This year is already turning out to be an historic one for the state of Texas. Freezing temperatures and power outages crippled much of Texas at the beginning of the year, putting vulnerable communities and the elderly at risk. A relentless pandemic is still upending whatever semblance of normal life was left from 2020. And the eyes of the nation are on the Mexican border as we struggle––again––to handle the growing immigration crisis. After so much hardship, Texans are looking for clear wins and a chance to make a difference in what has already been a difficult year.

One vital criminal justice bill for those on probation and parole could be that opportunity.

Community supervision comprises the largest portion of the criminal justice system ––there are 4.5 million people on probation or parole, more than double the number of individuals who are incarcerated––but it is also an aspect of the system that is often overlooked. It is imposed after or in lieu of incarceration, and is supposed to help reintegrate individuals back into society and provide much-needed support. While supervision should keep individuals out of prison—and save taxpayer dollars—that doesn’t always happen.

Often, “technical violations” of probation and parole trip up individuals: They receive a long list of conditions they must follow on supervision. Violating these conditions, such as showing up late to an appointment or failing to pay a fee, can be grounds to go to prison, even if these behaviors aren’t criminal.

In Texas, close to 23,000 individuals are in prison for a supervision violation, rather than a new offense. When going back to prison becomes the default response for a technical violation, we are taking away an individual’s liberty without a benefit to public safety. But when judges are encouraged to use other tools aside from incarceration to address minor violations, the individual and society are better served. That is what HB 358 would do—in certain cases, the law will guide judges to modify or extend probation instead of sending individuals back to jail or prison.

This small change would benefit not only those on probation or parole, but would also benefit taxpayers. As taxpayers, we pay the cost for what is often a zero-tolerance approach to violations. A new tool offered by the Council of State Governments Justice Center demonstrates that if we could reduce probation revocations just by 10 percent in Texas, we would save $174 million dollars. That small change is money we could reinvest into our communities, including the winterization of our power systems.

Prison is also ineffective as a remedy for these types of violations. Individuals on probation or parole obviously don’t want to go back there. So, if they violate the terms of their community supervision, there is often a deeper reason why––lack of transportation or childcare are two common issues. Take the case of Shalice Williams, who violated by missing an appointment with her probation officer. Ms. Williams couldn’t find childcare that day, and couldn’t bring her child with her to the appointment. For this infraction, she was jailed for 42 days. As a result, Ms. Williams lost both her job and her housing.

Even a short term in jail—like in this instance—can derail a person’s life. In fact, it can actually make that individual a greater public safety risk, since employment and housing are foundational elements that help to reduce the risk of reoffense. With an ongoing pandemic, filling our jails and prisons is even more dangerous, making them hotspots for the spread of infection.

Instead of sending individuals back to prison for minor violations, HB 358 gives judges the flexibility to better address a person’s circumstances while also preserving public safety and saving taxpayer dollars.

Measures like HB 358 can help ensure that probation and parole are natural next steps for Texans who are ready to reintegrate into their communities. It will also cut down on the millions of dollars that go toward incarceration. This legislation would be a win for both individual liberty and taxpayers in Texas.

Image credit: corgarashu