has never met Steven Serrano, but she very well may have saved his life.

Serrano, 31, credits the criminal justice reforms May put in place in Harris County — along with divine providence — with helping him escape drug addiction and death. He now traverses Texas and adjacent states inspecting pipeline, making good money and, when time allows, going fishing in his own boat.

Serrano's experience is an example of a government program reducing costs while boosting the economy by helping offenders re-enter the workforce.

"I couldn't have done it [recovered] if I hadn't done what I was supposed to do three years ago," Serrano acknowledges.

What Serrano did was take advantage of an innovative, proactive approach undertaken by the county's Community Supervision and Corrections Department (CSCD), which May directs. The initiative, funded mostly with a 2015 MacArthur Foundation grant, helped turn around a system struggling to cope with habitual, nonviolent criminals who, in turn, were struggling to cope with themselves.

"I was slowly committing suicide, even in jail," Serrano recalls. "I was in trouble."

In spring 2016, the Houston native and his best friend were busted for heroin possession. Serrano, who turned 28 in Harris County Jail, realized he was wasting his life: he'd had at least eight stints in rehabilitation, three overdoses and an assault charge and had ended a long-term relationship, with nothing to show for it.

"I was dumb," he says. "I didn't want to change."

Unlike his pal, though, Serrano answered truthfully when he took a risk assessment. He was offered a clean record in exchange for residential treatment followed by probation. Three months later, he decided to go for it, having concluded, "What do I have to lose?"

State District Judge Denise Bradley (whom he's since met) expedited Serrano's approval in two weeks. During 5 1/2 months in what he terms "a mild form of jail," Serrano kicked his drug habit, aided by a dramatic spiritual encounter.

His less-than-candid friend was not so fortunate.

Deemed a low risk and released, he would be re-arrested and let go again. Within six months, he was dead.

"State jail crimes create a revolving door," May says. Previously, many of these offenders were opting for jail time, either local or state, instead of intervention or probation, not realizing the long-term collateral impact of a felony conviction.

As a result, the Harris County jail was crowded; courts were clogged; wait times for placement in mental illness treatment took as long as nine months; and repeat offenses, called recidivism, were rampant.

The Harris County jail's situation was illustrative of the statewide situation described by the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in its January 2019 interim report (PDF): "The treatment and programming concepts state jails were originally designed around … were never funded or developed, so state jails now offer nearly nothing in the way of rehabilitative services."

A coordinating council of criminal justice stakeholders, including May, used the $2 million MacArthur grant to implement a strategy based on risk and needs assessments. State jail felony cases (mostly burglary and theft, drugs and prostitution) were consolidated from 22 court dockets into one, the Responsive Intervention for Change (RIC) Docket.

Before the reforms, a disproportionate share of Texas' state jail felons (SJFs) were from Harris County — 26 percent in 2014, well in excess of the county's 16 percent share of the state's population. Five years later, its share of the total had declined by 90 percent, from 5,817 to 611. Harris County still sends more felons to state jail than any other county, but its overall share of the SJF population has fallen to 10 percent (Exhibit 1).

The difference, May explains, is that the county has increased the number of defendants willing to accept probation through its RIC Docket, specialized caseloads (e.g., for substance abusers) and pre-trial diversion (PTD) programs offering mental healthcare, drug rehabilitation and work-release programs rather than prosecution. The county also significantly reduced the time defendants spend in jail awaiting trial, which greatly curtailed “good time” credit, removing the incentive to just sit idle or plead out to state jail, thereby reducing incarceration costs.

"When defendants are not racking up a substantial amount of back time in jail awaiting disposition," May says, "they are more open to diversion or community supervision."

Before their cases are decided, defendants' risk levels are assessed and their needs identified to target what's causing their criminal behaviors. The most common contributing factors, according to the CSCD, are attitude, peers, personality, family, education/employment, activities and substance abuse.

On the back end, greater community supervision has helped to halve the re-arrest rate of the county's released SJFs, from more than 60 percent to less than 30 percent.

"We turned this around completely for drug cases," declares May, a licensed clinical psychologist with a doctorate in psychology.

While May has been in the vanguard of reform, she's by no means alone. In June 2018, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore spearheaded the creation of a state jail court specializing in low-level drug and third-time theft cases. Many cases have been disposed of as misdemeanors with local jail sentences, but greater use of probation is the stated goal.

State Rep. James White, a staunch PTD advocate, notes that Dallas as well as some rural counties are ramping up similar efforts. Despite less funding allocated to PTD in the 2020-21 state budget than he and May had wanted, White, who chairs the House Corrections Committee, remains optimistic: "We'll get there."

As Serrano would say, it's about progress, not perfection.

Earlier this year, Steven Serrano marked three years of sobriety. Recently, he was promoted by his employer, SQS NDP in Sanger, Texas. Serrano remains active in Narcotics Anonymous and is now a sponsor. For an inside look at his recovery, watch "Steven's Story," a five-minute video produced by the Communications Office of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department (HCCSCD).

Exhibit 1: State Jail Felon Population Ranked by Counties, June 30, 2019

County of Conviction Females Males Total
Harris 107 504 611
Tarrant 115 353 468
Bexar 88 254 342
Dallas 39 195 234
Ector 60 134 194
McLennan 48 129 177
Hidalgo 24 127 151
Taylor 52 80 132
Travis 19 113 132
Smith 47 82 129
Total (top 10 counties) 2,570
Share of state total 40%
Harris County share 24%
Grand Total (statewide) 6,386
Harris County share 10%

Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice

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