Tough probation plan eases strain on crowded cellblocks

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Few people fault Georgia for being soft on crime. It has one of the highest incarceration rates of any political entity in the Western world. Likewise, since the days of the famed Texas Rangers, the Lone Star State has had a no-nonsense reputation for law enforcement. More people are in Texas prisons than are imprisoned in any other state. And like many other states, both Georgia and Texas are pressed to the limit by prison overcrowding.

So when each took a new look at probation for convicted criminals, it sparked interest among corrections officials nationwide.

Georgia, Texas, and New York began what correction officials call Intensive Probation Supervision (IPS). The requirements are stringent. Nothing ''like it has been tried in this country before,'' says Christopher Baird, a national consultant in corrections.

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Put simply, IPS calls for intensive surveillance of - plus community service and victim restitution by - a convicted individual, in lieu of being jailed. It seeks to control and punish many minor, nonviolent offenders in a way that doesn't put added strain on already crowded United States prisons. The fact that 37 states have mandatory-sentencing laws and 31 are under court order to reduce prison overcrowding guarantees that a successful program will be copied by other states, Mr. Baird says.

''The woeful condition of probation in many jurisdictions - high caseloads, few resources and those being diverted to new prison construction by court-ordered mandates to correct overcrowding - plus the public's perception that probation is not punishment, too often make prison the only acceptable option for judges,'' says Judge Albert Kramer, presiding judge of the Quincy District Court in Massachusetts. ''IPS offers a viable alternative.''

From the program's inception, Georgia has made certain that IPS would be used only for those who were ineligible for general probation and would have gone to prison, says Larry Anderson, the state administrator of the program. ''Given the limits to our size, we try to screen only those who have already been sentenced to prison terms. We've even gone into the prisons (see sidebar) to bring inmates back into the community on probation.''

A mix of ''concern and control'' lies at the heart of Georgia's IPS, Mr. Anderson says. With 13 two-officer teams handling a caseload of no more than 25 individuals per team, ''We become a daily part of each client's life.'' The program has been so successful that 5 teams were added to the original 13 last February, and 8 more will be added in July.

Georgia locates its IPS teams in the counties that send the most people to prison. ''We wanted it to appeal to the state's most conservative judges,'' Anderson says. It is designed to last from 9 to 12 months, after which a probationer who is performing satisfactorily is transferred to regular probation.

The fact that the state was not required to put up any new money helped sell the program. All funds for IPS come from a monthly fee of $10 to $50, which the department asks judges to levy on general probationers as a condition of release.

The cost is $4.75 per offender per day compared with $0.75 per day for general probation. But since it costs a little more than $24.50 a day per prisoner in the state prison system, almost $20 a day is saved. Factoring in capital outlays for construction, plus differing sentence lengths, officials figure the cost of the program at less than 1/10th of imprisonment.

And should an offender break the rules of his probation, a special warrant squad picks him up within 24 to 48 hours.

Incarceration is just like anything else paid for by public funds, says Todd Clear, associate professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University. ''You don't hand out money indiscriminately, but effectively. The evidence in favor of structured, intensive supervision of high-risk offenders is hard to argue with in Georgia, Texas, and New York. On the other side, just dumping money in general probation as opposed to prison is not effective, just cheaper.''

The average caseload per probation officer in Los Angeles County and New York City is between 250 and 400 offenders, in Houston 175, in Georgia 150. Such high figures make for minimal contact between probationer and caseworker, often only once a month by phone or post card.

Unlike Georgia, Texas and New York make probation a county function. A state agency called the Texas Adult Probation Commission (TAPC) sets standards, allocates state funds, provides assistance, and monitors county operations.

The Texas Legislature, forced to reduce prison overcrowding by a federal court order in 1981, began IPS as an inmate diversion program. The goal was to keep 1,000 cases from ever entering state prison. The 1983 Legislature (the Texas Legislature meets biennially) has increased the appropriation to more than

''Can IPS guarantee rehabilitation?'' asks Ted Bush, first assistant district attorney for Houston. ''If not, there needs to be a hammer so that the individual involved knows something is going to happen right away if he slips up.''

''You start out presuming that someone being put on IPS ought not to be on probation to begin with. If you're going to assign this convict a keeper in the free world, you have to spend extra money,'' Mr. Bush says.

''People should understand that IPS does not automatically stop people from going to prison. There will be failures. But it does provide some safeguard for a judge to try it on someone he (otherwise) might not,'' says Thomas J. Callanan , a former New York state probation director and present director of adult probation services for Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston).

Texas has an IPS warrant squad that can pick up an individual within 24 to 48 hours, says Mr. Callanan.

TAPC funds each county program at the rate of $5 per probationer per day. These funds cover salary, benefits, and travel expenses of officers and, in most cases, allow agencies to purchase unusual services, especially alcohol-abuse treatment, when appropriate. Cases may remain in IPS no longer than one year unless a court-ordered extension is obtained.

In recommending IPS placements, TAPC directs officers to consider chronic unemployment, substance abuse, limited mental capacity, and more than one conviction.

A recent evaluation of IPS in Texas concluded that approximately 60 percent of all placements were prison diversions. Currently, IPS caseloads average 31 clients in Texas.

IPS is about five times as expensive as regular probation but represents only 28 percent of the cost of incarceration. The incarceration figure includes operational costs only. Adding capital costs for the added prison facilities ordered by courts would increase this substantially.

New York State has had a form of IPS since 1978, but it has only been in the last year that the goal of diverting cases from state prison was adopted. The goal for 1983 is to keep 500 individuals out of New York prisons.

Marion Goldberg, director of New York's IPS, says the costs are about $1,000 per case annually, while incarceration averages $15,000. ''We require at a minimum that a caseworker have a weekly contact with the offender, at least once a month at home as well as lateral visits to employers, friends, or spouses.''

IPS officers are local employees, but the state pays all salaries. The New York program has caseloads of 25.

''Our standards are tough and our revocation rate is three times that of the regular probation rate,'' Ms. Goldberg says. ''We have a much lower new-offense rate with the nature of the offenses more likely to be property or victimless crimes. If you take it together we are not having a great impact on overall crime, but we have a much higher level of accountability at a far lower cost.''

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