Sunday, October 31, 2004

Sy Hersh: Greatest journalist ever?

This afternoon I went to see Texas Monthly's Evan Smith interview Seymour Hersh at the Paramount Theater downtown. Hersh was in town promoting his new book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, and Smith interviewed him before a packed house as part of the Texas Book Festival.

Despite Laura Bush's high profile role with the festival, she was nowhere to be found in the crowd of Hersh supporters, and frankly she wouldn't have been very comfortable had she come. Hersh, whose primary journalistic home is The New Yorker, skewered the administration from start to finish, particularly the neoconservative cabal he charges has successfully duped the president and the nation into war.

I wasn't surprised by Hersh's bluntness. Accounts of other Hersh speaking engagements sound like we heard his basic spiel today. It was still a high impact talk, though; that somebody with that level of insider knowledge and access to power believes the war in Iraq has been "already lost," it's stunning, even when you know it's coming.

I haven't read Hersh's book yet, though we left the book fair with a copy. I do read his stuff in The New Yorker. But as the man who broke the stories about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in the Iraq War, it's fair to question, "Is Seymour Hersh the greatest American investigative journalist in history?"

For me, I can only think of a couple of competitors: Lincoln Steffens and I.F. Stone.

The argument for Lincoln Steffens stems from his taking investigative journalism to a higher plane than at any previous time in American history, spawning the term "muckraking" in the process. Steffens focused on cities, and his exposes of corruption changed American perceptions of government forever. I'm not sure he was the "greatest" journalist, though. New ground Steffens pioneered using foraging techniques, Stone and Hersh later settled, planted and harvested using methods that would have astounded the tart-tongued Steffens.

The only other American investigative reporter whose work deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Sy Hersh would be I.F. Stone. I think the main difference between Stone and Hersh would have to be that Hersh's work is appreciated by a huge portion of the public -- he received a standing ovation in the Paramount, and a few folks even stood when he was introduced. By contrast, Stone was ostracized and demonized for his efforts, and survived by creating a niche market of politically sympathetic opinion leaders, which he proceeded to fill for several decades.

In a way, Stone was a proto-blogger. His I.F. Stone's Weekly was relatively short and punchy, and it only went to folks who particularly wanted it -- he didn't rely on mass distribution, but niche targeting. Using today's Internet technologies, Stone would have easily found a mass audience and taken on guys like Josh Marshall, who's pioneered investigative journalism in the "new media."

Hersh rivals Stone because both men's careers demonstrated decades of excellence, not just one or two big stories -- Bob Woodward is still living off the credibility earned from the Watergate story. But Hersh isn't sitting around on laurels from his Pulitzer covering My Lai. He's still in trenches more than thirty years later.

In the end, I think the edge goes to Stone for the following reason. As great as he is, Hersh's journalism relies on top level sources confiding in him, and astonishingly, they do. In many cases, these are sources Hersh has cultivated for decades. At age 67, officers he's known for thirty years have moved up the ranks to become Colonels and Generals now. That's amazing and great, and incredibly useful.

On the other hand, I.F. Stone's methodology used public documents and open records laws to piece together the truth, and in that sense his methods are more accessible to the rest of us. If the three-star General won't talk, Hersh wouldn't get the story, and that source just isn't available to most journalists. Hersh is a special man with a special talent and a key and hard-to-replicate role in American public life. By contrast, Stone's methodology spawned the type of blogger's journalism method where one takes information already out there, and with one's own research adds value to it, reprocesses it, and kicks it back out into the public arena for more debate and vetting. They didn't call Izzy Stone the father of modern investigative journalism for nothing.

In that sense, I think Stone made the more enduring contribution to journalism as a profession, while Hersh's writing probably had the biggest political impact of any American journalist in the last century.

In any event, today I got to see America's greatest living journlist interviewed live, and he didn't disappoint.

Feeling Good About Texas

At a dance hall down in Texas
That's the finest place to be.
Oh the women, they all look beautiful
And the men will buy your beer for free.

Lyle Lovett,
That's right you're not from Texas
(Texas wants you anyway)

Some days I feel really good about being a Texan. Not every day, but today I do. Perhaps it's relative, because as I check around at my favorite blogs I find things aren't that great everywhere else:

The esteemed Pete Guither at Drug War Rant had his home-district Congressional endorsee reject his donation to protest his anti-prohibition views, while her opponent demagogues against Pete in direct mail. (Hard to believe she's sending money back -- she's getting her ass kicked in fundraising.) I say good for Pete for outing a coward -- another spineless Dem wouldn't have been worth much anyway.

Meanwhile, Baylen at D'Alliance consoles himself that a Green Party DA's candidate from Madison, Wisconsin is talking sense on the drug war, even though she's running against a Dem incumbent who will win.

And drug war critics from High Times to the aforementioned Guither have endorsed Kerry despite a rotten record as an over-the-top drug warrior. In perhaps a moment of excessive fervor, an outraged Last One Speaks found Guither's ostracism by a spineless Democrat reason to vote for Kerry. (Bush is frankly better on a lot of the drug war stuff I care about, than Kerry, though I'm with Natalie Maines and wouldn't endorse him for dogcatcher.)

These blogs are plaintive cries from good folks having to live with half a loaf or less, and I empathize.

Yesterday, I drove to the Metroplex for a well-attended town hall meeting held by the League of United Latin American Citizens, in Grand Prairie, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. There I listened to Ray Allen, the Republican chairman of the Texas House Corrections committee -- which oversees the Texas prison system -- refer to the Drug War with comments like, "Let's put people that we are afraid of in jail, not the ones that we are only mad at."

A life-long pro-life and gun-rights activist, Chairman Allen endorsed with few qualifications the findings of fine, recent study by LULAC, which lays out the case against overincarceation based on pragmatic realism, compassion and human rights. Allen called for increasing the parole-release rate, even after his opponent had called for lowering it, hoping to run to his right as tougher on crime.

My friends Ana Correa of LULAC and ACLU's Ann del Llano opened the event tag-teaming to describe eight "myths" about the criminal justice system -- a critique that basically calls for substantially reducing sentences for non-violent crimes and overhauling the probation and parole systems. The crowd issued audible gasps and cries of "no way" when Ann revealed that Texas has identified 1,941 separate acts we've labeled as felonies, including 'electrocuting fish,' and in some cases, prostitution, graffiti, and stealing cable. One in 11 Texans is a felon, and one in 20 is currently in prison, on probation, or on parole. The Fort Worth Startlegram coverage said the audience appeared "stunned" by the statistics. They were almost equally stunned when their Republican state representative stood up and told the crowd, to closely paraphrase, since I didn't take notes, 'everything these extraordinary women just told you was true.'

Allen said the agenda ACLU and LULAC were proposing had historically been considered "liberal," but that the groups brought him only the best of facts and analysis. He'd come to be convinced of the positions in the report because of his conservative principles, he said, not in spite of them. The cost to the state, the harm to inmates' future prospects and their families, and evidence that incarceration doesn't stop recidivism, but other methods do, were the main reasons he cited.

This isn't just a man bites dog story, Chairman Allen in 2003 actually proposed a bill lowering the lowest level drug possession crimes to a misdemeanor. In the waning days of the session, a nationally touted compromise bill passed that kept the charge at a felony, but required judges to sentence defendants to probation and treatment instead of incarceration on the first offense, a provision that affected 4,000 people this year. Allen told Governing magazine he was able to do it for the same reasons Nixon could go to China -- his hard right positions on other issues make him immune to attacks as soft.

As a matter of full disclosure, I worked on Chairman Allen's re-election campaign professionally this cycle -- my first Republican client ever in more than 60 campaigns -- and I'm also listed as a reader on LULAC's report; in other words, I'm conflicted out the wazoo so take it as you will -- I make no pretense at objectivity.

Still, the admission requires some small explanation for my Democrat friends. In this partisan era, crossing party lines inevitably makes some people mad, plus he and I disagree on a lot of important stuff, starting with choice, not just abortions but schools. I chose to work for Allen precisely because of his leadership on the criminal justice issues described above. His district was targeted by pro-choice groups and Democrats as one of the few competitive seats in North Texas, and he's presently in quite a nasty race. To my way of thinking, though, if Allen loses, the Texas Legislature will still be pro-life, but criminal justice reformers would lose an important Republican friend, and a committee chair to boot. That made it a no-brainer. Yesterday I was proud of Chairman Allen, and it made me feel completely comfortable, perhaps for the first time, about the decision to help his campaign.

House District 106 is becoming competitive largely because of a growing Latino population, so whether or not Allen survives on Tuesday, Latinos and LULAC will play an increasingly important role in the district's future. Saturday, Allen came with the exact message LULACers wanted to hear -- shift money away from incarcerating non-violent offenders and toward schools and healthcare -- but it remains to be seen if it won him their votes. If he wins and can deliver at the Legislature, Allen may help demonstrate that progressive positions on the Drug War can earn Latino votes in swing districts in Texas and the Southwest.

If THAT happens, then the light at the end of the Drug War tunnel may not turn out to be a train. I could be kidding myself, but you've gotta try something, huh?

Friday, October 29, 2004

Ira Glasser's 'Busted!' reminds of Texas' woes

Last night I spoke on behalf of ACLU at an event sponsored by the Libertarian Longhorns, the Big L Libertarian group at UT-Austin, who held a refreshingly non-election-related evening dedicated to informing students what to do if you're stopped by the police.

They showed a film by a group called
Flex Your Rights, "Busted!: The Citizens Guide to Surviving Police Encounters," which is narrated by famed former ACLU President Ira Glasser. If you haven't seen it, let me suggest you purchase a copy online, and get a few more as gifts for every young person you know, or at least the ones you wouldn't want to see in jail. Everybody makes mistakes, but knowing what's in that video easily could make the difference between whether your child, niece, nephew or loved one's mistake lands them in jail or not.

Anyway, the third segment of the show dealt with what to do if police come to your home. In the what-not-to-do segment, officers bullied a 20-year old girl amidst a house full of nervous partygoers into admitting she had pot and taking them to it in her bedroom. As they cuffed her, they announced she was under arrest for felony "distribtion" because it was being smoked by others at the party.

"Distribution"! That's the same word the assistant district attorney used in the Palestine case72 black folks, almost all living in the Palestine city limits, were arrested in a Tulia-style mass-bust by a drug task force)

What do you think of when you hear "drug distribution"? Hard to avoid the obvious implication the person is a drug dealer. But prosecutors these days consider "distribution" just passing the joint, or in the Palestine case, the crack pipe. That overinflates the charges and lets the drug task force masquerade 72 people as dealers, an impossibly high number, as though they'd taken down Al Capone's liquor empire in a town of 17,000.

I should add that another thing became clear in the Q&A with students after the video. Police have much more authority over travelers at a traffic stop in Texas than in most states, or in the typical states for which the video is aimed. In Texas, the US Supreme Court upheld our law in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista allowing arrests for "Class C" misdemeanors, which are misdemeanors for which the only punishment is a fine, not incarceration.

Months after the Supreme Court ruled such arrests were legal, the Texas Legislature passed a law banning them again, but Texas Governor Rick Perry vetoed the bill, and has pledged to veto it again in the future as a sop to the state's largest police union.

(where Atwater, and thanks to Governor Perry, if a driver says "no" to a request for a so-called "consent search," the traffic offense that was the pretext for pulling the driver over can magically become an offense that necessitates the driver's arrest, after which they will be required by law to search the car as part of an "inventory search." After this scenario is explained to a driver, who would rationally refuse a search?

I told the kids that they should. Legally, yeah, a Texas cop can just haul your ass to jail. Pragmatically, it's a different story. Most county jails are full to the brim, and nobody can afford to be processing and incarcerating traffic offenders. I argued that, while they cultivate a Wyatt Earp image, police officers are better viewed as comparable to middle management bureaucrats in the Social Security system. For tough guys, they're risk averse. Their actions are circumscribed by a byzantine set of rules hardly anybody else undertands, and they get in trouble when they cross the line.

Certainly there are bad cops, sadistic cops, racist cops, but if you're lucky enough to get the typical officer rather than the creepy, criminal outlier, most aren't willing to perjure themselves just for the chance to bust you with a joint. In Texas these days, most but not all police cars performing traffic enforcement have cameras in the cars, many with audio, and officers know that theoretically every action could be second guessed later, even if in practice it doesn't happen often. That makes the average officer more likely to follow the rules and conventions If you assert your rights and don't consent, arresting you just to search the car would still be a rarity, even after

Politely but firmly decline every search request, even a pat down, and ask near-constantly whether you're free to go. The officer understands the code words, too, and unless he's willing to violate the consent pretext in a way that could come out unfavorably later, he'll likely respect them.

It's not great advice, but the only other choice is to consent, which definitely gets you searched 100% of the time. Hopefully I told them the right thing. (ACLU-national's otherwise excellent wallet-sized "bust card," entitled "What to do if you are stopped by the police," doesn't address the issue
.) It's a hard question; I'm not a lawyer and it's the best I've got.

Perhaps Glasser, et. al can address
Atwater in Busted II, The Sequel.

(Additional note:
Since I was representing ACLU of TX at the event, my boss Will Harrell would want me to reiterate that I'm not an attorney, and nothing here is intended as legal advice. SH)

Warning: Web Business Scamming Inmates' Familes

A web business called "Love from Home"is scamming families of Texas inmates by promising to send their loved ones gifts the prison system won't allow. They list Texas (warning, if you click through, do not use their service) as one of the states where they will ship their products. However, there's some fine print, or in the web world, a "Conditions" page that states, in part,

"Love From Home is not responsible for packages that are considered contraband.

"Contraband is defined as: Any item that an inmate is not allowed to have in his/her possession while being incarcerated.

"Contraband is also defined as: Any item that is in excess. i.e. If an inmate is allowed to have 3 pairs of socks and they receive a pack of 10 pairs, seven pairs are considered contraband.

"Love From Home will not refund any items that are considered contraband."

Get it? They won't guarantee the prisons they "serve" will actually allow the items they sell to be mailed to the inmates, and according to the Texas Inmate Families Association, the Texas prison ombudsman has told the company that in Texas they cannot. Anything purchased through this company will be confiscated, and the families' money will not be refunded.

The prison ombudsman writes, almost with a sigh, "A message has been sent to the website advising them that TDCJ does not allow these types of product to be sent to offenders, however, this is a privately run website, and we have no control over the information posted on this website."

Wow. Texas has incarcerated 155,000 people in its prison system, but when a scam artist starts to defraud those inmates' families, the criminal justice system just throws up its hands, announcing, Well, we can't control what they say on their website. You know that crazy web thing, anything goes out there.

What? How is this not being prosecuted as fraud? Incarceration places a huge burden on families, from the loss of income to mourning absence to extra expenses for travel and collect telephone calls, inmates' families are already struggling. Preying on such vulnerable folks is lower than a snake's belly.

And a "justice" system that knowingly lets it happen can barely claim to be worthy of the name.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

ACLU: Limit Cops Operating Outside Jurisdiction

This afternoon ACLU of Texas delivered testimony, authored by yours truly, to the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee related to one of their Interim Charges, which are complex issues committees work on in between legislative sessions to prepare legislation. The charge in question reads as follows:

Interim Charge Number 3:

Review Code of Criminal Procedure Article 2.13 and Art. 14.03 as they relate to a peace officer’s authority to act outside of the peace officer’s geographic or territorial jurisdiction.

I've removed some of the technical and legal detail and adapted the testimony slightly for the blog format, but here's the gist of what ACLU had to say:


A. Byrne Grant-Funded Drug Task Forces

Drug task forces raise specific jurisdictional issues relevant to the committee's charge. Though section 14.03(g) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP) disallows officers from detaining citizens for traffic violations outside their jurisdiction, Byrne-grant funded drug task force officers routinely do so.

A recent study by ACLU of Texas entitled Flawed Enforcement (May 2004, pdf file) found that of the thousands of motorists stopped by drug task force officers, about 98% of them received no ticket (p. 11). That’s partly because task force officers, who wear uniforms from their home jurisdiction, are stopping motorists in other counties than the one where they are employed. (A former task force officer says another reason is that motorists who haven’t received a ticket yet are more likely to give consent to search.) This creates two concerns:

  1. Confusion among motorists over why they’re being stopped by an officer wearing a uniform from another area.
  2. Most importantly, which jurisdiction receives ticket proceeds? Task forces have found that, rather than reconcile this politically sticky issue, it’s simply easier to not give tickets at all. If the money goes to the county where the ticket is given, as with DPS, then agencies are paying officers to generate revenue for other jurisdictions.

To the extent giving out tickets at traffic stops fulfills real-world public policy goals like deterring traffic offenses, task force traffic interdiction isn’t helping. To the extent ticketing generates revenue, local governments are foregoing millions in revenue statewide from traffic enforcement performed by their officers.

Drug task forces not only have officers enforcing laws outside their jurisdiction within the task force area, they frequently trade officers to perform undercover work in other task force regions by agreement. Given their notorious liability issues, this creates potential problems for all involved.

B. Officers can arrest outside jurisdiction for most offenses.

CCP 14.03 contains provisions that appear contradictory at first glance. Subsection (d) allows officers to arrest outside of their jurisdictions for felonies, breaches of the peace, disorderly conduct and drunkenness committed in their presence. That is a reasonable limitation that allows officers to keep the peace but, by itself, restricts routine law enforcement to officers employed in the jurisdiction.

CCP 14.03(g), however, expands that power dramatically, allowing arrests for “any offense” except traffic violations. (Drug task force officers are even exempt from that.) 14.03(g) completely overrides and subsumes 14.03(d), for the worse, allowing officers to arrest for even the most petty misdemeanors, even fine-only offenses, punishments for which don’t even merit incarceration. That’s too broad.

C. Proliferation of Special Force Risks Abuse

Proliferation of various types of small law enforcement agencies risks inexperienced, poorly trained and unaccountable officers acting anywhere and everywhere without restraint. Article 2.12 of the Code of Criminal Procedure lists 32 different types of specialized police officers in addition to municipal police and sheriffs. Many of those officers don’t receive the same level of training or oversight as regular law enforcement agencies, or, e.g. arson investigators, on paper possess narrow jurisdictions and expertise. Thanks to the problem described in "B" above, though, these officers can bring the full force of law to bear on even the most minor offenses, whenever they want. That risks all sort of obviously problematic situations.


  1. Most important: Delete CCP 14.03(g). The provision in 14.03(d) provides out of jurisdiction officers all the leeway they need to keep the peace. 14.03(g) removes all restrictions on officers actions, making them as powerful outside their jurisdiction as within it. Officers in their jurisdiction are subject to supervision and oversight; outside their jurisdictions they become potential loose cannons, creating liability with every law enforcement action.
  2. Disallow drug task force highway interdiction. Require that officers only enforce traffic laws in their home jurisdiction. See the report, Flawed Enforcement, for a much more detailed criticism of drug task force highway interdiction practices and problems created by task force officers operating outside their home jurisdiction.
  3. Strictly regulate the ability of drug task forces and other agencies to bring in out of jurisdiction officers through cooperative agreements. Clarify that the both the requesting agency and the home jurisdiction will be liable for any misconduct by officers working by agreement outside their jurisdiction.
  4. Consider implementing restrictions on the law enforcement powers of specialized police forces listed in CCP Art. 2.12

Court of Criminal Appeals supports Innocence Network

I was just about to post on this when his RSS feed reported that Charles Kuffner beat me to it. As I concur entirely with his take (and with his disdain for Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal), I'll refer the two Grits readers who don't regularly see OfftheKuff to his comments. Go Charles!

Travis Commissioners: Find Alternatives to Jail Expansion

The Austin American Statesman reported Tuesday that the Travis County Commissioners Court wants to issue $100 million in bonds to expand the county jail (registration required) by 1,688 beds to solve overcrowding problems.

"The driving force behind the bond package is the warning from Texas Commission on Jail Standards two years ago that the county needed to find a long-term fix to jail crowding issues," the paper reported.

Travis County's jails have been a disgrace for quite a while, and were named worst in the state by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards just a few years ago. "When I got there, we were in an absolute jailing crisis," said state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, who was elected sheriff in November 1992.

None of that means issuing $100 million in bonds is a good idea. For starters, voters already approved bond money for that purpose -- $67.7 million that should have boosted capacity to 3,600 by 2003.

"But much of that money was diverted to pay for large budget overruns on the new downtown Criminal Justice Center," reported the Statesman three years ago. "Fewer than half of the extra beds materialized."

So what makes anybody think they'll spend the money right this time? County commissioners ignored this problem for too long to focus on their own pet projects. In 2001 the county issued $185 million in bonds for road building, hyping expensive and speculative new roads to the suburbs instead of solving longstanding jail problems. Both the city and the school district have issued more debt since then, too, and voters recently approved a new hospital district, so now Austin-area voters are basically bonded up to the eyeballs.

It's getting awfully expensive to live here.

After sticking voters with a 2001 wish list that didn't include core essentials, now the county wants to issue more debt. Judge Biscoe told the Statesman they could issue bonds to build 572 beds without voter approval because the county had no choice to do the work, but said he wanted the remaining $60-$70 million to be approved by the voters.

Gosh, that's nice of him.

But there are a lot of ways the county, with the help of the city, could resolve the jail overcrowding problem without issuing new debt. Here's just a sampling of ideas:

While Governor Perry twice vetoed versions of the "Soccer Mom" law, which would have forbade officers from arresting anyone for Class C (traffic ticket-level) offenses, the Travis Sheriff and Austin PD could themselves implement that policy to lower jail admissions.

The Republican former chairman of the Texas House Corrections committee, Rep. Pat Haggerty of El Paso, last year proposed a bill that would have limited the amount of time people could be kept on probation for felonies if they had no significant violations. The maximum probation length for misdemeanors in Texas is two years. Only 24 percent of Travis County probationers are on probation for high risk offenses. If Travis County made probation for non-violent misdemeanors end after one year, the number of new jail entries due to probation revocations would decline after 12 months had passed. Travis County probation officers' caseloads are so high, anyway, they can't provide adequate supervision. Bottom line, shorter, tougher probation works better to actually change lives. Probationers who enter the system on technical violations two years after the offense needlessly take up bed space without any benefit to public safety.

The County could also look at limiting probation revocations for "technical violations" of probation conditions, or even stop requiring urinalysis tests as a probation condition in non-drug related cases. While judges could implement this policy of their own accord, the county probation department could alter guidelines and recommendations to facilitate the change.

Some indirect policy changes could have big consequences. The Travis Sheriff and Austin police should ban consent searches, or searches where an officer asks for permission to search but has no probable cause. (Officers already can search if they see probable cause or want to pat someone down for their own protection.) As officers have told me many times, police are only searching for two things: drugs and guns. So, if we don't have any space to put people away for low-level possession, and the officer has no cause to think someone is armed, there's little law enforcement benefit and much wasted time and goodwill from conducting lots of consent searches. Austin PD officers search black people more than five times as often as whites (pdf file), according to the department's 2003 racial profilng report, so the policy would also radically reduce police discrimination. To the extent these searches are leading to incarceration for low-level drug possession or otherwise violating probation conditions, they're increasing the number of people, mostly black and brown people, in the county jail who don't necessarily need to be there.

Another option is to look closely at the wisdom of incarcerating for vice crimes.

Chicago is considering a system of fines instead of incarceration as punishment for low-level marijuana possession to relieve the clogged court system and increase revenues. (The fine, Chicago-based blog decrimwatch was established to monitor this development.) In Texas, that would require a change in state law; such a bill was considered last legislative session and will likely be re-introduced next year. In the meantime, though, Travis sheriff deputies and Austin police could be ordered by policy to write tickets for paraphernalia violations instead of possession misdemeanor possession offenses, and it would have the same net effect.

In Berkeley, CA, next week voters will consider Proposition Q, which according to the ballot language would "1) make enforcement of prostitution laws the lowest priority; 2) oppose state laws making prostitution a crime; and 3) require semi-annual reporting of prostitution-related Berkeley Police Department law enforcement activities." Opponents of the measure say it would increase costs because it would increase crime, but the truth is to the extent prostitution busts are contributing to jail overcrowding, it would lower jail overcrowding costs. Like the good folks at the blog Vice Squad, I'd prefer regulation and zoning to simply lowering the enforcement priority, but that would require changing state law, while something like Proposition Q could be implemented internally as policy without any changes in state or local law.

Having tried none of these approaches, Travis County Commissioners cannot tell voters in good faith that borrowing $100 million is our only option. While the proposed vote won't take place until November 2005, it's never too early to tell the politicians to get smarter on crime before they raise our bond debt and thus our taxes.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

MJ busts reach new record despite Texas' underreporting

It's been widely reported in the blogosphere that America set a new record for marijuana arrests in 2003, topping 755,000. NORML calculated that number accounts for 45% of all drug arrests, and that 88% of those were for possession only.

Well, it turns out that in Texas those numbers are dramatically underreported. The Dallas Morning News revealed earlier this month that Texas counties only report 60-69% of serious crimes to the Department of Public Safety database from which federal Uniform Crime Reports are compiled (link is an AP clip). In Dallas County, less than half of crimes made it into the state system.

Texas has the highest incarceration rate among all states, or for that matter in the world, and nationally, one in five new prisoners in the '90s were added in Texas. That means Texas accounted for a significant percentage of national increases in pot busts, too, except now we know the state almost certainly didn't report them all.

Even with Texas' underreporting, marijuana arrests nationwide nearly doubled in the last decade, reported NORML. Here's the breakdown:


2003 * 755,187
2002 * 697,082
2001 * 723,627
2000 * 734,498
1999 * 704,812
1998 * 682,885
1997 * 695,200
1996 * 641,642
1995 * 588,963
1994 * 499,122
1993 * 380,689

Death penalty case shameful

I'm saddened and horrified that Dominique Green was put to death last night over the objection of the Houston police chief, a federal district judge, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and frankly anybody with a shred of conscience. Unfortunately, the latter category does not include Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Texas Governor Rick Perry, or the US Supreme Court. So Green was killed even though evidence from the scandal-ridden Houston crime lab had been called into question.

Yet another reason for Harris County residents to vote for Reginald McKamie next week.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Open Records Next Step On Dogwood Trails Task Force

Some days it's hard to have faith in public servants. The Anderson County District Attorney promised to send requested information about the 72 people arrested in a rural East Texas county, but it never came. So I'm filing a request under the Texas Public Information Act to demand the material.

I was told by the Anderson County District Clerk that these documents were all still “sealed,” and that I must get them from the DA’s office. DA Doug Lowe referred me to an employee who he said would help us. That DA’s employee verbally promised to copy the indictments and mail them to an address I provided. (He pled a lack of labor resources to copy them immediately.) The DA’s office did not send that material as promised.

The same employee said Dogwood Trails Task Force Commander Curtis Bitz had all the other information I requested, and only he could release it, but Bitz refused to supply that information when contacted by a reporter from The Texas Observer.

Since activists elsewhere may find the open records tactic useful in investigating drug war abuses, I thought I'd let folks know for what I'm asking.

From the District Attorney/District Clerk, I'm requesting copies of all the indictments, search warrant probable cause affidavits, arrest warrant probable cause affidavits, and court documents related to asset forfeiture claims by the county. These are the basic documents any investigative reporter would start with to pursue the story. In particular, search warrant affidavits are often the best source of information about such cases before they go to trial, because to get a judge to issue a warrant prosecutors must reveal a certain amount of detail about the investigation. In Texas, arrest warrantscannot be sealed after execution -- we don't have sneak and peek searches here -- so it was improper for the DA and District Clerk to withhold them from me (link is to a bill passed in 2003) .

From the Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force, I'm requesting the "case log books," where the task force chronologically records details of each bust. These case log books were used by former Texas Observer editor Nate Blakeslee to document racial profiling by the Chambers County Narcotics Task Force north of Houston. Since that time, several members of the task force have been indicted. The Texas Attorney General has ruled these case log books are public records, and they provide the best way to document patterns of racial targeting and irregularities in task force drug investigations.

Obviously, I'll let readers know what we find.

Grumpy about local elections Part 2

The fiasco over Austin's local voting machines just makes me sick.

The machines are unaccountable because they don't have verifiable paper ballots. County clerk Dana DeBeauvoir says systems are in place to audit votes, but the problem is that if the electronic information gets put in wrong, all the audits are self confirming. It's like hitting refresh on an Excel spreadsheet without changing any of the numbers. The totals all come out the same.

Worse, DeBeauvoir has known this for many, MANY months thanks to the Texas Safe Voting Coalition and the Cyberliberties Project of the ACLU of Texas. She bitterly fought efforts to fix the problem before the vote. Now that it's too late to fix, DeBeauvoir has acknowledged the system "isn't perfect," a dramatic understatement, and says she'll look at it again after the election. Well, goody for her. It must be nice to get to knowingly behave irresponsibly and then claim credit for mildly acknowledging error after the fact.

Worse, it now turns out the new systems have user interface problems as well. In essence, the "e-slate" machines have the same problem as the "butterfly ballots" that caused all the trouble in November 2000 Palm Beach, Flordia: People who thought they were voting straight ballot Democrat have accidentally voted for Bush.

Given the unaccountable system and predictable user interface problems (didn't anybody run any test voting on the damn things?), these machines should never have been purchased, much less used in the most important election in living memory. But the Democratic Party hopes to deflect criticism from DeBeauvoir, claiming that the source of the problem isn't the machines but human error. That's completely moronic. The little old ladies in Palm Beach made errors too -- after all, the butterfly ballots COULD be filled out correctly. But when 300 people got it wrong it changed the outcome of the election.

(So far everyone who reported the problem caught the error before they voted, but of course some people inevitably won't catch it, and in that case, like the little old ladies in Palm Beach, they would never know to complain till it was too late.)

With close local races for the statehouse in play, this mess could easily change vote outcomes.

DeBeauvoir's failure to ensure the integrity of Austin's elections should earn her ouster. She had a chance to fix this before it became a problem. Her hubris has brought us to this unhappy place.

Grumpy about local elections Part 1

I'm growing increasingly grumpy about our local Austin elections. For starters, the Capital Metro referendum on so-called "commuter rail" counts as another crappy, ridiculous boondoggle. As always, it's shoved down the community's throat by saying we have no choice or the reactionaries will keep us from having ANY public transportation at all.

That's our "green" city council's standard modus operandi on nearly everything. We have to sell out control of the public hospital to the Catholic church or we'll have to raise taxes. We have to subsidize sprawl and build roads over the aquifer or they'll sue under novel legal theories and make us do it. Basically, we can't have a backbone or someone might break it.

I remember Danny Dollinger at the famous June 7, 1990 Barton Springs uprising criticizing the untenable position city council let special interests put us in. He said he had a dream where Jim Bob Moffett threatened a golden-cheeked warbler (a local endangered species for you non-Austinites) , declaring, "Let me pee in the pool or I'll kill the bird." That's the kind of choice we get on every major local issue.

Why do city officials always agree to do something bad to keep something worse from happening? Just for once, why can't Austin local government do something because it'd be a good thing to do and the community supports it?

Sometimes these threats and supposed dangers are outright ridiculous: We have to gut civilian oversight of police or the union won't agree to accept pay hikes we promised them in exchange for campaign support!!! Well, who gives a shit?!

This go-round we're being asked to accept a public transportation system that goes nowhere near any major destinations or employers, but we're told that if it's not approved we'll never get public transport at all. That's no damn choice -- transportation nobody will use, or nothing.

I'm one of the few Austinites who actually lives within a few blocks of a proposed stop, but for the life of me I can't find anywhere on the proposed map I'd like to go.

Kerry's lame and I'm voting for him, but that's the only half a loaf I'm accepting this election cycle. I'm voting no on the Capital Metro referendum.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Lethal "non-lethal" weapons must go

Couldn't agree more with comments from The Fat Guy about the Boston PD's deadly use of pepper spray "pellets" -- WTF! This "non-lethal" weapon killed a woman when police tried to disburse a jubilant crowd after the final Red Sox victory over the Yankees last week. Ironically, though some revelers were breaking windows and engaging in post-victory vandalism, by all accounts the dead woman was not.

I'll give them this: Boston police took responsibility and are replacing the weapons with lower velocity versions. That would never happen in Texas.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Crazy, drunk AR task force cop prompts ACLU lawsuit

ACLU of Arkansas sued after White County Deputy Sheriff Britt Simpson, a local drug task force member, shouted racial slurs at several black people in a drunken fit.

KATV News reported, "A Searcy police officer accused Simpson of stealing a Brinkley officer's gun and threatening black men with it and using racial slurs. The state ACLU said it has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Simpson." The White County Sheriff is up for re-election, and the incident has become a campaign issue.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Siva V on copyrights and wrongs

An old pal from UT who I knew from working together at The Daily Texan, Siva Vaidhyanathan gave an interesting interview on the Internet copyright wars, a subject about which he's published two books.

I'm pretty much 100% with Siva on the broad outlines of this subject, but I must say I found his points about polarization of debate over P2P file sharing a bit wrong-headed. He complains of "rabid rhetoric" by consumers and "extreme moves" by the big corporations, but to me, he paints a false picture to equate the two and call for "middle ground." In Siva's words, "To both the big music companies and my students, we are talking about fundamental values: commerce vs. freedom. Neither side concedes the slightest point to the other."

In the introduction, though, interviewer R.U. Sirius pointed out that downloaders are up for a reasonable compromise. Sirius noted, "the 'free music' debate has been rendered at least partly moot for one individual: me. It may sound terribly unhip, but I’m getting more satisfaction from a certain subscription music site than I have ever received while navigating the vagaries of the chaotic file-sharing universe. This is, of course, the point that file sharers have been making forever — that if the music industry would just get its shit together and offer better services at a reasonable price, they wouldn’t need to go stomping all over the p2p (peer-to-peer) crowd."

The examples given in the interview for this alleged polarization belie the equation of "extremes" Siva alleges. The link giving an example of "extreme moves" by corporations references efforts by a powerful industry lobbyist pushing for radical legislation in Congress. The link portraying "rabid rhetoric" leads to a post in the comments section of a blog by "Toiletman" commanding readers to "Fuck the RIAA." It doesn't take a social scientist or cultural historian to see there's a fundamental distinction between the two -- the corporate lobbyist has a decent shot of getting what he wants, while Toiletman, however over-the-top his rhetoric, couldn't influence Congress to pass gas.

Sirius' attitude expressed above conforms more to my own experience -- most Internet users aren't unreasonable or looking to "steal." We're just tired of being stolen from, and what's being stolen is our First Amendment right to free expression. In the big picture, Siva agrees, as indicated by such insightful comments as "Copyright is the most pervasive threat to free speech in America." Who owns those copyrights, though? It ain't Toiletman.

What's really happening on this topic is that corporations are rolling over us all, with most folks having little or no real recourse to combat them. The "rabid rhetoric" expresses frustration at powerlessness. The "extreme moves" are mere expressions of the prerogatives of power. In that context, "middle ground" just means whatever concessions can be wrung out of the big companies -- I'm not even sure what it would mean for consumers to seek middle ground, since right now they're afforded no turf at all.

Thankfully Siva and a lot of other good folks are working hard to protect the rights of consumers against these media giants, however one frames the debate. Check out his latest book, The Anarchist in the Library, if what you see in the interview interests you.

Texarkana Sheriff candidates differ on drugs

One of my deepest frustrations with drug policy is that the terms of public debate are circumscribed to remove most solutions from the table before discussion even begins. The terms of debate are changing, though, and in Texas we're starting to have discussions about whether the criminal justice system can resolve the state's drug problems, really, for the first time.

The two candidates for Bowie County sheriff in Texarkana typify these slowly shifting terms of debate, offering quite different approaches to the drug war in Thursday's Texarkana Gazette.

The Republican challenger Mike Landers, presently works as deputy sheriff and DARE officer in the department. He appears to view law enforcement as essentially an opportunity for generating revenue, as though it were a business. He proposes restarting the county's defunct drug task force "to enhance revenues by taking drug money from dealers," and he wants to use a county corrections facility to house out of state prisoners for profit. Naturally, he thinks the failed DARE program should be continued, and wants uniformed deputies staffed in the schools.

(Perhaps no one told Deputy Landers that the man atop his Republican ticket, President Bush, tried to eliminate funding for drug task forces each of his four years in office. John Kerry egregiously supports their full funding.)

By contrast, the Democratic incumbent sheriff, James Prince voiced surprisingly reasonable views on the subject for an East Texas law enforcement official in the middle of an election. He too "attributed most crimes to the ongoing illegal drug trade. 'Drugs cause a majority of these crimes,' he said." ... "'But just arresting the drug users and putting them in jail isn't the answer,' Prince said. 'We will have to do more and we will.'" He also proposes greater focus on domestic violence and abuse cases.

Just five years ago, amigos, no Texas politician would ever utter the phrase "just arresting the drug users and putting them in jail isn't the answer," and certainly not during an election season. For thirty years that's been the only answer Texas law enforcement had for combatting drug addiction. Sheriff Prince takes a big risk here by indulging in what the Bush administration calls "reality based" thinking, while his opponent demagogues for more of the same, failed strategies. Here's hoping Bowie County voters reward the Sheriff's good sense on the subject with a second term.

TN task force agent stole drug buy money

DRCNet recently reported the following drug task force scandal from Tennessee:

"A Tennessee drug task force member was arrested October 1 and charged with felony theft after being accused of ripping off task force funds. Cpl. Jeff Tabor of the Sullivan County Sheriff's Department and the 2nd Judicial Drug Task Force had admitted to taking $888.61 out of the task force drug buy fund for personal use, the Johnson City Press reported. He approached his superiors in a bid to pay back the money, but instead was suspended in September and then arrested and charged last week."

Falwell's values shape candidate

An earlier post provided details and links about the Askew family's long relationship with Moral-Majority founder Jerry Falwell, who came to Austin last week to campaign for their son, Alan. His father is on the board of Falwell's Liberty University and his wife actually worked as Falwell's receptionist. Askew's opponent, Patrick Rose, is a middle-of-the-road Democrat. Here's another barely poetic offering in Mr. Askew's honor.

School days at Liberty U

When Alan Askew went to school he studied at the knee
Of Reverend Jerry Falwell at the U of Liberty.
While his wife screened calls from journalists
And brought the Rev his tea.

There they taught him values, like shame and bigotry
Sang odes to Phyllis Schlafly, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes
His thoughts, okay, a bit askew
But so-named, it must be.

Now Falwell wants the voters of District 45
To hand the reins of power to this scion of the right.
He must think they're crazy,
I hope that he's not right.

10-23 additional note: I have to apologize for an error -- a commenter pointed out that Askew's wife, not his mother was Falwell's secretary. I misread the Statesman clip to say it was his father's wife, and since the post was in jest I failed to adequately fact check. I regret the mistake, and have since edited the poem to account for it.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Kerry better b/c he won't cut drug task forces: Iowa AG

The Iowa Attorney General endorsed Kerry on the grounds that Bush wants to cut Byrne grant funding for drug task forces and Kerry doesn't.

It's amazing that Bush is so bad on everything else that his drug task force position doesn't matter to me, even as we see endless strings of crappy oucomes like the case in Palestine. Ending the Byrne grant program may be the only major item on which I agree with the incumbent president.

Ugh. Sadly, Kerry's task force stance lets us know that even if he turns out to be better on Iraq (and that's far from assured), on the drug war, to quote quite a different Byrne, we get the "same as it ever was," no matter who prevails on November 2nd.

Nuther Alan Askew Limerick: Why not?

Another homage to Alan Askew, Jerry Falwell's gift to Texas House District 45.

Alan Askew dodged the debates.
When Rose showed up he showed up late.
He looked for a sign,
Asked God, then declined,
But when Falwell came he kept the date.

If you like that, check out the earlier Askew posts here and here

95% of Anderson County busts Palestine residents

The statistical improbability of the recent Dogwood Trails drug task force bust grows and grows. The Lufkin newspaper reports that 95% of the 72 indicted in the recent drug bust were residents of the city of Palestine!

Pete at Drug War Rant estimated from federal statistics that perhaps 165 crack users lived in all of Anderson County. But Palestine's population is around 17,731, while Pete's estimates were from countywide data. Using the high end of federal crack-use-rate estimates, one finds that the total number of crack users at any time in Palestine might be around 71. In other words, they've arrested as many people as there likely are crack users in the whole town, and called it a "crack distribution ring." It's an Orwellian twist to refer to a "distribution ring" as including the end-of-the-line users to whom the drugs are distributed. But could it be otherwise?

Kansas task force dissolved after scandal depletes staff

This Byrne-funded drug task force in Kansas dissolved after its ranks were 100% depleted from various disciplinary episodes.

The El Dorado Times reported earlier, (no longer available for free),

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation "launched an investigation in September at the request of the El Dorado Police Department and the Butler County Sheriff's Department.

"Butler County Sheriff Craig Murphy and El Dorado Police Chief Tom Boren requested that the KBI conduct an investigation involving the El Dorado police detective sergeant and his son, a detective with the sheriff's department.

"The detectives, who are both members of a drug task force in the county, were not accused of illegal drug activity. They were both placed on paid administrative leave by their respective departments, and remained so for four weeks.

"Murphy said the task force now consists of just one officer from El Dorado and one from the county. It was formerly more multijurisdictional, said Murphy, but Augusta dropped out and the force dwindled to two." [ed note: the two left were the suspended father and son.]
And then there were none.

Hopefully the disgrace of the whole system will take all the Byrne drug task forces down. Not personally tending toward schadenfreude, watching them go down one at a time over familiar, repeated scandals becomes painful and a bit demoralizing.

Complainers about high taxes take note

Even as Dallas learns that sloppy or malicious police practices typify their local drug enforcement strategies, the Dallas Morning News reports that overenforcement of low-level drug and vice crimes have forced the county to re-open a mothballed detention facility at a cost of $300K per month.

Crackdowns on prostitution and homelessness have filled up the local jail, the paper reports, and will fill up the re-opened detention facility in a week. Those additional arrests add to an ongoing problem of a small army of defendants arrested for "low-grade" drug offenses, many of whom languish in jail needlessly at taxpayers expense.

Virtually everyone in the Dallas County jail will get out in the short to medium term, so the protection of the public aspect here is minimal, and anyway we're talking nearly exclusively about nonviolent offenses causing the overpopulation problem. If anyone can justify such policies with an argument based on the public good, I'd sure like to hear it. It looks to me like the public is paying through the nose to damage large numbers of lives via incarceration, then financing a growing police state to shield the public from the ever-increasing bad consequences of that policy.

Complainers about high taxes take note.

Dogwood Trails busts white folks, too

The Dogwood Trails drug task force based in Palestine, Texas participated in a massive sweep of small-time meth labs in East Texas, trumpeted in the media as the "Methbusters" campaign. Here's the DEA press release from that sweep earlier this year. (Dogwood Trails was not the only or principal investigative agency, as they are in the new case where all 72 busts are in Anderson County.)

I wish I needn't mention that most "meth labs," so scarily portrayed with skull and crossbones symbols over the shoulder of the local TV newscaster, are typically lone addicts making meth in their kitchen sink in user-only quantities. But because, of course, they have to make it, they're charged with "manufacturing," which has the same penalties as sale and delivery.

The fury over "meth labs" is the latest scare campaign by politicians to convince the public, or at least rural voters in red states, they still need the drug war. Ironically, it also may become the drug war's last (and still not credible) defense against charges of racial profiling. Why the sea of free market conservatives out there can't see that legalization and regulation would keep this stuff from being manufactured in neighborhoods or sold to kids is beyond me.

DOJ reports the Dogwood Trails task force seized no assets during fiscal year 2002. Then the city of Jacksonville dropped out of the task force, meaning they had to come up with the extra $26,000 previously mulcted from Jacksonville taxpayers. They thought they'd make up the money by merging with another area task force, but couldn't work out the politics. With these recent busts, it now becomes clear where Commander Curtis Bitz intends to get the extra cash.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Adieu Askew

Liberty University graduate Alan Askew's father, also his employer (he "manages" his father's ranch), is trying to buy the Texas House District 45 race with a $200,000 loan to buy television ads. Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell was one of Askew's earliest donors, and came to the district to speak on Askew's behalf last week. Askew's father sits on the Liberty University Board of Trustees. Askew's wife literally used to be Falwell's receptionist! Incumbent Patrick Rose from Dripping Springs is a centrist Democrat.

With these facts in mind, I offer this limerick in Mr. Askew's honor,

Adieu Askew

Alan Askew’s Dad paid his due

All through college at Liberty U

Jerry Falwell and Dad

Bought his TV ads

Like Rick Green, with a Swaggert-toned hue.

Well his cowboy hat looked so gay

But right-wing ties gave him away.

Tell Falwell to go

Where the sun never shows

And vote Rose on election day.

(If you like this you might like my earlier post on Askew.)

Dogwood Trails TF shoots marijuana suspect

The Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force -- the same task force that busted 72 black people in a single rural county last week, claiming they were all part of a crack distribution network -- now hopes to file kidnapping and attempted capital murder charges on a 22-year old man who fled in his car because he feared arrest for an outstanding marijuana posession warrant. Task force officers shot the driver who fled into the woods and was hunted down with dogs. The attempted capital murder and kidnapping charges are almost assuredly bogus, the kind of thing typically trumped up to penalize suspecs for fleeing. The kidnapping charge stems from having two "unwilling" passengers, though when you're charging the driver with murder it's hard to imagine anyone admitting they were "willing." Certainly no one claims the two were kidnapped before they got in the vehicle.

I'm reminded of the subtitle to Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point: "How little things can make a big difference." Here this kid is wanted on a penny-ante marijuana charge, a Class B misdemeanor with a max penalty of six months in jail and likely probation -- and now he could spend the rest of his life in prison for a stupid, juvenile mistake that hurt no one but himself. Talk about a needless drug war casualty.

Meanwhile, it's completely unacceptable police practice to shoot at a car with three unarmed people in it, if that's what happened. The article confusingly claims both that police shot out a tire, that a blown tire caused the driver to wreck, then seems to imply that police didn't shoot until after the car was stopped. This video from this incident gets added to the open records request I'll be filing with this task force on behalf of ACLU of Texas in the near future.

"The problem of prison rape is real"

"The problem of prison rape is real and we're committed to solving it," said Carl Reynolds, the head of Texas Department of Criminal Justice, in response to ACLU of Texas' lawsuit about which The New York Times reported on October 16 (registration required). An ACLU client was used as a sex slave by prison gangs despite repeated complaints to prison officials. Human Rights Watch, reported the article, has identified six additional, similar cases. Without question that's just the tip of the iceberg.

My college buddy Jorge Renaud was one of the most talented writers and poets I knew in my peer group in school. Tragically, he is currently doing time for armed robbery, but he wrote about TDCJ's attidude toward sexual assault in his excellent and highly recommended 2002 book, Behind the Walls: A Guide for Families and Friends of Texas Prison Inmates. As Jorge tells it, TDCJ "does not admt to any sexual assault within its walls," so the above admission takes on new import. (He points to the massive attempted suicide rate as evidence that prison rape occurs, arguing that is what the suiciders are trying to get away from. According to Jorge, "Free-world journalists have asked and been told the numbers aren't "readily available." Yet each TDCJ unit has, in its infirmary, rape kits to collect evidence of sexual assaults." If nothing else, this ACLU suit has now pried away more data, reported in the
Times article, though judging from Jorge's estimates it's still way underreported.

Jorge describes how weak inmates are forced to "ride" to survive -- to "ride" is to essentially become a sex slave in exchange for protection from beatings and other mistreatment. Latino gangs ban together to protect Latinos, especially from "riding" with blacks, Jorge reports. However, "on many units, the Blacks and Latinos vow that 'all white boys must ride,' so an Anglo who fights back will face regular beatings by increasing numbers, until he is broken, moved, stabs someone and is put in ad/seg, or somehow convinces the other inmates to leave him alone." What a nightmare.

If you're not aware of this landmark Texas prison rape case, please take a look at the Times article. If, as Dostoevsky said, the degree of civilization in a society may be judged by entering its prisons, Texas remains an uncivilized place indeed.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Hush, Alan Askew

Central Texans may have read that Republican Alan Askew's parents loaned him $200K to buy television ads in his hotly contested race with Democratic incumbent Patrick Rose in Texas House District 45.

In Askew's honor, I offer up this rendering of an old standard, to be sung to the tune of the lullaby, "Hush, little baby." Enjoy.

Hush, Alan Askew

Hush, Alan Askew, don't make a peep,
Papa's gonna buy you a legislative seat.

Daddy really needs you to win,
So you can pay him back from your lobbyist friends.

You'll be like your friend Rick Green,
Bought and paid for, and far right wing.

So hush little Alan, don't make a peep,
Papa's gonna buy you a legislative seat.

Palestine defendants all black, state records sealed

I drove up to Palestine, Texas with reporter Dave Mann of The Texas Observer to check out the massive drug task force bust I reported on Sunday. While by agreement for his help I won't scoop him on certain items, I can sadly report that the case fulfills many stereotypes about how these drug task forces function.

First, all 72 defendants are black -- every last mother's son and daughter of them. In Tulia only 39 of the 46 were black. In Palestine, they've made it unanimous. While I wasn't given a complete list, a DA's employee showed me the full list while he was copying by hand the names he would give me. I had enough time to read down the race/gender column on both pages twice, just to make sure -- the list said B/M or B/F on every last one, including the names that weren't checked as releasable to me.

Second, many of the defendants have no significant criminal record. Although an assistant district attorney (who it turns out, went to my high school in Tyler) assured me that "these are people we see in and out of the system all the time," and that "we know these people," that wasn't true for the majority for whom we checked criminal records. More detail on that later from Dave Mann.

Third, the records were still sealed, even for those already in custody!, including both the indictments and search warrant affidavits (which are supposed to public after they're executed except in "sneak and peek" searches by federal spooks). Neither the DA nor the drug task force would reveal information about the three residences and other property they claim to have seized. The DA's office promised to mail copies of all the indictments later this week, but it will probably take another trip or an open records request to get the other stuff.

Fourth, the prosecutors we talked to were careful to not say all these people were "selling" crack. Instead they'd say they engaged in drug "distribution." Without having seen the documents, that tells me they're splitting hairs to include people as "dealers" who may not have profited from the transaction.

Fifth, as was the case in Tulia, the task force targeted multiple members of particular families. Alan Bean of
Tulia Friends of Justice tells me that some of these family names, but not the same individuals, were included in another large Dogwood Trails task force bust in 2001.

Finally, in an ugly media moment, large chunks of the
Palestine Herald-Press article quoted in my Sunday post turn out to have been reprinted nearly verbatim from the Dogwood Trails Task Force own press release. Uugh. And we wonder why the public lays down and lets this stuff happen! (I'll post a side-by-side of the two pieces later this week when I get a chance.)

Meanwhile, the
Tyler paper covered the arraignment of a handful of the defendants in federal court yesterday. I'm going to be in Tyler soon to visit my father, so I'll get a look at that federal material in depth then, but they did reveal a few new items worth mentioning.
  • Although one of the five federal defendants was caught with large amounts of coke and crack, at least one other was only charged with distributing less than a gram. That's a rare federal charge. That person was released on bond because of health problems.
  • The US Attorney is tacking on a "conspiracy" charge to the drug charges.
  • The case started when the task force busted someone with a large amount of crack on Highway 45, which runs up near Palestine from Houston. Instead of arresting that person, they sent him on his way with the crack as a confidential informant, and apparently chose to let crack continue to be distributed into Anderson county through "various sources" since November 2002!
  • ALL those indicted are from Anderson County, so what they didn't do was track the drugs upstream to the source of the drugs. They only cared about little, local fish.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Off to Pal-uh-steen

Driving up to Palestine, TX (pronounced "Pal-uh-steen") later today to follow up on the 72-person drug task force bust in Anderson County I reported on earlier. I'll spend tomorrow nosing around and know more of the backstory on that bizarre case later this week.

In a nice plug for Grits, the blog D'Alliance pointed out that both candidates for Anderson County sheriff -- D and R -- support expanding jail space and continued prosecution of low-level offenders. Business as usual, in other words. Since I first published this YESTERDAY, two bloggers, D'Alliance and Drug War Rant, both followed up adding new information to the mix. That's really cool. Thanks guys.

Houston Chronicle: No more Chuck Rosenthal

The Houston Chronicle just endorsed Reginald McKamie over the incumbent Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal! Hurrah! For the uninitiated, Rosenthal makes the drug czar look like a liberal, and is perhaps the most reactionary figure in Texas politics, which is saying something.

Here's McKamie's minimalist web site; help him any way you can. Come on, Reggie!

Above the law

Unreal! An Indiana drug task force commander pled guilty to SIX felonies -- five counts of forgery, one count of theft -- but on Friday received only community service as punishment. He was forging confidential informant payment vouchers then pocketing the money, but apparently that's not enough to get you jail time in Kokomo, Indiana.

Must be nice, huh?

AP reports the task force commander is the sixth officer from that department to resign over criminal allegations in the last four years.

LULAC: Tough on crime doesn't work

This column from the Fort Worth Star Telegram deserves the widest possible play. My friends Ana Correa and Ann del Llano authored the report on which the column is based, and I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in the drug war or criminal justice reform.

The Texas Legislature reconvenes for the 79th time in January 2005, and the issues laid out in this column constitute the crux of criminal justice reforms demanded by Texas community groups, including a lot of the folks in my links section. Last session we had some success convincing the the Republican Legislature of these arguments, but hopefully LULAC's report and their series of local town hall meetings statewide will push this meme over the top, transforming views like this columnist's from iconoclasm to conventional wisdom.

Oct. 17, 2004

How about 'just the facts'?

By Richard Gonzales
Special to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Texas tall tales abound when it comes to fighting crime. Notions on how to reduce criminality have held political sway in the Lone Star State too long over scientific studies of "what works."

Politicians, who should know better, have pandered to fears that crime runs amok in the streets. The results are counterproductive "get-tough" policies that exacerbate crime, break up families and cost taxpayers billions.

In a criminal justice policy brief that the Texas LULAC state executive office released in August, researchers show that since the 1990s, Texas has tripled the number of prisons and has a 51 percent higher incarceration rate than any other state.

The Legislature gives the Texas Department of Criminal Justice about $5 billion each biennium. TDCJ spends 90 percent of the money on prison beds and 10 percent on treatment and probation programs.

Part of the reason for the hefty spending is that Texas felony sentences are double the national average. Yet 70 percent of the prison admissions each year are for nonviolent crimes. About half of the prisoners are serving time for drug convictions of possession of less than one gram.

The interest of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Texas crime and punishment stems partly from the over-representation of Latinos and blacks in prison. The Justice Policy Institute found that even though 40 percent of Texans in 2003 were black and Latino, 70 percent of the prison population was minority. LULAC projects that at the current Latino imprisonment rate, one out of six Latino men born in 2001 will serve prison time.

LULAC cites studies claiming that racial profiling by police departments and drug task forces results in more searches of Latinos than whites. To accommodate the millennium prisoners, LULAC predicts, there will be a need for 2,000 new prison beds each year.

Texas also has the distinction of having the largest on-probation population in the United States, mainly because of its long probation terms for nonviolent offenders.

The study found that probation officers have too large a caseload for them to respond adequately to probationers' needs. Although probationers can successfully meet the terms of probation for years, one slip-up may land them back in prison.

The average prison term on a revoked probation is 4.3 years. In 2001, this cost the state $470 million. Despite the money, probation terms and hard time, Texas crime didn't decrease more than any other state's. Instead, the crime rate is 24 percent higher than the national average, according to 2003 TDCJ data. Imprisonment of the heads of households also takes its toll on the family and community.

The LULAC study claims that the children of imprisoned parents tend to make lower grades, drop out, become delinquent and increase their chances of following their parents into prison. Removing the significant male adult from a child's life leaves a void difficult for the mom and grandparents to fill. The absence of fathers in a community devalues the importance of males and places increased child-rearing burdens on women.

The report also found that imprisoned parents owed $2.5 billion in unpaid child support. A cycle of intergenerational poverty and crime is set in motion, abetted by tough policies that punish criminals and families.

LULAC says that "tough on crime punishments simply do not work on most offenders." In a state looking for quick and easy solutions to crime, "lock-'em-up" blocks our chances to teach nonviolent felons internal restraints and different thinking patterns.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that punishment increased criminal behavior; psychological treatment and cognitive skills programs decreased criminal activity the most.

The study found that "what works" are job training, drug treatment, and peer and family support. That kind of treatment is meant not to mollycoddle criminals but to provide a way out of self-defeating thoughts and actions.

LULAC is traveling across the state to raise awareness in communities that evidence-based alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders save money, time, families and communities. It recommends that the Legislature reduce nonviolent, small-quantity drug use from felony to misdemeanor status.

Texas legislators should stop the bravado crime-fighter shtick that does little to reduce crime and instead rely on "what works" studies.

Texas needs fewer Robocops and more Joe Fridays. "Just the facts" will do fine.

Richard J. Gonzales is an Arlington resident and free-lance writer.