Monday, February 28, 2005
My wife, Kathy Mitchell, runs Consumers Union's national e-action system, and this is her latest pet project. I'm really proud of her, and the song and animation are first class. I thought Grits readers would love it, and hope you'll help spread it around. Consumers Union commissioned the Austin Lounge Lizards to write and perform the song (they're perhaps Texas' top satire band), and the terrific animation was done by Austin's Animation Farm.
After viewing, it takes viewers to an action alert where they can tell Congress -- big hearings are scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday -- to make drug companies release all the results of their testing (they don't have to now) and improve oversight of drugs already on the market.
Check out the song, and thanks, folks, for any help you can give spreading word about this fun project.
UPDATE: This thing has gotten wide play already. BoingBoing picked it up today! (3-1) They called it "awesome" and "raunchy." Fun!
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Who gets searched at Texas traffic stops? It's not just minorities.
The details of the new Texas racial profiling study provide fascinating insight into what's going on at Texas traffic stops across the state. Readers should take an especially close look at the regional snapshots provided in the above link. I'll look at a few different aspects of the report over the next week, but for now let's examine how likely you are to be searched in different parts of the state.
Search rates vary a lot by race, but even more by department. For example, the Austin PD searches black folks 3.4 times more often than whites, while Houston PD searches blacks 3.2 times more often. Sounds pretty similar, right? Drill down a little deeper, though, and we find that Austin has a much worse problem. Black folks are searched at a whopping 22.5% of traffic stops in Austin, compared to just 12.0% of black drivers searched at stops in Houston. That's a huge difference.
The fact of the matter is, Austin PD is more likely to search EVERYBODY compared to Houston PD, not just minorities. White folks, too, are almost twice as likely to be searched at a traffic stop in Austin as in Houston -- they're searched at 3.7% of stops in Houston, and at 6.6% of stops in the capital.
Really, so-called racial profiling data isn't just about identifying race-based problems. Texas' law provides communities with new statistical tools that were not avaialble before to analyze a range of police activities at traffic stops. Before now, folks in Fort Worth couldn't know that their department's search policies were out of whack with the rest of the state, but clearly citizens of that city are paying for a lot of wasted time searching compared to other major departments. And it's not just minorities whose rights are being abridged.
By contrast, check out El Paso's overall search numbers. Sure, black folks are 2.9 times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop than whites.
That's one of the reasons why I've always thought that, although certainly the problem is worse for minorities, the issue of searches at trafffic stops isn't really, at root, a race problem. The problem of oversearching as a police tactic affects everybody.
Here are the search rates for Texas' big city PDs:
as a percentage of total traffic stops, by race, 2003
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Defense attorney George Andrews told the judge that his client did not act alone, and [David Lynn] Scogin implied that another individual helped him dismiss cases in state court. But neither Andrews nor Scogin elaborated on any potential accomplices.US Attorney Alice Martin, I suppose, didn't consider it important that Scogin name accomplices as part of the deal? No reason we'd want THAT information, after all. Better, I'm sure, just to sweep it all under the rug, huh guys?
Meanwhile, D'Alliance reported Friday on Byrne task force officers from Tennessee who tortured and beat a man for two hours last summer in an incident covertly audiotaped by the victim's wife. Pete earlier published some of the grim transcript. Who can justify this?
In Texas, legislation has been introduced to abolish the state's drug task force system.
Saturday, February 26, 2005
Meanwhile, Texas' only legislator-blogger, Rep. Aaron Pena (hey, if anybody out there knows how to get a damned tilde on Blogger, even html code or something, please let me know; apologies, Rep.), posted an item Thursday, 2-24, invoking MLK to describe what he deems (perhaps prematurely) to be historic reforms in Texas' criminal justice system. Regrettably, you can't permalink to the posts on Rep. Pena's blog, but here's the meat of his comments.
Martin Luther King once said, "Darkness can not drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."Well said. Pena and his colleagues deserve to feel good about this decision. To make it work, though, they'll have to fund drug courts and drug treatment at significant levels not just this session, but many sessions to come. (Just two years ago they slashed those programs.) And once and for all they have to stop boosting criminal penalties while pretending there's no significant cost.
Today neither hate nor darkness ruled the day. My great State of Texas, with the help of a number of strong leaders took a historic turn. We in the state have been building prison after prison, locking away scores of opportunities lost to help our fellow man. For years we failed to see that a significant portion of our jail population was made up of drug addicts and pople with mental illness. The problem with locking them up is the high cost of jails, but more importantly, without treating the addiction, most of these people remain addicts and eventually return to an overcrowded prison system.
Voted out of the Appropriations Committee today was a revolutionary idea that may help break the cycle. Coming out of the Criminal Justice sub-committee was the recommendation that state money be diveted to treatment of offenders with drug addictions. The state at this time will not build the five new jails [ed. note: prison units] expected if the state continued to ignore the root of the problem. Rather, we will divert physically and mentally incapacitated prisoners to less restrictive environments where perhaps federal dollars can be leveraged for their care.
Hopefully we can start driving down the numbers. ... It felt good to tell a number of community leaders working with children and addictions about the sweeping changes that had just taken place.
If legislators decide, in their wisdom, that a certain crime is such a problem that it deserves keeping more people in prison longer, they should be required simultaneously to exercise that wisdom to identify which prisoners will be released in order to incarcerate additional people. House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Terry Keel said the other night that he thought some version of legislation increasing penalties for car burglaries to a felony would pass. That would require building at least one of the five prison units Rep. Pena is talking about. That's why, while the bills are still in committee, the bill sponsors should be required to identify in the same bill which sentences they suggest reducing, in tandem, so as not to worsen the overincarceration crisis.
That requirement alone -- or honest fiscal notes, given how many members of the Lege also ran on "no new taxes" -- would resolve most of this tough-on-crime nonsense.
Friday, February 25, 2005
The bill forbids funding for multijurisdictional drug task forces in their current form, but would allow local governments to finance collaborative drug units that are 100% under the command and control of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Even then, local officers couldn't routinely work outside their own jurisdiction unless they were partnered with another officer.
Last session, Rep. Terry Keel filed a similar bill, HB 801, which garnered significant bipartisan support. The bill itself was never heard in committee, but Chairman Keel amended its substance onto three separate pieces of legislation on the House floor, including the state budget. The provision was narrowly peeled off in conference committee.
Grits has argued previously in support of HB 259 that proliferating government surveillance cameras in public spaces diminish personal privacy, plus increase injury accidents instead of reduce them. ACLU of Texas worked the vote in committee (I testified on their behalf) and our legislative committee volunteers handed out flyers to House members yesterday as they passed through "the well" onto the House floor. That last effort was probably overkill. In the end, the bill passed 109-30, bettering the 103-34 margin by which the House opposed cameras in 2003.
(Congrats to Rep. Elkins and his staff, by the way -- they're really working hard to fix this loophole in Texas law.)
With all the talk about increasing the number of record votes, it's worth noting that most controversial items get record votes already. E.g., here is the list of Texas legislators who supported giving red light tickets with cameras (i.e., who opposed Elkins' bill):
Allen, Alma(D); Allen, Ray(R); Berman, (R); Burnam(D); Castro(D); Dawson(R); Driver(R); Farabee(D); Goolsby(R); Griggs(R); Harper-Brown(R); Hill(R); Hochberg(D); Jackson, Jim(R); Jones, Delwin(R); Keffer, Bill(R); King, Phil(R); Laubenberg(R); Luna(D); Madden(R); McCall(R); Menendez(D); Morrison(R); Mowery(R); Paxton(R); Smith, Todd(R); Vo(D); West, Buddy(R); Wong(R); Woolley(R) [See House member pages here.]
A final aside -- I reported after the committee vote that Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, flip flopped on the issue from 2003. He voted against red light cameras in the 78th Legislature, but surprisingly, FOR cameras in committee last week. Well, he flipped back yesterday, voting for HB 259 with the majority. It's not that I'm ungrateful, just ... curious.
Imagine a Texas where the affluent are so fearful that they retreat from the public commons to gated communities protected by exclusive police forces, who, weapons at the ready, are only accountable to the neighborhood association. It appears Rep. Tony Goolsby already has. His HB 246 will allow neighborhoods and apartment complexes to privately hire their own special police force, to be awarded all the same powers as the gun-slinging, handcuff-toting city and state police.The bill is typical of the proliferation of special police forces in Texas over the last couple of decades, which Grits has discussed previously. The Observer laid out that context:
The burgeoning industry of special police in Texas includes a force for the Board of Medical Examiners and one to enforce water code. Last session, the Lege authorized a special peace force for the State Board of Dental Examiners. (You can just imagine the television series potential with that one.) The dental cops conduct investigations and then, as certified peace officers, write search warrants and make arrests, for example, of a renegade dentist operating without a license in a garage. These certified peace officers are also required to use their powers to prevent offenses from being committed at any time, in any place, whether by a dentist or some other menace to society, like say, an optometrist. Fortunately, they can be armed 24 hours a day. Special police officers not busy rounding up crooked dentists or any of the other “special” targets often seek outside employment. As certified peace officers they enjoy full-blown police power—all the time. One popular side gig is as a bouncer at a club.And yes, that's Grits' author quoted in the story. (Aren't blogs supposed to be self-referential?) The article said that T.J. D’Aquino, CEO of Crime Strike, a private security company operating in Goolsby’s district, brought him the legislation. I guess Crime Strike neglected to tell the Representative about the Senate committee report calling for the OPPOSITE of his bill.
The numerous special police forces scattered around the state have less accountability than state and city police departments. No single state agency oversees the special police forces nor does there exist a standard set of guidelines for them. And while Goolsby’s bill does establish limited oversight and some standards of training for his new force, public interest groups like the ACLU are not pleased. “It’s not the same as a department with a chain of command and policies,” said Scott Henson of the Texas ACLU. “Some of these smaller agencies are very underdeveloped in infrastructure and supervisory techniques.” He said the officers receive less rigorous training than state and city police departments. Henson also warned that some neighborhoods may be surprised by the potential cost of having their own police force, especially if the neighborhood association finds itself on the defendant side of a lawsuit.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, in its interim report last December, recommended that the Legislature “cease and resist” creating special police forces and consider creating one category to include all specialized police forces in order to clarify their functions.
Fritz Reinig, chief of staff for Rep. Goolsby’s office, said he was unaware of the report.
Rep. Goolsby is conservative, but not an especially unreasonable fellow; he just doesn't work on these issues in the Higher Ed or Licensing and Administrative Procedures committees. In 2003, he joint-authored a bill to get rid of the worst of the specialized police forces -- Texas' Byrne-grant-funded drug task forces. Plus the Senate Committee report (pdf) makes a strong case that special police forces are not only unaccountable, but their proliferation has"discombobulated the meaning of the title peace officer." I wonder if he would have filed this piece of junk if the folks who brought it to him had told him about it?
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Not surprisingly, they voted 109-30 in favor of Elkins' bill. The Houston Chronicle quoted Lt. Governor David Dewhurst opining that the Senate was likely to "look favorably" on the ban.
This is a fun report because, since data for hundreds of agencies around the state is available, a lot of regional media outlets do local stories. That was true last year, and I'm sure it will be the case this time, too.
Go here to access the report and regional profiles.
2-25 UPDATE: See additional coverage from the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Austin Statesman, San Antonio Express-News (+ 2 sidebars), El Paso Times, and a few local TV news stories. The UK Guardian picked up the AP story.
Most people don't realize they can refuse consent to search at a traffic stop, and that lack of public education allows law enforcement to misuse so-called "consent searches." A new study to be released today finds that consent searches -- where officers have no probable cause to search, but request permission to do so at their own discretion -- account for a significant portion of racial disparities in who is searched at Texas traffic stops.
In other words, officers are choosing to search minorities at higher rates when there is no policy or law enforcement reason to do so.
I'll be at a press conference at the Texas capitol later this morning for the official release of the second-ever statewide analysis of racial profiling data gathered by Texas law enforcement agencies. Entitled, "Don't Mind If I Take A Look, Do Ya?," the study focuses especially on searches, consent searches and when contraband is found at traffic stops. (I'm listed as a "Primary Editor" in the acknowledgements, and have been working on the issues surrounding racial profiling data analysis for nearly four years on behalf of ACLU.)
Last year's report looked at data from over 400 agencies. This year, we examined reports from 1060 total agencies, covering many millions of traffic stops, and making this the largest racial profiling dataset ever accumulated or analyzed. Go here to download the report and look at snapshots of local data. The PDF file contains tables with detail for the different departments.
In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed SB 1074 that required agencies to gather this data and report it annually to their local governing body each March. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, ACLU, NAACP and LULAC teamed up to request those reports under the Texas open records act, then Dr. Dwight Steward, a former UT economist, crunched the numbers to produce the report. I should mention that the project could never have been completed without the indefatiguable efforts of Molly Totman at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
The report also proposes legislative reforms that would make the data more useful to police supervisors and the public to identify and reduce racial profiling. I'll be blogging about different aspects of the study over the next few days, but wanted to put up the link this morning, at least, to the main report, since I'll be out most of the day.
Most of all, thanks so much to Grits readers who voted for me in either the semifinals or the finals, and to Charles Kuffner who first nominated me. In fact, Grits was so new then, I doubt I'd have been aware of Wampum's contest at all if Charles hadn't mentioned it on his blog and put Grits up for the award.
Check out all the other winners, too. There's a lot of great stuff there. Thanks again, folks!
Best Blog – Non-Sponsored Division: Daily Kos.
Best Blog – Pro Division: Talking Points Memo by Josh Marshall.
Best Writing: Hullabaloo by Digby.
Best Post: If America Were Iraq, What Would it be Like by Professor Juan Cole of Informed Comment.
Best Group Blog: Jerome Armstrong, Chris Bowers, and the many diarists at MyDD.
Most Humorous Blog: J.C. Christian’s Jesus’ General.
Most Humorous Post: the Poorman’s Poker with Dick Cheney.
Best Expert Blog: Informed Comment won the vote to become a two-time Koufax Award winner for Best Expert Blog.
Best New Blog: Amanda Marcotte of Mouse Words.
Most Deserving of Wider Recognition: Suburban Guerrilla.
Best Commenter: Meteor Blades is known for his guest blogging at Kos and for his writing at Liberal Street Fight.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
Up tomorrow in the House: HB 259 by Elkins, which would ban the use of cameras to give tickets to red light runners. See here, here, here, here and here for earlier Grits coverage.
So two of the first bills up in the Texas House are essentially pro-privacy, pro-bill-of-rights, anti-government surveillance bills. That's an interesting twist.
One's friends and opponents at the Legislature are astonishingly fluid; the last two-day-stretch for me was a great example of that. On Monday, ACLU opposed Chairman Keel's bill giving Austin PD jurisdiction on the University of Texas campus. Literally the next day I was back up there supporting this one. That's the way the legislative process goes sometimes. Most times.
Naturally, as luck would have it, mine was the very last bill called, and I was the last and only speaker on the subject. Ann was hovering in the back, but even diehards Charles and Patricia Kiker, down from Tulia, Texas to represent Tulia Friends of Justice, had already left for the evening when my name was finally called.
I didn't have a handout, but I thought I'd briefly recount the arguments made in committee on the bill's behalf from my notes.
Search and arrest warrant affidavits are lynchpin documents. They contain key information found nowhere else in the public record. Their secrecy creates many legitimate public policy concerns that are worthy of the gravity of the fines proposed HB 47. I've heard examples of counties concealing search and arrest warrant affidavits from people around the state in addition to my own experiences; this is not an isolated problem.
I had my own recent experience being denied access to these critical records. In Palestine, last fall a drug task force arrested 72 people based on the testimony of a single confidential informant, claiming they were all participating in a "crack distribution ring." The existence of 72 crack dealers in this small, rural town seemed highly unlikely, so Texas Observer reporter Dave Mann and I drove up to check out the situation. We were denied access to any of the basic documents about the cases, including these search and arrest warrant affidavits and even the indictments. The district clerk told us she couldn't release the information without permission from the District Attorney, and they said the documents were "sealed" pending the arrest of the last of the defendants. We asked to see the files for those who were already arrested, but were told we couldn't have them.
Dave Mann went back up to Palestine a couple of weeks later, and the results of his investigation were chronicled in his November article in the Observer, "The Usual Suspects." All but a handful of the 72 accused crack dealers had been captured by then, but still, he wrote, officials "wouldn't release copies of the search warrants executed in seizing the evidence." Clearly, that's exactly the situation Keel's bill is designed to affect.
I told the committee I didn't understand the fine structure in the bill. For example, in Palestine, if I asked for all 72 arrest warrant affidavits and four search warrant affidavits, was that one request that might garner a $1,000 fine, or 76 requests that would result in a $76,000 fine? Chairman Keel said that language was intentionally vague, and its interpretation would be left to the discretion of the Attorney General.
Finally, I suggested that the reason DAs want to conceal information in cases like Palestine might be that they're trying to cover up shoddy work by law enforcement or flimsy evidence that may not withstand scrutiny. In that case, a $1,000 fine may not be steep enough; the bill might establish a "price," I cautioned, rather than an "incentive." Chairman Keel replied that he didn't think too many prosecutors would flaunt the law in the face of possible fines, but promised that if this legislation did not fix the problem, in two years he'd come back to enact criminal penalties for non-compliance.
With that, I told the Chairman he had a fine bill, thanked the committee, and sat back down. Soon thereafter the members still remaining voted the bill out of committee unanimously, 6-0. I'm sure my testimony was essential to that outcome, don't you think? ;-)
That's typical -- as long as I've been involved in the issue, I've never seen honest fiscal notes on these penalty-increase bills that accurately anticipate incarceration costs.
The Legislative Budget Board, which compiles these fiscal notes, is living in an utter fantasy world, divorced from all economic reality. Texas prisons are completely full right now. To incarcerate another 500+ prisoners would require building an entire new prison unit (costs for which I've seen estimated at $200-$350 million). Why aren't THOSE costs included in the fiscal note? Because fiscal notes are political, not financial reports -- the legislators lobby and cajole the board to get the notes as low as possible. Then, when these lowballed estimates get into the state budget, they cause the state to consistently underestimate its real resource needs.
The politicization of the fiscal note process is a real disservice to the state. It's certainly had a corrosive effect on criminal justice policy, leading Texas down a garden path toward the current crisis.
One can learn many things about Texas' criminal justice system from critically observing that hearing, not the least of which is that the urge to increase penalties in response to crime is a bi-partisan pastime. Republicans and Democrats filed similar bills increasing penalties on the first or second offense. From the testimony, the real problem is a small number of career thieves who may be caught several times. Democrat Aaron Pena filed a somewhat more reasonable bill targeting them that would increase the penalty only on a third offense.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the hearing was as a case study of how unintended consequences can arise from well-intentioned acts. That's because the tough-on-crime crowd takes a purely atomic view. There were basically two classes of pro-penalty-increase messages delivered to the committee. From the public, business owners, theft victims, etc., legislators heard, "I'm angry, do something." And from law enforcement folks they heard over and over, "We need more tools." Neither of those groups, however, were able to explain how or if increasing the punishment for this crime -- which can be as minor as stealing a CD through an open car window, not always "smash and grab" episodes -- would prevent what is essentially a crime of youth and opportunity.
Testimony revealed that three theft convictions can already be enhanced (i.e., prosecutors may increase the charges) to a felony for career car burglars, but the law is seldom applied. The current penalty for Class A misdemeanors allows for up to a year in county jail, but witnesses said local courts aren't sentencing convicted vehicle burglars to those max sentences right now. Rep. Terri Hodge kept wondering, and nobody had a good answer, why law enforcement thought making the crime a felony would solve anything, when they weren't fully utilizing the "tools" currently authorized?
Over the course of the hearing, though, the reason became clear. Bottom line: county jails are full, just like state prisons. Counties can't afford to incarcerate low-level burglars. But neither can the state of Texas. So the locals basically want to pass the buck. Counties aren't willing to raise local taxes to build more jail space, so they want prisoners sent to state jails so they won't have to pay for them. That's the same problem with taking an atomic view, though -- it's all the same taxpayers..
Nor did any speakers who favor penalty increases tell the committee which prisoners should be taken out of the system -- i.e., the types of crimes for which they should LOWER penalties -- in order to incarcerate more vehicle burglars in state jails. Certainly nobody proposed letting out any current prisoners to make room. Indeed, the state's overincarceration crisis was mentioned mainly by proponents in the context of asking that it be ignored. This wasn't a hearing about big picture policy issues.
We live in a narcissistic society, and one of the truisms blogging teaches us is that everybody thinks their story important (in this case, dozens of folks thought so, repetitively, for several hours). These anecdotes don't tell the whole story, though. For every professional burglar who targets apartment complexes, there are probably three young stupid kids who made mistakes, and labeling all of them "felon" without distinction just doesn't make sense. Texas already has labeled 1,941 separate acts as "felonies" -- this would make 1,942 -- and a whopping one in 11 Texans today already has a felony conviction that limits their employment, housing and even volunteer opportunities. Do we really want to expand that population by the number of kids who steal a CD out of a car?
Monday, February 21, 2005
That's one of the questions Jim Spangler will be asking this afternoon when he testifies on behalf of the Students for ACLU of UT Austin at the House Higher Education Committee, in opposition to HB 479 by Terry Keel, R-Austin. That bill would give the Austin PD "concurrent jurisdiction" with the UT Police Department over the UT Austin campus. Based on student concerns and some additional problems identified by the Police Accountability Project, we outlined several problems with the bill in a fact sheet Jim is distributing to members. Thought I'd post it in case anybody is interested, with a couple of hyperlinks added.
UPDATE: Here's the Daily Texan coverage of the hearing.
Apparently Rep. Keel's purpose for filing this bill stems from some incident where UT officers weren't allowed to carry their handguns into a UT football game. If that's the case, I sure wish he'd write a bill about cops carrying handguns into football games, which I suppose, at bottom, I don't particularly care about, instead of creating all the problems (see below) associated with "concurrent" jurisdiction.
Oppose HB 479: APD Jurisdiction on UT Campus
Issues and Concerns
Current law gives UTPD policing authority over the UT-Austin campus. HB 479 would give the Austin PD “concurrent” or simultaneous jurisdiction.
- Law is unnecessary: Chapter 14.03(d) and (g) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure allow officers to enforce essentially all laws but traffic enforcement outside their jurisdiction, so APD officers have full authority to supply needed police power in an emergency. In a non-emergency, UTPD is equipped to handle the situation.
- Could create functional problems: Concurrent jurisdictions create confusion among law enforcement and emergency services personnel as to who is in charge. Right now, the lines of authority are clear and no one is confused, even if APD doesn’t like it. HB 479 risks confusion and muddying the chain of command during a time of crisis. Accommodating bruised egos inside APD is not reason enough to risk creating confusion at some critical moment.
- Fear APD will subject students to increased Taser attacks. APD officers are overusing Taser weapons. Tasers are often deadly weapons, but APD use of force policies do not treat them as such. More than 80 people have died nationally from police use of Tasers. We don’t want a UT student to be the next one. If APD officers are allowed to operate on campus, HB 479 should require those officers to comply with UTPD’s use of force policy.
allows its officers to escalate to violence, especially using Tasers, too quickly and with little accountability. Austin
- Disallow undercover monitoring of activists: APD officers have infiltrated peaceful activist groups without probable cause to think anyone was planning any crime. UTPD has done it, too, but APD has said it uses its undercover narcotics unit to target anti-war activists for undercover surveillance on an ongoing basis, whenever events are being planned. This bill could encourage APD to undertake more aggressive, if inappropriate, surveillance of student activists. Would the sponsor be willing to change the bill to disallow APD undercover surveillance of student meetings and activist groups when there is no probable cause to believe a crime is being committed or planned?
- Students have more rights with UTPD: At UTPD, students who complain can better hold UTPD accountable because they can access more information about their case and the university’s ombudsman provides more extensive services and support to students who complain about UTPD than
’s Police Monitor does for Austin PD. Information about a citizen complaint against an Austin PD officer are entirely closed records unless an officer is actually suspended from the force. Complainants can only find out the eventual outcome of their complaint, but not information about the investigation. Plus, APD officers who engage in misconduct receive special protections compared to UT officers, who are more accountable for their behavior because they are not covered under the state civil service law. Austin
Also, Ann has posted excerpts from testimony from last week's House Corrections Committee meeting by UTMB's prison health services, a union leader from the prison guards (who are represented by AFSCME), and the Texas Catholic Correctional Ministers, all of whom support diverting low-level offenders from prison to probation. She also points to this article from the Austin Business Journal last month about the lack of treatment center funding that could hamper Texas' shift of more offenders to probation if not addressed.
Saturday, February 19, 2005
A recent study of all cities using red light cameras in Virginia found that injury accidents increased overall at intersections with cameras.
Republican delegates who control the [House Militia, Police and Public Safety] committee, many of whom come from rural parts of Virginia that have not used the cameras, said they had a duty to uphold basic rights for all Virginians.
"We have a responsibility to balance public safety against liberty," said Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland). "Our job is to figure out where the lines cross for reasonableness between the compelling need and the absolute requirement to defend individual liberty." ...
"My concern with photo red has always been that we're starting to get into the area with our technology when we start to abridge fundamental rights . . . the right to be left alone," said Del. C. L. "Clay" Athey Jr. (R-Warren).
The vote echoes similar sentiments expressed last week in Texas. The Texas House Urban Affairs Committee passed HB 259 (Elkins) out of committee on Tuesday, which would ban giving tickets based on red light cameras statewide.
Others pointed to studies that show that rear-end crashes increase at monitored intersections. They also said there were better ways of cutting down on red-light runners, such as extending the time of yellow lights.
"These cameras cause more accidents than they prevent . . . their own reports show that," said Jim Kadison, a member of the National Motorist Association, which has long fought the use of the technology.
Thanks to Nick for the tip.
That's what I don't get about the drug war -- how in the world can this level of hypocrisy not be obvious to those engaged in it? Here's a teacher who has devoted her life to the children of Wichita Falls. She apparently has developed a drug abuse problem. Are her troubles met with sympathy or compassion? Was she immediately offered drug treatment or counseling? Does anyone appreciate her years of service despite her poor personal decisions that weren't "associated with the school"? Of course not. They're hanging her out to dry. Here's how the school district's PR officer tried to spin the situation:
[Wichita Falls ISD Public Information Officer Renae] Murphy stressed the search warrant involved a home and not a school district facility.
"It wasn't at school or associated with school," she said.
She said any time an employee is arrested, that employee is placed on administrative leave while the investigation is conducted.
"These kinds of charges and actions are taken very seriously," Murphy said, "and termination is an option," depending on the outcome. She said a teacher who's convicted of a crime stands to lose his or her certification.
Murphy said she's never seen a case involving a charge like this in her six years as public information officer for the district.
She said the schools - and the community - expect teachers and all employees to be role models for the children.
"When one person fails to be that role model, that casts a shadow on everyone else," she said. "That's unfortunate because we have employees throughout our district who are exemplary leaders."
Students at Sam Houston for the most part didn't have a lot of questions about the incident Friday, Murphy said.
"The teachers have spoken very professionally about the incident," using information they'd been provided, Murphy said. She said the school wanted to reassure students and parents.
"School goes on and nothing has changed for them and their school life there at Sam Houston."
One wonders: Whither loyalty?
After 27 years, the Wichita Falls ISD is ready to throw this woman out like yesterday's garbage. Where's the statement about how her recent struggle with drug abuse doesn't diminish nearly three decades of service to the town's children, at crap wages and uncertain retirement benefits, or that many people at the school love her and support her and wish her the best? Not one kind word was cast in her direction.
In these comments, and indeed apparently in the school district's administration and local media coverage, we find no mercy, no compassion. "Nothing has changed" is sure right -- Wichita Falls is in a the throes of a drug abuse problem that its media and public officials are pretending is a result of personal moral failings. It's not; addiction is a medical problem that afflicts a certain portion of the population pretty much regardless.
Certainly if any other teachers do have a drug problem, they sure as hell know now they'd better not reach out to ask for help. Their employer has made it very clear that they're more concerned about "reassuring" the parents than supporting a teacher wading through through troubled personal waters. (And can there really only be one non-exemplary teacher in Wichita Falls? Isn't that like the kids in Minnesota who are all above average?)
There's a lot of harsh, ugly, punitive drug warrior talk coming out of Wichita Falls these days, all with an annoyingly judgmental tone. Wichita Falls state Sen. Craig Estes thinks he can incarcerate his way out of the drug abuse problem. He's wrong.
This isn't the first Texas teacher caught with drugs off campus recently; a Tarrant County teacher was found with marijuana growing in his garage after an illegal search (apparently he couldn't afford to buy it on a teacher's salary). Drug abuse has now famously reached all the way into the prosecutor's offices of one of the most outspoken tough-on-crime-DA's in the state.
Drug abuse isn't just happening to those "other people" anymore. It's happening to our teachers, our prosecutors, our cops, our politicians, people in every walk of life. Treating it as a criminal instead of a medical problem makes things worse and doesn't solve any of the associated problems. The teacher in question is 51 and was functioning on the job; a leave of absence to attend a drug abuse program, plus a lot of support from her peers and community, and it's easily conceivable that in a year's time she could be back teaching, drug free, and able to contribute for quite a while longer during a time when Texas has a shortage of experienced teachers. Instead, she'll be criminally charged with possession of 1-4 grams of meth, which is a third degree felony that will get her 2-10 years.
What a waste. And the waste isn't a result of her poor decisions, it's a result of bad public policy.
Have we become so heartless, so absorbed with "gotcha" strategies and the phony high-ground of moralizing about zero tolerance that, even when we're talking about a school teacher with 27 years in the same distict, no public sympathy may be mustered at all on this woman's behalf? Recently, juries in that county have been routinely doling out max sentences for low-level drug users, and I wouldn't be surprised if the locals decide to make her an example.
I wonder, if Jesus Christ himself walked into the Wichita Falls school district offices and announced, "Let those among you who are without sin cast the first stone," if every SOB in the room wouldn't pick up a rock and fling it with all their might? Or for that matter, the offices of the Times Record News?
Friday, February 18, 2005
The Statesman ran a piece on HB 47 filed by House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Terry Keel, R-Austin, to fine counties that don't make arrest and search warrant affidavits public. Grits covered the bill here.
A sex crimes case involving a police supervisor who oversaw the sex crimes unit has been forwarded to a Bexar County grand jury in San Antonio, reports the Express News, which also reports that the Senate Criminal Justice Committee doesn't see much cost savings from deporting foreigners in Texas prisons.
El Paso generates $22+ million in traffic revenue, reports the Times, and the city has put all its traffic ticket information online, searchable, including who has outstanding warrants, etc. You need a date of birth to search by name.
The article is not online yet. (UPDATE: Up now, here.) It just came in yesterday's mail.
Tony Fabelo has been considered the premier expert on Texas' prison system as long as I've been engaged in the subject. He'd studied the topic literally since his doctoral thesis, then joined the Criminal Justice Policy Council immediately out of college. He worked closely and well with then-Governor George Bush, but Gov. Rick Perry unceremoniously fired him with a line item veto after he'd (correctly) predicted Texas' current prison overincarceration crisis. (See a good Austin Chronicle piece on the subject here.) In retrospect, Perry probably did Fabelo a financial mitzvah: he's now a consultant to many different states and to Puerto Rico, he told me once.
Fabelo may not be studying Texas professionally anymore, but he still has a learned opinion, and he thinks Texas won't be any safer by incarcerating more people, especially non-violent drug offenders. New York, he noted, has reduced crime more significantly than Texas while their incarceration rates aren't nearly as steep. "If we build more prisons and build 8,000 more prison beds, and that would cost a lot of money nowadays, probably over $1 billion, are you going to get dramatic increases in crime? The answer is no. [We] won't."
Fabelo said Texas' overincarceration solution is obvious (BTW, the fix he describes is embodied in HB 575 by Haggerty, R-El Paso), but "It hasn't been applied because you will need funding to replace all those [probation] fees that you're not going to have when you cut probation terms." That's why the state must pony up more money to make it work, he said.
But the solution is very clear: First you need to cut probation terms. We're talking non-violent offenders. We're not talking about sex offenders. Most of the probationers are non-violent offenders. So you cut the terms, have very strong supervision for the first year. Strong supervision means not only the guy knocking on your door, but making sure you go to the counseling that you need and all that jazz. If you survive that first year, we're going to put you in another year with lower supervision and see if you survive the second year, and if you do, you're off the hook. You've done good. Studies have shown -- I'm doing some work in Virginia -- 79 percent of the violations that lead to revocation occur in the first eight months. So most of the stuff happens in the first year, and you can do another year just ot make sure that now they can follow the rules. If you do that, you'll cut probation substantially.High caseloads and overly long probation terms have made Texas probation system inefficient, Fabelo said, describing a system apparently designed to maximize fees from probationers instead of provide them incentives not to re-offend.
So we have a system that -- if you're a probationer and you get in trouble, you don't get a lot of services, you don't get a lot of attention that can help you get out of trouble. In particular, attention with employment problems, substance abuse problems, and so forth. On the other hand, if you're doing well on probation, you stay on probation forever because you're paying fees and they generate money for they system. Half of the funding for the system comes from fees paid by probationers.Fabelo said he thought private prisons could play a transitional role in Texas, but in the long run Texas needed to own the facilities, because privates cost "less now and more later." (That's the kind of talk that gets your agency line-item vetoed.)
There's a lot more, though no new info about why the agency was terminated. The mild-mannered Fabelo brushes off an opportunity to take a shot at Perry for firing him, accepting on face value the Governor's assertion that Fabelo had done such a great job, the prison system was fixed and there was no need for his services any longer.
Tony, you're a class act.
ALSO: Rev. Alan Bean has a piece in the same issue of the Observer on the Tom Coleman perjury trial, which he guest blogged for Grits in January.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
Also left unconsidered was the notion that, given these task forces' egregious record, the President's proposed budget cut to this law enforcment "entitlement" program might actually be a good thing. Grits has considered that possibility, and embraced it. (For all you liberals who can't stomach the idea President Bush might have proposed a good budget cut: Get over it. Even a stopped clock is right twice per day.)
We've seen dozens of scandals here in Texas involving drug task forces, starting with the case in Tulia, though they're not just a Texas problem. It turns out they aren't very effective. The Texas Department of Safety was told to rein them in back in 2002, but they were never given the needed authority, and DPS management of the task force system has been a mess from the start. As the public became aware of their accountability and liability problems, support for drug task forces generally has been dwindling in Texas.
It's not just President Bush, though, who wants drug task forces de-funded. The Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee wants to abolish the drug task force system, according to the unanimous recommendation in its December report. Texas has identified a variety of critical needs that the same grant money could be spent on.
I hope they do just that.
ACLU & Company. Those of you who’ve been watching the Lege for awhile might have noticed that the criminal defense bar (as a group) has become less active over the past few sessions. That void is increasingly being filled by the Texas chapters of the ACLU, LULAC, and others. Since they’re usually kind enough to publicize their legislative agenda, I thought I’d give you a taste of their “wish list” this session, which includes:
• State seizure of prosecutors’ discretionary funds to pay for counseling and treatment programs in local communities
• De-criminalization or reduction of the penalties for drug offenses
• Shorten probation terms (3-5 years max.) and end revocations for technical violations
• Prohibit consent searches and arrests for Class C offenses
• Eliminate regional drug task forces and prohibit officers from making arrests outside their geographic jurisdictions
• And more …
[last updated: January 7, 2005]
Here's the bottom line skinny on my employment and non-employment relations with ACLU: This is the third legislative session that I've volunteered to lobby on behalf of the group at the Texas Legislature, along with 15-20 others on the ACLU legislative commitee. I've volunteered for ACLU for five years, and on criminal justice stuff as my primary focus for my volunteer time 11 years total. But for the first time since 2003 I began to receive income from ACLU through grants and as a part-time consultant, focused narrowly on specific projects. I'm not paid to lobby. I don't office there and maintained other clients through the election season. But starting later this year, according to a state board vote last weekend, I'll actually join the ACLU more formally as half-time staff working on police accountability. I'll let you know when the i's are dotted. I plan to still take on a few, but fewer, election clients, performing opposition and defensive research. And I suppose I'll have to check the state lobby regs to see if I need to register as a lobbyist -- you don't have to when you're going up there on your own time.
Nobody pays me to blog (though I may try to convince ACLU of Texas to start one if they ever get the web site together), but I'm certainly often blogging about ACLU's issues. That's what I care about. It's why I volunteer virtually every spare moment to the group, and to the cause of Texas criminal justice reform. This ain't the MSM and I ain't fair and balanced, striving instead for the lower bar of merely reasonable and coherent. But I work on police accountability for ACLU and I have a point of view. Let a prosecutor blog the same topics and you'd get a different perspective. Then, I thought that's the point of blogs, which is why the conflict of interest charge for bloggers, to use Alberto Gonzalez' famous phrase regarding the Geneva Conventions, seems a tad "quaint" regarding the genre.
Anyway, re-reading the post about harm reduction legislation, I thought I ought to restate that "conflict" in general terms, if indeed it's a conflict for someone working on political issues to write down what they see and think on a web site with full disclosure. This blog is essentially an extended op-ed, a "working manifesto," as my friend Tom put it. I doubt that too many readers have been confused, and certainly hope not. I try to source my stuff and admit my errors. Like so many of us, I'm out there looking for Truth with a capital T, combing through the endless barrage of facts we're exposed to, looking for meaning, and on those rare, happy occasions when I find some, I try to let you, gentle readers immediately know. But most Grits' posts document the search, not the discovery. The sands of Truth too often shift beneath us precariously and, at bottom, you'll rarely find here absolute Truth, mostly just Grits Truth.
Wampum's Best of the Left Awards close on Friday, and Grits has been nominated as Best Single Issue Blog. Their website went down for a day or so this week after I'd posted an earlier notice, so I thought I'd remind readers who might have tried to vote and couldn't. Their site is back up.
To vote, click here and scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page to the comments section. You'll have to enter a name and valid email address then just write "Grits for Breakfast" in the comments box and press the button labeled "Post."
I really appreciated everybody who voted for Grits in the semi-finals. This is the homestretch push, so if you think Grits is the Best Single Issue Blog on the Left, give us some love.
The Dallas News rightly thinks the bill doesn't go far enough, but it's a good first step for Texas. To keep on top with what's happening in Texas to support passage medical marijuana legislation, sign up for TMM's excellent, low-volume, high-impact email alerts. TMM's Noelle and Karen and doing a first-rate job educating the Legislature (the public is already there) about the the irrationality of forbidding medical use of something doctors want to prescribe.
Whispers in the halls: Texas' other big harm reduction bill, Sen. Lindsay's (R-Houston) SB 127 that would allow a local option for needle exchange, may have a companion bill filed in the House soon. Stay tuned for more on that as things progress.
I'm not an attorney, and nothing in this blog, especially, heaven forbid, not this, should be taken as legal advice. But the way I read that, if somebody steals your stuff, "any person," really it doesn't even have to be their property, has the right to go "seize" the property, before notifying law enforcement, so long as you personally drag the stolen stuff, and preferably the perpetrator, "if that person can be taken" (read: "if you're man enough"), before a magistrate or to a cop so that "proceedings" can be held "without delay."Art. 18.16.    Preventing consequences of theft
Any person has a right to prevent the consequences of theft
by seizing any personal property that has been stolen and
bringing it, with the person suspected of committing the theft,
if that person can be taken, before a magistrate for
examination,or delivering the property and the person
suspected of committing the theft to a peace officer for
that purpose. To justify a seizure under this article,
there must be reasonable ground to believe the property
is stolen, and the seizure must be openly made and the
proceedings had without delay.
You gotta love this state, even if you need pretty big cojones to fully exercise your civic rights and responsibilities.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
As further evidence that tea-leaf reading is ill-advised in the Texas Legislature, three committee members switched their votes from when the bill came up in 2003. Reps Martha Wong, R-Houston, and Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, voted in favor of red light cameras in 2003, but voted against them yesterday, along with Chairman Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, and freshman Roy Blake, R-Nacogdoches. Austin Rep. Eddie Rodriguez's vote, quite disappointingly, flipped the OTHER direction. He joined freshman Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, in opposing Elkins' bill.
Bad vote, Eddie. Bad show.
The bill next must be approved by the House Calendars committee before going before the full Texas House, which in 2003 disapproved of the cameras on a 103-34 vote.