Successful Probation Practices in Travis County, TX, DC Public Safety Radio

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2012/04/successful-probation-practices-in-travis-county-tx/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety.  I am your host Leonard Sipes.  Ladies and gentlemen, the program today is about successful probation practices in Travis County, Texas, where they have reduced recidivism over the course of the last six years, and have saved taxpayers in excess of $21 million.  Our guest today is Dr. Geraldine Nagy, Director, Travis County Community Supervision and Corrections.  Geraldine, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

Len Sipes:  Okay, Geraldine, this is a program that has received a lot of publicity.  There are a lot of notices in the literature that I read, the people that I talk to about the wonderful things that you have done down there in Travis County, Texas, in terms of probation.  In essence, one of the things we said before hitting the recording button is that you’ve basically taken the probation department and have gone beyond the usual instructions of most probation departments, which is to follow the orders and the mandate of the courts, and what you have done is actually reduced recidivism, which means reducing new criminal offences.  You’ve saved taxpayers, literally, tens of millions of dollars.  How did you do all that?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Well, it took a lot of people doing a lot of work.  But it began with a very honest look at probation, and probation in Travis County, but probation in general, and we decided that our mission in Travis County was not only be to make sure that people complied with their conditions of probation, but we had a responsibility to do what we could to reduce crime in Travis County, Texas, through our interactions with the probationers.  So we redefined our role and we expanded our mission and we put numerous changes in place in order to accomplish that.

Len Sipes:  Now, you’ve had a 17% reduction in recidivism, and that’s based upon what, new arrest?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  That’s new arrest statewide, so it’s any kind of arrest in the state of Texas.

Len Sipes:  Okay.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  And that’s an [PH] average reduction.

Len Sipes:  Okay.  And for Travis County, what would be the recidivism rate?  Was it still 17%?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  The recidivism rate at this point is 24%.

Len Sipes:  That’s amazing.  That is absolutely amazing.  And the fact that you’ve been able to save $21 million in the process.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Yes, you know, I think there are a lot of things that are remarkable about this.  I think first of all, it hasn’t required a huge infusion of money into Travis County Probation.  We’ve basically, in our processes and cost efficiency, and stay focused on that goal of protecting the public and reducing recidivism, and evaluated everything we did with that goal in mind.  And so most of what we’ve been able to do has been a better realization of resource and taking a more focused approach to what we do.

Len Sipes:  Now, this whole idea of evidence-based practice, what you did was take a look at the literature, take a look at the research and basically said to the folks when you were hired, I think I can do a better job utilizing the research and bringing evidence-based practices to Travis County, Texas, and I think I can reduce recidivism, and I think I can save taxpayer dollars.  What was their reaction to your proposal?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  You know, what I found with the probation officers, and the other – the managers and the leadership here, is that everyone was on the same page with regards to having probation being meaningful and being able to measure the results with measures that mattered to other folks in the community, the judges, the people who live here and things.  And so, I didn’t get a lot of resistance from staff.  I think the average probation officer back in the older days really had wished, would have wished if they had known, to have this information available so that they could do their jobs better.  So I think there was some excitement about new opportunities.  So there wasn’t a lot of resistance from staff.  It required a lot of education.  It required strong leadership throughout our organization.  But people were willing to try something new if they thought it was going to make a difference.

Len Sipes:  Well, I’ve been in the criminal justice system for 42 years.  If somebody, if I was doing the same thing the same way for 20 years, and somebody came along and said, “Leonard, we’re going to try an entirely new way of conducting public affairs,” I would be very anxious. I would say, “Oh, my heavens, look.  I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Yeah, and I’m sure some people felt that way, but, you know, I just felt that it was so important not to diminish what they had been doing.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  They had been doing what they had been doing quite well.  They were serving the courts quite well.  So this was not saying what they had done was wrong or unimportant, but they could do more.  And that we could reallocate our resources and we could actually reduce their caseloads by being smarter, how we did things, so that they could make a difference with their folks.  And so, yeah, I’m sure there was some anxiety, some not knowing, but I think that’s part of making any meaningful change, and people for the most part stuck with it.  Our turnover rate has been very low.  And I see a big difference in how people relate to their jobs now.

Len Sipes:  Can I ask you whether or not, is it your belief that most probation agencies in this country follow your model?  My guess would be that most do not.  My guess would be that most still follow a very traditional model of basically doing what the courts ask them to do and to follow the mandate of the courts.  It’s quite a change to go over to a model that basically said, hey, I’m going to make things dramatically better.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  I think there’s a growing interest in evidence-based practices and making changes at the local level.  I think there’re some challenges to do that, and so I think what is different from Travis County is we were successful in really, over the course of the years, doing a top to bottom change to bring us into alignment with a broad array of knowledge and research.  And I think that required a great deal of planning and doing it in a very methodical way, and that is the [INDISCERNIBLE] which describes the process that we went through, is to give some assistance for people who know what to do, but they aren’t quite sure how to do it.  Because it is complex change.  That takes time.

Len Sipes:  Well, from the list–

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  There was a lot of interested–

Len Sipes:  Go ahead, please.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Oh, I’m done.

Len Sipes:  Okay, just on the list that I’m looking at, it includes so many things in terms of motivational interviewing.  I just did a radio show on motivational interviewing, redesigning conditions of supervision, a uniform policy on sanctions, reduced caseloads in the regular units of felony revocations, staffing and review committee, technical violation, court and document of mental health integrated services program.  I mean, I can go on and on and on about this list.  A reentry drug court, a DWI court for repeat offenders, an absconder unit, web-based interactive workforce, redesign of the sex offender management program, establishing a counseling center for intensive outpatient operations.  I mean, enhance job skills training, retooling of job performance measures, that’s a lot, Geraldine.  That is just a huge amount of work.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  It is a lot.  And I think our key was to do a lot of planning upfront, planning the [PH] class, [PH] work through the important steps, because I think the mistake that many people make when they start a significant change is they throw something out without a lot of warning.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  About why they’re doing it and how it fits the bigger picture.  So we’ve really worked on educating folks.  We’ve worked on working very closely with our judges, our prosecutors, our defense bar, and we really, you know, one person cannot do this.  Even your top administrative team cannot do this.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  It needs to be leadership at all levels throughout the organization.  So we had to develop folks to be able to manage workgroups and produce products, and to work fairly independently.  And that took the first year.  So there’s some development that has to take place.  But the second most critical thing is putting a structure in place to actually implement things and manage the work so that it gets done.  And I think that’s what we did here in Travis County, that brought us quite a bit of success much sooner than I expected.  So I think that was key.

Len Sipes:  You had to sell this to, I would imagine, the court, the county commissioners, local law enforcement, your treatment partners.  You had to sell this to lots of different people, correct?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Yes, I think for probably the first year I did 30 or 40 different presentations.

Len Sipes:  Wow.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  To community groups, to commissioner of court, to the prosecutor’s office, to the county attorney’s office.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  To commissioners because I felt that what we needed to have is a clear understanding of what we were going to do, why we were going to do it, what I expected the outcomes to be, and to build confidence in our department.  Because we are not a county entity.  We are a judicial entity, we are funded primarily through state, so I needed to build those alliances and yes, we needed support.  We worked very closely with many people.

Len Sipes:  Geraldine, what’s the essence of the program?  I mean, I just read a long list of the individual initiatives.  Some of the individual initiatives that you took on, that you implemented, what is the heart and soul of probation agencies in order for them to be successful, in order for them to have the same results that you’ve had there in Travis County?  What’s the secret sauce?  What is the heart and soul of it?  If you could give an elevator speech in terms of what makes for a successful probation agency, it would be what?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  I think it’s working with the local system collaboratively as a whole, and secondly, creating a culture that knows how to make decisions, relies heavily on research and data, and will take an honest look at itself and change what it needs to.  And so, our way of doing business is probably the biggest change – you listed some of the things that we did, but probation is a living dynamic sort of thing and there are always new problems, there are always new issues, and those need to be based on research and evaluation rather than opinion or emotion.  And so, we’ve taken a different approach to how we do business.

Len Sipes:  Now, in terms of the offender population, you assess them, correct?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Right.  Yeah, an assessment is a foundation of effective probation.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Apart from what I just said, if you [PH] take one thing, it’s in order to be effective, we must know who we’re dealing with.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  On an individual level.  So we need to know how likely they are to reoffend, we need to know what issues are contributing to their criminal behavior and then we need to develop strategies, either through probation supervision or treatment, just focus on those specific areas.  But the foundation is assessment, and the foundation for the courts as well is assessment because they set the conditions of probation.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  That’s the start.

Len Sipes:  Once you have an assessment, what do you do with them?  I mean, do you divide them into high risk and low risk, can provide different strategies based upon levels of risk?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Yes.  If you were to look at the research, it would say one thing that I think cannot be disputed.  That is, if you over-supervise, over-treat low risk people, people who have support in their lives, have a lesser criminal history, they’re unlikely to reoffend, then you will do them harm.  They are actually more likely to go out and commit a new crime.  If you take your high risk person, and you only see them monthly, for example.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  And send them to a treatment that is not very intensive, you can pretty much expect that they will go out and commit a new crime frequently.  So the idea is that we reallocate our resources and sort these [PH] folks, for lack of a better word, so that we know who to spend our time with.  So it’s really somewhat like an emergency room.  You expect to go in there for people to triage the people.  The same thing should happen in a probation department because it really is in some cases life or death for a potential victim in the future.  I mean, that might be the rare case, but still, we’re making important decisions here.  And so, it’s important to be informed.  It’s important to be fully informed and to respond to that.  The key, I think, for probation departments, many do assessments, it’s how they’re used by the courts, by the probation officer, at the point that there’s a non-compliance, at the point in deciding should this person get off probation, all of those are key decision making points.  So the assessment needs to be utilized at each of those decision points.

Len Sipes:  My guest today is Dr. Geraldine Nagy.  We’re halfway through the program.  Dr. Nagy is Director of Travis County Community Supervision and Corrections, well established within the [INDISCERNIBLE] as having one of the most successful probation programs in the country.  A significant reduction in recidivism, a savings to taxpayers of over $21 million and that’s why we have Geraldine at the microphones again today.  A high risk offender, Geraldine, has to receive the bulk of the services.  The low risk offender, you’re talking about a danger of over-supervising them, that’s something a lot of people have a hard time understanding.  So the judge sentences this person to probation, and he’s been in touch with the criminal justice system a couple of times for say, non-violent crimes.  He doesn’t have a substance abuse history.  Is that the kind of person we’re talking about for low risk?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Yeah.  And there’s two types of low risk folks.  Some, it’s a situational one-time thing; they’re corrected at the point of arrest.  They’re not going to do it again.  For those [INDISCERNIBLE] are low, low that we supervise in very large caseloads.  Those other low risk folks that do have some issues, maybe some treatment requirements, and so, we put them in treatment, but it would be a lesser intensity treatment than what we would provide for a high risk person who has a longer history.

Len Sipes:  I had a judge one time said, “Be careful when you ask for treatment for low risk offenders because if I impose those conditions of treatment, those conditions of treatment are enforceable.  And so, the person doesn’t like the program, doesn’t like the group, doesn’t like the facilitator of the group, and the treatment modality doesn’t fit that particular person’s needs, if you come back and tell me that he’s not in compliance, I could possibly send that person back to jail or prison.  So be careful what you ask for,” is that what we’re talking about here?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Yeah, and low risk people exactly like you have described have been going to Texas prisons for some time.  I mean, our legislative budget board looked at who exactly is going to prison in the state of Texas and there’s a substantial number of low risk people that end up in the state prison.  So, yeah, piling on extensive conditions for low risk people puts them at greater risk of being revoked, but it also puts them, if they comply, in situations where they’re interacting with high risk people, but it also interferes with their ability to do the things that makes them low risk, like maintain employment.  Do what they need to do with their children and families.  So there’s a number of reasons that low risk people need to be supervised less.  But the greatest one is if you’re supervising them, you can’t supervise the high risk.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  At the level that you should.  So that really is, when I talk about the allocation of resources, one of the biggest shifts in our department was moving that attention to high risk people, so now, they’re watched more closely, but they also have more requirements.  Then there’s that constant interaction to make sure that they’re benefitting from those requirements.

Len Sipes:  Now, it’s interesting that well over, I guess, 35 years ago, I remember that when I left law enforcement and went to college, and started studying criminology, there was a book I read many decades ago called Radical Non-Intervention that said exactly that.  Be careful of what you do with the low risk offender.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is not interact with that person, interact with that person as little as possible.  Don’t bring them full bore into the criminal justice system.  You’re going to create more problems than you solve.  That concept’s been around for decades.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Yeah, you know, not everybody understands the concept because I think not everyone realizes that we have the tools and methods to identify those low risk folks well.  And that again, [PH] goes back to assessments.  So I often hear people that say, “Oh, no, that’s not going to work.  What if this one person…?”  And the question is, can we do a good job in making those judgments with the tools that we have?

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  And yes, much better.  Much better than we could than we did before, certainly, when we just kind of looked at a person and said, “Oh, you look low risk and you look high risk”.

Len Sipes:  Right.  Right.  And using the tools.  It’s not perfect.  I mean, it’s not 100%, but I’ve been told by people in the field that it does approach 80 – 85% accuracy.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Well, and low risk is not no risk.  It’s important for us to recognize that.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  But still, when you look at the research, over and over and over again, it shows that if you over-supervise or treat these folks, they are more likely to go out and commit crime.  In other words, it doesn’t stop them, it makes them more likely to [PH] commit a crime.

Len Sipes:  So now you have the resources that focus on the higher risk offenders.  Now, they come into contact with your probation officers on a much more frequent basis.  They can keep a stronger eye on them and you can get them involved in the programs that they need because there’s a substance abuse history for the bulk of offenders, there are mental health issues for a large percentage of offenders on criminal caseloads, so now you can get them involved in the programs and now you can keep a much better eye on them, and hopefully, through the programs and through the supervisions, lower their recidivism risk.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Right.  And we did a lot of training with our officers to build the skills to be able to do that well.  You mentioned one of those things, motivational interviewing, which is really a strategy for assisting offenders to break through denial and to make a commitment to action-oriented steps to deal with their drug addiction, for example, and really, you know, making sure that they’re addressing the things that for that particular individual, put that person at risk of committing another crime.  So there’s a different level of interaction between the officers and probationer now.

Len Sipes:  And it’s not necessarily confrontational in terms of reading them the Riot Act, again, motivational interviewing is breaking down, as you said, breaking down those barriers and getting the person to understand what it is they did and the steps that they need, cognitive behavioral therapy or what some people call thinking for change, getting them to think differently about who they are and what they do.  And that’s proven to be successful.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  You know, if we want to really make a change in a person, we all know that we have to change their thinking.  And we have to get them to recognize for themselves the importance of the change, and that’s what motivational interviewing and supervision is about.  It’s really helping that person take responsibility and giving them the tools, now that they know they need to take responsibility, how can they solve problems.  How can they manage their impulsivity?  Those are just two examples.

Len Sipes:  But it’s interesting that there’s a lot of people within the criminal justice system, let alone outside of the criminal justice system, who, they sort of scoff at this concept of motivational interviewing and they sort of scoff at this concept of incentives for good behavior on probation, yet these are the things that seem to prompt change in terms of people who desperately need the change.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  You know, one of the things that we do now, is we do what is called [PH] fidelity study, in which we look at case files and evaluate individual officers and the department as a whole as to how much they’re adhering to these new strategies [INDISCERNIBLE] level.  Just an example.  We think that probation officers don’t matter.  I have in front of me a preliminary study, but it looks to see, do offenders who have an officer that does a very good job on their supervision agreement or plan, does that have a relationship [PH] risk with [PH] revocation and recidivism?  And what we found was that there are officers that do well, have offenders with a 17% reduction in technical revocation, a 10% reduction in revocations as a whole, and they’re less likely to have arrest at 12% level.  That’s just one little element.  That’s just one little element.  So I guess what I’m trying to say here and want to be clear about it, that quality of what that officer does with the offender starts with this plan, and people who have a good follow-up plan are significantly less likely to be revoked, a 10 and a 17% reduction is great for this one small, little area.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  And a [PH] 12% reduction in recidivism.  So officers matter.  They make a difference in what they do in that office with the probationer.  And that’s what this is all about.  Really changing that interaction so that people are successful.  And that’s probably the biggest change we’ve made.

Len Sipes:  Well, I think it is.  I mean, and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to bring it up, because you see motivational interviewing and people just don’t understand how important it is for that officer to guide that individual in terms of the proper way of conducting their lives.  And that the officers’ embracing of motivational interviewing, maybe there needs to be a different way of phrasing it or describing it, but that seems to be the heart and soul in terms of getting people to do what it is they should’ve been doing from the beginning.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  You know, when I go to a doctor and he just doesn’t even look up to me and reads from a chart, and we don’t have an interaction, I think I’m less likely to comply with what he’s told me to [PH] do.  But if, has a very engaging conversation, listens to me, talks about my problems, and problem-solves with me, I am likely to do that.  And I think that’s true of [PH] probation.  I think that’s true with the probation officer, and so that’s really what we’ve switched from, is going through routine process and a checklist, to actually having a problem-solving session with somebody who’s trained to help you solve your problems.  Whether it be drug abuse or impulsivity or hanging around with the wrong friends, or not having a job, any of those.  And so, I just think it’s — [PH] we believe in proving that that it makes a difference and it’s a viable alternative.  That when people go to prison, which is very costly, and has all sorts of other ramifications for a society, that it’s a viable alternative to doing that, where they don’t get that sort of assistance.

Len Sipes:  We have three minutes left in the program.  You know, Project Hope in Hawaii, which was able to reduce recidivism and returns to prison significantly, you know, it was interesting that they responded very quickly to violations in terms of incarcerations.  But one of the things that I was really sort of surprised about is that their focus on programs was really a change in philosophy in terms of how you deal with the offender, in terms of both motivational interviewing and enforcing the conditions of supervision rather stringently.  And I remember asking about the impact of programs, and programs were an important part of it, but not necessarily the most important part of it.  Do you feel that that’s true there for Travis County?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Yeah, I agree.  One of the things I want to make sure I’m not misunderstood about is that while officers are working with people to change, they’re also an officer of the court, and so those officers that are able to maintain that authority and hold people accountable, are also more effective in getting people to take responsibility for their actions and to change.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  And I think that’s what Project Hope does, is very quickly it shows that this is serious business.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  And that’s what we expect our officers to do as well.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Now, the response needs to be appropriate.  We don’t want to throw somebody in prison, but jail I think can be a very useful tool.

Len Sipes:  Yeah, well, certainly and in terms of Travis County and Project Hope in Hawaii, that seems to have been borne out by the data.  Do you feel that you have — well, first of all, no parole and probation agency in the country feels that they have all the resources necessary in terms of mental health, in terms of drug treatment, in terms of job assistance.  But do you feel that you have enough for your higher risk offenders?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  No.  And there’s probably no director that’s gonna say, as you said, say the answer to that is [PH] yes.  But we have a certain issue here in Texas.  People are funded by the number of people that are on probation.  And what’s happened in Travis County as we get more successful as a criminal justice system and diverting low risk people, even from prosecution, and sentencing people to probation, rather than to prison, our population is changing, so our population is [PH] growing some, meaning we get less funding for operation because we don’t have all these low risk folks on probation anymore.  So our caseloads are almost all-high and medium risk, and yet we’re not getting [PH] funding for that.  And so, there’s some challenges to funding.

Len Sipes:  That’s got to be a huge challenge.  All right.  Now, you’ve been written up so often and accolades have come your way, so what is your principal advice to other directors of parole and probation throughout the United States or for that matter, throughout the world?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy:  Well, I think that people often don’t initiate major change because they know that it’s going to be difficult.  And they anticipate all the challenges from the beginning.  And what I would say to other directors is success, when you’re dealing with any major change, in the middle, it can look like failure.  You can look at people who have created change in our culture and then in the middle, there were substantial challenges.  And the way that I see that is that the challenges are just part of the puzzle, so don’t stop because you don’t have solutions to those from the get go.  People will help you solve those problems.

Len Sipes:  I want to thank you for that.  Our guest today, ladies and gentlemen, has been Dr. Geraldine Nagy, Director, Travis County Community Supervision and Corrections.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  We want to thank you for all of the contact.  We’re up to 133,000 requests on a monthly basis for the radio/television show’s blog and transcripts at media, M-E-D-I-A-C-S-O-S-A.gov.  Please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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