Late last summer, the director of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department resigned, and the Harris County District Attorney’s office said it would stop using the agency’s drug tests as evidence after revelations that its overburdened drug-testing program had led to the wrongful jailing of some probationers and people awaiting trial based on false positives.
Director Teresa May, appointed in February, is being praised for addressing those missteps and bringing a pioneering and transparent approach to the once embattled agency.
“She’s very open and I’m satisfied that, at least for right now, that those problems have been corrected,” said longtime state District Court Judge Denise Collins, who called for the department’s previous chief to step down last year.
Collins, a member of the committee that vetted and recommended May, said she “is so innovative and has such great perspective on the entire department because there are some changes that need to be made, and she has kept her word with what she said she was going to do.”
Since March, the department has cut its drug testing volume in half after May hired a consultant who found that many probationers had for years tested negative on hundreds of tests. The abnormally high test volume was a big part of the problems revealed last year, May said.
May, 52, came from Dallas County’s probation department, where she helped implement a model that significantly reduced the number of offenders who ended up behind bars after their probations were revoked. The result was a lower jail population and a savings of millions of dollars.
See here for the background. The model May helped implement in Dallas is basically a risk assessment model that differentiates between probationers that need close supervision and drug testing, and those that will do better with minimal disruption to their daily lives. The idea is to design it for success and not failure, as Sen. John Whitmire characterizes it, with “success” meaning fewer people being put in jail for probation violations. One of the reasons why we had such problems with jail overcrowding in the past is that it made more sense to pick jail time over probation because the terms of probation were so onerous, and so likely to wind up with you in the slammer anyway for a violation of those terms. Needless to say, this is something we want to avoid going forward. One key to this is getting the judges to buy into this, and that seems to be happening as well. Kudos to Ms. May for her work so far.