Probation Instead of Prison?

by Donna McCollum

What do East Texans think about the possibility of putting more people on probation to help ease the prison overcrowding problem? The answer depends on who you ask.

Bill Ramsey had $20,000 worth of equipment stolen from his rental business. The recent crime victim shudders at the thought of the thief receiving probation. "I don't think we need more probation. I think we need harsher penalties for the crimes. Going to jail is like a vacation for some of these guys. They're in and out, in and out," said Ramsey.

But ask Arthur Mamak about probation and he'll say it works. He's been on it for the last two years. "I think it does in the cases I know of. Now, there are certain ones it may not, but I've had good luck with it. If you get the right probation officer, you can't do wrong," believes Mamak.

There's almost always someone on the probation office waiting bench in Nacogdoches County. Twelve probation officers supervise 2500 cases here, the highest in four years. If mandatory probation becomes a requirement, the workload will only grow.

Chief Probation Officer Ricky Brice says, "Each officer got to do a whole lot more with each case. If they continue adding this, they need to come up with the money to handle it."

On Tuesday, the Texas Probation Association will stress to lawmakers more money is needed to handle excessively high caseloads.

Prosecutor Stephanie Stephens is responsible for recommending probation for a lot of lawbreakers, but she resents being told to do so by the legislature. "Quite frankly, I think when you take the discretion away from the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury, that any law loses its teeth."

Most first offenders already get probation, and building new prisons is not a popular or an affordable idea right now. So, if mandatory probation or new prisons are ruled out, where's the answer?

Ramsey suggests a "...hanging tree in front of the courthouse would work wonders." It won't happen, but it illustrates how crime victims often want people who do the crime to do the time.