I remember my time on probation in 2007. When the prosecutor offered a plea agreement for 10 years deferred adjudication, I felt as though my life had been handed back to me. Ten months earlier, I had been arrested for handing a note to a bank teller asking for $500, driven by my desperation to feed a drug addiction. At that point, I assumed that I would not breathe free air again until I was a very old man. The probation sentence seemed to be such a priceless gift.
What I didn’t understand was just how difficult my life was about to become. The probation sentence came with stipulations: thousands of dollars of fines and supervision fees, hundreds of hours of community service, regular visits with my probation officer, frequent drug screens, 12-step program attendance, and severe limitations on travel. I would have to pay more than $180 per month and dedicate nearly 15 hours per week to various probation obligations, on top of maintaining a job.
Under normal circumstances, I could have met this challenge head on. I was in my 30s, had completed two college degrees, and had the support of my family. Yet I struggled. Despite countless hours of 12-step meetings, I continued to obsess about drug use. I was not stable on my psychiatric medications, and I had difficulty finding a treatment provider without having health insurance. Not having consistent psychiatric care was terrifying because my descent into addition and mental illness included many suicide attempts and involuntary hospital admissions.
I worked hard to overcome these obstacles, recognizing that the first priority was finding a job. Yet, the fact that I was on deferred adjudication and had not been convicted mattered little to prospective employers. I watched my career prospects wane, and I floundered trying to find regular employment. I relapsed less than eight months later and committed additional offenses. The prosecutor was unwilling to offer any deals, and I was sent to prison for a 15-year sentence.
In thinking back on that time, I’m astonished that I made it eight months. While probation is intended to reduce the rate of re-offense, it often forces people to live up to expectations they can’t possibly meet. And if it’s this hard for someone with education and resources, how difficult must it be for someone facing more serious obstacles – people with limited resources and chronic mental illness, young adults, single mothers, people with substance use disorder, homeless people?
Probation needs to work. It’s the primary way that we divert people from prison and link them with treatment resources. When it works, it reduces the rate of re-arrest and makes our communities safer. But the simple fact is that probation doesn’t work for vulnerable or marginalized populations – just like incarceration fails to address their underlying needs. This is why we are starting a report series on vulnerable populations in the criminal justice system: One Size FAILS All.
The first report will look at how young adults fare on probation. The sad truth is that most people under age 25 who are placed on felony probation will have their probation revoked and will be sent to prison. Young people aged 17 to 21 are especially at risk of incarceration, with less than 20% successfully completing a probation term. I think about this in light of my own experience. I can’t imagine an 18-year-old high school student having to meet the conditions expected of me. Texas must create a community supervision model that individualizes rehabilitation, keeping kids out of prison and leading them to a productive life.
Future reports in our One Size FAILS All series will highlight the failures of the justice system to address the needs of the LGBTQ community, people with substance use and mental health issues, and people without stable housing supports.
If you have a story to tell about your experience on probation or in prison, I welcome you to share it with me. Texas cannot continue to fail our most marginalized communities.