For nearly every convicted felon who successfully finished probation without doing drugs, drinking alcohol or committing a new crime, one more breaks the rules and ends up going back to prison.
When a judge sentences a person for committing a crime, part of that sentence can be suspended and instead served on probation.
Probation allows offenders to have almost as much freedom as someone who’s never broken the law. They can live at home and go to work, but they must have occasional meetings with a probation officer, take random drug tests and follow other rules, such as paying fees or not contacting certain people.
But if offenders break those rules, they can expect to be sent to jail.
About 1,400 people convicted of crimes were on probation in Johnson County at the end of 2013. Last year, 235 people on probation for felony cases had violations, compared with 290 who completed their probation term without any mishaps. People on probation for misdemeanors had fewer violations, with 160 violations compared with 397 cases successfully completed.
The people who break the rules are typically caught using drugs or drinking alcohol or get arrested for a new crime. That means more people being held at the county jail, more cases in local courts and more people going to state prisons funded by taxpayers.
When people do violate their probation, 63 percent of the time it’s because they fail a random drug test that checks for illegal substances and alcohol. When they are sentenced offenders agree to not use drugs and alcohol and are reminded by judges and probation officers that they’ll go to prison if they do, but each year probation staff members catch hundreds of people who test positive for one of those substances, assistant director Scott King said.
“It’s a struggle, but we have a good support system that helps us. And the whole point is to help the people, and we don’t want to violate people. Our county has a reputation of being a tough county, but it’s not. We’re here to help,” King said.
Not consuming drugs and alcohol is always a condition of probation, even for people who aren’t sentenced on drug or alcohol charges, Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said. The defendant, prosecutor and judge all must approve a probation agreement during sentencing, so each person knows exactly what is expected.
People violate the terms of their probation by using drugs and alcohol about twice as often as by committing a new crime. In 2013, more than 60 percent of violations in felony and misdemeanor cases were for drugs or alcohol.
If offenders have a noted drug or alcohol problem, probation officers will help set up a treatment plan. They will be required to attend drug treatment or alcohol counseling appointments as a term of probation, King said.
To make sure people stay off drugs and alcohol, the probation department does random testing, King said. People on probation are given a number, and if an offender’s number is randomly called, that person has to take a drug test. Tests can pick up traces of alcohol in the body even if that person had been drinking the night before, which is how many get caught, he said.
“Usually if you have a problem you’re not just having a beer or two. You’re drinking to excess,” King said. “They test for what the alcohol produces in the body. There’s a whole science behind it, but it works.”
The judges warn people during sentencing about their stance on probation. Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd typically points out his hard-line stance on alcohol: If someone has one glass of champagne at a wedding and it shows up on a drug screen, they’ll be heading to jail. Probation is a privilege and a second chance for an offender to show they can avoid crime and rejoin the public, Loyd said.
If people choose not to take advantage of that chance and can’t follow rules they agree to, then they should be sent back to prison, he said.
“Any further violation would not be a second chance, but a third or fourth chance. I’m a firm believer that second chances can be of great assistance to individuals. I’m not as convinced with third, fourth or fifth ones,” Loyd said.
Sending someone to jail or prison who has violated their probation also is meant to serve as an example, he said.
People on probation also are expected to pay fees, which help the probation department fund itself and can be considered a technical violation if they fail to make any payments. Some people just can’t afford to pay the fees along with other expenses, King said.
In order to say someone has violated probation by not paying, the prosecutor would have to prove that person had money available to pay fees and deliberately chose not to, Cooper said. As long as they are making some sort of payment, that shows an effort to try to to meet the terms of their probation.
“You had better be paying a good faith amount. If you can afford $5 a week, you go down and you pay the $5, and we’ll find a way to work with you,” Cooper said. “The ones that are conscious about it and are trying to do the right thing will write the court a letter or come by and tell the court that, ‘I don’t have the money.’”
Here’s a look at criminal statistics in Johnson County.
Current open probation cases
Felony cases closed with no violations in 2013
Probation violations in felony cases
Misdemeanor cases closed with no violations in 2013
Probation violations in misdemeanor cases
Percentage of violations due to positive drug or alcohol tests: