Saturday, September 30, 2006

RIO: First Steps Toward Re-Integrating Offenders

Q: If you can't find a job, if for months on end no one will hire you because of a felony record, and you need to eat and pay rent and fill the gas tank and feel a little self-respect, what do you suppose will happen?

A: Probably you'll go back to commiting crimes. What else? It's called "recidivism," and it represents the ultimate failure of the criminal justice system.

Improving prisoner re-entry programs and employment rates was a key public safety proposal I identified last week that would actually decrease crime. The Dallas Morning News reported recently on the main state program for finding employment for ex-felons: Texas' Project RIO, which stands for "Re-Integration of Offenders." ("Convicts get help going straight ... to work," Sept. 24)

A little less than half of the 70,000 Texas prisoners released every year go through the project RIO program, and maybe 2,000 have job interviews before they leave prison, reports the News' Dianne Solis. "BoDart Recruiters Inc., a Lubbock-based private job placement agency that works with Project RIO," appears to handle all the placement.
Employers in Project RIO ... receive the federal tax credit of $2,400 after the ex-felon earns his first $6,000. And the ex-offenders are bonded for free for six months against theft or some other form of employee dishonesty.

Many Project RIO participants will go through training programs that range from computer education to welding.

And special care is made for hands-on, tactile learning, as studies have shown that inmates have problems with visual-auditory teaching.

Charlotte Morton, regional administrator for the Windham School District, which runs the training program within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the program has proved its effectiveness by cutting down recidivism. But she acknowledges the hurdles.

"Seventy-five percent of these men have never held a job, a legal job, in their life," Ms. Morton says.

The pool of ex-offenders is large. Texas prisons hold about 152,000. Last fiscal year, the state, with one of the nation's highest incarceration rates, freed almost 70,000 inmates. During 2006, Project RIO saw 32,380 participants. More than 2,000 participated in job interviews before their release. ...

BoDart receives a placement fee of $500 to $2,500 per hire, paid by the employer.

RIO is a limited program, but a good first step. I definitely want to learn more about it, because no matter where Texas goes with expanding re-entry opportunities, it will have to build on the current infrastructure, and this is it. A few folks I know who work in the nonprofit sector seeking employment for inmates don't think much of it, though I've never been clear why. It does strike me that the model of having the employer pay a fee to hire the inmates is flawed. It also strikes me, though, that there's a lot of good material to work with to construct a more comprehensive program.

For starters, the federal tax credit should be made available more widely than just for employees placed by BoDart - I can't tell from this article if that's the case right now or not (maybe a helpful reader will know), but if it were it'd be a big incentive to employ ex-felons.

Think about all the major employers lobbying to expand legal immigration because they can't find employees to take low-wage jobs. If it were easier for them to access a federal tax credit of $2,400 for every employee they paid $6K, I'll bet ex-prisoners would begin to look as attractive as illegal immigrants, who in the current environment employers must assume may not be around next week.

I haven't looked into the legalities of it all, but it'd be nice if probation and parole officers were able to confer the tax credit on employers in addition to Project RIO - I've advocated holding probation and parole officers accountable for maximizing offender employment, and if that's to happen it's important to give them tools to succeed at the task.

I'm surprised more employers aren't interested in the tax credit. I think most employers look at the checkbox on an employment application that says 'have you ever been convicted of a felony' as purely a source of risk. If employers thought that checked box meant "here's a free $2,400 if the employee makes it six months," the incentives around hiring felons might significantly change.

MORE: See Project Rio's 2006-'07 Strategic Plan (pdf) for a lot more detail about the program.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Join Grits for Happy Hour Next Friday!

I need a drink, my friends, and I hope you'll join me for a happy hour next week in Austin, Friday Oct. 6 from 5:30-7:30-ish pm at Opal Divine's on West Sixth Street (within stumbling distance from my office at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition).

I hope all my friends and readers who can make it will come. We'll be celebrating Grits' two-year blogiversary. And lamenting my recent departure from ACLU of Texas (my last day is October 4). Even toasting my new granddaughter, oddly enough. We will drink together, see old friends, meet new ones, and speak of new beginnings.

Celebration, mourning, atonement - whatever themes you want to take from the event are there for the offering. Plus booze. What more are you looking for at the end of a long workweek in the capital city?

Friday, Oct. 6, at the end of the work day in Austin. Put it on your calendar right now so you won't forget!

I hope you can make it.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Laredo's Missing

Among many unsolved crimes on the border are 35 cases of missing American citizens from Laredo. One presumes they were either killed or kidnapped, likely across the river in Nuevo Laredo where there have been 155 murders by drug cartels so far this year alone. The SA Express News on Tuesday lauded new promises by authorities for increased binational cooperation to solve kidnappings and missing persons cases - I hope that will happen, but lately cooperating with US law enforcement hasn't been so healthy for Mexican police.

Perseverence by family members is really key to getting overwhelmed authorities to push these old cases to the top of the stack. Good for them for pursuing answers. One wishes the families luck and hopefully, in the end, peace of mind. Their plight is a reminder that for every victim of violence, there are many more victims left behind.

Too sensible to make much headway

Corrections Sentencing, who I've belatedly added to the blogroll, says my proposed public safety agenda for Texas was "intentionally provocative," and "too sensible to make much headway." I hope the latter's not true, but I liked the quote so much I've added it to Grits' sidebar. Thanks for the mention, Michael!

More immigration detention beds, for whom?

Here's the immigration conundrum in a nutshell:

The Department of Homeland Security estimates it will soon need to rent 28,000 new jail beds to house undocumented immigrants, if Congress will give up the money. Big bucks, the taxpayers are spending - we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars.

Simultaneously, South Texas farmers are losing money hand over fist, reports KRIS-TV in Corpus Christi, because there aren't enough immigrant pickers to harvest their crops. An onion grower quoted could only hire half his usual labor force, and so suffered signficant financial loss from leaving crops rotting in the fields.

What's wrong with this picture? DHS wants to rent 28,000 new jail beds for whom? These farmers' prospective employees. Reports KRIS-TV in Corpus Christi:
According to the Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, 53 percent of the hired crop labor force lacked authorization to work in the U.S. in 2001-02. Worker advocates and grower associations agree the actual figure is probably closer to 80 percent.

Three-quarters of the hired farm work force in the U.S. was born in Mexico. And more than 40 percent of crop workers were migrants, meaning they had traveled at least 75 miles in the previous year to get a farm job, the survey showed.
Without immigrant pickers, KRIS reports, growers say many US farms may close up shop and re-open in Mexico where they can get enough labor to harvest their crops. "A Mexican worker is going to pick these crops one way or the other, and the only question is whether they pick them here or across the border in Mexico," said a senior fellow from the conservative Manhattan Institute.

That is the logical outcome of increased enforcement, if it works. But it's too bad. And unnecessary. Demographics already had it in for American farming, as urbanization, globalization and technological advance combined to destroy probably most family farms in the last decades. But what grave harm justifies immigration policies that seem almost designed to kill off the industry entirely?

MORE on the subject from Open Veins.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Wanna put a drug dealer out of business? Tell his Mom

What to do when drug dealers no longer fear the police? Find someone they DO fear, like their mothers.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a new police tactic aimed at stopping youthful drug dealers: Informing their families combined with threats of prosecution. ("Novel police tactic puts drug markets out of business," Sept. 27). Offenders who agree to stop selling drugs are not arrested.

That will probably work well. Readers of the book Freakonomics will recall that a large proportion of drug dealers live with their parents. This ingeniously simple strategy takes advantage of that odd fact. Via the Austinist.

UPDATE: Blogging at Alternet, Lindsay Beyerstein writes:
I'm not sure exactly how I feel about this. On the one hand, any strategy that deescalates the War on Drugs is a good thing. Still, I'm not entirely comfortable with the police essentially blackmailing third parties to reign in their adult family members.
Maybe it is "blackmail," thinks me, but since police had the goods to prosecute the kids, anyway, I'm not sure I see the harm - if I were the drug dealing youth, or the kid's family, I'd rather have a choice than no choice and prosecution, which is the other option. Still, it certainly does put the family in a coercive situation - on the other hand, so did the kid's bad choices. This tactic might give some Moms or grandmothers leverage with their children they might not have on their own - using the strength of the system to reinforce family bonds rather than sever them. That seems to me like an improvement over the status quo for all concerned.

Border corruption hinders border security

The Laredo Morning Times poses a key question about border security ("Border Insecurity," Sept. 27): "How do you secure the homeland if some of those guarding the gates are dishonest?"

AP reporter Pauline Arrillaga noticed the same trend I've been harping on recently. Corruption among border law enforcement has reached epidemic levels, even as funding for border security has skyrocketed:

Consider: On the Texas border, at least 10 officers have been charged or sentenced in corruption schemes over the past year, including four Border Patrol agents — all assigned to the same highway checkpoint — who admitted taking money to let both drugs and migrants pass.

On the California border, at least nine immigration officers have been arrested or sentenced on corruption-related charges in the past 12 months. One of those convicted of smuggling in illegal immigrants turned out to be an illegal immigrant himself, who had used a fake birth certificate to get hired by the Border Patrol.

The numbers are a snapshot, but the picture is clear. There’s no shortage of “sure things” among U.S. immigration workers.

More than 600 criminal probes have been launched this fiscal year of immigration employees nationwide, according to internal affairs investigators at the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Complaints range from smuggling, bribery, extortion and fraud to sexual misconduct, assault and theft of government property. The accused, past and present, manned border crossings, highway checkpoints, airports. Others sat behind desks in places like Orange County, Calif., and Fairfax, Va., charged with taking bribes to provide naturalization papers or work permits to ineligible applicants.

Though the cases involve only a fraction of the overall immigration work force, some question whether the government is doing enough to root out corruption in the ranks.

“After the next attack, when they find out that an employee was bribed by a terrorist or bribed by a spy, it’s going to be too late,” said Michael Maxwell, an ex-police chief who headed internal affairs at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that adjudicates visa, naturalization and asylum applications. “In fact, I think it is too late.”

Some corrupt officers, Arrillaga reports, can make the equivalent of an entire year's salary in a single shift.

That's why I've argued that new border security funds should first go to Internal Affairs units or new specialized teams to investigate police corruption. Otherwise - we're throwing good money after bad. It only takes one corrupt cop to undermine the work of hundreds of others. Giving the same failed agencies more money without fixing THAT problem first won't help much.

RELATED: Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon says Mexico's governments at all levels are overwhelmed by drug-related violence and corruption.

More jail cells for Houston?

The Harris County Jail is still overcrowded, reports the Houston Chronicle ("Crowded jails get top billing at budget review," Sept. 27):
The sheriff's office is projecting its jail population will average nearly 9,800 inmates this year, more than 1,330 above jail capacity, says a report by the county's budget office.
The Harris County Commissioners Court is considering a massive jail expansion as part of a proposed $666 million bond proposal that will go before voters in November 2007. See prior Grits coverage of Harris County's jail overcrowding crisis, and Grits' suggested best practices to reduce jail overcrowding.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Mexican meth: 'I'm afraid what we did was create a monster'

It's official - well-intentioned efforts to restrict homemade meth labs have done nothing to reduce the supply of meth. The only difference: Feuding drug cartels have a new income source to buy even more powerful weapons with which to blow each other to hell.

Welcome to your de facto foreign policy on Texas' southern border, courtesy of the Texas Legislature and US drug control policy.

Rep. Peña points to this Dallas News article ("Narcotics seizures on rise along the border," Sept. 25) by David McLemore describing a situation about which Grits has been sounding the alarm for some time - the crackdown on bathtub-gin style homemade meth handed the lucrative market to Mexican smugglers. The stuff they produce turns out to be purer and even more addictive. Whoops!

Reports McLemore:

The illicit drug marking the biggest increase – and the most alarming, authorities said – is the smokable form of methamphetamine, known as "ice."

This fiscal year, customs inspectors at eight ports of entry between Brownsville and Del Rio have seized 683 pounds of meth as of July 5, the most recent month for which data are available. That compares with 627 pounds for all of fiscal 2005.

DPS agents seized 123 pounds of Mexican meth in the first quarter of fiscal 2006, compared with 28.8 in the same period in the previous. fiscal year.

In June, DEA administrator Karen Tandy told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that about 80 percent of the meth used in the U.S. is distributed by Mexican trafficking organizations and comes from large "super labs" built on the Mexican side of the border. Three are located at Monterrey, Ciudad Acuña and Piedras Negras.

The rise of Mexican ice – purer and more addictive than the meth produced in mom-and-pop clandestine labs in Texas – is due in part to the controlled sale of over-the-counter remedies containing pseudoephedrine, a chemical used in the manufacture of homegrown methamphetamine.

A state law passed in August 2005 limited individual sales of cold medicines to 6 grams, roughly two packages of cold pills, each month. Retailers were also required to move cold medicines behind the counter and record the names of purchasers.

This year, Congress passed a law similar to the Texas law, requiring all medicines containing pseudoephedrine be kept behind the counter and sold in limited amounts.

"I'm afraid what we did was create a monster," Dr. [Jane Carlisle] Maxwell said. "For it opened the doors for the Mexican drug organizations to get into meth manufacture in a big way.

"The Mexican meth is a very scary thing," said Dr. Maxwell. "That could mean people will get addicted much faster. And meth addicts tend to become paranoid and more violent. It's a threat to the entire community."

Finally, the media is beginning to pick up on what's really happened here - the pseudoephedrine restrictions in Oklahoma, Texas and now the rest of the country have had zero effect on supply, increased the purity of the drug, and, worst of all, shoved tens of millions of profits into the pockets of already exceedingly wealthy drug smuggling outfits.

That's not just a failed policy, it's a catastrophic one - another case of criminal justice policy achieving the opposite result from lawmakers' stated hopes. That's the result of using the criminal justice system to treat something that's really a public health problem: drug abuse.

Maybe next session the same lawmakers will focus on proven solutions to meth addiction and the very real problems affecting Texans' public safety.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Real Public Safety Agenda for Texas, Part I

I've been thinking a lot about how glaringly, if counterintuitively unproductive so many of our "incarcerate now, think later" policies in Texas (and the United States) have become, and how equally glaring is the lack of a clear, articulable alternative to that vacuum of ideas.

What follows is the first installment of a list of proposals, most of which would have to be enacted by the Texas Legislature, that I think would make a real, substantive difference to actually improving public safety, not just symbolic changes designed to "send a message." These ideas are aimed to actually improve the lives of Texans and reduce crime in the short and long term. In some cases, they're designed to expressly counter the criminal justice system's excesses where it has destroyed lives and corrupted civil society.

I'll be adding to this as we head toward the 80th Texas Legislature, but here's a start: What would state leaders be doing if they really cared about public safety?
1. Train 10,000 new teachers to perform individual training with dyslexic children, and increase funding for early testing for dyslexia. That's the low end of an estimate for how many are needed. Dyslexics make up 10% of children who are tested but 30% of Texas inmates, and illiteracy is a key indicator increasing the likelihood of imprisonment.

2. Create new programs to support children of incarcerated parents, including mentoring, tutoring, counseling, part-time jobs and access to social services. Without intervention, children of incarcerated parents are 6-8 times more likely than their peers to wind up in prison. Fund the programs that exist, including privately operated charities if they're effective and accountable, plus create new ones modeled on successful programs in Texas and elsewhere.

3. Cut probation lengths in half. Most probationers who re-offend do so in the first two years, the majority of those (says Tony Fabelo) within the first eight months. Texas has the longest probation lengths in the nation. Reducing them would reduce caseloads so probation officers could increase supervision during that most-important early period. (This will require revamping funding for probation departments, which are currently paid by the head.)

4. Give probationers ways to earn their way off probation early through good behavior and completion of assigned programs, reducing caseloads and giving strong, personal incentives for compliance with probation rules. HB 2193 would have this for some offenders, but the change should be made for all but so-called 3g offenders, or those who've committed more dangerous, violent crimes.

5. Use offenders' employment status and recidivism rates as outcome measures by which probation and parole officers are judged, as well as two of several factors for how probation and parole department funding is determined.

6. Hire 3,000 more guards to staff current prisons before building anymore.

7. Allow local governments to operate syringe exchange programs to promote personal responsibility, reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C and provide greater opportunities for outreach to hardcore drug users.

8. New money for border law enforcement should first go either to Internal Affairs Bureaus (instead of for patrols and equipment) or to a new AG-run investigative squad aimed at cleaning up law enforcement corruption.

9. Force pardon and parole board to adhere to its own guidelines and release more low-risk non-violent offenders to make way for more dangerous ones.

10. Fund re-entry programs designed to help ex-offenders get and keep a job, housing and stay out of trouble when they get out of prison, especially for the first 1-2 years.
It sounds like a lot of new money, but it's all a lot lot cheaper than building and staffing three new prisons.

Mexico's President Fox tells inconvenient truth about homicide rates: Ours are worse

Pot, meet kettle ... I think you'll have a lot in common ...

Speaking on the subject of rising crime, Mexican President Vincente Fox on Friday ("Mexican leader knocks US crime rates," AP, Sept. 23) made the same point I did the day after I returned from my vacation in Mexico: Border homicides may dominate the headlines (even the blogs), but overall, especially in the interior, murders are much less common in Mexico than in the United States. Said Fox:
"There is work to be done on both sides. As we've always said, it's a shared responsibility," Fox said while traveling in Puerto Penasco, a tourist destination in the northern state border of Sonora that's referred to in Arizona as Rocky Point.

"I saw that crime rates in the United States increased 3.5 percent so far this year. So they have their own problems," Fox said. "And with numbers of homicides, it's better we don't speak about them, because, even though they show up on the front pages every day, there are many fewer here than there."

He's right. By any statistical measure, you're far less likely to be murdered in Mexico City, much less in Xalapa, Puebla or Guanajuato, than you are in Dallas, Houston, Washington D.C., or most any major American city. As I wrote on August 19 (before the most recent wave of drug-related homicides on the border, in Acapulco, and in Michoacan):
From various estimates I've seen, Mexico City, which has a much-touted reputation for crime, averages between 2.1 and 2.5 murders per day. Let's assume the higher end of the range is correct, and that would mean about 900 murders per year occur in Mexico City. By comparison, Houston had 326 murders in 2005, down from more than 600 per year in the early 90s.

But then consider that according to the 2000 census Houston has around 2 million residents, compared to about 20 million people in Mexico City. If Mexico City's murder rate were as high as Houston's, they'd see an astonishing 3,200+ murders per year.

So where should Americans fear for their lives most when traveling? In Mexico, where there's no death penalty deterrent and a bad reputation for crime, or in Houston which sends more people to death row than any other city and whose mayor touts public safety as his top priority?
Despite recent high profile drug-related violence, I still stand by that analysis, especially regarding the Mexican interior. But border towns, especially on the Mexican side, are a different matter - there all hell is breaking loose. Fairly large Mexican cities just across the Rio Grande like Juarez and Nuevo Laredo teeter on the brink of lawlessness. Police and press appear increasingly intimidated or bought off.

Wars between drug cartels and one another, much less drug cartels vs. the police, are important not only because of the growing volume of the body count but because, when the bodies stop surfacing, it will mean that a single criminal organization has finally gained control of the $50 billion smuggling trade across the whole length of the US-Mexico border. The frenzy for border security will have unwittingly helped create perhaps the single largest, most lucrative organized crime operation in history.

A cynic's guess: Then they'll call the reduction in murders a "success" and move on to invading Iran. Via Cop the Truth.

Snitching critics here and there

Two items from the West Coast on snitching merit readers' attention:
  • First, see ACLU of Northern California's 12-page letter (pdf) to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice regarding confidential informants, including several recommendations for preventing wrongful convictions. Good job, folks! More on this later, but I wanted to get the link out there. Meanwhile,
  • CrimProf Bog reports on an upcoming discussion of snitch testimony between an ADA, an exoneree, and a law prof, sponsored by the Northern California Innocence Project next week (Oct. 5) in Santa Clara. Obviously I can't attend, but hopefully some West Coast legal blogger can go and let us know what's said. (Or I'd encourage any blog-less reader in attendance to take notes and send them my way - if you did I'd post highlights.)
In other snitch-related news, I understand the estimable Sasha Natapoff is working on another op ed on informants - I'm looking forward to it. Her piece in Slate, "Bait and Snitch,"was a big hit, widely linked and cited, while her major academic article on the subject, which Grits linked and discussed here, remains perhaps the most important recent written work on the topic - e.g., it was frequently cited in the footnotes of ACLU of Northern California's letter.

Speaking of Natapoff, this summer I posted about her exciting motion idea requesting a "reliability hearing" for informants similar to those required of other compensated witnesses like "experts." Indeed, requiring such hearings by statute was one of the recommendations in the ACLU letter. Natapoff never got a ruling on that motion, she informed me, but a couple of Grits commenters said they planned to give it a shot - I'd love to hear the result if anybody ever actually tried it in court and got a ruling.

Mendacious snitches are the single most common cause of wrongful convictions. If a judge won't order such hearings, legislatures should require them by statute.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Bazookas, grenades, corrupt police and the worsening border crisis

More police corruption and border violence, this time on the Mexican side:

Two ex-police officers who allegedly work for the Sinaloa drug cartel have been arrested in Monterrey, Mexico after a shoot out with current officers on Thursday, reports Sean Matteson in the SA Express News' Beyond the Border blog:
A 30-day arraigo places the suspects in legal limbo. The tactic has become common in Mexico's war on organized criminals. It gives investigators a chance to build charges that will stick in Mexico's famously slippery criminal justice system.

Not surprisingly, legal experts question the effectiveness and constitutionality of such quasi-legal detentions.

When the 30-day lockdown ends, the suspects will still face federal investigators over their alleged possession of a controlled handgun.
As Grits discussed last week, Monterrey was recently the scene of the shocking assassination of the chief organized crime investigator for the state of Nuevo Leon, a key American ally. On the US side, boosted enforcement has been stymied by a plague of police corruption. Now current cops are shooting it out with former cops in the streets of Monterrey.

Friday night in Nuevo Laredo, US-trained turncoat Mexican special forces personnel ("Los Zetas"), who work for the rival Gulf Cartel, engaged in a dramatic shootout in an upscale neighborhood using bazookas and grenades ("Shootout rocks ritzy part of Nuevo Laredo," SA Express News, Sept. 23):

News of it was published only in the newspaper El Norte of Monterrey and the Web site

El Norte identified one of the injured as Guadalupe Torres, a state ministerial police officer.

Two unconfirmed versions of the attack circulated. One is that the battle was between rival drug cartels. Another is that the military, acting on fresh intelligence, raided a house.

The Associated Press, quoting an anonymous source, reported that officers with the Federal Preventative Police were involved in the shootout, battling alleged drug dealers.

What appeared for sure was that the victims were members of Los Zetas, the ruthless enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, one U.S. official familiar with the shooting said.

Such violence is worsening not in spite of the surge in US-side border security, but because of it. Good intentions notwithstanding, clearly everything we've done so far to secure the border isn't working.

What a mess.

UPDATE (9/25): A Dallas News followup reports that the gun battle Friday night was between Los Zetas and members of the Mexican military, acting on a tip from the rival Sinaloa Cartel ("Cartel warfare blows up," Sept. 25):
The Zetas have again become entrenched in Nuevo Laredo, and they practically control the movement of people through an intricate web of spies, checkpoints and skillful use of technology, provoking an extraordinary cross-border human exodus, U.S. and Mexican authorities say.

Last year, U.S. and Mexican authorities reported that the number of Zetas was falling rapidly, the result of both government pressure and ongoing warfare with rival cartels.

But the shadowy group of elite former military officers, soldiers and others has now grown to more than 500 nationwide, with hundreds more in a support network throughout the country, U.S. officials said. Some of those networks are deepening their ties to Texas cities, including Houston and Dallas, with the help of Texas gang members.

A 40-minute shootout late Friday between Zetas and members of the Mexican military – reportedly acting on tips from the Sinaloa cartel – involved grenades and bazookas in a residential neighborhood of Nuevo Laredo, U.S. authorities said. The firefight killed four people suspected of drug trafficking – believed to be Zetas – and injured at least four others, U.S. authorities said.

The Zetas, enforcers of the Gulf cartel, are battling rival members of the Sinaloa cartel for drug distribution routes, including the Interstate 35 corridor into Texas.

U.S. authorities said the Gulf cartel has established training camps in the states of Tamaulipas – its base of operations – and Nuevo León, both of which border Texas, and in the central state of Michoacán. The organization is recruiting former Guatemalan special forces military personnel known as Kaibiles and members of the notorious cross border gangs known as Maras, including the violent Mara Salvatruchas with ties to El Salvador.

Harris County: 43% of DWI offenders choose jail over probation

Probation or incarceration - which would you choose?

For 43% of DWI offenders in Harris County (Houston), incarceration turns out to be the preferred alternative, reports the Houston Chronicle ("Hit with DWI, many pick jail," Sept. 23):

The prosecutor offers a simple deal: Instead of going to trial, you can plead guilty to driving while intoxicated and get probation. That's an easy one, right?

For a surprising number of first-time DWI offenders in Harris County, however, the choice isn't so clear.

Facing the stiff costs and strict rules that come with probation, thousands of convicted drivers in recent years have decided spending time behind bars is the better option.

And in a county already struggling with crowded jails, that's a disturbing trend. Sentences can be short enough to mean losing only one weekend and a vacation day, but some end up behind bars as long as half a year.

"Because of the number of sanctions and what the defendants feel is the 'hassle factor,' many opt not to go on probation," said County Criminal Court at Law Judge Sherman Ross. "Financially, it's more expensive."

The choice of jail time also may mean fewer options for treating the alcohol problems that land many drivers there.

"Probation has become so onerous that there's no incentive to take it," said Bob Wessels, manager of the county criminal courts at law. "If we really want people in treatment, we aren't providing incentives."

Of the 6,685 DWI defendants in the county who accepted plea agreements last year, 2,894 (43 percent) took jail time rather than probation, Wessels said. In 2000, fewer than 10 percent (479 of 5,034) chose jail.

No wonder the Harris County Jail is overcrowded - the probation system is broken. Clearly many Harris County DWI defendants believe probation is actually tougher to complete than a jail sentence.

That's probably an accurate, rational analysis of the situation: As I've reported in the past, Harris County leads the state in revoked probationers. About half of probation revocations statewide occur for technical violations of rules, not because of a new crime. Texas has the longest probation terms in the country, and probationers have virtually no way to earn their way off supervision early through good behavior. Defendants can stay on probation as long as ten years.

I wonder if many Houston attorneys advise their clients to refuse probation, or if defendants have figured out these counterintuitive incentives through more grassroots, viral sources? Chronicle writer Brian Rogers quoted at least one local attorney who is actively giving such advice:
[Robert] Pelton, a defense attorney for 31 years, said he generally advises clients to take the jail time because probation can be so arduous, financially and otherwise. Probation for DWI carries another risk: If it's revoked, a judge can pile on even more jail time than originally would have been ordered.

This, added to the fact that Harris County has the highest per capita rate of probation revocations in Texas, means it may make more sense to burn some vacation time behind bars, Pelton said.

Those incentives are perverse. Too often our criminal justice system focuses on what "message" we're sending rather than real-world public policy outcomes. In this case, if the goal is to reduce the number of people who endanger the public by driving drunk, being "tough" on probationers has left Harris County with an overcrowded jail and DWI offenders less likely to receive treatment.

That is the most expensive, least beneficial result for these offenders - the worst possible outcome for the most money.

Dallas' Letot Center combats prostitution among runaways girls

Via Cigars, Donuts and Coffee, here's a promising program in Dallas I hadn't heard of before, one other cities or urban counties ought to replicate aimed at diverting runaways, particularly child prostitutes, from the juvenile justice system ("Teens say suspect their pimp," Houston Chronicle, Sept. 21):
Child prostitutes in Dallas are taken for treatment to the Letot Center, where 73 percent of the children have not been arrested or returned to prostitution a year after treatment, [Center superintendent Sam] Quattrochi said.

Houston has no such treatment center, although Quattrochi said he has discussed the creation of one with local officials. Without a treatment center, children arrested in Houston go through the juvenile criminal system and usually end up back on the streets, he said.

In an interview outside the courtroom, Quattrochi estimated that 400 to 600 children work as prostitutes on any given night on Houston streets.

Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Bertram Isaacs, he testified that children land on the streets because both parents are in prison, both have died or the children have run away from intolerable conditions at home. ...

Pimps watch for children who are "hungry for adult attention, for excitement, for freedom," he said. They promise the children that they will be their protector, provider and their family, Quattrochi said.

Child prostitutes commonly refer to their pimps as folks or family, lover or husband, he said.

In my experience it's precisely those kids with no family support - either because their parents are in prison or dead or addicts - who wind up incarcerated long term at TYC. Mostly these kids need discipline, love (which courts and cops aren't great at providing, but pimps are good at feigning), and above all sufficient social services to survive without a traditional nuclear family.

For poor kids many such social supports must be ordered by a judge, so it's not until they get in trouble with the law that the system seeks to help them. Even then, most cities don't have a specialized facility like the Letot Center, which partners with Dallas County to provide services to runaways.

"The Letot Center is a coeducational, short-term residential facility that provides assessment, crisis intervention, emergency shelter care, foster care, non-residential counseling and referral services" for runaways, truant kids and their families. If we really care about preventing crime, Texas needs more like it, as well as more and better programs aimed at children of incarcerated parents. The best public safety outcome would be to figure out how to postively influence these girls' lives before they wind up prostituting themselves on the streets.

What banned books have you read?

See ACLU of Texas' 10th annual Banned Books report (pdf) to find out which Texas school libraries faced challenges last year over books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, or The Lemming Condition. This year the report contains an exclusive interview with Judy Blume, one of the state's most frequently banned authors. What banned books have you read lately?

UPDATE: Thanks the Debbie Russell of the ACLU Central Texas chapter for this reminder in the comments:

In Austin, please join us Wednesday evening for a special event:

In conjunction with Banned Books Week, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, the Central Texas ACLU is hosting an evening of short readings from some of the "scandalous" books that made the list. Come celebrate freedom with community leaders who care about uncensored access to knowledge!

ACLU-Central Texas Chapter hosts
Reception & Readings from Banned Books
Wednesday, September 27, 6:30 pm at

Brave New Books
1904 Guadalupe
(In the basement of the Chase Bank building across
from the Dobie Mall. Parking in rear and in the Dobie garage.)

  • Lee Leffingwell, City of Austin councilmember/longtime supporter of the Banned Books Project
  • Kate Messer, senior editor, Austin Chronicle
  • Nelson Linder, president, NAACP-Austin
  • Brenda Sendejo, UT Department of Anthropology & Center for Mexican American Studies
  • James Canup, development director, ACLU-Texas
  • Olga Herrera, graduate student, UT Dept. of English
  • Bob Jensen, professor, UT School of Journalism
  • Tamara Hoover, former art teacher, AISD
Go here for more info, or call 573-6194

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Get Grits for Breakfast by Email or RSS

I'm taking a blogging day off, but wanted to once again remind readers of Grits' new email subscription service. Dozens have already signed up and you can too. Receive Grits posts from the previous day each morning in your email.

Enter your Email

Powered by FeedBlitz
Why not try it out? You can unsubscribe at anytime. A Grits site survey earlier this year found 30% of respondents would like to receive posts via email if the service were available.

As always, you can still use Grits' RSS feed to track new posts - for example, on a personalized Google or Yahoo home page or other RSS reader. (That's my own preference. If you're an information junkie, I highly recommend using RSS feeds to personalize your Google Home and News pages.)

More Grits mas tarde.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Border enforcement sees more corruption

This is becoming repetitive: Another Border Patrol agent has been arrested for waiving through trucks packed with marijuana and cocaine at an El Paso checkpoint, reports the El Paso Times ("Feds: Agent took money, let drugs pass checkpoint," Sept. 20).
Arturo Arzate Jr., 47, was arrested Friday as part of an on-going multi-agency investigation that included undercover agents, said Special Agent Andrea Simmons, a spokeswoman for the FBI in El Paso.

Border Patrol spokesman Doug Mosier said Arzate has been with the agency since 1985 and has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the case. ...

According to a federal criminal complaint, Arzate was allegedly paid $50 per kilo of marijuana and $1,000 per kilo of cocaine he allowed to pass through the checkpoint between El Paso and Carlsbad. The document alleges Arzate met with smugglers to plan when he could allow contraband to pass.

Paying the guy on a per-weight basis - that's ballsy. Allegedly this fellow wasn't just taking bribes, he'd become part of the racket, actually helping plan the drug distribution routes and times and taking a percentage cut.

This case points out the fallacy of the notion that heightened enforcement can stop the flow of drugs across the border. I don't care how many Border Patrol agents you hire, it only takes one corrupt cop at any given checkpoint to wave through thousands of pounds of dope per day. At $1,000 per kilo of coke, some border guard will inevitably take the bait, particularly those facing the dreaded choice: Plata o plomo.

Cocaine missing from LaSalle Sheriff's Office

I'm always misplacing my hat or sunglasses, so I can empathize with LaSalle County Sheriff Robbie Thomas. He has trouble losing things, too. Reported the San Antonio Express News ("Missing cocaine has sheriff under scrutiny," Sept. 6):
Thomas walked into his department's evidence room in the cramped fourth floor of the county courthouse last February to get some cocaine to use in a sting operation with the FBI.

He couldn't find it.

The disappearance of two packages of cocaine exposed the Sheriff's Department's inadequate procedures for handling narcotics: There were no procedures.

Whoops! Damn. I hate it when that happens.

A 'reliable,' 'trustworthy' informant

See Radley Balko's profile of the snitch in the Cory Maye case in Mississippi.

Fort Bend County tests stronger probation

What is meant by "stronger probation"?

Basically closer supervision of probationers by the courts, and graduated sanctions for so-called "technical violations" instead of automatically revoking offenders to prison. The Houston Chronicle reports how Fort Bend County uses specialized courts to help offenders succeed on probation ("A close watch on probationers," Sept. 20). The courts not only reduce recidivism, they help combat the current overincarceration crisis at Texas prisons.

Statewide, 55 percent of felony probation revocations are caused by technical violations of probation, not the commission of another felony, said Leighton Iles, director of the county's probation department.

Technical violations can include failing a drug test or not paying court fees or restitution.

Iles said the special sanctions court is designed to reduce technical violations and cut down probation revocations. Iles said that in the five years leading up to 2004, Fort Bend County averaged 211 probation revocations annually.

Even the state's most prominent victims' rights group praised the idea. Dianne Clements, president of Justice For All, "thinks a program that could free up precious prison space for more serious criminals is a good thing. 'What we hope is that it will allow for those violent offenders to be kept in prison longer,' Clements said." Good thinking.

MORE: See Austin Statesman's coverage from last year of the Fort Bend special sanction court, and Grits coverage of new state funds available for creating more of them.

No sex in prison, just HIV?

Would Texas save money on healthcare for HIV positive inmates by distributing condoms in prison?

Says Craig Malisow at the Houston Press: "Texas prisons say they can’t allow condoms because they don’t allow sex. So they don’t need condoms. They just need $12 million a year to treat all the HIV-positive prisoners." Statistics are low-ballled because of a lack of testing, but according to TDCJ:
there are 2,676 of them out of a total Texas prison population of 152,158. Nationally, the prevalence of HIV among prisoners is five times that of the general public.

As of August, 808 HIV-positive offenders were released from Texas prisons. Forty percent of all HIV-positive offenders released this year will wind up in Houston.
Why not distribute condoms in prison?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Michoacan Narco Ballad

A helpful reader emails to point me to this morning's NPR story, Mexico's Drug Wars Leave Rising Death Toll, plus their web-extra 3-minute audio slideshow on the subject of Mexican drug cartels in the state of Michoacan. It's a bit sensationalist, perhaps, but then when drug cartels go into night clubs and dump bags of human heads on the floor, that's pretty sensational.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports that, with so many people employed by the drug trade, the cartels are becoming local folk heroes in many quarters, with dramatic ballads or "narco-corridos" sold by street vendors on homemade CDs. Here's an example:

A Michoacan Narco Ballad

While the drug violence has everyone worried, the drug kingpins in Michoacan are actually folk heroes. Although they are illegal, go to any market in Michoacan and you can find CDs with homegrown narco-corridos, ballads that glorify drug dealers and the drug trade. ... (GFB note: An audio file of this catchy tune is on NPR's web page for this story.)

'Michoacan Harvest'
by El Cejas ('the eye-browed one')

The product we offer is first quality,
You can sample it if you want.
Harvested in Michoacán,
It’s pure goat’s tail.

It’s part of the best product,
We have picked from our land.
In Michoacán’s soil,
We harvest tons of it.

In our green meadows we plant the ‘evil weed’ -- hierba mala,
And it’s transformed into millions in the United States.

They say the mafia dies,
And that is a big lie
The product has been ‘internationalised’ to a large scale,
And our Mexican land gets more and more famous.

In La Ruana and El Aguaje,
They have changed their crops.
They used to plant corn,
But those times are gone.

Today, you can only see the green tops,
Of that very expensive grass.

There are many who criticize us,
I am going to give them an advice.
If this was an easy business,
anyone would be involved in it.
It is not a matter of having pants,
one has to wear them well.

With these lines, I say goodbye,
They expect me in Tijuana,
As I finish delivering this parcel
And I am back at La Ruana
To prepare another load for some friends in Atlanta.

Prison Break - Live!

If only Fox TV were there to film it - these guys seemed to have a less elaborate, more effective plan than on the TV series. Here's another incident to remind us that police corruption isn't just a problem on the Mexican side of the border.

The Edinburg police officer charged this spring with drug smuggling (who Grits reported on here) busted out of a private prison in South Texas Tuesday along with five gang members, according to the McAllen Monitor, ("Authorities suspect prison break was inside job," Sept. 21), possibly with inside help from someone at the facility. "They were among approximately 950 inmates held at the East Hidalgo Detention Center, a federal prison privately run by a Louisiana company, LCS Correctional Services."

The facility has a history of similar problems. "Two inmates — one held on a capital murder charge — also escaped from the La Villa facility in 2000, when it was run by another company named Texson. LCS took over the complex from Texson in 2001, when LCS officials say the previous owner went bankrupt. In that incident, authorities apprehended one escapee within 24 hours, but took two more years to apprehend the second," the Monitor reported.

What would we do without immigrant workers?

According to the US Chamber of Commerce: "Immigrants now supply from 12% to 22% of our workforce in highly skilled occupations like medicine, engineering, the physical sciences, and computers and mathematics. Foreign-born workers also hold a quarter of the jobs in construction, a third in building cleaning and maintenance, and 44% in agriculture. With unemployment at just 4.8%, serious labor shortages in some communities and sectors, and 77 million baby boomers preparing to retire, it is clear that we need these workers—now and in the future." Via Bender's Immigration Bulletin.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hour To Take A Different Road

All good things must come to an end. Today I handed in my two weeks notice to the ACLU of Texas and will no longer be working for the organization after that time. This is a really sad time for me - I've worked closely with ACLUTX for six years, and with some of the key people involved for nearly a decade.

What a depressing day. I hope there aren't too many people out there who feel like I'm letting them down with this decision. I know there will be some, and you have my heartfelt apologies.

Grits for Breakfast will continue as always (nobody was paying me to do this, anyway), and I'll likely continue performing work on similar topics over at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, where I've been officing for the past year.

With all that said, find below the unexpurgated resignation letter I submitted this morning to mi jefe, ACLU of Texas executive director Will Harrell:
Sept. 20, 2006

To Will Harrell and to all it may concern,

Please accept this notice of my resignation as Police Accountability Project Director for the ACLU of Texas, effective two weeks from today. I am leaving both for personal and professional reasons - particularly regarding recent changes in the scope of my work authority that, in my saddened opinion, have rendered it impossible for me to perform my job in a manner required to achieve the Project's goals.

I simply see no alternative, at least for now, but to say "goodbye" to the ACLU, not as a member, of course, but in any official capacity working for the Texas affiliate. Mexican painter Alfredo Casteñeda put the matter more eloquently than I could in his poem, "Hour To Take A Different Road":

The road is shorter,
it has been straightened
and the useless curves smoothed out,
they have made it more logical,
1111111111111111more direct,
1111111111111111more convenient,
11111maybe even more beautiful ...
... but it no longer passes through our town.

I have appreciated the opportunity to work with ACLU of Texas these past six years, the last two as half-time staff. I wish the organization continued success until, perhaps, our roads meet again down the line. Suerte, amigos.


Scott Henson
Director, Police Accountability Project

Attend event in Houston on juvenile justice

If you live in Houston and have minor-aged children, especially if they've ever had scrapes with the juvenile justice system, you may want to attend this forum next month sponsored by the good folks at the Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles (TCAJJ, pronounced "T-Cage").

Here are the details from an email I received this morning from past-Grits guest blogger Isela Gutierrez, the coordinator for TCAJJ:
October 5th Forum on Juvenile Justice: Please join Houston TCAJJ members for a “Forum on Juvenile Justice- Houston, Harris County and the State of Texas. ” This community teach-in will feature youth, parents, community representatives and elected officials putting their hearts and minds together to dialogue about how to create a stronger, more effective and responsive juvenile justice system.

The event will be held 6-8 PM, Thursday, October 5th, 2006 at the United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast ( 50 Waugh Drive, Houston, TX 77007) . Directions can be accessed from the TCAJJ website. We anticipate an energizing, entertaining and informative evening where you can learn more about these issues from the rich tapestry of testimonies and reports, views and perspectives directly from people who know: elected officials, mental health professionals, parents of incarcerated youth, formerly incarcerated youth, youth advocates, and public policy experts.

Sponsors include: Blackout Arts Collective, Children Defense Fund-TX, Children At-Risk, Fifth Ward Enrichment Program, French Town Civic Association, Ministers Advisory Council, Inc., No More Victims, Southwest Juvenile Defender Center , Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles, and Voices of the Future.
The email included a flyer attached promoting the issue which I couldn't find on the web, so I reproduce its contents here here:

Forum on Juvenile Justice:
Houston, Harris County and Texas

Thursday, October 5, 2006
6:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m.
United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast
50 Waugh Drive
Houston, TX 77007

While many social issues are vying for time and attention, the importance of alternative community programs for children cannot be denied. This forum will bring together the minds of youth, parents, community representatives and elected officials to discuss the juvenile justice system and access to mental health treatment, which has become a concern in Harris County. This forum is open to anyone who would like to participate in an informative dialogue between the community and state and local leaders.

Panelists will include:

  • Rep. Harold Dutton, Chair, House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues

  • Rep. Sylvester Turner, Chair, Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice;

  • Judge Eric Andell

  • Constable Victor Trevino

For More Information, Please Contact:

Ernest McMillan at 713-229-8353 or

Mandi Sheridan at 713-869-7740 or

Malikah Marrus at 713-743-1385 or

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Nuther Dallas inmate forgotten for months behind bars

With astonishing frequency, the Dallas County Jail appears to lose a significant number of its prisoners in the system, often for months at a time. As described in a recent Dallas News article ("Jail mixup strands man behind bars," Sept. 18), the most recent case is just the latest of dozens such incidents. This time it was a man jailed for three months with no charges against him at all; in other cases, seat-belt violators wound up lost in the system for days at at time.

The tail end of the Dallas News piece focused on possible legislative solutions:
Keith Hampton, legislative chairman of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the law should be changed so people cannot be jailed on offenses that aren't punishable with jail time, like Class C misdemeanors.

His other solution is to create a strong deterrent, such as allowing damages against the county.

"Have a penalty built in, like an automatic dismissal if the person basically was lost. I guarantee you people won't get lost anymore after that," he said.

Those would be a good start, but in some ways preveailing political winds are blowing in the other direction. The Texas Legislature twice tried to restrict police officers' authority to arrest people for non-jailable offenses (2001 and 2003), but Gov. Perry vetoed both bills.

Benders' Kowalski a great immigration resource

I don't have time to blog about all the interesting immigration-related stories that Austin lawyer Dan Kowalksi puts up on his Bender's Immigration Bulletin, but if you're interested in the subject, you should check his site often. I've never met Dan, but he's occasionally been kind enough to link to Grits posts. Mostly he links to scholarly and MSM articles and government documents from around the web; it's fairly comprehensive and a great resource.

CCA's Sharon Keller outvoted 8-1: Innocent woman released, seeks custody of child

I've said before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is Texas' worst court, and Texas Monthly agrees. (To be fair, the matter has been the subject of some debate - several courts are in the running.)

Much of the CCAs reputation for unfairness can be attributed to the court's leadership, especially Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, a former assistant district attorney from Dallas whose reflexive tendency to side with the prosecution is, without embellishment, legendary among legal circles. The case of Brandy Del Briggs provides another example why, via the Texas Moratorium Network:
The Houston Chronicle is reporting ["Briggs facing all new struggles," Sept. 18] that Brandy Del Briggs is seeking to regain custody of the child she had lost custody of after she was wrongfully convicted of murdering her other child. Briggs was exonerated and released after spending five years in prison wrongfully convicted of killing her other child. This is another case to add to the list of cases of innocent people that Sharon Keller voted to keep in prison. In this case, Keller was the only member of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who voted to deny relief to Brandy Del Briggs. The [December 2005] vote on the court was 8-1 with Keller being the one. Everyone else voted to overturn the conviction on grounds that the "applicant's attorney failed to adequately investigate this case under the standards set out in Strickland v. Washington and Wiggins v. Smith." Keller argued in her dissent that the trial counsel was not ineffective, but that he was following a "reasonable trial strategy."

Despite Keller's attempts to keep an innocent woman in prison, Brandy Del Briggs was released in December 2005. Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal later dropped charges against her because he could not prove she was guilty. [...]

Experts who reviewed the records for her appellate attorney, Charles Portz, said a birth defect had caused a bacterial infection in the infant, who had been in and out of hospitals. They also said a breathing tube mistakenly was inserted in Daniel's stomach rather than his lungs at Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital, depriving his brain of oxygen for at least 30 minutes.

His death originally was ruled a homicide, but Harris County Medical Examiner Luis Sanchez later changed the ruling to "undetermined," saying he found no evidence of abuse.
So in this case, medical evidence would have shown Briggs' actual innocence, but her original attorney didn't bother to look into it and recommended a plea bargain. Keller thought the defendant should be punished, anyway - that the omission didn't rise to the level of ineffective assistance of counsel. To me, if that's true, what omission or error possibly would? Read the majority opinion and Keller's dissent.

Keller is up for re-election in November, but unfortunately does not face a credible opponent. (She does have a satirical spoof-blog tracking the campaign; subtly titled "Judge Sharon Killer," it includes a post on the Briggs case.)

Keller recently has taken up the cause of increased funding for indigent defense, which may offer some cause for optimism that her hard-line views are changing over time. But to judge by her opinion in Briggs, her draconian judicial philosophies don't appear to have budged much.

Blogs for Texas C.O.s

Say "Howdy" to the The TDCJ Blog - Information for the Texas Correctional Officer. They've published irregularly for a while, but I've just learned of it recently.

Also check two other sites aimed at a similar audience: and The Back Gate.

Thanks to Texas C.O. Ricky Minton for bringing these to my attention. If readers are aware of other blogs by or for Texas prison guards, let me know in the comments.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Reality of a Mexican Mega-Cartel

Will the gang wars in Nuevo Laredo and beyond result in creation of a single, $50 billion per year criminal organization that controls all smuggling into the United States across our southern border?

That's the premise of a new e-book by reporter Sam Logan, whose writing on the Latin American drug wars I recently cited in these two posts. The book is titled "The Reality of a Mexican Mega Cartel." Here's the description:
Mexican organized crime has become known around the world as the source of smuggling into the United States. The various factions that battle over control of the busiest border crossings into the United States are extremely adept at smuggling drugs, chemicals, humans, or just about anything across the border to the north. They smuggle weapons and bulk money back south. From the Tijuana-San Diego crossing to the Matamoros-Brownsville crossing, the Mexico-U.S. border is more porous now than ever before. As Mexico’s organized criminal factions fight over control of the border, it is inevitable that one gang will rise to the top. When this happens, the US-Mexico border, already a soft-under belly will be controlled by one Mega-Cartel with the potential to earn over 50 billion dollars a year. It is a reality that is not far off in Mexico’s future and very well could emerge during the term of Mexico’s next president, Felipe Calderon the hand-picked successor of out-going president Vicente Fox.
Here's a sampling from one of Logan's recent reports describing how the cartels facilitate not only drugs flowing north across the US-Mexico border, but also money and guns flowing south:
Over 10,000 cargo trucks pass through Nuevo Laredo on their way to Interstate 35 and cities throughout the US. Another 10,000 vehicles cross the border daily, totaling over 20,000 vehicle-crossings a day. At such high volumes, it is impossible for US customs to stop, search, and process every vehicle. It is inevitable that drugs, humans, guns, and other contraband cross the border daily. At the same time, it is economically destructive to close the border crossing even for a day. The Nuevo Laredo-Laredo border crossing is a smuggler's paradise.

The turf battle between El Chapo Guzman and his jailed rival Osiel Cardenas Guillen has resulted in the death of US citizens, Mexican journalists, and dozens of Mexican policemen, criminals, and innocent civilians. Murder rates are inconclusive, but according to conservative estimates, Nuevo Laredo saw some 80 drug-related murders in both 2003 and 2004. In 2005, there were 182 drug-related murders. As of April this year, there have been over 80 drug-related murders there.

Other estimates claim that some 1,500 people died in organized crime-related violence in Mexico from early 2003 to June 2005.

Due to constant demand for cocaine, heroine, methamphetamines, ecstasy, and other drugs, the Mexican criminal enterprise earns over US$50 billion a year. A considerable amount of this money makes its way back to Colombia to purchase pure cocaine and heroin. Millions of dollars a year land in the hands of policemen, intelligence agents, mayors, port masters, pilots, and many other officials who face the infamous "plata o plomo" decision.

Mexican organized crime spends millions to purchase weapons and munitions. Every year, authorities trace between 5,000 and 7,000 guns from when they are seized in Mexico back to sources in the US. According to J.J. Ballesteros, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Chief in Corpus Christi, Texas, this number represents "a drop in the bucket". Ballesteros admits that criminals can literally outfit an army from one gun store, "and it's being done", he said. The most popular guns are the AR-15, AK-47, and Tec-9 pistol.

Check out his new e-book for more. Logan's reporting on these subjects enjoys few peers, and I intend to buy and read his new offering. I appreciate him emailing to tell me about it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Texas incarceration rates by county

Following up on the last post, go here to see Texas jail incarceration rates by county (pdf). The statistics below represent the number of people per 1,000 population incarcerated in the county jail, not including state or federal prisons, juvenile systems or mental health facilities. All counties are listed in the linked document, but here's a sampling:

Incarceration Rates: Selected Texas Counties

County (County seat)

Incarceration rate per 1,000 residents

Smith (Tyler)(*)


McLennan (Waco)


Galveston (Galveston)


Dallas (Dallas)


Bexar (San Antonio)


Harris (Houston)


El Paso (El Paso)


Tarrant (Fort Worth)


Hidalgo (Edinburg)


Denton (Denton)


Coryell (Gatesville)


Source: Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Incarceration Rate Report, 8-1-06. The statewide incarceration rate for all counties combined is 2.65 per 1,000 Texas residents.
(*) This TCJS figure fluctuates over time. The incarceration rate for Smith County given in the Tyler Morning Telegraph last week was slightly higher than shown in this chart - 5.04 people per 1,000 residents.

This would be a good story for Texas reporters to localize for their own county jail - perhaps comparing local incarceration rates and crime rates to neighboring counties and the statewide average. In the past, I've recommended numerous ways for counties to reduce their incarceration rate without harming public safety.

Jail bond vote may become annual affair in Tyler

Have you ever noticed how many unpopular local proposals show up on the ballot several times before their backers get lucky and sneak them past the voters? After several years and several turns on the ballot, some government projects take on a certain aura of inevitability, I guess, as the once-vocal opposition dissipates and long-term institutional interests wait out their grassroots foes.

I hate that.

Next May in my home town, Tyler voters will get a chance to reject again plans for a new jail they decisively rejected earlier this year. Voters mandate or no, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards last week told Smith County it needed to build new jail space to accomodate the current incarceration growth rate ("Commission says county needs bigger jail facility," Tyler Morning Telegraph, 9/15).
"Smith County would need, at a minimum, 1,531 jail beds by the year 2025," the commission said. "We recommend no less than 1,536 beds be considered and that consideration be given to an additional 96 beds to act as a buffer for future unexpected growth."

Currently, Smith County's three facilities can house a maximum of 755 inmates. And as of Friday, the county had 340 inmates housed in other counties, at a rate of $41 per inmate per day.

The commission based its analysis on a number of factors, Pinkerton explained.

"Basically, what they do is they look at your average daily population, your incarceration rate and so on," he said. "And Smith County is growing."

The commission noted that while the state average for incarceration is 2.7 prisoners per 1,000 in population, the average in Smith County is 5.04 per 1,000.

"The incarceration rate is higher in Smith County," Pinkerton acknowledged. "A lot of factors go into that; but basically law enforcement is doing its job."

Welcome to Smith County justice.

If you ask me, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards did Smith County a disservice here by telling them to more than double the current jail size. The County's high local incarceration rate clearly drives the jail overcrowding problem; Smith County's incarceration rate is 87% above the statewide average. TCJS instead should tell the County to investigate ways to reduce its incarceration rate - don't just advise them to build out more beds based on currently outrageous incarceration trends!

Judge Cynthia Kent, a respected Republican with 21 years on the bench in Tyler, thinks Smith County doesn't need a new jail. She has proposed alternatives the county should explore and fund that would reduce incarceration pressures and improve public safety.

Smith County should fund and implement Judge Kent's plan for a Day Reporting Center now, then see if it's necessary to put anything before the voters.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Probation funds stolen from Nueces County Jail

As the Nueces County Jail struggles to pass inspection, jail operators find themselves embroiled in scandal. Inmate funds were stolen from the probation department at one of the jail annexes, reports KRIS-TV, with $90,000 stolen over the last 2-3 years.

Poor conditions at the Nueces jail have become a political football in Corpus Christi after the US Marshals Service pulled its prisoners out this spring because the facility didn't meet minimum federal standards.

Via South Texas Chisme.

Colored Men and Hombres Aqui

Under the category of History I'm Embarassed Not to Know: Here's an interesting looking compendium of essays and documents about the first US Supreme Court case argued by Mexican American attorneys: Colored Men and Hombres Aqui: Hernandez v. Texas and the Emergence of Mexican-American Lawyering.

The book includes ten academic papers delivered at a 2004 conference at the University of Houston on the landmark civil rights case, Hernandez v. Texas, 347 US 475 (1954), which first established that Mexican Americans were a discrete group under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The book also contains "source materials, trial briefs, and a chronology of the case." According to the publisher's description:
There had been earlier efforts to diversify juries, reaching back at least to the trial of Gregorio Cortez in 1901 and continuing with efforts by the legendary Oscar Zeta Acosta in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Even as recently as 2005 there has been clear evidence that Latino participation in the Texas jury system is still substantially unrepresentative of the growing population. But in a brief and shining moment in 1954, Mexican-American lawyers prevailed in a system that accorded their community no legal status and no respect. Through sheer tenacity, brilliance, and some luck, they showed that it is possible to tilt against windmills and slay the dragon.
The story "has not been given the prominence it deserves," say the editors, "in part because it lives in the shadow of the more compelling Brown v. Board case" decided later the same year.

Via Bender's Immigration Bulletin.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Big Labor vs. public safety and the global economy: Companies find cheap employees in prison

Should private companies get to use cut-rate prison labor? It's good for rehabilitation, repays victims, and lets prisoners earn a nest egg for when they get out. But is it unfair to free-world workers? A Houston Chronicle story this morning gives voice to complaints about the small but growing Texas program ("Labor leaders fume over Texas prison plan," Sept. 14):

The [Prison Industry Enhancement] certification program, enacted by Congress in 1979, allows states to give prisoners private sector work experience and a few employers some nice breaks. Today, 5,800 inmates participate in about 40 jurisdictions around the country. Though the program touches a fraction of the overall prison population, the numbers have grown through the years, said Sahra Nadiir, project coordinator for the National Correctional Industries Association.

Offenders like it because they make money, although they keep only about 20 percent of it. The states pocket as much as 80 percent, for room and board. Texas collects between 30 percent and 60 percent, depending on how much gets divvied up among the courts, crime victims and offenders' dependents, spouses or disabled parents.

The main example in the Chronicle article focused on a private prison in Lockhart. Two other Texas prisons allow private businesses to operate on the premises. We're talking about 500 jobs total - a drop in the bucket in the scheme of Texas' economy, but even that earned howls of complaint from the AFL-CIO. Here's a United Auto Workers rep: "We're exporting jobs from all over the country and now we're going to take the jobs that are left here and turn them over to prison labor at half, or less, the wages you'd expect to pay someone on the open market."

To me, labor's complaints on this sound a lot like those of people whining that immgrants drive down wages. In my mind, when I read that, I can't help hearing the characters from South Park shouting "They took our jobs!"

First, let's be clear: unemployment in the United States remains remarkably low, even if rising gas and other prices are cutting into consumers' bottom line. It's true that because of globalization, business models that could only be profitable using low-waged workers are moving to other countries. But job creation in America has also continued, based in part on new economic opportunities created by globalization.

Both big labor and the anti-immigration lobby are raging against an economic storm that's bigger than their own narrow interests. Blaming prisoners or immigrants or even workers from other countries for supposedly stagnant wages (American wages are still among the highest in the world) ignores economic reality. With Mexican and Asian labor so cheap, why not keep those jobs here and use them in positive ways that contribute to offender rehabilitation?

"This is not meant to displace workers in the free world, it is meant to reduce recidivism," said a spokeswoman for the private prison in Lockhart.

In a recent episode of the TV series 30 Days, Morgan Spurlock supposedly spent 30 days in jail including three days in solitary confinement, to find out what it was like (he actually left after 24 because, he said, he was "satisfied" with the footage - must be nice!). Mostly, he learned, it was like sitting around doing nothing for long, long, periods of time. Just sitting, standing, pacing, for hours, then back to the cell at night before doing it again the next day. No rehabilitation or education programs, and definitely no work. What a waste.

Why not give these prisoners something to do that will instill discipline in their daily routine, plus build a nest egg for when they get out, let them make child support payments, or even help compensate victims?

IMO, prisoners probably don't take jobs from Americans; they're taking jobs from Mexicans, Indians and Chinese - and so what? Welcome to the 21st century economy, where communications and transportation revolutions have finally mooted many of the old barriers to internationalized production. You may not like it, but that's the world we live in. We ought to make the best of it.