AUSTIN - Even though Gov. Rick Perry vetoed legislation last year designed to ease restrictions on nonviolent offenders who are placed on probation, lawmakers should try again to pass similar legislation to reduce prison crowding and help rehabilitate low-level lawbreakers, a legislative panel was told Wednesday.
The House Corrections Committee heard testimony from probation officials and advocacy groups who said that closer monitoring of probationers and treatment programs for people with substance-abuse problems have gone a long way to keep nonviolent offenders from straying.
"Texas cannot sustain a broken probation system and the escalating cost of prison overcrowding," said Ana Yanez Correa, who heads the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a watchdog group that monitors trends in prison, parole and probation policies.
Correa was an enthusiastic supporter of a probation-overhaul measure that easily passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Perry after several prosecutors raised objections.
The bill would have reduced probation for some felonies from 10 years to five, boosted funding for drug courts and community-service programs, and given judges greater oversight over probationers. Supporters said the bill would lighten the workload of probation officers and lead to fewer probation revocations because of rule violations such as failing to pay fees.
In his veto message, Perry pointed out that the state budget lawmakers approved for the 2006-07 cycle contained money for several regions of the state to hire more probation officers and develop innovative programs to prevent offenders from having their probation revoked.
Tom Plumlee, who heads the Tarrant County adult probation offices and a statewide probation advisory panel, said the extra money has helped cut officers' caseloads. But more must be done to change what he called the "culture of probation" that in some cases encourages officers to recommend revocation for minor transgressions.
"If somebody misses a [meeting with a probation officer], he goes to jail," Plumlee said. But if an officer can find out why the probationer failed to report and can correct the behavior, the probationer will have a better chance of succeeding, he added.
"When you fix that part of it, you can make some positive changes," said Plumlee, whose office oversees about 20,000 probationers.
The corrections committee is gathering information on what legislation it might offer when lawmakers return to Austin in January for the regular legislative session. The earliest any bill could be filed is December.
The panel also heard testimony that the state's 151,000-bed prison system is operating near capacity and that more money might be needed to lease space from local jails and private correctional facilities.
Bonita White, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's community justice assistance division, told the panel that judges statewide have said the state needs additional drug-treatment programs for probationers.
"We need more substance-abuse treatment so people don't go from one violation to prison," White said.
Plumlee said most cases that arrive at his office involve drug and alcohol abuse.
"Most of them are nonviolent property offenders," he said. "And of course, drug use drives just about most everything."
John Moritz, (512) 476-4294