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When Does It End? Probation System Traps Some for Decades

Nathan Hawkins skipped out on his probation after running into miles of red tape.
Nathan Hawkins skipped out on his probation after running into miles of red tape.
Mark Graham
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Nathan Hawkins lives in an apartment in a nice neighborhood in the the Mid-Cities — exactly where, he doesn't like to say. During the week, he works 12-hour shifts at a job hanging electrical signs on high-rise buildings. When he's not working, he runs a custom woodworking business. On weekends, he likes to take his daughters out for breakfast.

In most respects, Hawkins' life looks normal, but he knows that police could show up at his door at any time and haul him off to jail.

For the last two years, Hawkins, 35, has been on the lam after he skipped out on his probation. That probation stems from a 2007 charge for burglary of a building, a state jail felony. While he acknowledges he bears some responsibility for it, Hawkins says he didn't commit the crime himself, and he says he tried to make it right 12 years ago.

Hawkins' original sentence was five years of probation. But more than a decade later, after a series of technical violations like failure to pay fines and fees, Hawkins is still dealing with a maze of probation requirements, restrictions and punishments when he steps out of line. He acknowledges that skipping out on his probation wasn't the best way to handle the situation, but after five years stretched into seven, and seven stretched into 10, he was beginning to feel like he'd never get out from under it.

Two months ago, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot announced a raft of changes his office was making, including seeking shorter probation sentences for low-level offenses like the one Hawkins pleaded guilty to more than a decade ago. Creuzot also said he was directing prosecutors not to seek prison or jail time for probationers who commit technical violations. In a public letter to Dallas County residents, Creuzot wrote that, while probation was intended to be an alternative to prison, lengthy probation sentences can do more harm than good.

Hawkins' case appears to be a perfect example of how lengthy probation sentences can become longer and longer as technical violations stack up. Nevertheless, when his attorney tried to persuade prosecutors to rescind a motion to revoke Hawkins' probation after Creuzot's announcement, she says they wouldn't budge.

Creuzot declined to comment on the details of Hawkins' case. But Hawkins' attorney, Christine Biederman, a former staff writer for the Dallas Observer, thinks Hawkins and other probationers like him have been trapped in a criminal justice system that seems more interested in making sure probationers do what they're told than rehabilitating them and ensuring public safety.

"The amount of time that this has gone on in the name of accomplishing nothing is really absurd," Biederman says. "I can't see that the process this guy has been put through and the hoops that he's been made to jump through have made the public one iota safer."

'It Was My Responsibility'

In 2007, Hawkins was charged with burglary of a building after he and a friend threw a party at a home where they were house-sitting. During the party, guests broke into the owner's garage and stole tools — a compressor, the gun from a paint sprayer and a few other things.

"I knew it happened. I was guilty. I will not deny that I had some part in that," Hawkins says. "Did I physically walk in and steal it? No. But it was my responsibility."

After the homeowner's son confronted Hawkins about the missing tools, he says he went to find the people who'd bought them from the party guests who stole them. He thinks he got almost all the tools back, and he thought that was the end of it. But a few weeks later, while he was visiting his brother in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Hawkins was in a minor car crash on a snowy road. When police ran his information after the accident, they found he had a warrant from Dallas County and arrested him.

Hawkins sat in jail in Michigan for three months before a marshal came from Dallas to bring him back. Once he was back in Dallas, he was given a public defender, who told him he could fight the charge, but he would most likely lose. The lawyer told Hawkins about an option that, at the time, seemed like a good fit: plead guilty to a state jail felony, do six months in a rehabilitation facility in Wilmer, then five years of probation, and then he would be free.

There was a complication: Two years earlier, Hawkins had pleaded guilty to a drug possession charge in Oklahoma and was given probation. When he pleaded guilty to the burglary charge in Dallas County, he violated the terms of his probation in Oklahoma. So he was taken back there, where he served 90 days in the Roger Mills County jail, court records show.

Once those 90 days were up, Hawkins came back to Texas, where he sat in the Dallas County jail for months until a bed in the rehabilitation facility opened up. By the time he began his six-month term there, he'd already served about a year in jail.

The center where Hawkins was ordered to complete a six-month term is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. He didn't think the treatment facility made sense for him.  Drugs and alcohol weren't a factor in the crime to which Hawkins pleaded guilty. Although he acknowledges he smoked marijuana in the past, Hawkins says he isn't much of a drinker. A search of Texas court records shows no arrests for public intoxication or driving while intoxicated. Still, Hawkins knew the program could keep him out of prison, so he kept at it.

Then, just days before he was scheduled to be released from the program, Hawkins and about 20 other inmates were cited for a minor rules violation. His counselor at the facility told him he would be sent back to the Dallas County jail to start the months-long process over again. Instead, Hawkins called a friend to pick him up and walked away from the facility.

After being on the lam for a year, Hawkins hired an attorney and turned himself in. He spent about three weeks in jail before his attorney got the original terms of his probation reinstated. By that point, Hawkins was more than two years into his original five-year probation sentence, and he'd never met with a probation officer.

The problems continued for years. Court records show Hawkins' probation was revoked for violations like failing to pay thousands of dollars in fines, court fees and restitution, missing meetings with his probation officer or testing positive for alcohol in a urinalysis. Each time, his probation was extended. He went through court-ordered rehabilitation programs again and again, graduating each time.

Hawkins' probated sentence stretched on for years. At least once, he stopped reporting to his probation officer. He knows it wasn't the right move, but probation is discouraging and frustrating, he says. He was required to meet with his parole officer twice a week. He was required to take classes that met three times a week, usually during the day.

In the evenings, he was required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, sometimes up to five times a week. He was also required to have a job, which meant finding an employer who was willing to let him leave work in the middle of the day several times a week. Probation also took a toll on his relationship with his daughters, he says.

"It destroyed my relationship with my kids, my family," Hawkins says. "My family thinks I was some hardcore gangster criminal."

Finally, about two years ago, Hawkins went on the lam again. In May 2017, he had just graduated from a short-term treatment program for parole violators. After he was released from the program, he was supposed to take a bus to downtown Dallas, where he'd turn himself in immediately at the county probation office. Then, he'd sit in the county jail until space opened up in another treatment program, where he was to spend the last months of his sentence.

Instead, as soon as Hawkins walked off the bus in downtown Dallas, he went home.

'We're Doing Things To Create Crime'

While he wouldn't comment on Hawkins' case specifically, Creuzot acknowledges that he couldn't make the changes he's seeking to the county's criminal justice system on his own. Without cooperation from judges, making headway would be difficult for his office.

While he declined to name specific judges, Creuzot says that many judges who oversee specialty courts for defendants with problems like addiction or mental health issues haven't gone through the appropriate training to handle the issues that come before their courts. He knows from experience how helpful that training can be.

During Creuzot's time as a judge, he made well-intended decisions that, after going through training, he later realized hadn't always been helpful. He thinks any judges who oversee those programs should take advantage of the training that's available. "Are they doing a good job? Maybe," he says. "Could they be doing a better job? Yeah."

Long probation sentences, especially for low-risk offenders, don't make the community safer, Creuzot says. They also make it harder for probationers to complete their sentences and move on with their lives. When a court places onerous conditions and requirements on low-risk offenders, it can interfere with their jobs and family lives. That could make them more likely to end up back in jail, he said.

"We're supposed to protect the community," Creuzot says. "That's our job, and we're doing things to create crime."

Creuzot says the criminal justice system often doesn't do a good job of setting the terms of probation to fit the probationer's circumstances. He'd like to see a requirement that courts conduct assessments for addiction, mental health issues and other needs before placing offenders on probation, instead of after, as is often done now.

Conducting those assessments before laying out the conditions of probation allows courts to give probationers the help they need and avoid sending them to treatment programs for problems they don't have, he says. When Dallas County officials conducted a study of probationers in the mid 2000s, they found that those who had undergone assessments before being placed on probation had 59% fewer technical violations than those who had undergone the same assessments after being placed on probation.

Biederman, Hawkins' attorney, says Hawkins didn't undergo such an assessment until after the terms of his probation were already set. She thinks ordering a probationer to abstain from alcohol for years, even when alcohol wasn't a factor in the underlying crime and the probationer shows no history of alcohol abuse, is unreasonable. It's an example, she said, of how the probation system is set up to keep people trapped in it.

"It's clear to me that we're setting people up to fail," she says.

Problems with the probation system aren't unique to Dallas County, or to Texas. Nationwide, probation and parole violations account for about 45% of state prison admissions, according to a report released last week by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

While that percentage is slightly higher in Texas than it is nationwide, the state fares better in the report than many other states. About 47% of the state's prison admissions stem from probation and parole violations — either technical violations or non-technical violations, which include the probationer or parolee committing a new crime. That places the state roughly in the middle of the pack. At the highest end was Utah, where probation and parole violations accounted for 79% of state prison admissions. At the low end was Massachusetts, where that figure was just 10%.

Still, the report shows that locking people up for probation violations costs the state millions of dollars each year. On any given day, nearly 23,000 people are in Texas state prisons for both technical and non-technical probation and parole violations. Locking people in state prisons for technical violations costs the state $38 million per year, according to the report. That total doesn't include the local cost of keeping people in county jails for violations.

The report should serve as "a wake-up call" that the nation's probation and parole system is broken and badly in need of reform, says Juliene James, director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic foundation that funded the study.

“No one thinks people should be sent to prison for a missed curfew or faulty paperwork, and yet this report shows these kinds of minor technical violations are contributing significantly to state prison population," James says.

One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Probation is meant to be a way to hold lawbreakers accountable for their actions and give offenders an opportunity for rehabilitation, says Kelly Mitchell, executive director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School. When it's successful, it helps low-level offenders reach a point where they're not tempted to commit more crimes.

For certain kinds of offenders, probation offers a host of advantages that incarceration doesn't, she says. It allows them to stay in their communities, keep their jobs and maintain family relationships. For offenders who are parents, probation doesn't affect their children as severely as incarceration. Offenders who are dealing with addiction or mental health issues get access to better treatment and support services. While incarceration is more effective at preventing crime — it's harder for offenders to commit a new crime when they're locked up — it isn't a good option in most cases, she said.

"It doesn't do anything to move the person along," she says. "It's actually quite disruptive to that person and the community."

The problem, Mitchell says, is that probation doesn't always accomplish what it sets out to do. Often, probation is set up mostly as a surveillance mechanism, where the goal is not so much to help probationers avoid committing another crime as it is to keep tabs on them until they do. When probation offers the offender nothing but a long list of conditions they have to follow and a promise that they'll be punished when they trip up, it's usually ineffective, she says.

A more effective option is creating a system with rehabilitation as its main goal, Mitchell says. In places where systems work best, probation officers work in partnership with probationers to find ways to stabilize their lives and help them avoid committing more crimes in the future.

If a state or county is looking to reform its probation system, a good place to start is by looking at the conditions they assign to probationers, Mitchell says. Most people who are given probation are ordered to meet with their probation officers regularly and get permission before they leave the state. Often, they're also ordered to avoid alcohol entirely, no matter whether they have an alcohol problem or whether alcohol was a factor in the crime they committed.

Likewise, probationers are often ordered to complete a GED or find and maintain employment. But if a person tries to pass a GED exam and fails, or can't find a job because of a lack of job skills or because there's high unemployment in their area, it might make more sense to offer that person services that are designed to help rather than revoking probation, Mitchell says.

Ultimately, the most effective probation systems are the ones that tailor the requirements of probation to offenders' needs and circumstances rather than trying to apply a single set of conditions to every person.

"The one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work," she says.

Hawkins and his daughters
Hawkins and his daughters
Mark Graham

'It's Always Been Tough'

A little more than two years have passed since Hawkins skipped out on his probation. He says those years have been some of the most fruitful he's had recently. He's repaired relationships that were broken in the decade before. He's built a support system of family and friends who help him stay out of trouble. He's looking forward to seeing his two older daughters go off to college in the fall.

"I've got things that I've accomplished in this two years that I haven't done in 10," he says.

Hawkins and his attorney are looking for options that would let him free himself from the probation system, but for now, Hawkins is still on the lam. Having probation hanging over his head makes it hard to plan for the future, he says. That's not to say that he isn't trying — he's thinking of buying a house and moving out of his apartment next year. But it's almost impossible to make any concrete plans when he knows he could go back to jail at any time. That's how it's been for more than 10 years.

"The last decade, it's always been tough," he says. "This is the only thing holding me back."

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