Who is supervising probationers in Houston? Actually, no one. There are no field visits by a probation officer. The only time probationers see their probation officer is during scheduled office visits. When probation relies almost exclusively on reports generated from information given by the probationer during office visits, we call that paper probation.
Recently I sat down with a former Harris County probationer to discuss his probation experiences. He had been convicted on a felony drug possession charge and could have been sent to prison. Instead he was placed on probation. He said his probation required him to abstain from the use of drugs, obey all laws, have a job and to see his probation officer during scheduled office visits.. He was drug tested during those visits. He was also required to perform a number of community service hours.
When I asked him what probation supervision he got, he told me that not once was he visited by his probation officer at his home or work during the years he was on probation. His only contact with her was in her office. There she would ask him how he was getting along.
He usually arrived a half hour before his scheduled visit. Once he had to take a leak just before the time to see his probation officer. He went to the restroom and was a few minutes late in seeing her. He said she threw a fit and told him she was required to report his tardiness to the judge as a probation violation. The judge punished him with additional community service hours.
She was required to report his tardiness as a probation violation? Horseshit! She did not have to do that. I suspect she did that in order to justify her job to show that she was supervising this man.
What about those drug tests? If a drug user knows ahead of time when he is to be tested, he can clean up his act several days before and come up negative for drug use. And the submission of urine was not eyeballed by a probation official, thus giving the probationer an opportunity to submit someone else’s urine.
Probation officers say they cannot make field visits because their case loads are way too big. That excuse just doesn’t fly. Since many probationers live in high-crime neighborhoods, probation officers are unwilling to go there without a police escort. Neither the Houston Police Department nor the Harris County Sheriff’s Department has the manpower to act as bodyguards for probation officers.
As I’ve said on many occasions, probation, as well as parole, is worthless without field visits. Those visits should be surprise visits, not scheduled visits. And the probation officer should also be required to make those visits evenings and on weekends. Mondays-Fridays, 8am-5pm wont cut it! Asking a probationer how he’s doing wont let probation officers know he’s been committing some crimes, something they wont find out unless he’s busted by the cops.
As for my discussion with the former probationer, some will say you can’t believe anything he says. The man is now an upstanding citizen and has no reason to lie. Also during my years as a volunteer at a nature center, I had the same discussion with at least a dozen Harris County probationers while they were there for community service work. Each of them gave me almost exactly the same information. They can’t all be lying.
And what about the probationers who in fact are unsupervised? There are those, like the man I interviewed, who truly want to be productive law abiding citizens. There are those who stay out of trouble only because they fear being sent to prison. There are the probationers that are committing crimes for which they haven’t been caught. Then there are those whose probation is revoked, not because they committed a crime, but because they refused or failed to follow their probation conditions. And, of course, there are the probationers who are caught by the police and sent to prison on a new beef … some of those would not have committed new crimes had they been properly supervised.
The citizens of Harris County are not well served by paper probation which is practically worthless.