Friday, January 18, 2019

#txlege budget writers in denial on prisoner health care

In its Legislative Appropriations Request, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it needs an additional $247 million in order to continue delivering inmate healthcare at current levels, and ideally would like tens of millions more to make salaries more competitive. In response, the initial Texas House budget authorized an additional $160 million, and the Senate budget cut medical care by $1.3 million, reported the Texas Tribune.

The House clearly came up with the $160 million number because that's the amount they're having to pay in TDCJ's "supplemental" budget, meaning the amount the Lege under-funded services during the last biennium. But that ignores to the extent to which under-funding led to denied services, and it also doesn't account for medical inflation. Bottom line: The Senate number is pure fantasy, and even the House budget under-funds medical services for prisoners, ensuring the Lege will face another large supplemental appropriations request in 2021 if they don't increase the appropriation before May.

This has been going on for so long, budget writers have run out of options. Every biennium, they must start by writing a nine-figure check to cover un-funded costs in TDCJ's healthcare budget. A few years ago, the Legislature tried to make prisoners' families pay for inmate healthcare, extracting money from their commissary accounts. But the fees didn't raise as much as projected, while prisoners deferring doctor visits for financial reasons led to higher overall costs because of a lack of preventive care. So we've been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

At this point, Texas prisons already operate on a bare-bones budget. It's a non-controversial fact of life that healthcare costs will continue to rise by nine-figure amounts every biennium without significant policy changes to reduce incarceration.

Whether or not legislative budget writers want to acknowledge it, the only reliable way to lower the medical-services line item at TDCJ beyond current, rock-bottom levels is to reduce the number of prisoners for whom the state must provide health care. If Texas wants to lock up more people than any other state in the union, state government must pay for medical care while those folks are incarcerated.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Beto bitter over El Paso police-union fight: Here's why that's okay

Grits must admit, I thought a bit more highly of Beto O'Rourke after reading this feature from The Intercept detailing his fraught relationship with the police union in El Paso when he was on the City Council.
Police unions have increasingly found themselves in conflict with progressive Democrats in cities across the country, and are notorious for defending even the worst officers on the force against charges of assault or murder. Chris Evans, O’Rourke’s spokesperson, said that when he relayed The Intercept’s inquiry to O’Rourke, O’Rourke’s first memory of the fight was that police were demanding a provision that would give officers a 48-hour window after a police shooting before they would have to answer an investigator’s questions. That provision is indeed in the contract; O’Rourke’s remarks at the time, however, were focused on officer compensation and El Paso’s strapped budget.
I'm glad O'Rourke is aware of the 48-hour-interview issue. But it sounds like he wants to divert attention from his earlier focus on opposing police-wage hikes, perhaps because the theme might resonate negatively with the broader union movement. That's understandable.

Given that O'Rourke was on the city council at the time, however, it was his job to worry about budgets at the height of the Great Recession, which is when this debate took place in 2010. And for many reasons, both having to do with competing ideologies of the moment and century-old union history, picking a fight with police unions isn't the same as picking one with the broader union movement.

The politics of justice advocacy and police unions are fraught, as the Intercept article does a good job of conveying. It's a longstanding tension, which extends not just toward progressives but the broader labor movement.

As Ron DeLord, founder of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, recounted in an interview with Grits last year, police unions split from what was then the American Federation of Labor (the CIO didn't exist yet) after the AFL refused to back the Boston police union when they struck in 1919. The cops' history as indifferent strikebreakers earned their entreaties a lukewarm if not hostile reception, and police unions have existed outside the mainstream union movement ever since.

To this day, there's little solidarity between police and the traditional labor movement. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker decided to bust public-employee unions, for example, police and fire were exempted. Same here in Texas.

Beto's campaign might have pointed out that, in Austin, progressive activists recently engaged in a bitter, year-and-a-half fight over the capital city's police contract, and the terms of debate were as much about economics as social justice debates. Indeed, according to movement leaders, focusing on limiting officer wage growth earned advocates a seat at tables to which they otherwise wouldn't have been invited. The final contract that replaced one voted down by Council freed up about $10 million per year for the city to spend on other stuff.

In the December episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast, I sat down with the two lead union negotiators for Austin's police contract, Ron DeLord and Chris Perkins, and Chas Moore, the leader of the Austin Justice Coalition, who led the reform campaign. Here's the audio from our full conversation.

Campaign Zero co-founder Sam Sinyangwe with
Austin Justice Coalition co-founder Chas Moore
Moore, who is one of a new crop of impressive, young Texas civil-rights leaders, was quite open about how AJC used the economic issues that concerned O'Rourke as a city council member to garner support for justice reforms about which city officials wouldn't otherwise have cared. He told me:
I don't think a lot of activists or organizers would like this, but I think ... So what we wanted to do was win, right? We didn't care if you cared about our issue or our cause, we wanted to win. And we knew in order to win, the best way was to talk about money. Right? I agree 110 percent with Ron on that. All but ... one, maybe two council members cared about the transparency and accountability. But for the most part, out of that 11-0, vote, most of those people probably cared about money. 
Instead of talking about, "stop killing unarmed black people and stop mistreating people," we just had to talk about the money, and that's how we get the strange bed fellows of Sierra Club and Save Our Springs and ... All these things that really didn't make sense when you talk about it. 
We had the Parks people come out and talk about, "don't pay the cops." ... For us, it was like "what's the road to win," right? That was a huge part of it. Something we agree with. But that's not the most important thing for, at least my organization. We do care more about the transparency and accountability.

The money factor, which is equally important, was the most important to the people that ultimately made that decision.
Police unions and Movement for Black Lives activists like Moore are natural enemies, even if in Austin they were able to communicate well enough to negotiate, and even sit in Grits dining room for a post-mortem after the fight is over.

Similarly, the police union playbook for how to react when wage demands are refused or their members engage in misconduct can make them natural enemies of city councils as well. Their approach is to wrap themselves in the flag, find someone to blame, then aggressively attack, all the time. It usually works. But it's not a make-friends-and-influence-people kind of approach. It's a power-concedes-nothing-without-a-demand approach, as DeLord remarked, quoting Frederick Douglass.

DeLord's not joking when he quotes Douglass. He was a rabble-rousing police-union innovator in his youth, adopting confrontation tactics first developed to empower the poorest of the poor, but using them on behalf of the armed agents of the state. Today, his books are treated as textbooks among the English-speaking police-union movement globally, exporting those approaches to great effect.

O'Rourke appears to have received the full-blown, Saul-Alinsky-inspired police-union bullying experience, and it left him questioning how much value exists in having cops as the only strong labor interest among public employees in a right-to-work-for-less state like Texas. I don't blame him for that. Spend much time on these issues on any side but theirs, and those questions naturally present themselves.

Grits doesn't begrudge police-union leaders trying to get the most for their members. But as evidenced by the lingering bitterness of a potential Presidential contender at the uber-hostile, Alinskyite tactics he was subjected to, their approach can make enemies. That can come back to haunt you. When you're a bully, payback's a bee-yach.

Finally, fwiw, Grits considers Beto O'Rourke a more attractive U.S. Senate candidate in 2020 than a presidential contender. That's in part because I've wondered about his ability to manage complex institutions of government, and in part because, as a senate candidate, I think he'd help make the whole Democratic ticket competitive in Texas. (Our Texas pols seem to behave more responsibly when they're worried about general elections instead of primaries.)

On the first part - managing institutions - though only a small glimpse at his record, this episode reported by The Intercept does give me some small confidence that he would embrace his responsibilities as a manager of government, separate and apart from political and ideological positions, and fight for the public interest zealously, even when it's hard. That's what those city-council-police-union fights are about.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Fixing longstanding criminal-justice problems in a black-ink budget year

Comptroller Glenn Hegar gave the Texas Legislature some good news with a black-ink budget projection for the coming biennium, suggesting they may have more than $9 billion more to spend than in 2017. Some of that will go for Hurricane Harvey costs (thought the Rainy Day fund should also contribute to that), some will get gobbled up with increased costs for entitlement programs, and any school finance fix will almost certainly consume the lion's share of the rest.

But it's not inconceivable that the Texas Legislature could use some of that money to solve ongoing problems in the justice system. What might that look like? Here are some ideas Grits brainstormed; let me know in the comments if you think of others:

Eliminate the Driver Responsibility Surcharge: $300 million
Both Texas political parties and every politician under the Pink Dome you ask wishes the Driver Responsibility Surcharge weren't the law. But the program brings in roughly $300 million per year - half goes to the General Revenue fund, half goes to hospital trauma centers - and politically, the surcharge can't be repealed unless the state comes up with the money.

Raise the Age: $45 million
When the 85th Texas Legislature ended, Texas was one of seven states that prosecuted 17 year olds as adults. Today we're one of only four. There's a decent chance that, if the Lege doesn't change the law this year, we'll be the only one when the 87th Legislature convenes in 2021. The Legislative Budget Board estimated making the shift would cost $45 million during the first biennium of implementation, and $70 million per biennium after that, to send youth through juvenile corrections systems instead of the adult side. (There's some evidence these costs are overstated, under-estimating related savings.) The House has passed RTA legislation two sessions in a row, but senators and the Lt. Governor are unlikely to bite without a dedicated allocation in the budget.

Boost reentry funds: $30 million
Increasing funds to prisoners leaving TDCJ from $100 to $300 would cost ~$13 million per year, $26 million per biennium. Tack on another $4 million per biennium to make sure they have driver's licenses or ID cards when they hit the streets, and mandate that DPS issue them based on information provide by TDCJ. Neither of these were in the agency's appropriations request, but they should have been.

Crime labs: $8-10 million
The Legislature either needs to boost funding for crime labs by perhaps $8-10 million per biennium or start charging for services. The DPS LAR only asked for $5.8 million that was taken away from the agency in user fees. But that amount was insufficient to solve the months-long backlogs presently being experienced. Legislators should find out what would be needed to reduce backlogs to a reasonable period then fund DPS crime labs at THAT level. Or, alternatively, Grits supported the user fees the Governor rescinded in the interim and think they're a reasonable way to fund this service.

Prison costs soaring: Cuts needed
TDCJ's appropriations request asked for an increase of more than $700 million beyond what's already a $7.3 billion-with-a-b budget. The LAR suggests the agency needs $247 million over the next biennium to maintain current (low, perhaps even unconstitutional) standards for provision of inmate health care, and another $32 million for probationer treatment funds. They also asked for $156 million for staff raises and $146 million in facility repairs. These are not unreasonable requests, but Legislature should enact further decarceration reforms and close understaffed, rural prison units and those requiring costly repairs to pay for those requests and reduce upward cost pressures.

Indigent defense: Est. $10 million
Counties want the state to pay 100% of indigent defense costs. For reasons Grits has articulated previously, that's a specious and self-interested position that flies in the face of the traditional state-county roles in the justice system. That said, the state would benefit from additional, targeted investments in the indigent-defense system. They should prioritize Texas Indigent Defense Commission grants for public-defender officers, which are the most effective and efficient way to deliver legal services where they're needed most. They should finance a capital defender office to handle indigent death penalty cases. ($1 million per biennium.) They should boost funding for the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs. And they should take Judge Elsa Alcala's advice to fund counsel for indigent defendants filing habeas corpus writs related to ineffective assistance of counsel. Obviously, public-defender grants could be of any size, but $10 million added over the biennium to these priorities would make a big difference.

I didn't include an estimate for upgrades to mental-health services because a) I have no idea how to evaluate costs or need, and b) my sense is the state would be better off if these services were primarily utilized outside the justice system, breaking from past practices. But that's certainly another area in need of investment. And there are probably specific investments to reduce competency restoration waits and to better meet the mental-health needs of incarcerated people that deserved to make this list. The Lege could boost state investments well into the nine-figure range and it still wouldn't be enough.

In praise of pretrial-detention algorithms, the 'failure to appear fallacy,' Louisiana ↓ technical revocations, and other stories

Several national items merit Grits readers' attention here during the calm before the 86th Texas Legislature storm.

Debtors-prison reform: Economic populism and the justice system
The New York Times this week published a lengthy, excellent feature on how criminal fines and fees oppress the poor. Good analysis and background.

Best evidence supports use of risk assessments in pretrial release decisions
Some prominent heavyweight corrections researchers responded to criticisms in the press, not to mention by left-wing advocacy groups (I'm talking to you, ACLU of Texas), of risk-assessment algorithms used to aid pretrial detention decisions. One of the authors, Jennifer Skeem, has presented to Texas probation audiences, and is someone whose research Grits has relied on for years. Everyone concerned with the use of risk assessments in pretrial release determination should read this 20-page analysis. They show that the best evidence available - taking into account all the available studies about what works - supports use of risk assessments, which generate better safety outcomes and less unfairness than judges flying by the seat of their pants. The authors document consistent research-based findings that a structured decision making process, in which judges formally take pretrial risk assessments into account, produces the best results. If you care about bail reform, read this. Their analysis more or less coincides with Grits' views, perhaps because mine are to a significant degree influenced by Skeem's scholarship: Racial disparities created by validated risk assessments in pretrial detention decisions (the analysis differs for sentencing, predictive policing, and other risk-assessment uses) are measurably less problematic than disparities and injustices such assessments prevent.

The Failure to Appear Fallacy
A lot goes in to Failure To Appear (FTA) rates, and this extensive article from The Appeal offers one of the the more nuanced looks you'll see on the topic, including a detailed description of how judges in Harris County - most of whom were ousted in the last election cycle - sabotaged bail reform in an effort to artificially drive up FTA rates and use them as a "political football." Excellent background for bail reformers.

Louisiana successfully decreased technical-probation revocations; why can't Texas?
After the Texas Legislature created Intermediate Sanctions Facilities as part of the state's widely lauded 2007 probation reforms, the parole system was able to radically reduce the number of people sent to prison for technical violations. However, the probation system could never accomplish it: half of revoked probationers in Texas were sent away for technical violations, not because they committed a new crime. So I was interested to see the Pew Charitable Trusts researching causes for a big reduction in technical probation violations in Louisiana. The Bayou State was able to reduce the amount of time revoked probationers were incarcerated, reduce the number of revocations for new crimes (read: reduce crime), and save millions of dollars in incarceration costs, Pew found. If they can do it, why can't Texas?

Prisons during shut down
The Marshall Project has the best coverage I've seen of the brutal effects on federal prisons from the government shut down. MORE: From the Washington Post.

Bail injustice worst case
For all of the flaws which may exist in Texas' pretrial-detention system, they're minimal compared to the Philippines, which is the only other nation in the world besides (some states in) the U.S. that uses wealth-based bail to determine pretrial detention. Money quote: “When you are detained in Philippine jails, you are being tortured.”

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Appeal of Harris bail suit withdrawn, lazy judges cause jail overcrowding, and the paradox of progressive prosecutors

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention:

Appeal withdrawn in Harris Co bail suit
The new Harris County misdemeanor court judges have withdrawn their appeal in ongoing federal bail litigation of the 5th Circuit's ruling that inmates must be released within 48 hours. The Houston Chronicle's Keri Blakinger and Gabi Banks reported that the county has spent $9 million fighting Judge Lee Rosenthal's order.

Lazy judges contribute to jail overcrowding, colleague charges
Eric Dexheimer kicked off his new role at the Austin bureau of the Houston Chronicle with a bang, publishing a great story on why the Hays County Jail is overcrowded despite declining crime. One of the judges has accused his colleagues of working less than half time!

Less News
The Dallas News' staff cuts on the eve of the Texas Legislature made me depressed. Whether or not the paper cuts its capitol bureau, that's a big loss. And I was pissed to learn the company that cut the staff just gave executives $1.2 million in bonuses. Grits presently has subscriptions to five Texas dailies and two national papers. It was six, but the Star-Telegram finally cut its staff so much there wasn't enough news I cared about being published to justify a subscription. I'm not saying the product at the Morning News will become that sparse, but I'm worried about them, not to mention everyone laid off. Godspeed to one and all. People beat up on the daily press, including me sometimes, but we all rely on them.

Ignored to Death
From Michael Barajas at the Texas Observer: "Ignored to death at the Bexar County Jail." I always get nervous when Texans start touting their methods as a "national model," as folks in San Antonio are wont to do about mental-health services in their justice system. Anytime you're asking corrections people to deliver medical care as an aspect of punishment - whether mental health services, drug treatment, you name it - the system is reaching beyond its ken. In this case, a schizophrenic woman was arrested last summer and jailed for Class B criminal trespass. She received no treatment for her schizophrenia, spent five months in jail waiting on a psych evaluation that never came, then died of a heart attack two weeks before Christmas.

Changing of the guard in McLennan County
See coverage of the Barry Johnson, the new McLennan Coutny District Attorney who ousted Abel Reyna, and the wave of retirements and other departures poised to bring big changes among judgeships at the McLennan County courthouse over the next couple of years.

Paradox of the Progressive Prosecutor: Urban v. Rural
For Grits' reading list: Harvard Law Review, "The Paradox of the Progressive Prosecutor." Here's an unmentioned paradox: In Texas, with the lingering exception of Tarrant County, our urban District Attorneys are almost all Democrats promoting reform ideas. However, the state prosecutors' association's board is dominated by rural DAs pushing more regressive agendas, with key staff held over from the era when Chuck Rosenthal and John Bradley dominated the group's politics. Perhaps it's time for an Urban Prosecutors Association in Texas. Why should taxpayers in urban counties seeking reform finance a rural-dominated association through dues that's constantly opposing that agenda?

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Innocence Project Math 101: Why it's certain eyewitnesses are still sending innocent people to prison in Texas

Our friends at the prosecutor association want to pretend Texas has solved its problem with eyewitnesses falsely identifying innocent suspects after the state passed non-binding guidelines for police lineups in 2011. Shannon Edmonds last night was crowing on Twitter that the last exoneration based a false ID in Texas was in 2010, and the state had solved the problem in 2011.

This is such a disingenuous claim I thought I'd dissect it without the 140 character limitations.

Texas hasn't seen more eyewitness-based exonerations because we've run out of old DNA cases. Those offered a unique window onto false convictions from which we have learned many lessons. But now that there aren't more of them, it's disingenuous bordering on mendacious to pretend that there aren't more false convictions happening.

All of the false ID cases where someone was exonerated by DNA happened because biological evidence still existed from an old, pre-DNA-era conviction that was available for testing. In new cases, DNA testing will (eventually, hopefully) happen as a matter of course where that's possible. Those DNA exonerations were a one-time thing: A window onto the system's failures provided thanks to the advance of technology.

But here's the rub: DNA evidence only exists in about 10 percent of violent crimes. And in those older cases, in the overwhelming majority of instances, biological evidence had been destroyed or damaged and could not be tested. Evidence was only available in a tiny fraction of cases, and even then, prosecutors fought tooth and nail to keep from having it tested. So for every person exonerated by DNA, there are dozens more whose false convictions could never be discovered because the evidence doesn't exist.

This is Innocence Project Math 101.

The existing crop of DNA exonerees is not remotely all the innocent people who've been falsely convicted, they're just the lucky few who could prove it.

DNA exonerations should be viewed much like a poll. A pollster may interview 500 people to gauge the opinions of 5 million. Because we know there are other criminal cases using the same, flawed evidence as in the exonerees' cases, we can infer that the problem exists more broadly in the same way a pollster can say that X% of people approve or disapprove of the president based on a small sample.

What we learned from that DNA "poll" is that faulty eyewitness IDs are the most common causes of false convictions. And studies show that those errors are reduced, but not remotely eliminated, if cops use the best practices promoted in the 2011 Texas legislation. Error rates are still significant.

Because the same practices that caused false convictions in the DNA exonerations are still being used (the guidelines are not mandatory) - and because best practices only lower the error rate, they don't eliminate it - it's a logical fallacy of the highest order to pretend that, because DNA exonerations have stopped, so have false convictions. They've just become invisible again without the fortuitous window DNA provided.

TDCAA was reacting to a New York Times story about false identifications when suspects are allowed to page through mug shot books, as is common in many jurisdictions across the country. Dallas PD was identified as a department that forbids the practice because it leads to false accusations.

The story cited a study out of Houston which analyzed whether photo lineups should be simultaneous or sequential and whether confident witnesses are more likely to be accurate. Study authors parsed data to say that simultaneous is probably better and confident witnesses are more likely to be accurate - a finding they admit contradicts "[l]aboratory-based mock crime studies."

Shannon disputed the Times' take on that research, quoting the study authors' conclusions that “eyewitness confidence is a highly reliable indicator of accuracy.”

However, there's a LOT of error still being made by witnesses: The Times mentioned one cohort in the Houston study in which 47 percent picked the wrong suspect, but overall, 29 percent of witnesses chose a filler from the lineup, while 32 percent chose a suspect. (The Times also pointed to a meta-analysis of a large number of studies that found witnesses pick the wrong person 37 percent of the time.)

One shortcoming of this analysis: The study operated under a baseline assumption that if the suspect is chosen, it's an accurate ID. That's a dubious, self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of those choices were likely errors, too. When a suspect picks a filler, the detective knows it's wrong. The innocence problem arises when the wrong suspect is in the lineup in the first place and a witness picks them.

Confident witnesses were more likely to pick the person the officer considered a suspect, but there were also less confident witnesses who did so, and some highly confident people picked fillers.

And some of the error was generated by police.

The Houston study evaluated both "blind" and "blinded" lineups. "Blind" means the officer prepares the array and shows it to the witness in a fashion so that they can't view what the witness is looking at. "Blinded" means one officer prepares the array and another detective who does not know the identity of the suspect administers it. Both methods are allowed under Texas law.

It turned out, an independent panel not involved with the crime could pick the suspect out of "blind" lineups 28 percent of the time! (It would only be 1/6 if it were random.) So the arrays themselves were biased. Researchers hypothesized that cops took more care to prepare photos where the suspect doesn't stand out if they know another officer will see their work.

Texas courts won't exclude even the most biased lineups. For example, in 2017, Grits discussed a case in which the witness described a suspect as wearing a red hoodie, and police made him put one on before having his photo taken; he was the only one dressed that way in the photo array. But the 14th Court of Appeals said the testimony was okay because the Legislature made eyewitness procedures guidelines instead of requiring them, and courts had always let it in before.

It's not that reformers didn't want best practices to be mandatory back in 2011. But the DA's association and law enforcement interests fought vigorously against it, and the Lege bowed to their wishes. Hence, biased lineups continue to taint the system. That's what's disingenuous about TDCAA's faux concern over valid lineups - they're the ones whose regressive advocacy ensured bad lineups would continue to be used in court, even after the 2011 law.

RELATED: From the New York Times: "Jazmine Barnes case shows how trauma can affect memory."

Friday, January 04, 2019

Prospects for reduced marijuana penalties in the 86th #txlege

The Texas Legislature this year is primed for its most serious effort yet at reducing penalties for user-level marijuana possession.

Legalization is off the table. This is a debate about reducing punishments. (I'm setting aside here medical marijuana proposals, which Grits doesn't track closely and are outside my area of expertise.)

There are essentially two proposals for reducing pot penalties that have a chance, and each have been endorsed by prominent Texas GOP officials.

Gov. Greg Abbott during a campaign debate endorsed reducing penalties for up to two ounces of marijuana from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. That would reduce the maximum punishment from six months in jail and a $2,000 fine to no jail and up to a $500 fine.

Rep. Alma Allen has filed HB 371 making possession of up to one ounce a Class C, so our Republican governor has proposed a more aggressive reform measure than this Democratic state rep. (Grits doesn't see any reason to create a new stair-step here; they should amend the bill to cover up to 2 ounces, like the Governor suggested.)

Meanwhile, the 2018 state GOP platform endorsed a measure to make user-level marijuana possession a civil penalty with a small fine, essentially decriminalizing but keeping it a civil infraction.

State Rep. Joe Moody has filed a new incarnation of that proposal, HB 63, which cleared committee with bipartisan support in 2017.

The combination of the Governor's endorsement and selection of a new House Speaker opens the political door for reforms to pass.

Both proposals have been passed out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee before - a version of the Allen bill unanimously did so as far back as 2005 - but neither ever received a vote on the House floor. 

Joe Straus had many chances to let members take that vote when he was Speaker and never would, so him leaving potentially gives the issue new legs. That both the party platform and the Governor endorsed marijuana reform in some fashion gives members more political cover than at any time in the past.

Indeed, since polling consistently shows Texans favor reduced pot penalties, the need for political cover is something pols only seek out of habit. It's pretty clear this is a popular policy that will benefit them politically. Based on whip counts from last session when we were hoping the Moody bill would get to the House floor, Grits believes the measure will easily pass the lower chamber by triple figures if they ever get to vote on it.

That said, nothing about this is a slam dunk.

Every bill in the Texas Legislature except the Appropriations package is by definition more likely to fail than to pass. And while the Governor has endorsed reducing penalties, the Lt. Governor's position remains a mystery. It remains to be seen if he's as respectful of the party platform when it comes to marijuana as he has been over bathrooms, immigration, etc..

And just because a Speaker who stymied reform left, that doesn't ensure the new Speaker will back it, even if the Governor and/or his party's platform do.

Finally, as one would expect, prosecutors and police unions are already crapping on the idea. Their biggest (stated) concern is that there's no test for drivers to tell if someone is under the influence of pot. But that's true now! Nothing changes if we punish pot possession at lesser levels. And again, legalization is off the table. So that seems disingenuous to me, an excuse for opposition rather than a compelling reason.

Bottom line: This is a moment for hope and optimism among marijuana reformers. But it's also the moment to get to work. There's a lot to be done before such changes become reality.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

More than a clerical error: DPS audit proves Austin PD forced out sex-crimes chief for refusing to fake clearance rates

Auditors from the Texas Department of Public Safety  confirmed allegations that the Austin Police Department pressured the head of its sex-crimes unit to improperly classify rapes as "exceptionally cleared" when that was not the case. She was removed from her position when she didn't comply.

Chief Bryan Manley announced the results from the DPS audit late afternoon on New Years Eve, hoping it would get lost in the holiday media cycle. That's a disgraceful, punk move. This is too serious an issue to play media games. UPDATE: ProPublica reported that Manley received the preliminary results from DPS on Dec. 13, more than two weeks before he released them.

As is typical in Austin, the local press downplayed criticisms of APD, portraying the problem as a clerical error. The Statesman headline was, "Austin police improperly classified some rape cases, audit finds." KXAN's headline was, "DPS report: 30 APD rape cases should not have been cleared," although in fact DPS audited just a sample and those 30 cases represent many, many more. KUT parroted the same line, failing to mention that APD forced out its division chief over the issue.

These headlines could/should have been something along the lines of "DPS confirms whistleblower account of inflated rape clearance rates," but the Austin press remains in the pocket of local police and rarely publishes explicit criticisms unless backed into a corner by outside reporting and circumstances.

That's what happened here. Despite local advocates pressuring the department all year over inadequately investigated rape cases, the Austin press didn't cover the story until a podcast from national outlets reported on the whistle blower and bogus clearance rates.

Notably, although the DPS audit released Monday found a third of audited rape cases were misclassified,  Manley earlier claimed his own staff had audited the cases and found nothing wrong. The Statesman reported in December that "he asked his staff to do a random audit of cases to ensure they were properly closed. He said they found the department was complying with FBI guidelines."

I'd like to know more about this random audit the Chief supposedly had his own people do. Why did they find zero cases were miscategorized, and DPS found a third of them were? Were these staff incompetent? Or were they given directions designed to cover up the problem instead of expose it? That's the sort of thing an aggressive local press ought to be digging into with open-records requests, but Grits won't hold his breath.

All press reports that portray this as some obscure data mix up are misleading. This was a scandal, flat-out fraud and malfeasance, with APD removing the head of a major division because she wouldn't falsify data to make the department appear to be solving more crimes. As Grits opined on Twitter when the news came out, "This was not a bureaucratic error, as Manley would like to portray it. The head of the sex crime unit was removed from her job because she refused to falsify clearance-rate numbers. Thank God she spoke up!"

The ouster of the sex-crimes-unit head happened on former Chief Art Acevedo's watch, but Chief Manley's ham-handed response has made the scandal and its cover-up his own. In a city with an aggressive, watchdog press, he might not survive the scandal. In Austin, he's betting he'll limp through thanks to lapdogs in the lame-stream press, and a few years ago, that might have been a safe assumption.

But survivor advocates and city council members are going to read the audit for themselves, and in the wake of the union-contract fight, mainstream media has proven less important in the capital city than ever before when it comes to policing politics. Whether the press report it or not, APD has been caught in a lie for all to see. If he wants to keep his job, Chief Manley must stop the media games and obfuscations and address these topics more forthrightly.

An apology to the rape survivors whose cases APD lied about - claiming their cases couldn't move forward because the victims wouldn't cooperate - would be a good start.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Top Texas #CJreform Stories of 2018

Passage of the First Step Act was clearly the biggest criminal justice policy story of 2018, and congrats to all the Texans who were a part of that. But Grits wanted to take a moment to identify the biggest state-level Texas criminal-justice stories of the year. Here's the list I came up with. Let me know what else you think should have been included.

1. Elections: Creuzot, Gonzalez, in, Abel Reyna, Nico Lahood out; Harris Co. and appellate courts sweep Democrat: Texas statewide races failed to "turn blue," but Harris and Fort Bend County went solidly Democratic, ousting numerous, longstanding Republican incumbents and installing supporters of bail reform. In Dallas, Democrat John Creuzot defeated Greg-Abbott appointee Faith Johnson on a platform of reducing mass incarceration, while in San Antonio, defense attorney Joe Gonzalez defeated the enigmatic Nico Lahood in the primary and went on to win the general election.

2. TDCJ Youthful Offender program upheaval: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice was caught out of compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act when adult inmates were able to access and have sex with 17-year olds housed in the agency's Youthful Offender Program. The agency fired the staff involved and moved the program to Huntsville. But it all could have been avoided if the Legislature had passed raise-the-age legislation approved in the Texas House last session. County jails across the state face similar challenges separating 17-year olds by "sight and sound" from adult inmates.

3. Bail reform litigation roller coaster: Bail reform litigation in Texas saw many ups and downs. A federal district judge in Houston issued a favorable ruling for reformers, which a 5th Circuit panel scaled back temporarily pending the court's final decision. New leadership in Harris County may settle the suit rather than litigate further. But another suit in Dallas is challenging pretrial detention, including in felony cases, on essentially similar grounds. All this sets up 2019 as a decisive year, whether the outcome is determined in the courts, or if the Legislature steps up to disallow unconstitutional bail practices in the session about to begin.

4. Austin Justice Coalition and allies win accountability victories in police contract, new oversight ordinance: Advocates who had stalled a new union contract at the Austin Police Department last year doubled down on that new leverage to secure new transparency and accountability reforms. Observers say it's the first time police-reform advocates have successfully used leverage from a defeated union contract to push accountability reforms.

5. Firing TJJD Ombudsman Debbie Unruh: In January, Governor Greg Abbott responded to allegations of mistreatment of juveniles incarcerated at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department by firing the executive director and, more problematically, Ombudsman Debbie Unruh, whose work at TJJD units first exposed the problems reported later by journalists. It was an ignominious way to start the year.

6. TDCJ begins to give elderly inmates dentures after HouChron story: Keri Blakinger at the Houston Chronicle without question would merit a Texas Justice Journalist of the Year award, if such a thing existed. Her story on TDCJ denying dentures to toothless, elderly inmates ended with an amazing outcome: The agency agreed to change its policy and began delivering 3D-printed dentures to inmates by this fall. Many journalists go their whole careers without such an accomplishment. Great job.

7. Mike Ward faked stories: On the other end of the journalistic spectrum, the primary person who covered Texas prisons for the last two decades - and the only reporter for many years to attend TBCJ board meetings - resigned after it was discovered he fabricated quotes in dozens of stories after leaving the Austin Statesman to become Austin bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle. Almost as soon as other reporters began covering that beat - particularly Keri Blakinger, mentioned above - a wave of major stories came out. Grits considered Ward a "sycophant to power" and was unsurprised, if dismayed, by his dishonesty.

8. Junk-science writ doing the work: Bite-mark testimony toppled: Texas' junk-science writ had one of its best years yet, helping overturn bite mark evidence and playing a central role in courts reevaluating blood spatter evidence, forensic hypnosis, and more. Texas increasingly is emerging at the forefront of forensic reforms, in part because of the new-science writ and in part because we have an active death penalty, so at least those defendants have access to attorneys to lodge challenges against bogus evidence in their cases.

9. Bipartisan justice reform agenda emerges from party platforms: The group I work for, Just Liberty, spearheaded a campaign to install criminal-justice reform planks into both Texas state party platforms, securing agreement on issues from raising the age of adult accountability to reducing marijuana penalties and eliminating arrests for people who can't afford to pay traffic-ticket debt.

10. Governor, GOP platform endorse marijuana reform: In a debate with his Democratic opponent heading into the election, Gov. Abbott endorsed reducing penalties for user-level marijuana possession, suggesting the Legislature lower the charge for possession of up to two ounces from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. Legislation to do just that has cleared committee several times since 2005, but never received a floor vote in the Texas House. Abbott's endorsement gives the bill much more momentum.

And here are some "honorable mention" stories that deserve to be remembered as the calendar turns.

Dallas cops indicted for murder: In her final two years in office, Republican District Attorney Faith Johnson prosecuted more cops for misconduct not just than any Democratic DA in Texas, but more than any prosecutor in the entire country. It didn't save her in Texas' last straight-ticket voting election, which she lost to John Creuzot. But indictments in the Roy Oliver and Amber Guyger cases were unusual and significant.

Class C Misdemeanors emerge as reform priority: Lots of small action on this topic around the state. Both political parties urged limits on arrests for Class C misdemeanors and failure to pay traffic tickets in their party platforms. First data showed 2017 debtors-prison legislation was a rousing success; Fort Worth, Austin, ended warrant roundups; Austin pioneered changes to limit Class C arrests.

Heat litigation settlement leaves unanswered questions: Texas must now install A/C at the Wallace Pack Unit after TDCJ settled years-long 8th amendment litigation. The question becomes, will those terms ultimately extend to the whole system? It's unclear at the moment, but there's additional litigation in the pipeline that may clarify.

TDCJ guards setting up inmates with disciplinary cases: Another Keri Blakinger special, TDCJ staff were caught fabricating evidence to accuse inmates of disciplinary cases, in part to meet an illegal quota of disciplinary cases at certain units. People are getting fired and indicted over this.

More than one percent of adult males in Texas still incarcerated: Texans in Washington were full of boasts over Texas' decarceration efforts, but the Lone Star State remains one of the nation's top incarcerators, with far more people in prison per capita than other large U.S. states.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Active death penalty explains efficacy of Texas' junk-science writ

There are three reasons that Grits expects the Lone Star State to emerge as the epicenter of forensic reform over the coming couple of decades. First, our Forensic Science Commission has altered the terms of debate among legislators and stakeholders about how to react when errors and bad science are discovered. I may not agree with everything they put out, but they've educated stakeholders here to a much greater extent than in most other states.

Second is Texas' junk-science writ, as discussed on Wednesday in the context of the Court of Criminal Appeals' Chaney decision invalidating bite-mark identification testimony. Texas and California are the only two states so far to expand habeas corpus in this way. (Comparable legislation has never been pushed in Congress, but that's a Texas innovation they should copy.)

These two Texas reform measures have been widely praised. But together they would be insufficient to rigorously reevaluate the array of questioned forensics identified by the National Academy of Sciences and the disbanded Obama-era president's commission on forensics. Texas courts have refused to exclude such testimony in front-end suppression hearings under the Daubert standard. And courts have discretion which habeas petitions to consider, so there's no way to compel them to take up these difficult cases.

The main reason Grits can confidently predict Texas will emerge at the forefront of forthcoming forensic debates is that we still actively use the death penalty. That's proven to be a critical factor because, as I'd observed previously:
In Texas, capital cases are the one sliver of indigent defendants whose appeals are all paid for by the state, meaning those defendants have access to attorneys to file a state habeas corpus writ. So it makes sense that many of the most high-profile, early uses of the junk-science writ would come in death-penalty cases. By contrast, plea the case to life without parole, and a defendant accused of the same crime with the same evidence would have no access to an attorney at the habeas corpus stage.
I discussed exactly this dynamic with Amanda Marzullo, the executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that represents capital-murder defendants, in a segment on the August episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast. Check out that conversation here:


This explains why California's writ hasn't as yet had as big an impact: Their capital punishment system is moribund and few executions are set, so there isn't the constant stream of deadlines requiring courts to act. These days, quite a few death-penalty cases include junk-science writ claims, and the Court of Criminal Appeals is required to consider all of them.

It's not inevitable that death-penalty cases will dominate the initial round of Texas junk-science writs. Instead, it's a function of which indigent defendants have access to counsel to challenge bad evidence in their cases.

Judge Elsa Alcala on the Court of Criminal Appeals has suggested the Legislature should extend the right to counsel to habeas corpus proceedings in ineffective assistance of counsel cases. If the Legislature were to do that for cases challenging old forensics under the junk-science writ, perhaps expanding the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs to take on the function, then junk-science writs would arise in a wider variety of cases.

Eight states, according to Judge Alcala's counting, appoint counsel for every indigent habeas-corpus petitioner. If indigent habeas petitioners in Texas had such access, capital cases wouldn't dominate the junk-science writ process.

As things stand in Texas, with forensics disproportionately being challenged in capital writs, Grits won't be surprised if it takes another 20 years or more for all of the dubious forensics identified by the NAS to be challenged and either confirmed or dismissed through the junk-science writ process. But at least we have a process. Most states and the federal government do not.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Sharon Keller, bite-mark evidence, and the end of innocence forestalled

The judges' conferences over the Steven-Chaney bite-mark case, according to reliable sources, was the most contentious at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since the fight over Ex Parte Robbins. Both those cases involved Texas' first-in-the-nation junk-science writ, for which Chaney's victory was a landmark event. See coverage from Texas Monthly's Michael Hall, the Texas Tribune, and the national Innocence Project.

It's significant that Judge Barbara Hervey wrote the majority opinion, which amounts to a straight-forward, by-the-book application of Texas' junk-science writ. Grits has criticized Hervey in the past for making public declarations about forensic science that put her on the side of reformers but routinely voting with the Government Always Wins faction in her court opinions. This time, however, the former member of President Obama's now-disbanded forensic commission came through, bringing Judge Keasler with her to split the GAW faction in two. (Keasler suffered a heart attack this year, btw; he will not finish out his term because of his age.)

Grits believes this case will prove important for a number of reasons, and not just for Mr. Chaney or others convicted in the past based on bite-mark evidence.

Taking a bite out of junk forensic science
There are two, major direct implications to the Chaney case: First, bite-mark testimony in the future may only exclude people, or say the result is undetermined. They cannot any longer imply bite-mark evidence points to a specific defendant. This is significant. Texas courts hadn't excluded such evidence via Daubert hearings, which evaluate the fitness of expert evidence at trial, despite the Texas Forensic Science Commission recommending courts abandon such evidence. In fact, the CCA had re-affirmed the use of bite-mark evidence as recently as 2012. So Chaney's case accomplished on the back end what Daubert could not on the front, evincing a new model for ridding the justice system of an unreliable forensic method.

Second, old cases where bite-mark evidence was central to defendants' convictions now also could be overturned. This won't be a huge number of cases; often other evidence existed that courts may still find sufficient to convict. But there's little doubt we'll see more bite-mark-based convictions overturned now that Chaney has discredited such evidence.

And there are broader implications. This was the first time the Court of Criminal Appeals has applied the junk-science writ to one of the more widely used, secondary forensic identification techniques criticized by the National Academy of Sciences in their 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science: A Path Forward.

We've seen outdated arson science debunked in Texas before the writ took effect, in part because the State Fire Marshal became an avid proponent for reform. Other forensic writs, as with Ex Parte Robbins, involved scientists recanting very specific scientific findings that applied to few other cases, not more common techniques like bite marks, blood spatter, hair-and-fiber analysis, ballistics, or fingerprints, even though all of those came up for criticism in the NAS report.

Now, the court has unanimously disallowed one of these second-tier forensic identification tactics, and they did so based on arguments primed to be applied to other comparative forensics.

For example, Judge Hervey's majority opinion made much of the fact that scientists cannot say for sure bite marks are unique, which is the basis for forensic dentists in the past claiming they could distinguish bite marks to the point of identifying an individual person. However, "Peer-reviewed studies conducted after the publication of the 2009 NAS Report ... now show that the uniqueness of human dentition can never be established within measurement error."

Well, guess what? There's also significant doubt whether firearms each provide a unique signature that ballistics analysts can effectively match. Indeed, it's unproven whether fingerprints are unique, but pretty clear that some partial prints - which is what examiners are usually matching - may not be unique enough to differentiate.

If and when scientists prove ballistics markings aren't unique - or for that matter, partial fingerprints - will the court still be as bold? If peer-reviewed studies begin to cast doubt on these cornerstone presumptions of uniqueness, how many forensic disciplines might fall?

These were not the elements of the Chaney decision being disputed in the concurrences. The entire court - including the whole Government Always Wins faction - was willing to throw out a brand of forensic analysis that's been in use in Texas and nationwide for many decades. That aspect of the decision likely will be overlooked in the wake of the court's debate over actual innocence, but it's important.

The end of innocence forestalled
The reason for the litany of concurrences in the case was Presiding Judge Keller's decision to take the opportunity in her concurrence to call for a new "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard in "actual innocence" cases - a burden only the prosecution must meet at trial. She thinks that, now that defendants have the junk science writ, and the court has recognized false-evidence claims it did not in the past, defendants have other avenues for relief and the bar for actual-innocence claims should be made more difficult to prove.

Only Judge Yeary was even interested in the idea, which was lambasted in separate concurrences from Richardson, Newell, and Alcala. Everyone concerned about these topics should read all these opinions; they're fascinating and my paraphrases won't do the detailed arguments justice.

As Judge Alcala pointed out, for years the "Elizondo" actual-innocence standard Keller wants to heighten was considered nearly insurmountable. But over time, between DNA exonerations and the rise of more sophisticated, persistent defense counsel in the innocence-movement era, more cases began to meet the court's high threshold. Judge Keller liked it better when almost none of them did.

Judge Richardson took the unusual step of calling out Judges Keller and Yeary by name for almost never agreeing defendants have met the actual-innocence threshold, even in instances like the Sonia Cacy arson case where Richardson considered the defendant clearly innocent. One rarely sees appellate judges confronting their peers so directly, but Richardson explicitly critiqued them in his opinion. Yeary responded, adding a second section to his concurrence that clearly was tacked on later in response to Richardson's criticisms.

Judge Keller has not claimed that Original Sin means no one can be truly innocent, but her legal reasoning leads to essentially that result. No one but DNA exonerees where an alternative suspect was identified and then confessed would qualify for an actual innocence designation in Sharon Keller's worldview, and then only if every detail of their story held up under a first-order assumption that all claims by them and any witnesses supporting their case are lies.

Here, Chaney had multiple alibi witnesses, but Keller refused to credit them, even after all inculpatory evidence put on by the state fell apart. There's something a bit mean-spirited and miserly (ungenerous is too tame a term) about Keller's take on Chaney's defense case. I have often portrayed Judge Keller and the GAW faction as wanting the government to win. But sometimes, as here, she almost seems more interested in making sure that the defendant loses - one of those moments, like declaring herself a "pro-prosecution" judge in past campaigns, that casts doubt on her ability to be a neutral arbiter. It's as though she can't stand for Chaney to receive state compensation due to exonerees, and is willing to upend 20 years of her court's own jurisprudence to try to stop that from happening.

If Keller's position prevailed, in a real sense it virtually would be the "end of innocence" in Texas. No one can say the number of exonerated defendants who would meet her new threshold, but it would be very low. The court considers meeting the current standard a "Herculean" task.

Seven other judges, however, were having none of it. Keller's opinions on innocence couldn't garner one additional vote. Even Kevin Yeary did not sign on. Her extremist stance left her weakened on the court as a result, with her core GAW-faction members abandoning her over the conflict and centrists on the court tag teaming to discredit her positions.

As a frequent critic of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, I must say, I'm proud of them all, especially Judge Hervey. She showed more leadership in this case than she has in years on the court; her majority opinion was strong. And while I agreed with her critics, even Presiding Judge Keller was expressing her true beliefs here, which I found distasteful but not disingenuous. (She believes some extremely regressive things about the law that even most conservative Republicans do not buy into, but they're her honest beliefs.) This was a good debate and a good outcome.

See prior Grits coverage of the CCA interpreting Texas' junk science writ:

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Junk science writ takes out bite-mark evidence, Understaffing let prisoner's flesh-eating bacteria linger without medical care, Christmas while mommy's in jail, and other stories

A few odds and ends headed into the holiday:

Junk science writ takes out bite-mark evidence
In the Steven Chaney case, Texas' junk science writ worked exactly as it was intended. Texas courts have refused to exclude bite-mark evidence on the front end through Daubert hearings. But the junk science writ gave wrongfully convicted defendants an avenue to challenge false convictions on the back end. And it provided the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals a vehicle to declare junk science invalid in a way that applies to the rest of the system going forward. That's what happened here. Now, bite mark evidence cannot be portrayed as "matching" evidence to a defendant, and past cases where such evidence was a) overstated and b) pivotal to the case could result in more convictions being overturned. This case also lays out the model, and the reasoning, for how other "comparative" forensic science may be challenged in the future. See the majority opinion, and all opinions and briefs from the case here. This will definitely be a topic featured on January's Reasonably Suspicious podcast.

Blood-spatter false conviction redux
Speaking of junk science, Pam Colloff has another feature story on a likely false conviction based on junk-science blood-spatter evidence. Readers will recall Grits interviewed Colloff on the topic on the podcast earlier this year.

HRO predicts justice issues
The House Research Organization issued a brief predicting possible issues the Texas Legislature could tackle, including a bevy of criminal justice reforms.

Understaffing let prisoner's flesh-eating bacteria linger without medical care, says lawsuit
TDCJ has been sued because the Gist state jail was too understaffed to take a prisoner suffering from flesh-eating bacteria to receive medical care, Keri Blakinger reported.

Lege should close 'dead suspects loophole,' and more
Reacting to a news story from Reason criticizing Texas for withholding public records surrounding criminal cases where the suspect is dead, recently I argued for greater transparency for law enforcement in a Twitter string.

Litigation, legislation, pushing TDCJ toward climate-controlled prisons
At the Dallas News, Lauren McGaughy offered an update on litigation related to TDCJ's failure to cool prisons in the summer or heat them in the winter. (Kudos to the headline writer - nicely done!) The agency stopped recording indoor temperatures a few years ago at one unit she investigated. They say it's because it's unnecessary, but you'd have to be a fool to believe it wasn't because prisoners began suing over conditions. "Inmate’s lawyers and their families believe the state is deliberately stifling the information. If officials don’t know the truth, advocates say, they can’t be held accountable for it," wrote McGaughy. E.g., at the Hutchins state jail this summer, the heat index at one point reached 136 degrees, on a 108 degree day. How hot it was inside is anybody's guess. Legislators, she declared, are considering filing bills to require climate regulation the way the state does for county jails. But it's hard to imagine budget writers paying for system-wide A/C unless a court forces them to do it. What they could do much more easily is require TDCJ to record indoor temperatures. You can't manage what you cannot measure.

Who is a "juvenile," who is a "child," who is a "minor," and where do and don't those terms intersect?
There's a new report on the topic, as well as the subject of juveniles charged with Class C misdemeanors, from the Office of Court Administration. This goes on Grits' holiday reading list.

Thinking about prison food while preparing holiday dinner
After TDCJ slashed prison-food budgets a few years back, my buddy Tom Philpott - who writes on the politics of food and agriculture for Mother Jones - and I bandied about the idea of doing a joint deep dive on Texas prison food, but neither had time when the other could do it. I've always thought, though, there's the making of a good story there, with lots of data to analyze and paper trails to follow, including daily, nutritionist-approved menus available for analysis. At Reason, we find a story titled, "Prison Food is a National Tragedy," so I'm glad someone is delving into the topic, if not the deep dive Tom and I imagined. (Note to Reason editors: The story needed a Christmas-dinner hook!) As a bonus, some other journalistic offerings I hadn't seen from recent years are linked in the story. In Texas, the issues at prisons and jails are quite different. In prisons, it's government doing things on the cheap, with the Legislature slashing food budgets to levels beyond reason or simple decency. In jails, problems often arise thanks to un-wise privatization gambits.

Christmas in jail
Read Keri Blakinger on Christmas in jail.

Christmas while mommy's in jail
Speaking of Christmas in jail, this time of year it worth taking a moment to remember children of incarcerated parents, particularly those whose parents are arrested and jailed this weekend just before the holiday. The Dallas News last year created a short video about what happens to kids when their caregiver is arrested. Grits hopes we'll see legislation requiring the state to keep track of kids affected by incarceration and connect them to services and opportunities. Watch it and give a thought to how we could do things differently:

Friday, December 21, 2018

Takeaways for TX legislators and national #cjreform activists on the #FirstStepAct and bipartisan reform

Grits has been involved in passing bipartisan criminal-justice reforms at the Texas Legislature since 2001, so is excited to see the First Step Act passed in Congress.

There are many lessons to be learned here, but let's quickly highlight a few takeaways for two audiences in particular: national criminal-justice reformers and conservative Texas legislators.

What national #cjreform supporters should take away from the First Step Act:
  • Bipartisan reform isn't just some weird thing that happens in red states like Texas. The strategy is portable, and will work in Congress, too.
  • Conservatives will support incremental justice reform, in some cases enthusiastically, if they can do so on their own terms without agreeing to a more comprehensive liberal agenda.
  • Conservative legislators will respond to conservative messengers. Matching messengers and messages to targets is an important part of bipartisan work: Some folks can only only hear messages from people already in their camp. So cultivate those messengers!
  • Politics remains the art of compromise, the art of the possible. Government doesn't always function well, but when something does happen, often everyone leaves the table with half-a-loaf. That's by design, and it's okay. You can always come back. Which brings us to ...
  • First steps imply second steps. Every legislator voting "yes" vote on the First Step Act has momentum for their next pro-#cjreform vote, so build on it.
What conservative Texas legislators should take away from the First Step Act:
  • Washington mimicked Texas' approach on bipartisan reform: Texas should continue down the same path. Lone Star legislators should start with areas where the two party platforms agree on a #cjreform agenda.
  • Conservative constituencies turned up big for the First Step Act, from the Texas Public Policy Foundation to Freedom Works to Prison Fellowship to the American Conservative Union. In 2019, #cjreform is all of a sudden a conservative priority, if in part by default because legislation on other topics cannot move in Washington.
  • With Donald Trump's full-throated endorsement of the First Step Act, and with his son-in-law championing it in his administration, conservative Republicans supporting #cjreform are aligning themselves with the president headed into the next election.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Let's Talk: A compilation of #cjreform interviews

Grits has been enjoying the interviews for Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast and  compiled them all in one spot, plus some of the interviews done on Grits (with apologies for the lesser audio quality) before we moved to a format with better production values. I'd first published this in February and thought I'd update it at year's end. Enjoy:
  • Ron DeLord of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, Chris Perkins of the Austin Police Association, and Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition discuss the battle over installing accountability reforms in and around the Austin police contract. 
  • Kathy Mitchell on new police accountability reform measures in Austin.
  • Susanne Pringle of the Texas Fair Defense Act gives a primer on the status of Harris County bail litigation as of October 2018.
  • Audio of Dallas DA candidate debate between John Creuzot and Faith Johnson.
  • Pamela Colloff, writer for ProPublica and New York Times Magazine discusses the apparent false conviction of former high-school principal Joe Bryan based on faulty blood-spatter evidence.
  • Texas Republicans for Justice Reform: Our special, hour-long podcast aimed at promoting justice reform in the state Republican party platform at the state convention featured interviews with Right on Crime Director Derek Cohen, Conservative Coalition Research Institute Director Jason Isaac, outgoing Texas Young Republican Federation Chairman John Baucum, Charles Blain from Empower Texans' Restore Justice Project, Heather Fazio of Citizens for Responsible Marijuana Policy, and David Safavian, of the American Conservative Union Foundation.
  • Democratic Convention Special: This special podcast promoted #cjreform planks in the Texas state Democratic platform in 2018. It features original music and interviews with state Rep. Gene Wu, Austin Justice Coalition executive director Chas Moore, as well as Sukyi McMahon and Kathy Mitchell with Just Liberty.
  • Susanne Pringle: The legal director of the Texas Fair Defense Project discusses the ongoing civil rights litigation over unconstitutional bail practices in Harris County as of April 2018.
  • Kent Whitaker, father and only surviving victim of death-row inmate scheduled for execution February 2018 pleads for his son's life.
  • Ron DeLord, founder of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and lead negotiator on the Austin police union contract.
  • Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the national Innocence Project, discussing prospects and barriers to forensic reform.
  • Brandi Grissom, former Austin bureau chief at the Dallas Morning News on the Texas Juvenile Justice Department sex-abuse scandal she covered as her final story.
  • Sam Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero and director of the Mapping Police Violence Project discussing police violence and the Austin police-union contract.
  • Emily Gerrick, staff attorney at the Texas Fair Defense Project, discussing legislation reforming debtors prisons and what Texas judges can do to reduce incarceration for debt.
  • James White, Chairman of the Corrections Committee in the Texas House, discussing the 2017 legislative session and future prospects for sentencing reform.
  • Becky Bernhardt, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project discusses Harris County bail-reform litigation to which her group is a party.
  • Amanda Marzullo, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, making the case for a capital appellate public defender.
  • Eva Ruth Moravec, reporter covering police shootings of unarmed people in Texas talks about her beat.
  • Amanda Woog, academic discussing her project gathering data on Texas police shootings and deaths in custody. See an earlier interview about her project.
  • Sandra Guerra Thompson, law professor at the University of Houston discussing her new book, Cops in Lab Coats.
  • Erica Gammill, executive director of the Prison Justice League discusses the problems and opportunities posed by organizing prisoners directly.
  • Amanda Marzullo, policy director of the Texas Defender Service, discusses implementation of the Michael Morton Act.
  • Amanda Marzullo, policy director of the Texas Defender Service, discusses what's next after 2015 grand jury reforms.
  • Amanda Marzullo, policy director of the Texas Defender Service, discusses the interplay between the Legislature and the Court of Criminal Appeals regarding Texas' junk-science writ, as well as 2015 legislation requiring prosecutors to notify defense when seeking an execution date.
  • Becky Bernhardt: On excessive caseloads of attorneys representing indigent defendants.
  • Jennifer Laurin, UT law professor, discussing prosecutorial misconduct and oversight.
  • Jeff Blackburn, Amarillo attorney and former legal director of the Innocence Project of Texas, discussing traffic tickets as local revenue generators.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

#FirstStep Act an early Xmas present for reformers; prison, jail guards' on-the-job lies; reformer DA politics, and other stories

A browser-tab clearing roundup of items Grits has been following this week that merit readers' attention:

First Step Act an early Christmas present for #cjreformers
Here's a couple of good analyses of how it passed and a summary of what's in the bill. Critics say the reforms are modest and we're at the "ten yard line." True enough. But as with a football team, winning drives in politics require stringing together small, sequential victories. Gain four yards per play and you move the ball down the field. But one big setback or turnover can spoil it! Get ten yards, you get a new set of downs, and you get the chance to do it again. That's how the First Step Act should be viewed, as its name implies. Perhaps more important, even, than what's in it, is the vote template created in Congress for passing future reform bills. Replicate it, or some close iteration, and maybe more good stuff can pass.

TDCJ guard convicted for fabricating evidence vs. inmates
Though he will face no jail time, a prison guard was convicted thanks to Keri Blakinger's reports about staff setting inmates up with fake disciplinary cases. Between that outcome and toothless Texas prisoners getting 3-D printed teeth because of her reporting, plus a dozen or more other major scoops over the course of the year, she's having quite a run.

Video: Dallas jail guards faked log entries for period while prisoner died
Guards at the Dallas jail faked logs to show that they'd complied with state requirements to check on a troubled inmate face to face once every thirty minutes, and he died during the period they were doing something else instead of making their rounds. The guards are under investigation. No one has been fired or prosecuted so far.

Police reform in Big D?
The killing of Botham Jean by Dallas police officer Amber Guyger has reinvigorated the push for police oversight in Big D. The Texas Observer covered recent developments, and provided a link to this excellent reform plan being promoted by advocates.

Give departing DA credit for prosecuting police shootings
The Dallas News has a story out which strikes Grits as odd, voicing complaints that Dallas DA Faith Johnson has not yet prosecuted two high-profile police-brutality cases. But John Creuzot takes office in January and he can do it. To me, the real story, as Johnson boasted on the campaign trail, is that the Republican DA and Greg-Abbott appointee has prosecuted more police officers during her tenure not just than any Democrat DA in the state, including Texas' so-called "progressive" DAs, but more than any other prosecutor in the nation. As she told the audience in a candidate forum co-sponsored by Just Liberty:


Indeed, Faith Johnson has prosecuted more cops for shooting people in two years than former DA Craig Watkins, who criticized her in the Dallas News story, prosecuted in 8. For my money, she should get credit for that on the way out the door. If there are extant cases, that's Judge Creuzot's job to make those decisions. And I hope he will continue to be at least as aggressive on police-misconduct cases as she was.

Exonerees hopeful for conviction-integrity unit changes
A more justified criticism of Faith Johnson is that her Conviction Integrity Unit was disempowered within the office and the appellate division had too much say, meaning few innocence cases garnered the office's support. This is a common structural flaw; CIUs should report directly to the elected District Attorney. Exonerees are hoping that will change under John Creuzot. Me too.

Rockwall commissioners misplace blame on jail costs
The Rockwall County Commissioners Court recently held the Sheriff's feet to the fire for overspending on overtime to staff a too-full jail. But when the jail is full, it's not the Sheriff's fault, it's the DA's and judges. The commissioners court's ire was misplaced. As of 12/1/18, a whopping 84% of the Rockwall jail population were pretrial defendants who've not yet been convicted but simply couldn't make bail. That's way too high, Make your local officials enact bail reform, watch the jail population go down, and the Sheriff won't have to spend so much on overtime. You're welcome.

Interviewing Krasner
I've been going on for a while about the "Krasner memo" from Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner and how the first-of-its-kind document paved the way for holding prosecutors accountable for mass incarceration in ways which were not possible before. National advocacy groups followed up with a report building on that work, which we discussed in the Top Story segment of the latest Reasonably Suspicious podcast. So I was interested to hear this podcast interview with the Philly DA discussing his early days as a reformer. I know I'm not the only one watching what's going on there closely.

From the academy
Finally, here are a few academic items I wanted to flag for future reference: