In college, I worked at The Daily Texan and afterward co-founded an alternative magazine called Polemicist with a max circulation of 15,000 that featured investigative journalism aimed at the university. For this work, my co-editor Tom Philpott, Jr. and I were inducted into UT-Austin's Friars Society.
I also served a brief stint in the mid-'90s as a data specialist (or some such title) at the Texas State Medicaid Office, where I was primary author of the second edition of a publication called "Texas Medicaid in Perspective," colloquially known as "The Pink Book," essentially a 150-primer for legislators, staff and opinion leaders on the sprawling, byzantine, multi-billion dollar program. (That's where many of those "technical writing" gigs came from.) For about five years during this period, I authored a column on health care finance for a now-defunct publication called The Good Life. I also performed contract research on behalf of Texas environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Save Our Springs Alliance, including an early public policy report critical of the economics behind a low-level nuclear waste dump in West Texas..
Most of my criminal-justice reform work over the years was performed as a volunteer, and mostly in the political off-season. I became engaged in the subject after helping victims respond to a serious police brutality incident in my own neighborhood in Austin in 1995. That got me engaged at the city level. In 1996 municipal elections I experimented for the first time with html and created a web site called the Austin City Council Candidate Hall of Shame, where I dumped opposition research regarding a slate of four candidates. Though "the public" didn't necessarily see it, insiders and journalists did and frequently cribbed facts and analysis from the site in ways that indirectly influenced their reportage. A lot. By the end of the campaign, virtually every tidbit from the site had made its way into some media outlet's coverage. Emboldened, the next year, I created a now-defunct website called the Austin Police Department Hall of Shame, which published excerpts from police disciplinary reports procured under the Open Records Act, as well as weekly media roundups of police misconduct cases. Later, as my interests expanded beyond police misconduct and toward the state legislature, the now-shuttered site was renamed the bland, "Texas Police Reform Center.' In many ways it was a proto-blog, but hand-coded in html.
From 2000 to 2006 I was director of the Police Accountability Project at the ACLU of Texas, at first part-time, and was the group's point person negotiating new security legislation post-9/11 at the Texas Legislature. While at ACLUTX, I worked on several pieces of successful legislation on their behalf, including a requirement for corroboration of undercover informants after the Tulia drug stings and Texas' racial profiling statute, which included provisions incentivizing and financing use of dashcams in police cars performing traffic stop. I helped push Texas' early probation reforms in 2003-2005. Also in 2005, I helped pass legislation regulating the sort of regional narcotics task forces involved in the Tulia drug sting. The following year, the governor de-funded and disbanded the task force system because so many brashly refused to accept DPS oversight - the serendipitous culmination of a five-year campaign by my Police Accountability Project to eliminate the drug task force system. As a reward for that success, in late 2006 I was invited to resign from ACLU of Texas in a nasty, pointless organizational implosion. Such are the realities of political life; if you want a friend, get a dog. I have three.
After my abrupt, unexpected and disheartening ouster from that group, I began taking contract and freelance work for private clients, continuing the blog as a personal effort. Ironically, the following year, largely due to work on this blog I was named the ACLU Central Texas Chapter's Civil Libertarian of the Year. During this period of semi-to-unemployment, I spent a great deal of time covering the Texas Youth Commission implosion and its aftermath and the Great Eldorado Polygamist Roundup, though the focus of the blog necessarily narrowed when I found regular work again. Regrettably, Grits doesn't cover as much juvie stuff anymore.
My next regular, paid gig related to criminal justice politics came in 2008 when I became a consultant for the Innocence Project of Texas, lobbying on their behalf at the Legislature in 2009 and 2011 to help (successfully) secure expanded compensation for exonerees, reforms in eyewitness identification procedures, corroboration for jailhouse snitches and other public policy reforms. I still work for them today. I sometimes take on a handful of other clients performing policy research on criminal-justice topics as well as other subjects, including periodic research and writing assignments for nonprofit groups. (I spent much of 2010 and 2011 consulting on water rates for environmentalists, of all things.) Lately I've been volunteering with the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition to attempt to apply the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement to cell-phone tracking and personal emails stored on third-party servers.
Grits for Breakfast remains an uncompensated hobby: All opinions are my own unless otherwise specified and while I may shamelessly adopt ideas and arguments from others, any specific factual errors are my own. (Indeed, if you spot any email me at shenson [at] austin.rr.com and let me know.) I also maintain a seldom-updated personal blog called Huevos Rancheros. I've maintained Grits independently from any group or party because I want it to be place to discuss ideas in all their nuance, not just a spokesblog for this or that organization. The problems facing the criminal justice system are enormous, and we need unfettered, creative thinking to identify solutions that can work for everybody and keep us safe and free. It's my sincere hope that Grits contributes to that process in some small way.
Thanks for stopping by.
Last updated March 20, 2013