In Tarrant County, it’s probation with some pop
08/06/2014 10:02 PM
08/07/2014 8:41 AM
Daniel Black had flirted with rock bottom before, but he had never fallen this far.
One dark day in December 2012, Black’s boss demoted him, his girlfriend dumped him and the court system added another year to the four-year probationary sentence he was serving for attacking a friend in 2008.
Black, then 30 — who had been in and out of trouble with the law since he was 18 — had few options.
One was the Tarrant County SWIFT court program, which was then a fresh approach to probation, designed to keep problem offenders out of prison by focusing on prompt, attention-getting punishment.
Formerly, he had treated probation — he saw it as a court-created obstacle — like a game, and he was losing, constantly being busted for violating the conditions of his sentence.
“I used to brag about how easy it used to be to pass a drug test and still smoke weed,” Black wrote in a letter to state District Judge Mollee Westfall, who supervised his probation.
He wasn’t thrilled with his placement in SWIFT, but his attitude gradually changed as he saw the program’s benefits.
“I’ve often wondered why the consequences of my past have followed me for so long,” Black wrote. “I’ve come to the realization that they weren’t lingering, they were still necessary.”
“Change has always been extremely hard for me,” Black wrote. “Today, I find myself grateful for the years of unrelenting consequences that the state of Texas provided to teach me to be a better man. Also, I count my blessings that in all my resistance to change, Tarrant County courts never gave up on me and simply revoked me to inmate status.”
SWIFT, or Supervision With Intensive enForcemenT, has become the last stop for many offenders in danger of being sent to prison. Unlike traditional probation, in which offenders are often allowed to let violations stack up before having their probation revoked, SWIFT uses immediate sanctions. When a SWIFT offender violates a technical condition of probation, such as missing a scheduled meeting, he or she is immediately sent before a judge and often receives a quick punishment, such as a weekend in jail.
Offenders who violate probation by committing a crime — unless it’s a low-level misdemeanor like public intoxication — would likely have their probation revoked and sent to prison, officials said.
SWIFT was launched in September 2011 in Tarrant County, followed in January 2012 by the similar HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) program.
HOPE serves about 200 offenders in Tarrant County and is part of a nationwide study funded by a $728,000 grant from the Justice Department. Preliminary findings from that study, which includes four jurisdictions, should be available in the first quarter of 2016.
The SWIFT program operates on an annual grant from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. This year’s grant totaled $245,000 and has enabled the SWIFT program to serve more than 660 participants during fiscal 2014.
The programs are almost identical, but because of the federal government’s guidelines, Westfall said, she has more freedom when sanctioning SWIFT participants. She said she hopes to merge the two programs once the HOPE study is complete.
Both programs have proved to be successful alternatives to the revolving door of probation, revocation and then prison in which thousands of Texas offenders have found themselves snared.
Proving to be an effective tool
Recently released data from Tarrant County researchers indicate that SWIFT program participants have consistently outperformed offenders on standard probation in several areas:• Thirty-seven percent of SWIFT participants have had their probation revoked for technical reasons such as failing to pay dues or meet with probation officers, compared with 45 percent in the county’s regular probation system and 51 percent statewide.
• Eighty-six percent of SWIFT participants reported that they stopped violating the rules of their probation because they know they will get caught and go to jail.
• It cost $1.4 million to supervise offenders in the SWIFT program, compared with $10.4 million to house the same offenders in prison.
Westfall, who runs the SWIFT and HOPE programs in Tarrant County, said their goal is to change behaviors in-hard-to-manage offenders. The SWIFT program uses consistent, immediate and proportional sanctions to change behaviors, she said.
“It’s critically important that we stay consistent and do what we say we’re going to do,” Westfall said. “In probation as usual, the responses were inconsistent. You might not get jail time until your fifth violation. Some probation officers felt like they were doing the offender a favor but it’s just not a good way to change behavior.”
Westfall said that judging from the preliminary data, SWIFT appears to be an effective tool for at-risk probationers. She said it’s crucial that everyone involved buy into the program.
“You hear a lot of sad stories in the courtroom but you can’t buy into them,” Westfall said. “I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve sent to jail for being one minute late.”
No excuses, no exceptions
Some offenders are obedient as they follow conditions set by the courts and see probation as the best punishment option in the criminal justice system. But for others, probation conditions are trapdoors that lead to longer stays in prison.
Offenders on probation tend to test the limits of the system until they eventually get into trouble, said Leighton Isles, director of Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections.
“You would rack up two or three positive drug tests, miss drug treatment program meetings, and finally, we would get fed up and send that person to the judge,” said Isles, who established a HOPE probation program in Fort Bend County in 2005.
Short, consistent sanctions work better than sending the offenders back to prison, officials say.
The typical jail sanction for a SWIFT program violator is two days, said Kelli D. Martin, supervisor of the research unit of Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections.
Offenders who report one minute late to a court-ordered activity get hauled before a judge and get two days in jail, Martin said. A second offense brings four days in jail. For another, it’s six days. No excuses are accepted and no exceptions made, Martin said.
“The only excuses are if you are kidnapped and you have a police report that bears that out, if you are confined, [in prison or jail] or if you are in a coma, and you have documentation from a hospital or a doctor,” Martin said. “You don’t have the luxury of saying that you had a stomachache so this time we can give you a pass.”
‘Celebrating a new beginning’
Black, who was born in Burleson, first got into trouble with Tarrant County authorities in 2000 on a marijuana possession charge in Mansfield and was put on probation while he was living in Bedford. That probation was revoked, and he was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Black was arrested in 2003 in Bedford on a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated, for which he spent another 30 days in jail, according to court records. Also that year, Black was arrested on suspicion of possession of a controlled substance but was no-billed by the grand jury. After that, he stayed out of trouble until 2008, when he got into a fight with his best friend.
Most of that time, Black said, he was on some type of probation. He said his experience with standard probation was quite different from the SWIFT program. With regular probation, you hope to see your probation officer as little as possible, Black said.
Black said he was sent to jail at least a dozen times during his final year in the SWIFT program before he got the message.
Today, Black is a project manager for a home entertainment company and lives in a new house with his new fiancee and their six children — including a new baby girl — and he credits the SWIFT program with giving him the tools to make it all work.
“Without the SWIFT program, I really think I would have been just another repeat offender,” Black said. “I have forgiven myself for the torture that I was putting myself through. I am drug- and alcohol-free, and for the first time, I’m not looking forward to getting off probation and ‘partying,’ but celebrating a new beginning.”
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