Thursday, July 27, 2017

How journalists should (and shouldn't) cover parole, community supervision

Journalism surrounding parole is mostly myopic, regressive, and unenlightening. Tuff-on-crime demagogues have mastered the art of crowing over the details of an isolated case to claim that parole should never be granted to anyone, ever, while ignoring broader public safety trends. And too often, our journalist friends gobble it up and regurgitate such messages uncritically.

An example arises out of Houston where a parolee committed a murder after being released halfway through a 45 year sentence. A prosecutor told the press the parole board has "blood on their hands." And yet, in Texas and nationally, crime rates remain near historic lows* despite parole rates in Texas increasing over recent years.

The folks who point to a single, terrible crime committed by a parolee to criticize the process are hoping the public will miss the forest for the trees. The parole board makes its rulings on a massive scale, deciding tens of thousands of inmates' fates every year - dozens every workday. Parole board members are not soothsayers. It is impossible to guarantee that none of those released will commit new crimes. But in aggregate, crime has declined in Texas over most of the 21st century. So whatever policies they're using are working reasonably well from a public-safety standpoint. Parole rates in Texas are significantly higher than California, for example, but our recidivism rates are remarkably low compared to them and most other states, in large part because we incarcerate many low-risk offenders who would not be in prison elsewhere and who are unlikely to commit new crimes regardless. More restrictive parole policies that result in more of those folks being denied release do not promote public safety.

Instead of focusing only on the most salacious, high-profile cases, the better way to think about parole is as a system and to seek the best possible systemic outcomes. The details of one horrific murder may dominate the headlines for weeks, but an aggregate reduction in murders over time will get at most an in-passing mention, not sustained, focused coverage, even if many more people are affected by the story. Regardless, that sustained, aggregate reduction should drive public-policy goals.

So, with that introduction, I wanted to record links to a few recent expert assessments of needed reforms to probation and parole that take a systems approach instead of reinventing supervision around the failures in a single case. Legislators interested in maximizing public-safety benefits from community supervision would do well to heed their concerns, which extend beyond any individual case to focus on bettering the community weal overall.
The press and legislators have become accustomed to the cycle of outrage surrounding egregious violent crimes and figured out how to use it for their own advantage - to maximize clicks and scare voters, respectively. But if we really want to be "smart on crime," we'll need to move beyond those frames.

* The Atlantic last year ran a story questioning, "What caused the great crime decline in the US?" For those seeking answers to this surprisingly difficult question, see:

26 comments:

Steven Seys said...

I paroled to North Carolina, where my family lives, in spite of the lack of jobs, because Texas is notorious for revocation of parole on the slimmest excuse.

Anonymous said...

Remember this next time you are thinking about posting anything about civil asset forfeiture reform.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Apples and oranges, 5:21. The data on parole in TX show "whatever policies they're using are working reasonably well." On asset forfeiture, the data show it's made nary a dent in drug consumption, distribution, etc.. It's a policy that's NOT achieving its goals. Big difference.

@2:51, fwiw, parole revocation rates have declined some in the last decade in Texas. That said, I like N.C.. Not a terrible choice.

SEMPERFINE said...

Dominate headlines for weeks? How about these three words that have , IMHO, justified a lot of expenditures in Texas: KENNETH ALLEN MCDUFF!
This case was not only news because of the horrific crimes; but also because of being a result of corruption at the highest levels as well as being a result of the consequences of the Prison Management Act.
Those who conveniently forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Raoul Meza was another interesting case along the same lines.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yes, Semperfine, Gary Cartwright's coverage McDuff is the model for nearly all journalism about parole in Texas that has followed. But when McDuff was paroled Texas' prison system was about a quarter the size it is now and crime was near all-time highs. If, after quadrupling the size of the prison system, ostensibly to make parole for the McDfuff's of the world less likely, some parolees still commit crimes, then maybe mass incarceration won't solve the problem. I don't forget the past, but I do understand that it's the past and place it in context. We have a very different system today than in 1989. But no system can predict the future or stop recidivism with 100% certainty.

Bill Habern said...

I have been representing clients in prison and Texas Parole Board issues since 1973 (over 40 years). After a far too long tenure by the past Chairman of the Texas Parole Board that required the intervention of Federal Courts and the TDCJ OIG office to take action, I am most pleased to state that there should be high praise for the current Texas parole board. The current board members and commissioners make up a team of voters and decision makers that, I believe, are among the best I have ever seen in my 40 plus years. Chairman Gutierrez and his staff are, in my opinion, doing an outstanding job.

I am concerned over the substantial numbers of failed probation (community supervision) cases we see in our office.

One additional issue that journalist should examine (aside from the prison heat issues currently in the federal courts) are what happens everyday in Texas prison inmate discipline practices. Prison discipline is generally an issue the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated is not subject to any legal assistance by a member of the bar, so there is little to no meaningful oversight to this policy at the hearing level of these activities in Texas. The inmate has no right to counsel by a lawyer in a prison discipline action. We regularly see, after the fact, that prison guards constantly abuse inmates by filing less than righteous discipline actions. An inmate cannot file a discipline challenge in Texas Courts, and only in limited conditions in federal courts. The institutional filing of these many less than credible actions have great negative implications in an offender's parole, prison job and future privileges while incarcerated. It is becoming a matter of serious concern for those of us who watch Texas prison activity.

Bill Habern
Attorney
Houston, Texas

Ray Hill said...

I understand your theses but I have used the media to successfully get a friend out of prison after too many years with a documentary film maker from Canada's detailed account of the case and the effort to keep him in prison. I have also been in media (The Prison Show, etc) all of my adult life and the broadcast medium can be helpful in many ways.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ray, I didn't say the media were evil. I said that, "Journalism surrounding parole is mostly myopic, regressive, and unenlightening."

I can point to MANY cases where good journalism helped spawn reform, freed innocent people, etc.. In fact, I'm encouraging a more catholic approach to covering parole precisely because I think journalism could perform a more useful function in this realm. Right now, though, our journo friends seem stuck in this pattern established during the era of McDuff coverage, as discussed above, and there's little thoughtful, informed reporting about the systemic functions and outcomes of parole.

Bill, I couldn't agree more about probation. Revocation rates for community supervision are nearly DOUBLE those for parole. If it weren't for the habit of these McDuff-style stories focusing on the back end, an informed journalist surveying the present-day landscape for important stories would much more quickly gravitate to the probation side. They're both driving mass incarceration more significantly and failing at much higher rates than parole.

Anonymous said...

I also was just thinking about parole driver McDuff since I visited with him and testified against him a couple of times as a forensic scientist. He was a sexually sadistic serial killer that his hometown law enforcement, who knew him from childhood, predicted exactly what he would do once he hit the streets of Waco. Folks forget that he 'paroled out' from a previous death penalty conviction in which he exhibited his delight in killing females. As he put it, his biggest delight was seeing the fear in his victim's eyes before he killed them. Folks also forget he was eligible for parole since the US Supreme Court determined temporarily that the death penalty was unconstitutional. Outstanding candidate for parole. The devil is indeed in the details that journalists often are too lazy to learn.

Anonymous said...

Come on, Grits, you know as well as anyone that stories about good government doesn't sell newspapers or drive public opinion. It's the most egregious outliers that stir people. Sandra Bland, Michael Morton, Ferguson, Missouri,--all of these circumstances were highly improbable from a statistical perspective but yet used to paint entire systems with a broad brush to promote reform agendas. And you're guilty of these very transgressions on this blog. You can't have it both ways.

A Waco Friend said...

Many of the probation failures are due to the intensity of constraints on probationers, including having to make payments for probation requiring employment (failure, including missing a payment, can result in revocation), frequent probation visits during the work day, making employment difficult, and restrictions on other activities, including driving, working in certain industries, etc. A friend of my was pleased to have his probation revoked as it was an impossible situation for him and prison was actually easier!

Anonymous said...

Didn't McDuff confess to the Yogurt Shop murders on his execution day? Kind of like Henry Lee Lucas, I've always wondered if he really committed all the murders attributed to him.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ 9:45, I'd dispute that episodes like Sandra Bland, Michael Morton, etc., are "highly improbable from a statistical perspective."

E.g., we now know that 11% of arrests in Harris County are for Class C misdemeanors, so that's not just Sandra Bland but a systemic problem.

On Morton, IMO the number of innocent people falsely convicted in TDCJ runs between two and three percent, for reasons I've discussed before. So that's a systemic problem, not just about him. Serial killers like McDuff, by contrast, are FAR more rare. The overwhelming majority of murders are either one-offs or related to black-market transactions.

Thirty years ago, when crime was at its peak, the systemic arguments may have looked very different and folks may have thought a single anecdote was indicative of broader trends. But after having crime drop precipitously since then, we can now tell that SOME errors will be made no matter what and they'e not necessarily indicative of a broader crime trend.

It's fundamental to the nature of journalism: Lots of murders that didn't occur will never generate the same drama (or clicks) as one that did. That's why I'm encouraging journalists to make sure they include broader context in these stories and to push back against metric-based publishing decisions when they promote false impressions or conclusions. As with other cognitive biases, just because it's "natural" to succumb to them doesn't mean a conscious effort can't be made to mitigate them.

Anonymous said...

You state the media and legislators generally need to refrain from, "crowing over the details of an isolated case" such as the ones you presented. Shouldn't the same apply to both sides of the argument? I believe according to CJAD the 2016 revocation rates for felons on probation was below 11% and misdemeanants below 16%. That means there is a success rate of around 89% and 84% respectively for probation. Both sides of CJ argument can focus on exceptions, which there are many for both sides to look at, but what about recognizing the vast majority of those probationers who do succeed? I acknowledged there are "bad" cases and systematic problems in some areas, as well as there are exceptions to every argument. But if the media needs to refrain from "crowing over the details of an isolated case" then shouldn't that same standard apply to yourself? Where is the recognition that over 8 out of 10 people on probation made it? What did departments do to help those people make it? What are the success stories? What is the "system" doing well? What are the bright spots? While I acknowledge I have not read every post ever made on your blog, I dont see those success stories. I know as a former supervision officer there are areas that need to improve, but I also know as a former supervision officer, I saw many more people succeed than fail on supervision for the limited time I was an officer. Where is the recognition of the good in the system? Where is the recognition of the positive in the system? Or is it only those who want to "lock em up and throw away the key" that should avoid "crowing about isolated" situations?

Anonymous said...

Many parole and probation arrests result from marginally functional offenders not having enough supervision after they are released. Once on the street they quickly become targets for more physically fit criminals that are quick to exploit them for any number of nefarious purposes. Resulting altercations and mayhem result in the subsequent arrest of an elderly or mentally deficient individual that was allowed to stray from the halfway house or other facility. A good pilot program would center on the offenders inside Skyview and Boyd facilities to see why they get into trouble after parole and probation. A significant number of these individuals should in fact be in assisted living environments instead of being, in fact, 'set up to fail" in many cases by a parole type conditional release.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:02 p.m., isn't your very example one that makes an example oit of such a tiny segment of the offender population? My recently deceased uncle was schizophrenic. He was my Father's older, half-brother. He was quite intelligent, and never had any arrests or incarcerations in his life, other than being picked up wandering around, and dropped off somewhere else. I do inderstand your point, and even though he never had any legal trouble, he was prayed upon and taken advantage of multiple times by scumbags who would scour the psych wards looking for people who had an SSI check. Once again, I do see your point, but I find its relevance here quite negligible.
Anon 11:43, I have never seen any statistics that show texas felony probation success rates at 84%, 89%, or any other preposterously high percentage. I know that the largest county in the state has a revocation rate much higher than 11-16%.
Also, are these numbers for successes without ANY revocations along the way? I don't really see CS as a success when someone spends 18 months along the way incarcerated for a violation. It may go something like this: 2-3 months waiting on a court date for disposition, if lucky having the MRP/MAG disposed of in one court setting; then having to sit and wait 5-6 months for a SAFPP bed to open up; 6-9 months in the hellish, and almost worthless SAFPP facility, (a program with a documented 6% success rate); then 3 months in a mandatory "after-care" halfway house.
I don't really give a shit if the guy "succeeds" in finishing probation 3, 5, or 7 years later, if he had a family, then his kids spent almost 2 years without a father. He certainly lost his job, if he had one. Why was a MRP/MAG filed against him? Positive UA for THC. He must've been stoned on the loco weed and gone off on a reefer madness episode, out robbing the townsfolk and raping all the fair-maidens. You know, if you receive any kind of controlled substance by prescription from a doctor on a monthly basis in this __eat state, you will almost always have to submit to urinalysis monitoring. The general consensus amongst the medical field, is to avoid testing for THC altogether in these instances, because their studies have shown that it has ZERO bearing on the likelihood that a patients controlled substance prescription will be abused or diverted. Have you ever known someone to smoke some marijuana and get up and go on some angry crime spree? Maybe he'd rob all of the ice cream out of his parents' refrigerator.

Anonymous said...

McDuff took investigators to shallow graves containing female victims just prior to his execution. They were all tied with their own shoestrings- his signature. No connection to Yogurt shop.

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

On recidivism rates, please see the Legislative Budget Board's report on Recidivism and Rearrest rates that was published in January of 2017.

Revocation rates mean almost nothing because the parole and probation systems are entirely different in that regard. When a parolee flips off the system and continually fails to abide by conditions of parole, the person most often gets sent to an "intermediate sanction facility" (ISF), which is essentially "prison light." This doesn't count as a revocation and it makes parole statistics look better than they really are (see rearrest rates from ISFs). In community supervision, people who flip off the system and continually fail to abide by their conditions can get revoked, but that's most often after a long list of intermediate sanctions have been used.

A more meaningful statistic is rearrests within three years after release because that is DIRECTLY related to public safety, which (after all) is the purpose of the criminal justice system. Rearrests more accurately measure how well these systems do/do not change offender behavior.
Community Supervision - 35.9%
Parole Supervision - 44.2%
Prison - 46.4%
Intermediate Sanction Facility - 59.2%
State Jail - 62.7%
Probation and Parole indeed can be and should be improved, but they are always one hell of a lot better when compared to offenders coming straight out of incarcerated settings. Sending them to ISFs and State Jails is a horrible waste of time and money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Steve, if parole uses FEWER intermediate sanctions than y'all, why is your revocation rate nearly twice theirs? Y'all have the option to use ISFs, too.

Also, reincarceration, not re-arrest, is by far the superior statistic as long as Texas still allows arrests for Class Cs (11% of all arrests in Harris County, e.g.). There, the rate is 19.8 percent for parole and 25.8 percent for probation, from the same chart, same report, linked in the post. So y'all aren't doing any better, and a little worse, when it comes to your charges recidivating on more serious, incarceration-worthy offenses.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Also, Steve, I'm not sure how you can say sending parolees to ISFs is a waste of money when the alternative is to reincarcerate them for the full term of their sentence, punishing them with 3-6 months locked up instead. Yes, many ISF inmates go on to fail again under supervision, but 60% remain unincarcerated three years after they leave. Considering that's basically our highest-risk cohort of releasees - people who've been incarcerated and failed once on parole already - that's a decent number compared to rates in other states, etc..

Steve said...

Grits, ISFs are not our only option. We have 27 community corrections facilities (CCFs) in addition to the state ISFs, and the CCFs directly address criminogenic needs with evidence based treatment programs. I talk to the people we send to ISFs and they say they are much worse than a CCF. I BEG you to look at a representative sample of revocations from probation and see how many times those facilities are used prior to revocation.

Reincarceration is just as misleading a statistic as revocation. I admire David Gutierrez and the members of the Parole Board. They have a difficult job and they do it well. But you really need to do your homework and check out the reality of the situation of what the Parole Board does regarding reincarceration. They can send parolees to an ISF multiple times, and that's never a "reincarceration." In fact, it's not unusual for a parolee to be sent to an ISF so many times that they do what is called a "serve all" (i.e., finish all their time). That does not count as a reincarceration or a revocation, and it makes the statistics look better than they actually are. I'm not dissing parole. They have an incredibly difficult job. They end up with the people we couldn't change. But the statistics do not reflect the reality of what happens.

I personally tell my staff NOT to use a state ISF unless it's the last resort because of the horrific rearrest rate. People coming out of prison have a rearrest rate of 46.4%, while people coming out of an ISF have a rearrest rate of 59.2% (a 27% greater likelihood of committing a crime). It can be argued that the ISFs make people MORE prone to commit a crime. I'm not willing to tell the victim of a crime, "Well, at least he got to serve his time at an ISF instead of prison."

And the one thing you always seem to overlook is that a probation department has never revoked a single person. It is a District Attorney and a Judge who do that. How many television ads at election time have you seen from DAs and Judges where they brag about how many people they've diverted from prison? Moreover, I can promise you from experience that it's no fun when you're on the stand at a hearing and you recommend an alternative sanction to revocation, and an Assistant District Attorney screams, "What does it take for you people to have someone revoked?"

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Steve, I know what ISFs are, how they work, and your view of them. Repeating yourself won't make me agree with you. Regardless, if someone goes to an ISF, is never revoked to serve their full sentence, etc., they SHOULDN'T be counted as having been sent to prison again!

I get that you want them to be counted that way so probation wouldn't look worse than parole in the numbers. That's understandable. OTOH, you begged me to "see how many times [CCF] facilities are used prior to revocation" from probation, and those don't count as revocations, either. Count everything, and my bet is parole's numbers STILL look better than yall's because your revocation numbers never went down after the '07 reforms as happened in parole. And early release was stymied because y'all didn't want to let paying probationers leave the system, whereas parole release rates increased. That's the reality of what has happened that you consistently refuse to acknowledge, preferring to obfuscate and talk about how parole is worse than their numbers say.

Finally, it's funny how you insist that "It is a District Attorney and a Judge who" revoke probation, then in the NEXT SENTENCE recount an ADA screaming at you, "What does it take for you people to have someone revoked?" You want it both ways, eliding accountability whenever it's convenient to justify failure but claiming everyone should listen to you because what you're doing works so well. You can't have it both ways.

Steve said...

"I get that you want them to be counted that way so probation wouldn't look worse than parole by the numbers." I love the way you assume motives; you're almost as good at that as Limbaugh, Coulter, and their friends.

The number one motive/purpose in my career is to change lives. I want statistics that help me gauge how well I'm accomplishing that task or that tell me that I need to improve. However, some statistics are more useful than others, and that includes statistics on revocation and reincarceration. It's like the old story of a man who goes to a researcher and asks for some statistics on a program. The researcher closes the door and asks, "What do you want the statistics to say?"

I don't really care if parole ISF placements count as a statistical revocation or not. I just don't want people patting themselves on the back for something that doesn't work when we should be looking at ways to fix it. If parole is doing a better job at changing lives, then I'd be happy to learn from them. If ISFs were changing lives for the better, I would champion them. However, you cant' get around the fact that the state ISFs, as they are currently run, are a failure at changing lives for the better. If they are so great, wonderful, effective and indispensable, why is TDCJ closing one as part of next year's downsizing?

In the end, I get tired of the stupid preoccupation of how much time people do in prison or where they do it. It's not a question of how much time they do, but what are we doing to change them from criminals into people with satisfying, useful, fulfilling lives in the free world.

And I'm sorry you misunderstood my inclusion of the DA's comment. It was an illustration of the fact that it's not unusual for those of us in probation to face an uphill battle to keep people from being revoked. While many of us are doing our best to change lives, the DAs and Judges are facing election by a public that votes on how tough people are on offenders (which I think you will agree is not the same as being tough on crime).

Jim Stott said...

Three years after retirement, I still feel compelled to come back to Grits for my little dose of "what's happening." Thanks for keeping it going Scott.

It is my opinion that probation should never be compared (statistically) to parole. The only real similarity is that we both supervise offenders.

Unlike parole, the 122 CSCD's in Texas all have different ways of handling, reporting and disposing of violations. Responses to those violations (by the courts), whether a technical or new offense, are generally based on the platform on which the local electorate (DA's and judges) ran. While this adage has been beaten to death, it is true. Re-election from being tough on the criminal, as my friend Steve says, is a good thing to have in your toolbox. Once the violation is reported by the CSCD, it is completely in the hands of the courts. A recommendation by the CSCD is only that, a recommendation. Probation, however, gets the blame, and the negative publicity.


And I hate to burst your bubble Steve, but I strongly believe that Rush Limbaugh nor Ann Coulter have friends.

Anonymous said...

Under the Standards for CSCDs, CODE OF ETHICS, paragraph heading- Community Supervision Employees are Servants of the Court:

A community supervision officer has the duty and obligation to vigorously carry out the instructions and orders of the Court and to comply with the administrative procedures established by the department. A community supervision officer shall provide the Court and the department with accurate and objective information. As such, a community supervision officer shall exercise care to verify pertinent factual information presented to the Court, formulate an informed and unbiased judgment when making recommendations to the Court, and promptly inform the Court of any violation of or deviation from the Court’s instructions and orders as directed by the Court.

It would appear that probation officers are obligated, at least ethically, to report any deviation from the court's instructions or any violation. It is the court's responsibility to determine the resulting outcome.

Maybe the code of ethics should say "...it is the officers discretion to decide if they will inform or withhold deviations or violations from the court... so that cscd revocation rates will be comparable to parole."