State to audit Dallas County's probation department

Monday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will begin an examination of the probation department’s policies and sample some of its 50,000 cases

By Jennifer Emily
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Bryan Sexton showed up drunk after driving to meet his Dallas County probation officer.

Tests showed his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit to drive.

The probation officer reprimanded Sexton and allowed him to walk home.

Nine months later, on Aug. 20, probation officers and supervisors wrote that they “probably” should inform the judge who handled his case.

Sexton, on probation for attacking his girlfriend, drove to another probation meeting that same day. Again, he was drunk.

Cases like Sexton’s — in which the probation department failed to cite egregious violations promptly — have caused the county’s judges to order a sweeping audit of the probation department.

Monday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will begin an examination of the probation department’s policies and sample some of its 50,000 cases. Auditors will propose fixes if they find paperwork holes that could leave criminals free rather than behind bars for violating probation.

State District Judge Tracy Holmes, who handled Sexton’s case, helped push for the audit. She was upset after discovering at least 34 cases in which serious repeated probation violations were not reported to her.

“What is infuriating to me is that even after the probation department knows I’m zero tolerance … they were ‘probably’ going to tell me about the case,” Holmes said. “It’s still business as usual.”

Although their standards differ from court to court, most judges require probation officers to report serious violations of a criminal’s terms of probation, such as repeated drinking or use of drugs.

Substance abuse

The violations never reported to Holmes were by probationers convicted of crimes such as aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault and drunken driving.

They tested positive for alcohol use and drug use, including cocaine, PCP and amphetamines. But probation officers never told the judge.

Judges need to know about violations so they can revoke probations or add restrictions. Holmes said probationers face no real consequences unless judges reprimand them for breaches.

Holmes revoked one man’s probation in July and sentenced him to 10 years in prison for his third DWI. He tested positive for alcohol more than 30 times. He saw at least eight probation officers in 18 months. They also allowed him to use hydrocodone with a prescription in violation of Holmes’ orders. They never told the judge.

The head of the county’s probation department, Michael Noyes, has called the failure of supervision by his probation officers and supervisors “unacceptable.”

State District Judge Susan Hawk, who arranged for the audit as head of the probation oversight committee, said the state agency will sample probation cases and recommend improvements.

“We have definitely had some big problems that need taken care of,” she said.

Noyes said he expects the audit will show that changes he’s already made will prevent similar lapses. His staffers received more training, and some supervisors now only manage officers who handle DWI cases. One employee was fired.

Noyes said he is waiting on the audit results before making additional changes. He said he hopes the audit will provide suggestions for the judges. The probation department does not now have written guidelines from each court about its probationer policies.

The felony court judges will consider a single policy based on the audit results. But all 17 judges would have to agree.

Showing up drunk

Sexton, 49, was serving 10 years probation after pleading guilty in May 2012 to assaulting his girlfriend. He struck her and cut her with a pocketknife.

Earlier, in 2007, he was convicted of a third DWI and sentenced to three years in prison. He also has convictions for marijuana possession and unlawfully carrying a knife.

After driving to the probation office in November, Sexton was tested and his blood alcohol level was 0.209, according to probation records. He sat in the probation office drinking water until it dropped to 0.169.

Sexton walked home, leaving his car in the parking lot.

Holmes was not told about the case. And Sexton was not charged then with violating his probation or with any other crime.

Probation department notes from Aug. 20 show officers and supervisors intended to “probably” inform Holmes about Sexton’s first sobriety test.

Later that day, he drove to the probation office for another meeting. He again was tested and had an alcohol level of 0.225.

Sexton was arrested for violating his probation and is being held without bail at the Dallas County Jail. His attorney, public defender Erin Norby, could not be reached.

Court records show that while on probation, he failed to take required classes, didn’t complete 240 hours of community service and didn’t pay fees or make donations to Crime Stoppers and a family violence shelter.

Hawk, the other judge, found cases in her court in which a probation officer did not follow policies. Most judges, though, are waiting for the audit to determine the extent of repeated, serious violations that went unreported to them.

Hawk said nine probationers who went through her court’s program for mentally ill offenders were not drug tested in a year and a half, although they should have been.

A probationer and former prostitute who sufferers from schizophrenia came to Hawk because she feared her probation might be revoked for lack of a drug test, the judge said.

“She was scared she would use again,” Hawk said.

Noyes said the policy violations were isolated because of a single probation officer who has since been reassigned and received more training.

He said the Sexton case was discovered because of his office’s internal audit of Holmes’ cases after she questioned department practices. He acknowledged it being part of “system failures” that he’s been trying to fix. He noted that Sexton’s probation terms did not prohibit him from consuming alcohol. But, he said, driving drunk is a probation violation and a judge should be told.

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