Texas Public Policy Foundation intern, Rohan Vaidya, contributed to this blog post.

Revising the funding formula for basic adult probation has been an ongoing discussion in Texas for many years. On December 5th, Texas legislators had the opportunity to continue the discussion in the Senate Finance Committee hearing. Texas Public Policy Foundation offered public testimony, outlining some of the Center for Effective Justice’s policy recommendations and research on the subject. Policy Analyst Haley Holik underscored the importance of community supervision.

“Probation is a critical component of the criminal justice system because, while in many cases confinement is necessary, evidence suggests that low-risk offenders sentenced to probation are less likely to recidivate compared to similarly situated offenders who are incarcerated.”

In Texas, the formula the state utilizes to distribute funds for basic adult probation is based primarily on the number of individuals under direct supervision of each respective department. This formula is problematic because it provides an incentive for departments to retain probationers for longer than necessary. Evidence suggests that new offenses committed by probationers occur within the first two years of probation, and many probationers, though not all, who have been exemplary in meeting their terms during this timeframe, benefit little from further supervision. Additionally, the funding structure creates a disincentive to place offenders on probation in lieu of prison, even if those offenders could be safely supervised in the community, but would require specialized and costly treatment. Regardless of the measures proper and safe community supervision would require, electronic monitoring and programs cost far less than confinement. They allow the offender to stay in his or her community to foster family connections and maintain employment, which encourages the offender to pursue a more productive path.

A practical funding formula is necessary to promote effective probation, which, in turn, creates safer communities and helps rightsize state budgets. While there are several avenues to consider, a few recommendations for crafting a workable funding formula stand out. Distributing funding based on the number of felony probation referrals, as opposed to the number of individuals under direct supervision, in conjunction with funding incentives for departments for early termination of exemplary probationers, would allay the current incentive to unnecessarily supervise certain probationers. Basing funding, in part, on the risk-level of offenders would also produce better outcomes, as it would encourage departments to take on the offenders that require greater supervision, but not confinement. Additionally, a funding incentive designed to reduce technical revocations and implement graduated sanctions, provided new crimes by probationers plateau or decrease, would lead to less revocations to costly confinement.

The state should incarcerate dangerous offenders for public safety reasons and hold them wholly accountable for their actions. However, for low-level, low-risk offenders, who pose no serious risk to society, and may be better served by non-prison alternatives, probation is a more effective punishment.

Incentive-oriented probation funding has been implemented in a limited fashion in Texas in the past, and Texas could benefit greatly from its expansion. Ultimately, by making changes in the near future, Texas can lead the way in reducing recidivism and unnecessary imprisonment, while lessening taxpayers burden over the coming years.