Troubleshooter starts at embattled Harris probation office
Helen Harberts, who spent 25 years in criminal justice and praises drug courts as the most important innovation she has ever seen, is grim as she talks about how drugs, alcohol and crime are intermingled.
“When you watch a repeat DWI offender walk out of court, you should be very concerned,” she says intently. “They are predictable killers.”
The retired prosecutor and former probation head from California was appointed and went to work Friday as interim director of Harris County’s beleaguered probation department, with a mandate to fix the agency’s drug testing procedures.
“The entire system and the appropriate treatment for people with addictive disorders relies on appropriate drug testing,” she said. Recently revealed problems with drug and alcohol testing are “unthinkable,” Harberts said. “It is beyond the pale, and it must be corrected.”
Paul Becker, the former head of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, resigned last month after a three-day hearing in which defense attorney Lisa Andrews showed widespread and systemic problems with the data entry and testing protocols.
During that hearing, Andrews showed that lax oversight led to at least one man being sentenced to 30 days in jail for a false positive on a drug test.
After the hearing, the district attorney’s office announced it would stop using results from the drug tests to jail defendants out on bail or revoke probationers until the problems are remedied.
The probation department, which is funded mostly with state dollars while housed in county facilities, is overseen by Houston’s 37 criminal court judges.
Harberts will make $134,160 a year, the same amount Becker made, to run the department while the judges begin the process of selecting a permanent director.
Harberts, a retiree who takes care of her 95-year-old mother in California, said she expects a new director to be hired in about six months.
“I’m in here to troubleshoot some problems, help the people here do a better job and get a fresh look at the department to get it ready for a new director,” she said. “While I’m here, there’s going to be some serious change.”
Harberts was the chief probation officer in Chico, Calif., from 1995 to 2002. Before that, she was a prosecutor from 1986 until 1995, and she returned to prosecuting in 2002 until she retired last year.
To get Harris County’s probation department back on track, she said, she will be meeting with judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, especially Andrews, about the issues at the agency.
Andrews said she hopes Harberts will turn the agency around.
“There’s not going to be an overnight fix, and it’s going to take some time because there are problems from start to finish,” she said.
Her investigation showed an agency overwhelmed by more than 300,000 drug tests a year with problems because of the information technology systems, staffing and training.
“There needs to be an overhaul not only in their procedures but in their thinking because they don’t think of this as ‘evidence,’ ” Andrews said. “They need to get in there, uncover it and get down to the business of fixing it.”
Chronicle reporter Mike Morris contributed to this report.
Legal Affairs Reporter, Houston Chronicle