“What Works”-Travis County Adult Probation-DC Public Safety-170,000 Requests per Month

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– Audio begins –

Len Sipes: From our microphones in downtown Washington, D.C., this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. At our microphones today is Dr. Geraldine Nagy. She is with the Adult Probation Department at Travis County, Texas, and I’m going to start off with their website, www.co.travis.tx.us/adultprobation, and we’ll be giving out that several times throughout the course of the program. I’m going to refer very briefly to an article in the Austin American Statesman newspaper of this year when they talked about the fact that Geraldine’s department was able to reduce rearrest and reduce technical violations, and it’s a pretty glowing article. And, one of the things probably the most interesting quote of them all in terms of this article, said, “The judges are pretty impressed with what probation has done,” Lynch says, and I think that’s the District Judge, Mike Lynch. “The judges are pretty impressed with what the probation office has done, and we’re a hard bunch of nuts to crack.” So, if you can impress the judiciary, and you can get a glowing article out of any newspaper about parole and probation agencies, I think that that’s a pretty good accomplishment and that’s why we’re going to interview Dr. Geraldine Nagy on today’s show. Before we get into the interview, a brief commercial. We’re up to a 170,000 requests all on monthly basis for DC Public Safety. When I say that, that’s in reference to the television, radio programs that we offer at DC Public Safety or the transcripts and blogs that we offer. You can contact me directly via email at Leonard L-E-O-N-A-R-D.sipes S-I-P not T but p E-S@csosa.gov, and you can follow me directly on Twitter, twitter.com/lensipes. And, again, we really do appreciate all of your calls, all of your comments, all of your criticisms, believe it or not, we’ll take them all. And, with that commercial, back to Dr. Geraldine Nagy. Geraldine welcome to DC Public Safety.

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

Len Sipes: Well, you know, this is interesting because I’ve read a lot of the research and the articles that you’ve sent, and we’re going to post that information we’re going to post your website and that website does contain all of that information. The fact that you’ve been able to come in, and you’ve been in the probation business for an awfully long time. You have a doctorate in psychology, and there is a certain point where it was yours, and you decided to go in and rearrange how Travis County Probation was conducting business, correct?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yes, I did.

Len Sipes: And tell me about that. Tell me about that process.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Well, I came in here in January 2005. I had previously been the Deputy Director for the state oversight agency for probation in Texas, and during that time, I became aware of a growing body of research that really could guide us in probation and parole to be more effective. And, so, I came in and had an organizational assessment to look to see how our department was running compared to that research. And, we found that there were some things that we could do substantially better. So, we started that initiative. We’ve been at it for about four years now, and we do. We have our first outcome and have shown substantial reduction in recidivism. An average of about 17%, but also, our revocations are down, substantially. So, and we’re also showing that we’re showing some savings for the local jail system, and, as well, the state institutional division. So, the numbers seem to be going in the right direction. That’s encouraging, so, we’re pressing on.

Len Sipes: We do need to repeat that. You’ve been able to reduce the percentage of offenders who are committing new crimes. You’ve been able to reduce technical violations, and for people who don’t understand what technical violations are, not showing up for the parole and probation appointment, a positive drug test, not getting a job, those sort of things. So, you have been able to reduce both of those, and at the same time, save tax paid dollars. So, you’re making society safer and saving them money all at the same time.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yes, which is, you know, I believe something we could do and expand this to many probation departments and see the same kinds of outcomes.

Len Sipes: And that’s amazing because you’re talking about one county and the state of Texas and the grand state of Texas as big as it is, I mean, I have no idea how many counties Texas has, but there are certainly hundreds of counties down there. If every county was able to reduce the rate of improved public safety and reduce the rate of revocations and those revocations oftentimes end up and the person being sent back to prison or jail. If you can make; if all of the counties could make society say for end at the same time save taxpayers money, you would be given the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Oh, that would be wonderful.

Len Sipes: But you know what I mean. I mean, you talk about expanding this into other counties in the state of Texas. That’s what all of us are struggling with in parole and probation throughout the entire country, and for that matter, well beyond the borders of the United States. Everybody is struggling. I mean from China, the Canadian government. These are organizations we’ve been in touch with directly; others, we’re all struggling with that formula. We’re all struggling with what we refer to as what works.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yes, yes. And, some exciting things are happening as a result of what’s happened in here in Travis County. The council of state government who worked with us on this project to the putting together a how-to guide based on what we’ve learned here in Travis County, and also, the National Judicial College is beginning to train judges and evidence-based sentencing using some of what has happened here in Travis County as part of the model. So, there are some exciting things going on as a result nationally.

Len Sipes: And I should point out that this radio show is a continuation of the radio shows that we have been doing regarding what works or evidence-based practices throughout the United States. So, we’re continuing our examination of programs that have been able to do exactly what you’ve done. Now, Geraldine, what was the key ingredient in terms of doing or creating the success that you talked about. There has to be key issues here that can be replicated by other jurisdictions throughout the country that prompts your level of success.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: I think one of the most important things that we accomplished, and it did take a coordination with our court, our district attorney’s office, our county attorney’s office and others within the criminal justice system here in Travis County, was to come up with a process in which we did a comprehensive assessment, and what we call a diagnosis of every offender;felony offender that came into the court, and that that information would be available to the court at sentencing. So, that the court could more effectively sort out, you know, what would be appropriate for each offender, and that would help us in probation as well because the conditions would then be set on a case by case basis.

Len Sipes: The assessment process is crucial. In other words, everybody throughout the entire country should use standardized tools, and the people who are listening to this program who say, oh, my evidence;here we go with the shrinks making judgments about criminals because there have been so many horror stories throughout the past couple of decades of people using diagnostic tools and making the wrong decisions in terms of parole releases and that parolee goes out and commits some other crime. Those assessment processes have improved tremendously in the last 20 years, and we have a way of really getting to the core of that individual from the standpoint of violence and the standpoint of substance abuse and the standpoint of anti-social behavior. Correct?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yes, and, you know, imagine what the alternative would be. I mean, if we go into a doctor’s office and the doctor prescribes the same thing for every person that came into the office, we would consider that negligent.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yet in probation and parole, I mean, historically basically everybody has gotten the same thing. There might be some variation based on offense, but what we’re moving towards now is determining the probability that this person might re-offend based on validated tools. Looking at their mental health status, their substance abuse problems, but also, and I think most importantly, really focusing in on what got this person here in the first place, which we in the field call criminogenic need.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: And, then probation focuses on directing those specific factors which contributed to the person’s offense;them committing that offense. So, you’re set with some information rather than taking a stab at it, you have some information that people have confidence in that the courts have confidence in to guide you along the way.

Len Sipes: We oftentimes look at crime pretty simplistically from the standpoint that, oh, it’s a drug related crime. He has a drug or she has a drug related background. Well, that is just barely scratching the surface of the issue because one of the things that we found, especially in terms of women offenders, is the extraordinarily high rate of sexual violence directed at that individual in her younger years, and a lot of the individuals caught up;female individuals caught up in crime were raped and sexually abused as kids. Now, nobody is making excuses for their criminality because of their set of circumstances, but that set of circumstances exists regardless, and oftentimes that person’s antisocial background and that person’s substance abuse background is related directly to the fact that she was raped when she was eight or nine years old. The;I think of other research regarding mental health, and the fact that over 50% of offenders in terms of a self-assessment, this is not a clinical assessment, but a self-assessment, rate themselves as having mental health problems. So, there’s a lot of complexity that the individuals who we supervise bring to the table and figuring out who they are and the best way of supervising them and helping them is extremely complex. Correct?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yeah. Yes, I would agree with that and particularly for those mentally ill offenders who come into the criminal justice system. There’s current research that shows that when they have a technical revocation, often it’s the symptoms of their mental health problem that caused them to maybe miss an appointment . . .

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Or, you know, quit taking their medication, and so, what we have done here in Travis County, is created what we call a team based integrated services office in which both probation officers, who’ve been specially trained, and then mental health case managers work with the offender as a team to help them comply with their conditions, and also, you know, make other changes that will assist them in keeping out of the criminal justice system.

Len Sipes: Now, okay, so we do the assessment. What else? There’s probably a dozen different things that you feel are necessary because you have to have the programs to intervene if you, through this assessment process, you find out that this person is at a clinically or self-assessed but clinically has an issue;a mental health issue, or assesses himself as having a mental health issue. You’ve got to have the wherewithal to meaningfully intervene, and so, the question becomes do you have the programs to deal with mental health. Do you have the programs to deal with substance abuse? Do you have the programs to deal with anger management? Do you have the programs to deal with occupational issues?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yes, I think there’s a couple of factors that have to be put in place, and so, one of them is programs, which I will address in just a moment. But, I think also, the probation officer plays a critical role here, and, in fact, there’s some new research that suggests that treatment alone without the involvement and the probation officer as a team player, you know, in this process doesn’t work as well as we had hoped.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: But the new research is showing that when there is a probation officer that is working with the offender to engage them in the treatment process, and that really wants to see the offenders successfully complete that treatment, but also, change as a result of that treatment. But, that’s when we get the best results.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: So, we have worked to train all of our officers and change our entire supervision process to be directed towards changing the offender’s behavior. And, then on the other side, then, is having programs, and we all know now, that programs work. We also know that not all programs work. So, the key here is getting the resources, but also, utilizing those resources in a way so that we have programs that truly do fit the research and do work. So, that’s what we’re focusing on here in Travis County as doing that.

Len Sipes: You walk a tightrope in the same way that every parole and probation agency administrator in this country or throughout the world walks a tightrope because part of your job is to get the person in the drug treatment. Part of your job is to get the person into mental health treatment, and part of your job is to protect the public safety. So, you folks have got to be on one hand counselors who incur to the individual who developed a personal relationship with the individual and his family and his friends and his co-workers, and, at the same time, that person must supervise that person in such a way as to make sure that individual is not committing additional crimes and send that person back to prison if necessary. That’s always the tough, tough role in parole and probation. It’s a very schizophrenic role. On one side we’re badge carrying law enforcement officers, and then on the other side;on the flip side of that, we are quasi social workers.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yes, I think that’s true, and I think that it’s a balance, and I do think that, historically, we’ve kind of leaned to one side or the other and looked at that as opposing forces, so to speak.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: But, the way that I look at it is that we are expanding our role here in Travis County. You know, we did the job of assuring compliance and doing our paperwork and so forth, very, very well here. But, when I came, I thought, you know, if we really going to talk about public safety, we have to really question whether or not what we’re doing really protects the public, and I don’t think counting contacts or, you know, counting the number of positive or negative UAs that we administer is protecting the public to the degree that we could.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: And what’s so exciting about what we’ve researched is that it focuses on public safety for the long term. So, what we have now is a body of research that tells us what to do, and it does include intervention, and it does include treatment. But, that treatment is directed towards the greater purpose of public safety. And, what I’m so excited about with our recidivism rates is that bares that out because that’s what we have worked towards expanding our missions include that longer range goal of long time behavior change for the offender. So, the people in our community are, you know, feel a greater peace of mind.

Len Sipes: We’re at the halfway mark of the program. We’re interviewing Dr. Geraldine Nagy. She is the Director of Probation in Travis County, Texas. The website address is www.co.travis.tx.us/adult probation, and we’ll have that website address in our show notes of DC Public Safety. Geraldine, you mentioned in a prior conversation that part of this was getting through the population and taking a look at maybe 30% of your population that really didn’t need to be supervised that stringently or didn’t need to be supervised at all, and that allowed you to realign your resources to refocus on that two-thirds who did pose a threat to public safety. And, so that you were able to deal within the confines within an existing budget and rearrange that budget to do the most good. Correct?

DR. GEARLDINE NAGY: Yes, I think that’s an excellent point. I think one of the things that this assessment process allows you to do with some confidence is to determining who are your lowest offenders that do not need a lot of supervision or programming, and to quit focusing those resources on them but to redirect them to those medium and higher risk offenders that really do need it. So, we’re able to do that, and it did allow us to make a number of changes without getting additional resources. So, yeah, I think that’s a major point to keep in mind here, is that it not only allows you to be more effective, but it allows you to be more cost effective.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: And, so, yes;and we have found we’ve done studies to look at those low-risk offenders to see if our assumption is, in fact, correct . . .

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: And we do find that the recidivism rate is very, very low.

Len Sipes: And one of the things;one of the reasons or the under pittings of this what works or evidence-based research is exactly what you’re referring to is research that you do on your own that agencies do and that way you’ve been able to chart the low-risk offenders and been able to take a look at their own recidivism rate and you know that it’s low to the point where you can do as little as humanly possible with them and move on to the higher-risk offender.

DR. GERALDINE SIPES: Yeah, I think that’s really what evidence-based practice is about. We have this research available to get us started, but to truly do evidence-based practices we have to generate our own research at the local level.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

DR. GERALDINE SIPES: To check ourselves out. To make sure that we are truly doing what is working and then give that back. That information back to the court, to our own staff and the community, when we can, and so, yes, I think that’s an important part of it.

Len Sipes: So, a lot of this is the assessing of the offender, is the retraining of staff, is doing a lot of research to see where you’re going and to make mid-course corrections, if necessary, focus on the higher-risk offenders and doing as little as possible with lower-risk offenders, but you had to do all of this;this is a pretty considerable change from most parole and probation agencies. For people listening to this program, they need to understand as you just said, Geraldine, agencies out there seem to take one side or the other either an enforcement approach or a social work approach but not the middle of the ground approach which seems to work best. So, you had to take all of this new research and mix it and apply it, and the different people that I’ve talked to who have tried to do what you’ve done, it’s a difficult process. It’s a difficult process to get everybody on board. The police department, the judges, the social workers it’s just real difficult to bring this change to the table.

DR. GERALDINE SIPES: It is, and it takes time, and we’ve been at it for four years now. I don’t consider our work done. I don’t think it will ever be done, and we need to continually assure that we, you know, have quality control around all of these various changes that we’ve made. But, I do think it’s possible. I do think it’s well worth it, but I think we have to be realistic about it and recognize that it’s not something that you can do very, very quickly. That it takes time and it is a collaborative process. All aspects of the criminal justice system need to be on board in order for this to work.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh, and getting everybody on board. I mean, I’ve been part of the criminal justice system for 40 years;that’s difficult. I don’t care who you are and what agency you’re with, I mean, I had an agency in the state of Maryland. I was Director of public relations with who at the state police. We had the state police, we had corrections, we had parole and probation, we had a ton of agencies and they still fought with each other, and they were still part of one department. So, to take agencies that are not part of one agency and to go out and pull in the law enforcement folks and pull in the politicians and pull in the social workers and to pull in the judges, wow. That’s a tough nut to crack, and that’s what impressed me so much about the quote from the Austin American Statesman where the Chief Judge goes we’re pretty impressed and we’re hard to impress.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yeah, it is hard work. I have a lot of gratitude for the folks here at Travis County. I’ve been supported a great deal throughout this process, and I think the idea of, you know, expanding our mission to a broader goal of public safety is something that appeals to everyone when you get down to the bottom line. So, you know, I’m hopeful that as this research becomes more out there, for lack of a better word . . .

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: That people will see that that’s the true goal here, and the probation can make a difference.

Len Sipes: Well, you know, in Maryland, we took our case load of lower level offenders, and we tried to place them on an administrative caseload, and what that meant was seeing them two times a year. We tried to do this, oh heavens, what was it, ten, twelve years ago, and the negative publicity that came out of the courts and the negative publicity that came out of the newspapers forced us to go back to the old way of doing things.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yes.

Len Sipes: You know, this is dicey stuff. This is not easy stuff to do in terms of the fact that judges could say well, no, no, no, I sentenced that person to probation. You have no right to change that to administrative probation. I sentenced that person to probation. Put that person back on probation. I mean, that’s what we experience within the state of Maryland.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yeah, and I think you;that this does have to be looked at from a realistic point of view. When I talk about this now, it sounds like it was very easy. That we didn’t, you know, hit a lot of obstacles and so forth. But, we did, and so, you do have set backs, but I think that, from my point of view that is part of the process of change. You know, right in the middle you may wonder why in the world did I decide to do this. You know, this is tough stuff.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: I do think it’s worth the change and that’s one of the reasons why I am excited about the outcome data that we’ve had in Travis County because I think it does add to the research literature out there that this can make a difference. That’s it worthwhile. But, as you said it is not easy, and it’s especially not easy to get everybody on the same page.

Len Sipes: Part of it was what you did in Travis County was to introduce cognitive behavioral therapy or thinking for a change, and I’ve discussed this concept on the radio show before, and I get emails from individuals;not just in the country but throughout the world who say, you know, you really do have to train an individual human being that’s stealing or hitting another person is wrong. You really have to get in there and help them create, you know, better decisions of helping;showing them how to create better decisions, showing them how to hold their temper, showing them how to deal with adverse situations without responding to violence. You really do have to retrain that individual, and the answer is yes that the population we deal with brings a wide array of social problems. A wide array of issues. I contend, I’m sorry, many criminologists contend that the real heart and soul of this issue was child abuse. When you raise yourself from the age of eight and Dad’s not there and mom has a substance abuse problem, you tend to have a chip on your shoulder the size of Montana. So, the idea of going back and showing human beings how to think through adversity, how to think through problems without resorting to violence or without resorting to crime becomes an integral part of how we do business. Correct?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: I see as the major role of a probation officer to engage with that offender that is sitting across from them and work with them to acquire the lessons of responsibility and accountability. And cognitive programming provides us with the tools to do that. And what cognitive programming does is consistently have the offender to look at their own thinking.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: And how their own thinking, beliefs, attitudes results in behavior that’s irresponsible or at the very best is simply not good for them.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: And, so, the whole intent of cognitive behavioral therapy is to really deal with the here and now, the offender’s thinking and to help them replace that thinking with pro-social thinking and skills that allow them to be responsible and accountable for their own behavior.

Len Sipes: And for people that don’t quite understand this, I spoke with a group of offenders for a governor’s crime summit in the state of Maryland and these were all juveniles who were being adjudicated for homicide. And their words not mine they’re telling me that Mr. Sipes look, you know, violence is a wonderful thing. It protects me. It protects my family. It protects my property. You know, you don’t understand. You don’t get us. We act within our world towards each other this way because it’s in our best interest to do this. Now, that’s a pretty profound and a pretty depressing statement from one human being to another. That violence is peachy keen. And, sometimes you have to get in there and help that person understand that no, it’s not right and it’s going to continuously land you in a correctional facility for the rest of your life, if you continue this way. Here are alternative ways of proceeding. Again, that becomes the heart and soul of what we’re trying to do.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yes, I think people think the way they’ve learned to think, and what we have to do is challenge that and yes, you’re right. That’s a major objective of probation and parole is to challenge that kind of thinking so the person has thinking that’s more in tuned with the reality that we live in.

Len Sipes: But none of this predisposes;none of this takes us away from the public safety mission that if an individual is acting out in such a way as to being a danger to society, we don’t hesitate to put them back in prison. So, the public does need to understand that. Yes, we’re going to do our very best to get them;to get the individual into substance abuse therapy, we’re going to do our very best to help the person understand the world as it really works. We’re going to do our best to help a person find employment, but if he doesn’t go along with the program and he continues to be a danger to society, we’re going to put the person back in prison and we;and there’s no disagreement between cognitive behavioral therapy and putting a person back in prison. We’re going to do what is best for society, but we’ll try to do what is best for that individual. Am I right or wrong?

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: No, I look at it that way, and I think that, you know, even if the person goes to prison, I as someone in the community would expect something to happen there, so, when that person gets out of prison, they’re less of a threat to me. So, I believe that cognitive programs should be offered in the prison setting as well. But, absolutely, you know, I see the whole point of the assessment process is sorting out who should go where and what should happen to them once they get there.

Len Sipes: Well, we’re at the;go ahead and finish up please.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: And then we, you know, create a plan as to how we can . . .

Len Sipes: For the future when that person inevitably comes back out.

Dr. Geraldine Nagy: Yes, yes.

Len Sipes: Well, Dr. Nagy, you have done a tremendous job in Travis County, and we appreciate you coming on DC Public Safety. The address;website address for the Adult Probation Department of Travis County, Texas is www.co.travis.tx.us/adult probation.

– Audio ends –

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