Thursday, June 30, 2005

Site update: Slouching toward summertime

For those who care, a few updates about the Grits site:

First, the new look. No, it's not the result of some long-anticipated re-design conceived by high-level marketing consultants. Instead, I'd finally, utterly corrupted the HTML in the old format until the template simply came up last Friday completely blank. Shifting to a new blogger template turned out to be the shortest distance between two points to clean up the mess, so here we are.

Also, I've taken the opportunity to re-organize the links a bit and to add a few names to the blogroll that are long overdue. I'll be fiddling a little more with them as summer goes on and I get back into the habit of reading more widely. The legislative session, regular readers know well, took up a great deal of my focus.

Traffic has declined some since session ended, from a high average of more than 600 per day in April and May to around 400 unique visitors, give or take, these days. Not bad for a state-level, issue-specific blog, but Atrios I ain't. I still find that a lot of people who should be interested in
Grits' content just don't read it because they're not used to reading blogs, don't trust them yet, etc. There's nothing but word of mouth and time to overcome that. So tell all your friends to start reading, and maybe one of these days I'll have enough traffic to justify accepting advertising.

has received several nice references recently from other bloggers, especially folks complimenting my notes and comments from the Campaigns and Elections seminar on campaign blogs, and pointing to my adumbrations of Gov. Perry's vetoes. I appreciate a lot everybody who has linked to my stuff, especially Kuff, Libby, Pink Dome, Doc Berman, Catonya, and Mike Cable, all of whom have been especially generous highlighting Grits' fare. In addition, in an article featuring Nate from the blog Common Sense, Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith gave Grits a nice shout out in the July issue, announcing himself a reader and calling Grits "A protein-laden dose of big thinking on criminal justice reform." That one-liner may get stuck permanently in the sidebar, before it's done.

As much or more than the links and praise, I appreciate the bloggers I read regularly, the folks who keep me informed about lots of stuff I'd otherwise miss, and who collectively help create, for me, the sense of possibility the blogosphere embodies -- the grassroots media who make me think, and who on their best days make me think there's hope. In addition to those mentioned above, at the risk of leaving out tons of folks, I've especially appreciated writing by bloggers at
CrimProf blog, Injustice Anywhere, GregsOpinion, Burnt Orange Report (welcome to the new crew!), A Capitol Blog, Rick Perry vs. The World, Drug War Rant, and of course Governing Magazine cover girl, Eileen at In The Pink Texas, on whom I've got a bit of a bloggerly crush. (Don't tell Kathy; she doesn't read my blog, so that last bit's just between us ...)

A lot of folks at the capitol became regular readers during the session, and several staffers emailed afterward to express sympathy about Governor Perry's ignominious vetoes. It means a lot to me that folks working day-to-day on Texas legislation considered this blog a reliable information source this spring. Thanks to them, and to all
Grits' readers for stopping by.

Keep coming back. I ain't done yet.

Illegal drugs 14% of world ag exports

I was an economics major in college (never graduated) so ever since I began thinking about criminal justice issues, I've been fascinated by how blind the system can be to the economics of the behaviors our government chooses to criminalize. Via CrimProf blog, we discover news of a new United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimate that illicit drugs consititute 0.9% of world Gross Domestic Product, greater than the total GDP of 163 countries, or 88% of the countries in the world!

Obviously, those countries aren't the ones driving the drug market. Illicit drugs enjoyed a robust $322 billion in retail sales in 2003, the U.N. reported, with 44% of that market, or about $142 billion, in North America, mostly the United States. That's an awful lot of lost tax revenue.
This is the first time the U.N. has estimated the economic scope of the international drug trade.

Most astonishing: Illegal drugs constitute 14% of total world agricultural exports. That means, practically speaking, if the pipe dream of stopping the drug trade ever actually succeeded, much of the world economy from Bolivia to Afghanistan to Northern California would collapse into global depression. Reported Xinhuanet news:

The largest market is cannabis herb, valued at 113 billion dollars, followed by cocaine, the opiates and cannabis resin, valued at 71 billion dollar, 65 billion and 29 billion dollars respectively on retail level.

The amphetamine-type stimulant markets together amounted to 44 billion dollars, according to the report.

Given the US share of the world retail market, claims of successes stopping the flow of drugs into America seem like fools' hubris.

Related Update: The Moroccan government last month said 96,000 families, 2/3 of the rural population (clarification: in the "Rif" region of that country) are "dependent on cannabis cultivation" for a living.

Cops profiting from traffic stops

Asset forfeiture opportunities offer some perverse incentives for law enforcement. In Weatherford, defrocked Parker County Sheriff Jay Brown this week was convicted of stealing money forfeited during drug investigations. He spent the money to purchase vehicles for county use, but later traded them for lesser-valued cars, pocketing the difference without reporting it. Sheriff Brown received a probated sentence.

Meanwhile, two cops in the South Texas town of San Benito used seized drugs from traffic stops to
open up their own retail business on the side. The first of the officers was convicted this week and sentenced to eight years in federal prison, while their civilian partner received a three year sentence last fall. The second officer, Edgar Heberto Lopez, is still a fugitive.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Judge: Perry probation veto risks public safety

Judges fear the worst, says the June 26th Beaumont Enterprise, after Governor Rick Perry vetoed HB 2193 which would have strengthened Texas' probation system. One jurist painted an especially stark scenario, the paper reported:
In the late 1980s, Texas prisons were overcrowded at a population of about 35,000 inmates.

The situation was so dire, local criminal justice authorities say, that prisoners were being released after serving 10 percent of their sentences.

[Senior District Judge Larry] Gist shuddered when he recalls what happened next.

"There's this ridiculous picture of a one-rock drug possession coming in and a murderer going out, and nobody wants that to happen," he said.

He doesn't think it could happen again but can't really see what will prevent it.

"Perry started off this session saying, 'absolutely no new prisons,' and then he vetoed the very thing that could help that occur," he said

Gist said he is dismayed by the defeat of HB 2193 after six years of work.
I know the feeling. He's right to worry about the effects of overincarceration on public safety. Harris County will likely feel the worst impact. The Legislature's passage of HB 2193 would have protected the public by prioritizing incarceration resources for the most dangerous, avoiding the scenario of releasing murderers to incarcerate for drug possession or other minor crimes. That's a smarter approach than Perry's do-nothing alternative. As HB 2193 co-author state Rep. Ray Allen (R-Grand Prairie) has said, we should reserve incarceration for those whom we fear, not for those at whom we're only angry.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Where can you be surveilled? Pretty much everywhere, it seems

Here's one to watch: In Conroe, TX, prosecutors are seeking an indictment against a dry cleaner for positioning a hidden surveillance camera to view the toilet area in the employee restroom, according to the June 23rd Houston Chronicle.

"Police must prove Blackwelder taped the employees without their consent and knowledge and must also show that he did it with intent to arouse and gratify," reported the Chronicle. Judging from the facts relayed in the article, intent will be hard to prove. If the store owner claims he made the video to prevent employee theft, for example, and the prosecution can't prove otherwise, what he did may not have been illegal. So far, the store owner has not been arrested. (Via the
Open Society Paradox)

The ambiguity regarding video voyeurism is a byproduct of the reduction of Americans' "reasonable expectation of privacy" by the courts in
deference to law enforcement. In May, a man in Houston was caught taking an upskirt photo of a child in a mall; his camera was seized, but he could not be arrested. You see, the child had no "reasonable expectation of privacy" to prevent people from using technology to view any area visible from someplace they have a legal right to be, like bending down pretending to tie their shoe next to the check out counter in the mall. Those precedents were all set in cases where the Supreme Court was defining the limits of police surveillance, but applied generally, they obviously create a world of concern for anyone who respects even a minimalist zone of personal privacy in public spaces.

The whole idea that being "tough on crime" means it's wise to give police unfettered surveillance power is starting to have some unintended consequences, don't you think? Redefining the "reasonable expectation of privacy" to create more personal space in public is an area ripe for state legislation. The legal precedents were recently confirmed, and may take decades for the federal courts to get around to changing.

La mordida in Fort Bend County

Sam Jimmy Mann, formerly police chief of a small hamlet called Kendleton in Fort Bend County, Texas, was convicted last week of extorting more than $390,000 from motorists from 1997 - 2001 in illegal on-the-spot fines. He was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay restitution. Kudos to the Fort Bend DA for pursuing the case.

In Mexico this practice is called "la mordida," which translates as a small bribe but literally means "a little bite." There, the unofficially tolerated practice often supplements ridiculously low police salaries. Looks like the concept migrated north of the border.

Dying on our dime

Doc Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy refers us to bellwether stories from California and Arizona about how long prison sentences are boosting the cost of medical care for treating elderly prisoners. To blame in California: the infamous "three strikes" law that forbids parole for repeat offenders.

Texas, which operates a separate facility housing elderly offenders called the Estelle unit, has been dealing with this growing cost driver for years. See this Criminal Justice Policy Council report (pdf) on the subject from 1999, which presages many issues raised in these articles.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Texas judge and DA had affair during capital murder trial?!

This is one of those stories that helps explain why so many of those statues of Lady Justice with the blindfold and scales always seem to show a little tittie.

Thanks to Injustice Anywhere for pointing me to this Salon story about Charles Dean Hood, the next Texan scheduled to be executed in 2005. The judge in his case at the time of the trial in 1989 was having an extramarital affair with the prosecuting attorney:

Hood, who was sentenced to death for a 1989 double murder, is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas on June 30. Unfortunately for Hood, in the 15 years since he arrived on death row, the issue of the strange and not-so-secret relationship of State District Court Judge Verla Sue Holland and Collin County District Attorney Tom O'Connell has never been raised in a single state or federal court.
Unreal. IA declares she's confronted the same scenario in the courtroom in three different, lesser cases, which itself seems a scandal. But to think a judge and DA would countenance that conflict of interest in a death penalty case just boggles the mind. Read the whole story.

Hood's is the first of three Texas executions scheduled this summer.

UPDATE: The Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the execution the day before it was to have taken place.

Wired: 5.5 million personal records lost or stolen this spring

Millions of Americans had their personal identity information stolen or lost in the last few months from a handful of government and corporate sources, demonstrating anew the danger of aggregating personal data into huge, central databases.

According to Kevin Poulsen in
Wired magazine's July issue (p. 32, not presently online), this year an astonishing 5.5 million records of Americans' personal information including social security numbers and credit reports, were stolen or went missing. About 80% of those losses stemmed from just eight entities that lost information between February 25 and May 2, only one of which, LexisNexis, is a major information aggregator. More than 2 million missing records stemmed from confirmed invasions by hackers or thieves bent on facilitating identity theft. The rest were the result of carelessness, lost backup tapes, etc., where the information may or may not have wound up in the wrong hands.

The eight institutions from whom data was stolen or went missing include corporate and academic icons:

  • Ameritrade, 200,000
  • AOL Time Warner, 600,000
  • Bank of America, 1,200,000
  • UC Berkeley, 98,000
  • DSW Shoe Warehouse, 1,500,000
  • LexisNexis, 310,000
  • Polo Ralph Lauren, 180,000
  • San Jose Medical Group, 185,000
But the Texas Department of Public Safety will never lose Texans' biometric information, right?

US House: Bipartisan support for de-funding drug task forces

Somehow I'd missed when the U.S. House earlier this month approved a 44% cut to the federal Byrne grant program that finances Texas' system of regional narcotics task forces. As the state of Texas prepares to implement just-passed legislation reining in those rogue agencies, Congress approved dramatically slashing their budget in a bipartisan vote. The failed amendment to reinstate the funds would have paid for the increase in funding by enacting an across-the-board cut in all other discretionary spending by .448%.

Twenty of Texas' 32 Congressional representatives supported cutting the program. In all, 137 Republicans, 114 Democrats and one Independent backed the measure, coming on the heels of a 24% cut enacted last year. Groups across the political spectrum support the reductions. According to the Bowling Green Daily News:
A federal grant program that gave about $7 million to Kentucky law enforcement during the 2005 fiscal year is not dead, as President Bush suggested in his February budget proposal, but it is limping.

Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants – a major source of funding for local drug task force agencies – will be cut to about 56 percent of the $634 million allotted in fiscal year 2005, unless the U.S. Senate decides to restore funding to the previous level.

A proposed amendment along those lines was voted down 175-252 on Tuesday (June 14) in the U.S. House of Representatives, but if the Senate disagrees with the decision, Byrne funding will get another look in a House and Senate conference committee later this year.
That's big news since the House had been the barrier to cutting the Byrne program in the past. In 2003, the US Senate voted on more or less partisan lines to end the Byrne program entirely, but the House didn't concur and the money was added back later in conference committee. Both Texas Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison backed that 2003 measure. This time, the legislation headed to the Senate already contains dramatic cuts, so if he can keep his votes who have already gone on record, President Bush's expanded GOP majority in the Senate should ensure the measure's passage.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who voted for the 44% Byrne cut, has also proposed legislation to require states using Byrne money for drug task forces to require corroboration for undercover testimony.

Harris revokes probation most among big Texas counties

Governor Rick Perry apparently thinks Texas' overincarceration crisis will go away if he ignores it, but local officials must still manage the state's broken probation system in the wake of the Governor's ill-conceived veto of HB 2193.

The Houston Chronicle's Andrew Tilghman
reports this morning that Harris County is struggling to improve supervision of probationers and lower its probation revocation rate, despite Governor Perry's veto of legislation to strengthen the probation system. Their goal of reducing revocations is welcome, but it'd be a lot easier to accomplish if Gov. Perry had not vetoed new tools to better supervise probationers.

Just as the
Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee found in last year's interim report, Harris County's high revocation rate leads the state and is a major driver of Texas' overincarceration crisis:

Roughly one of every seven Harris County probationers was put behind bars last year for failing to comply with court-ordered conditions, the highest revocation rate of any major Texas metropolitan area, state data show.

Once viewed as a respectable sign of a tough criminal justice system, a high revocation rate is increasingly considered a liability that fills costly jail space with low-level offenders and drains tax dollars.

That shift in perception puts mounting pressure on judges and probation officials at a time when the county probation department, formally known as the Community Supervision and Corrections Department, is ailing. ...

Last year, Harris County judges sent 15.8 percent of the county's felony probationers to jail for violating court-imposed rules or committing new crimes. The statewide average is 9.8 percent.

If the debate over strengthening Texas' probation system did nothing else, at least it has busted a hole in the argument that weak probation benefits society or reduces crime. This "shift in perception" largely stems from the big-picture reality that right now Texas' probation system isn't adequately supervising anyone, much less those most likely to commit new crimes. Revocation and imprisonment represents an expensive failure of the system, not a "tough" outcome. Among big Texas counties, here are the 2004 revocation rates:


Probationers from Harris County end up behind bars at a higher rate than those from other Texas cities. Listed are counties and the percentage of felony probationers sent to jail after revocation in 2004:

Harris: 15.8 percent

Tarrant: 15 percent

Dallas: 11.9 percent

Travis: 9.3 percent

Bexar: 8 percent

El Paso: 6 percent

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

That's a pretty impressive range. To me, it shows that probation can supervise people more successfully than they're doing it in Houston. After all, El Paso's not revoking one in seven probationers. Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, blamed Harris County judges for the high probation revocation rates, but Tilghman reported those jurists may yet want to change their stripes:
Others, however, say it is the judges, who impose probation conditions and ultimately decide whether to revoke, who drive Harris County's high rates.

"The (county) bench is made up of very conservative people, most of them former prosecutors," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. "Elements of the judiciary are applying their own theories and philosophies, contrary to what a lot of experts and advisers would suggest works."

State District Judge Belinda Hill disagrees.

"I can't imagine that (Harris County judges) are any more rigorous than any other place," said Hill, who heads the judges' subcommittee on probation matters.

Hill said the county's 22 felony judges, who oversee the probation department and hire its director, are working to reduce the revocation rate. They are discussing plans to create a system of "progressive sanctions" that will give low-risk probationers more opportunity to stay out of jail, she said.

That's welcome news. Governor Perry's veto of HB 2193 was a grave disservice to public safety and to the taxpayers, but the issues raised by the bill haven't gone away. Tilghman's article shows that now local governments must wrestle with this looming state crisis, which the Governor knew existed but refused to provide leadership to resolve.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Perry's vetoes worse than reported

The press and the public haven't caught on yet, but Texas Governor Rick Perry's insensible criminal justice vetoes appear almost designed to provoke a crisis. Here's why:

As of last week, Texas prisons are officially full and must contract to rent space for all new prisoners from county jails. Unbelievably, though, it turns out
Governor Perry line-item vetoed funding in the budget for those beds. Since he also vetoed HB 2193 by House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden strengthening Texas' probation system (which would have partially stemmed the overincarceration crisis), as of right now Texas officially has more prisoners than the state can afford to incarcerate, with the problem getting worse every day into the foreseeable future.

Funny, I noticed the Governor failed to add new money for building prisons to the list of items eligible for consideration in the new special session! That's what's needed, though, if the Governor's decisions stand. In a June 21st letter to Governor Perry protesting the veto of HB 2193, Chairman Madden wrote:

[I]t is important that I bring to your attention the affect your line item vetoes in SB 1 will have on our criminal justice system. Last week I was informed that our prisons have reached capacity and that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) will be contracting 575 new beds in our county jails. Today I learned that you have line item vetoed $19.2 million dollars in new funding for TDCJ to contract these beds from county jails. This trend of contracting with county jails will continue as our system continues to put non-violent criminals behind bars for technical revocations.

Additionally, $6.5 million was vetoed from CJAD that provided Treatment Alternative and Incarceration Programs (TAIP). Throughout the legislative process this session, all interested parties have noticed we need additional funding for treatment. This veto furthers our crisis and need for additional funds for treatment in our criminal justice system. Denial of these treatment resources will only result in more low level drug offenses going to an already overloaded and expensive prison.
How unbelievably short-sighted! Vetoing HB 2193 was a bad, budget-busting decision that harmed public safety. Regular readers know the prison system is chock full while the current probation system is broken, with more than 77,000 absconders out there who the state can't even locate. That makes it even stranger why Governor Perry would choose to veto money for beds for more prisoners -- his veto of stronger probation makes inevitable the need for the money.

Think about it: Texas prisons are full, so the Governor vetoes both legislation that would cause fewer non-violent offenders to have their probation revoked, and also money for leasing space for those offenders who now inevitably will enter the system. The veto of drug treatment money, I suppose, was just for good measure: Texas wouldn't want any of our addicts to kick their addictions, after all, or else they might not need to be incarcerated.

It all makes your head hurt just thinking about it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Blogs' role in political campaigns

Last Saturday, I attended a panel on bloggers and blogging at a seminar put on by Campaigns and Elections magazine in D.C. that raised cusping questions about the role of blogs in electoral political campaigns.

The panelists were the Pew Internet project fellow Michael Cornfield, creator Michael Krempasky, and Larry Purpuro, who creates campaign websites for Rightclick Strategies.

Here's a few things I learned there
Grits readers might find interesting:

Cornfield cited a Pew study estimating that 16% of US adults are presently blog readers. That's not so much -- after all, campaigns need 50% + 1 voters to win elections -- but blog readership increased 58% in 2004 making it one of the fastest growing media, quickly catching up to the rest of the field. Blog readers already constitute the equivalent of 20% of the total newspaper audience and 40% of the talk radio audience, Cornfield said.

In a recent study, Pew identified three general types of blogs:

  • Personal diaries (75% of blogs)
  • Filter blogs (15-20%)
  • K-blogs or Knowledge blogs (3-5%)
Personal diaries are typically aimed at an audience no greater than 15-25 people. K-blogs are specialized in an issue area -- like Grits, I suppose -- and combine links to in-depth resources with original content. Filter blogs, said Cornfield, combine editorial commentary with links to sources from the MSM and other blogs. They're the ones most likely to link to political campaigns' sites or help spread their messages.

Krempasky revealed one of the dirty secrets about campaign websites: Traffic on most of them stinks. Blogs do better than websites on Google and other search engines and draw more traffic to the site, said Krempasky. (Oklahoma Democratic Senate candidate Brad Carson's campaign blog last year drew about
80% of his website's traffic.) All three panelists emphasized that blogs were an ideal attack medium for releasing negative information about an opponent without getting the campaign's hands dirty. In many cases, this can be done informally without any explicit arrangement when bloggers are among your core supporters.

I agreed with many of Purpuro's comments to the effect that right now, blogging for many political campaigns may be putting the cart before the horse. Campaigns, he noted, are about resource management: money, time, communications. Today every campaign must have a website. Blogs may be the future, but in the current environment they are still optional in a way that a website is not. Getting the campaign website right, he said, is much more important.

A campaign website isn't just measured by traffic, he said. Its more important function is as an outbound platform, a generator and content provider for email lists, plus a source of positive, self-congratulatory profile material for the media and persuadable voters. The website should be a "marketplace for ideas," he said, but most campaigns are not getting it right. Given the payback from blogging, especially in small races, Purpuro persuasively argued blogging should be well down a campaign's priority list.

Krempasky had a great idea for candidate blogging in small campaigns. He thought that a candidate who was blockwalking door to door should take along a digital camera. They could take pictures of potholes, nuisances, the candidate with people they meet going door to door, and use the pictures along with some minimalist commentary to create a very personable blog that would let voters feel like they were right there alongside the candidate in the neighborhoods. I think that'd be a really cool idea, and a great way to connect with voters in a small district.

Cornfield argued that blog ads are so cheap campaigns would be foolish not to purchase them. I'm sure in Texas you could advertise everywhere possible in the blogosphere for a few hundred bucks. (
Grits doesn't presently accept advertising.) Blogs consciously think of themselves as communities, he noted, so when somebody like Kos decides to fundraise for candidates, that sends a signal to other like-minded community members that they should follow suit. Don't expect big money, he said, but at least spend the money on blog ads on blogs covering your district, he advised, so as not to leave money on the table.

A questioner asked how to create "blog bait," i.e., what content will attract bloggers. The panelists came up with several suggestions:

  • Blog posts are personal: All blog posts have some editorial comment, even if it's just one word or a symbol like a smiley face indicating sarcasm.
  • Sex (still) sells: There's a reason Wonkette appears on more magazine covers than Kos.
  • In-depth coverage of scandals in the making: Often in the beginning the media won't latch on as quick as your blogger supporters.
  • Humor: Jib-Jab would have to be the best example of blogger-friendly political humor.
  • Documentary evidence: Most important, since bloggers suffer from a credibility gap and must document their material to get the same credibility their MSM counterparts enjoy using anonymous sources. As video gets cheaper, this will be the ultimate blogger documentary source.
That's all my notes from the presentation, but before the next one (on the FEC's proposed new Internet regulations), I jotted down a few of my own ideas on the role of blogs in campaigns.

1. Great attack medium. Because they do well on Google and other search engines, blogs are ideal for delivering negative attacks in local campaigns because a blog with significant links actually has a higher search engine ranking than a low-traffic local campaign website, especially one that's just started up. If ten local bloggers link to a funny post about a city council candidate, most campaigns won't ever figure out how to boost their Google ranking above the attack before the end of the election.

2. Blogs create a personalized image, whereas on most websites candidates appear as cardboard cutouts. I was especially interested in the idea of a candidate taking a digital camera blockwalking as a way to generate that personalized feel to a blog, or even a website. Since most blockwalking candidates at the end of the day shoot out an email saying who they talked to and downloading intelligence or information they garnered that day, it's not a great leap for a candidate or staffer to take that information, remove anything of strategic import, and turn those daily summaries and photos into blog posts. That'd be a cool idea for city council candidates, for example. And putting constituents pictures on your website is a great way to get them to come look at it! Most otherwise wouldn't.

3. Blogs are for elites. The low-traffic nature of most blogs is misleading because blogs are for opinion leaders, especially so-called "K-blogs," but even political "filter blogs." In the Dean campaign, the media, core volunteers, and donors were the folks who were tracking the campaign via the blog, but for them, it provided instant access and an instant feedback loop. Those people are elites, not the masses, and for campaigns smaller than presidential ones a blog typically won't generate high traffic. But those who do traffic the site are folks you want to be communicating with, like the media, opinion leaders, donors and volunteers, because they can help you. That said, the emphasis in the case studies on national campaigns and blogs skews perceptions about what smaller campaigns and regional bloggers might expect. Few local campaigns will draw many commenters or significant traffic, and for them Purpuro's advice about weighing time and resources seems especially wise.

4. Blogs are a media strategy, not an activist medium. Email is a better tool for campaigns to mobilize donors, volunteers and voters. Blogs are best at personalizing your candidate's image, making a connection with your core supporters, and, especially for issue campaigns, influencing the terms of debate. At the national level, Josh Marshall's work on social security is a fine example of the latter. Enlisting his readers' help to do more than he ever could alone, Talking Points Memo filled many of the gaps in that debate that the MSM otherwise would have ignored. But TPM can't generate nearly the voluneer or financial resources that a group like MoveOn can with a large email list. That's because email is a form of interruption marketing, which is better at spurring your target to act. Blogs are a passive medium that gives the reader more control, and therefore more options not to do whatever activism the organizer wants.

Don't get me wrong for a moment, I'm a great fan of blogs and a proponent of their power to change the political landscape. One reason I launched
Grits was I hoped to alter the terms of debate regarding Texas' criminal justice system, an issue area which has historically been skewed toward irrational "tough on crime" themes that today are increasingly obsolete. Without overstating the case, I think this blog in a small way has helped do that. I've been gratified when, as happened a few times, legislators or other influentials have said Grits contributed to a shift in their thinking. But whatever small influence this blog enjoys lies mainly in its ability to help win the argument, not because all my myriad readers might tomorrow storm the Governor's mansion in protest of his egregious vetoes. That's why I say blogs aren't an activism strategy, even though I consider myself an activist -- they're a communications strategy. To get the most out of them, IMO, campaigns must treat them that way and avoid confusing blogs' role.


Molly Ivins had a great piece Monday in the Los Angeles Times cataloguing prominent shortcomings of the Texas justice system, before simply running out of space. Maybe I've been at this too long, but the black humor strikes me as the funniest:
You've met Labrador retrievers brighter than some of the people we execute. We had a guy on the row who thought he was going to die because he couldn't read. He spent hours on his bunk trying to memorize the ABCs. Never could do it. We execute people easily as crazy as the one in Florida who spent years crawling around on all fours, barking, under the impression that he was a black dog in the seventh circle of hell. But I'm sure they understand right from wrong, and know why they're being punished. Arf.
Entertaining stuff, and horrifying, and shameful, and at the end of the day pretty sad. Via TalkLeft.

Adios Mo-Fo!

Texas Governor Rick Perry just handed his gubernatorial primary opponent Comptroller Carole Strayhorn a huge on-camera gift that should be repeated on near countless television commercials between now and March:

Trying to build publicity for the rollout of his education plan, Mr. Perry did a series of TV interviews Monday in a studio in Austin. In one, he repeatedly declined to give KTRK-TV reporter Ted Oberg details of his proposal, which the governor didn't intend to divulge until a news conference Tuesday.

After the interview was over and Mr. Perry had said you're welcome and so long, Mr. Oberg acknowledged that Mr. Perry had successfully maintained the secrecy of his plan for another day: "Try as I may, Governor, I guess I can't win this one."

Mr. Perry looked off camera and appeared to mock Mr. Oberg, saying: "Try as I may, governor, I'm just not going to wait that long. ... "

Then the governor added as a sign-off: "Adios, mo-fo."

What a great tagline! In the past 12 years I've performed opposition and defensive research for almost 70 campaigns, and can recall few comments by incumbents with such potential for fun negative messages. If that's not a prominent Strayhorn campaign attack theme, surely they're missing the boat.

Imagine a series of negative commercials all ending with the phrase "Isn't it time to tell Rick Perry ..." then interjecting him announcing "Adios mo-fo." Now THAT's good negative television fodder! Since he didn't fully articulate the words, you could use the actual clip in the ad! You could also turn it into some really righteous direct mail.

What a delightful blunder! This gubernatorial primary is going to be fun to watch.

Rick Perry vs. The World for a defense of Perry's remarks.

UPDATE: A commenter provides the link to the video. Thanks Keath!

NUTHER UPDATE: That was quick: PinkDome has already recognized the merchandizing opportunity!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Texas public defender blogs her first murder trial


Reader: Snitch in Wichita Falls falsely accused man already in prison

In the comments to yesterday's post about snitches in high school, Catonya points to this case where a man was falsely arrested on the word of a snitch in Wichita Falls for a crime allegedly committed two years ago -- even though he was in prison at the time of the offense.

Now, that's just piling on. According to Jessica Langdon in the May 25 Times Record News:
The arrest warrant affidavit stemming from the April 2003 incident gave this account:

A person cooperating with investigators bought a small, pink-tinted, clear plastic bag containing a white powder substance from a man identified as the suspect on Huff Street.

The house sits within 1,000 feet of Bridwell Park. Investigators had the material in the bag analyzed, and found it was 1.24 grams of methamphetamine.

Little said Tuesday authorities suspect someone else used King's name in this case.

He said cases involving false identification do happen on occasion.

Langdon lets the Wichita Falls PD off light, closing the article out by allowing officers to blame the victim, claiming it's "it's important to shred old documents like bills and to keep your driver's license and other important pieces of identification where you know they're secure." But Mr. King wasn't a victim of identity theft: He was falsely accused by a confidential informant acting as an agent of the local police department in an undercover operation! Really, it takes a lot of chutzpah to make that argument -- police must be pretty confident their lapdog press won't question a word they say, and in Wichita Falls they don't.

Finally, Catonya's right: What's the deal with authorities waiting two years after an alleged transaction to arrest somebody for a tiny amount of dope? The only answer could be that this bad snitch has been making lots of other cases for them, likely most of them as rock solid as this muddled accusation.

It would be interesting to find out how many more cases they've made based on the word of this same lying snitch, huh?

Note to readers: You should all consider this model reader behavior!! Please send me stories about snitches, drug task forces, improper searches at traffic stops and other topics this blog covers, especially in Texas. There's too much information in the world to manage if we don't help each other sort it out, and it's impossible to know what policy fixes to propose, e.g., around "snitches," unless you know what's going on out there. Thanks, Cat! I hope your grandpa's health improves.

Details from Daniel Rocha forum

Greg Moses provides in-depth coverage of the five-hour community forum that took place in Austin Thursday while I was in D.C. The police chief and other officials answered questions about the death of 18-year old Daniel Rocha, a young man who was shot in the back and killed by a police officer who mistakenly believed he'd taken her taser. He hadn't. He's dead for no good reason. What a tragic mess. See Tony Plohetski's coverage of the event in the Statesman here and here.

That's one way to earn your matching funds

A Fort Worth bank was robbed yesterday by three men wearing "task force" t-shirts:
Three men dressed as police officers held up a Fort Worth bank Monday morning.

Employees at the Bank One branch at Ramey Avenue and Loop 820 told investigators that the men—wearing black clothing with "police" and "task force" lettering on their shirts—entered the building and demanded cash.

One of the holdup men fired a handgun and hit a television monitor.

The suspects were last seen speeding away northbound on Loop 820 in a gold Toyota Camry.
I get they need matching funds for their federal grants, but this whole idea of seizing assets, one fears, is starting to get out of hand. ;-)

Monday, June 20, 2005

GA school turning students into snitches for chump change

I've been on the lookout recently for stories about police snitches, and here's an ugly development I'd missed: A standing cash offer for students to snitch seems like a really terrible idea. That's happening in a Georgia high school, though, reported AP in April:
Using revenue from its candy and soda sales, Model High School plans to pay up to $100 for information about thefts and drug or gun possession on campus. ...

"It's not that we feel there are any problems here," said Principal Glenn White. "It's a proactive move for getting information that will help deter any sort of illegal activity.

Under the new policy, a student would receive $10 for information about a theft on campus, $25 or $50 for information about drug possession, and $100 for information about gun possession or other serious felonies.

Informants will not receive the reward if they are involved in the crime, White said.

Sounds to me like a catastrophe waiting to happen. How long it will be before somebody falsely fingers a fellow student for the money, just like happened on a larger scale in the Dallas sheetrock scandal? It seems inevitable if we continue down this crazy road toward some sort of East-German-style informant society, encouraging snitching even among non-criminals and children for petty offenses. Think about it: What other values does such a policy teach to Georgia schoolchildren?

Does Grandma know best?

The media focused on her "drug store cowboy" barb against incumbent Rick Perry, but here's a quote from Texas State Comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn's Saturday announcement speech that's latent with possibilities as a negative campaign message:
"I'd rather spend $2500 a year educating a young Texan than $16,000 a year incarcerating that young Texan."
Me too. Given Perry's taxpayer-soaking veto of HB 2193, I wonder what Republican primary voters will think about it?

UPDATE: See Texas Monthly's Evan Smith's interview with Strayhorn, temporarily available free here.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Terrible news: Perry vetoes stronger probation, documented consent to search at traffic stops, and enforcing the right to counsel

Damn it. I left town for a few days for a training seminar in D.C., only to return to find criminal justice reformers' agenda for 2005 lying in ruins in the wake of devastating vetoes by Governor Goodhair, Rick Perry. According to a June 18 press release from the Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition:

The following bills were vetoed:

SB 1195—protected criminal cases made after police conduct consent searches at traffic stops by mandating that the driver’s consent be documented either in writing or on tape. [Author, Hinojosa; companion by Hupp, Dutton]

“This bill merely required police to inform drivers of their fourth amendment rights, so that when they consent to a search, the search is valid,” said Harrell. “The legislature reviewed this issue thoroughly, with information from many jurisdictions. There is no lack of information, but the Governor was not participating in the legislature’s consideration of this issue.”

HB 3152—prohibited prosecutors and judges from pressuring unrepresented defendants into proceeding without counsel, reducing the risk that warranted convictions might be overturned because they were illegally obtained. This bill was unopposed in both houses. [Escobar, Hodge, Ellis]

“The Governor says this bill would jeopardize convictions, but the fact is that current practices create the risk that guilty people will go free,” said Dominic Gonzales, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “All this bill required was an informed waiver of your constitutional right to counsel. By vetoing this bill, the Governor rejected the most reasonable solution to a major problem that creates uncertainty in the criminal justice system.”

HB 2193—holds accountable those offenders who deserve a more stringent approach to corrections while providing an efficient and less expensive way of handling those offenders who are not violent and hold the most promise of leading productive lives and taking responsibility for their families. [by Madden, Turner, Allen, Haggerty, McReynolds, Whitmire] (See Pery's official veto statement)

Texas’ probation system is broken. Today 77,500 probation violators run free but our state has limited resources to go after them--that is not acceptable,” said Correa. “This bill would have fixed that.”

HB 1896—saves taxpayer money and creates incentive for personal responsibility, encouraging offenders to abide by the requirements of their supervision. [by Hodge, joint authors Madden, Allen, Haggerty; sponsored by Whitmire]

What a disgrace! Here's a Governor who acknowledges the criminal justice system is broken, but rather than sign bills to fix some of the most obvious problems, he'd rather veto them all and appoint a meaningless, do-nothing blue ribbon commission.

I feel especially bad because the only reason these good bills made it this far was an immense amount of work put into them by, at the end of the day, hundreds of people, with thousands more supporters coming to Austin for lobby days or contacting their legislators and the Governor.
“Together the four major criminal justice bills vetoed today would have improved the integrity of the criminal justice system from the point of arrest through sentencing, ensuring that good cases hold up in court and offenders have incentives to successfully move out of the system,” said Vickie Randall, Executive Director of the Ministry Advisory Council. “The hundreds of ministers who came to the capitol in support of these bills will feel blatantly disregarded.”
I know the feeling. I hope those of you who worked hard supporting these bills don't feel your efforts were in vain. Speaking for myself, right now, it's hard not to feel bitterly disappointed.

And angry. Mostly I'm angry. Vetoing the probation bill (HB 2193) is just short-sighted and mean-spirited. Where are you going to get the money to build more prisons, Mr. Perry? Will you add a new tax to pay for them to the items eligible for consideration in the special session you just called? Texas Monthly, in naming Houston state Sen. John Whitmire to it's Ten Best legislators for 2005, said, "No lawmaker saved Texas taxpayers more money this session." Doesn't that mean, then, that Perry should be held accountable when his veto of HB 2193 starts to soak the taxpayers? I wonder why he feels the need to pander to this guy?

This is a flip flop. Perry told legislative budget writers he supported the idea earlier this year.

Similarly, vetoing SB 1195, which would have required police to obtain written or recorded consent to search at traffic stops, can only be viewed as either gross, thoughtless pandering to special interests, or, if one actually believes the veto expresses an ideological position rather than a political one, a yes-vote from Governor Goodhair for outright totalitarianism on the roadways.

Testimony in committee established that a 2001 Supreme Court decision
ensures Texas drivers don't really have the ability to deny consent when police ask to search. Perry twice vetoed legislation passed to fix the problem. This time, the Governor called for the Legislature to study the issue in his veto message, claiming he didn't have enough information. Since he didn't ask bill-backers for any, and vetoed the thing two days before the deadline, it really doesn't seem like he was looking for more info, does it?

These are cynical decisions -- choosing bad public policy in order to pander to the right wing in next spring's Republican primary. They're probably even wrong-headed politically: Religious groups around the state supported stronger probation, and the National Rifle Association backed SB 1195.

A little good news: the Governor signed HB 823 by Keel creating a presumption a person is legally "traveling" with a gun in their vehicle unless they're barred from doing so for a reason, Perry is already claiming credit for it on his campaign website. And HB 1239 by Hodge, which forces Byrne-grant funded drug task forces to comply with DPS rules, also became law.

More later on what all this means, but I wanted to let folks know what happened. What a shameful performance.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Austin's Channel 8 cable news network owned by Time Warner is running a terribly slanted "news" story on HB 2193, Texas' legislation strengthening the probation system. Their particularly nasty spin: It hurts nonprofits' "volunteer" base because reducing the length of probation will cut down on the number of probationers required to perform community service labor.

"Volunteers"? We're talking about people ordered to do labor by the court! Does reporter Allie Rasmus even know the meaning of the word "volunteer"?

And what's with Goodwill pimping for what amounts to essentially slave labor? Most folks view them as a group devoted to helping the downtrodden; the comments in this story make them sound more interested in exploiting them.
If a judge orders a probationer to perform community service as part of dispensing justice, that's one thing. But that's for the judge to decide, not Goodwill.

Here's a quick note I fired off in response to Channel 8's news director via the viewer comments:
To the news director, or any responsible adult in charge,

Your piece claiming HB 2193 strengthening Texas' probation system hurts nonprofits was a smear job. By a longshot, most "law enforcement groups" did not oppose the bill at the Legislature (check the witness lists!) and all nonprofits that testified supported it!! You guys let your sources use you on this -- what you reported has very little to do with current reality regarding "supervision" of probationers, and ignores all parts of the bill that make supervision stronger. You also didn't say judges could still extend probation up to the full ten years. By contrast, right now hardly anyone's being supervised at all, mostly because 1 in 20 Texans are under authority of the criminal justice system, which means no system can adequately monitor everybody.

Bad show.

UPDATE: While I was out of town, Goodwill retracted their position from the story! Good for them, I thought those comments sounded out of context. Here's an excerpt from their press release, issued jointly with the Austin-Travis County Reentry Roundtable:

A news story Wednesday by Channel 8 Cable News in Austin falsely inferred that HB 2193 would hinder Goodwill Industries’ ability to fulfill its mission, Goodwill officials and representatives of the Austin/Travis County Rentry Roundtable said today.

If probationers have to do community service, said Katie Navine of Goodwill Industries, it’s a “win-win situation for them to do it here. But that’s certainly not our purpose. If that’s not the best thing for them, then we don’t want to do that. The heart of our mission is to support the placement of ex-offenders in permanent work in our job placement programs, and HB 2193 will not affect that work.”

Goodwill Industries Malcolm Gardner, who was quoted in the Channel 8 news article, said he didn’t realize his comments would be paired with those of prominent bill opponents. “I wasn’t trying to make a political statement about the bill. Actually, we only let people perform community service here whose cases were misdemeanors and DWI's whose status can be at the felon level,” he said. “The changes made in this bill won’t affect our job/support programs much at all.”

Channel 8 did NOT retract the story before the Governor vetoed the bill in question.

Some crime labs may close instead of reform

Nine of Texas' 36 crime labs may shut down rather than undergo a professional accreditation process mandated by the 79th Legislature, the Fort Worth Star Telegram reports.

A slew of innocents convicted based on false analyses from Houston, Fort Worth, and DPS crime labs led the Legislature to require the accreditation, which many including this author considered a minimalist solution compared to other proposals that didn't make it out of the process. It's surprising so many facilities feel they can't operate under the higher standards.

Then again, maybe that's why Texas has had so many problems at crime labs in the first place.

Tulia lawyer heads Tech Innocence Project

Photo Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

It'd be hard to find a better candidate to lead an Innocence Project in West Texas than our friend Jeff Blackburn, the Amarillo-based civil rights attorney who led the legal team in the Tulia cases from their earliest stages. Let's hope they have as much success as the original at Cardozo Law School in New York. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal had a nice story Sunday on Blackburn and the new Innocence Project based at the Texas Tech law school.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Uncertain blogging

A good number from our ACLU of Texas legislative committee, mostly volunteers, spent last weekend unwinding in Uncertain, Texas on Caddo Lake to celebrate the end of the 79th Texas Legislature's regular session. Adina has a nice post commemorating the event.

You can tell Adina, who heads ACLU of Texas' "Cyberliberties" project, spent the last few months slugging it out toe-to-toe with SBC over the provision of
municipal wireless: Her East Texas geography and analysis of rural water politics is interspersed with notations regarding which small town has free wireless Internet access. :-) Playing the role of municipal wireless evangelist, she spent a fair amount of energy last Saturday trying to convince the Mayor of Uncertain, literally a backwater fishing hamlet with a population of maybe 150, that wireless Internet access would draw more tourists to the area. Hizzoner rightly worried such an initiative would be viewed as contradicting the campaign slogan on which he'd just
won election this May: "Don't change a goddamn thing." I don't think she's getting too far with that target, but Adina's one of my favorites.

Life as a snitch for a drug task force

Regular readers know I've a keen interest in the use of "snitches" by law enforcement, which is one of the true gray areas where dirty cops and criminals often merge purposes in ways that don't always seem to serve justice.

Case in point: A Durango, CO drug task force officer
allegedly extorted sex from a female confidential informant (CI) and burned her identity with drug dealers she was setting up, placing her life in danger. Officers threatened her with jail if she called her lawyer. When she finally blew the whistle and passed a lie detector test regarding the officer's misconduct, the CI's deal was revoked, sending her to prison despite having fulfilled the terms of her agreement. That's some slimy stuff, right there.

A sidebar to the article describes the drug task force's snitching policies:

[T]o District Attorney Craig Westberg, informants are somewhat of a "mixed bag." Some are meth addicts who want to kick the habit and help law enforcement. Others have long criminal histories and care only about helping themselves.

What’s more, Westberg says, juries don’t always look favorably upon informants. Some informants have long criminal records and hope for leniency in exchange for testifying.

So Westberg is hesitant to put informants on the witness stand."We’ve always got to be careful that this is done in a situation where the defense cannot claim entrapment," he says

Rarely are offenders offered a plea bargain before becoming an informant, Westberg says. It’s more common for informants to work with the Task Force under the assumption that investigators will pass along a good word if they do a good job. ...

Informants are not paid, and they must sign a contract not to consult a lawyer, says Davis. That does not violate their constitutional rights because they already have waived a Miranda right to be represented by counsel.

"If they plan on working with us," Davis insists, "we don’t want them talking to anyone." The contract generally offers no rewards or leniency for their cooperation.
No lawyer and no promise for leniency? My God, what half-wit would sign THAT contract? Now that the Texas legislative session's behind us, one of my goals over the next few months is for this blog to examine more closely confidential informant practices by law enforcement, both in Texas and the drug war generally. If y'all see stories or resources out there on this topic, please send them my way.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Red light cameras going up in Houston

Reports Blog Houston.

Dems Do Disservice Opposing Task Force Cuts

What do a 40,000 person county in Kansas and the City of Houston have in common? They're both federally designated High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs), 2 of 33 which receive federal funds for massive multi-jurisdictional coordination among federal, state and local agencies, reports USA Today.

What a joke. If you've been to rural Kansas, you know nothing that goes on there is "high intensity" anything!

HIDTA task forces are different from the Byrne grant-funded task forces this blog has discussed so often. Byrne task forces are local affairs paid for by federal block grant money distributed by the Governor in each state. In Texas, they're now managed by the Department of Public Safety. The feds have little day to day involvement until it's time for the US Attorney to cherrypick cases to prosecute at the end of the investigation. By contrast, HIDTA task forces are led by the feds and tend to go after money launderers, internatonal smugglers, and generally the bigger fish as opposed to rounding up low-level drug users.

In recent years, though, the Congressional penchant for pork barrel budgeting expanded the program into rural and other areas that may be represented by powerful legislators, but which aren't really subject to "high intensity" drug smuggling. The HIDTA described in Kansas, for example, dates from former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole's stint as US Senator from that state.

President Bush wants to get rid of both thse programs, and USA Today provides some of the better coverage I've seen of this underreported Bush budget cut. As I've argued before, that's a smart move away from a failed approach. Maddeningly, though, Democrats hope to turn it into a political football, running to the right trying to pretend they're more tough on crime than the Republicans. Do they really think anyone's ever going to buy that?

"We are all united on the war on terror, but we cannot be focused (on it) to the total exclusion of other problems," says U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. "We have not won the battle against drug trafficking."

The country should not be lulled into complacency by declining crime and drug abuse rates, says Ron Brooks, president of the National Narcotics Officers' Associations' Coalition.

"I believe that the loss of 19,000 lives (to drugs) annually and a cost of $160 billion each year means that drug trafficking is a form of home-grown terrorism in America," Brooks told a U.S. House panel in March. "We should be embracing what has worked, not dismantling successful programs."

You know, even if you grant the Narcotics Officers' Association's numbers (and I'd argue they're highly questionable) if the program I was defending resulted in public policy that allowed the loss of 19,000 lives and cost $160 billion per year, I'm not sure I'd be bragging it was "successful."

Rep. Jackson-Lee's comments are a disappointment. The Congresswoman from Houston recently proposed legislation to require corroborating evidence for undercover testimony in states receiving federal Byrne grant money. She knows about the problems associated with these enforcement programs all too well. I'd hoped she and other Democrats would support President Bush when he proposed zeroing out the Byrne fund, plus dramatically slashing HIDTA. Those are failed programs that haven't reduced drug use in two decades of operation. Instead, Jackson-Lee and most other Democrats still support paying for these failed strategies, while many of the leading critics of HIDTA and Byrne operations come from the right:

Critics of the program, including Citizens Against Government Waste, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Heritage Foundation, say it has been mismanaged and unfocused.

"These programs have become bloated," says David Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "There's very little evidence they are working."

Tom Schatz, president of the non-partisan Citizens Against Government Waste, says he expects Congress to protect the program: "It's morphed into a giant opportunity for members of Congress to grab money for their states and districts so they can say they are doing something about drug trafficking. Suddenly 25% of the U.S. population is living in a high-intensity drug-trafficking area."

The Bush Administration and their conservative allies are entirely on the right side of this question. Besides demagoguing against drug traffickers, Democrats' main argument against the budget cuts holds that the money COULD be spent on better programs like drug courts and probation services. Yes, I'd reply, and the money spent on the Iraq War could have been spent to fix Social Security. So what? Opposing a cut by saying misspent money could be spent on something different than at present, really, isn't a very credible position if you can't defend the program on its merits. Apparently, D.C. liberals have become so reflexively anti-Bush that even worthy ideas from the White House now receive bitter, politicized disapprobation.

That's a shame. Even a stopped clock is right twice per day.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Lege avoided $1 billion in new prisons

The Texas Legislature's rejection of most prison-sentence-increase bills this session staved off $1 billion in new prison spending by the end of the decade, the Statesman's Mike Ward reports.
Texas could have faced spending well over $1 billion for new prisons in five years had just 11 of the most significant enhancement bills passed. Operating costs would have run another $113.7 million.

"I think there's a growing realization or acknowledgement in the Legislature that we simply can't afford to get tougher and tougher on penalties every session," said state Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, the former chairman of the House Corrections Committee. "Enhancing penalties may have been politically popular in the past, but we simply don't have the money or the (prison) space now to do it."
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, Dean of the Texas Senate, refused to pass new penalty increases through his committee this spring. The few increases that passed -- about a dozen, Ward reports, all with relatively low-volume projections regarding numbers of offenders -- were routed through other committees to avoid Whitmire's dictum.
With Whitmire having publicly announced his intent to kill all enhancement measures assigned to his committee, and the House subcommittee sitting on many proposals because the price tag was too high, sponsors scrambled to get their legislation through unlikely committees such as Business and Commerce, Health and Human Services and even Inter- governmental Relations.

"An awful lot of sponsors dropped their enhancements after they figured out it (getting their bills to other committees) was the only way to get their bill through," said Whitmire, who joined the Legislature in 1973. "I can't recall a session where it was like that, where we held the line like we did this time."
I certainly can't either. Whimire and company deserve tremendous credit for encouraging this shift in thinking and priorities. See prior Grits coverage opposing efforts to increase Texas prison sentences in 2005.
And, as always, see Solutions for Texas for much more on this subject.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Red light cameras going up in Dallas burbs

Photo: Dallas Morning News

This was inevitable.

The Dallas News reports that Rowlett, a Dallas suburb, is following the lead of Garland to begin giving tickets to red light runners using traffic cameras, after the Legislature failed to ban the practice in the wake of a sneak change in the law in 2003.

That year, the Texas House resoundingly defeated red light cameras in a floor vote, but then Rep. Linda Harper-Brown snuck in a "technical" amendment allowing cities to give "civil" fines for certain infractions, which turned out later, unbeknownst to her colleagues, to include red light running. Current Texas law bans giving Class C misdemeanor traffic tickets with cameras, since then the infraction is subject to criminal law which requires the officer writing the ticket to witness the traffic offense.

That nearly changed in 2005, when the Texas House again overwhelmingly voted to get rid of the cameras. But the Texas Senate upheld the civil fine scenario (Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis threatened to fillibuster amendments by Republican senators Estes and Seliger that would have taken the profit motive out of the cameras' financial mechanisms), so now other cities will inevitably want to get in on the cash cow.

That leaves Texas' running against the trend -- other states have been reconsidering red light camera schemes.

Testimony presented in committee cited studies by the state of Texas' own transportation experts predicting a greater reduction in red light running merely by increasing the length of yellow lights to around five seconds. By contrast, where red light cameras have been installed they actually increase injury accidents overall. For cash-strapped city councils, though, the revenue generation potential -- "
Garland had issued 46,575 tickets since the cameras were put into service in September 2003," the News reported -- makes the camera systems preferable to less intrusive, systemic fixes, particularly in an era when to advocate raising taxes is a political taboo.

Look for a lot more of these systems to pop up all over Texas soon. I'll try and keep track of them here as they do.