Monday, December 31, 2007

Grits' Top Ten Texas Criminal Justice Stories of 2007

Time for Grits' year-end list of Texas' Top Ten Criminal Justice Stories of 2007. Let me know what other big stories deserve recollection as we close out an eventful year.

Texas Youth Commission Meltdown
It's hard to imagine a state agency enduring more turmoil than TYC has gone through this year. New administrators appointed by Governor Perry took an already troubled agency and nearly ran it into the ground. Hopefully the agency's new conservator, who's been awfully quiet since his appointment just before Christmas, will begin to clean house and move TYC in a new direction. I've written so much on this subject it would be fruitless to try to summarize the past gut wrenching year in this space, but see prior Grits TYC-related posts for an in-depth look at what's happened to this agency in 2007.

Prisons Full and Understaffed: Sentences too long and parole too rare
With Texas prisons full and unable to staff current units, the Legislature and voters approved debt to build three new prisons. However, with staffing problems unresolved, the system really must pin its hopes on increasing parole rates for low-level, non-violent offenders, which under current Board of Pardons and Parole Chair Rissie Owens have reached all-time lows. The Sunset Commission said low parole rates were the main cause of prison overcrowding in the last few years along with lengthier sentences "enhanced" by the Legislature. Now the parole board must change course and dramatically shorten prison stays for many non-violent offenders, who make up a majority of Texas prisoners, in order to free up space to keep more dangerous criminals behind bars.

Rehabilitation Re-Emphasized in Adult System
Ironically, while youth corrections moved away from a rehabilitative model toward simply warehousing youth, Texas' adult prison system took important first steps in 2007 toward embracing and funding long-ignored treatment and rehab programs. The Lege shortened probation lengths for many low-level offenders, giving them new opportunities to earn their way off probation through good behavior. In addition, local use of drug courts expanded this year - 37 different such courts statewide recently received federal pass-through support grants from the Governor. Even more importantly, the Legislature ponied up more than $200 million to expand drug treatment and intermediate sanctions facilities that give courts new tools to combat substance abuse and reduce recidivism among chronic low-level offenders.

Exonerations Inspire Dallas DA to Team Up with Innocence Project
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins reacted to a string of DNA exonerations in his county quite differently from his predecessor: Rather than fight fact-based exonerations tooth and nail, Watkins teamed up with the Texas Tech-based Innocence Project of Texas to ensure that every offender who's innocence could possibly be verified through DNA testing had their case independently reviewed. In an era when prosecutors like Chuck Rosenthal and Mike Nifong more frequently dominate headlines and political discourse, Watkins has been a breath of fresh air, and is fast becoming a media darling for pioneering new strategies for managing flaws in the justice system, not to mention, as the Dallas News put it, shifting the DA's Office's focus from "winning" to "justice."

Sharon Keller Disgraces Court, State
While in most states the big death penalty news in 2007 was the de facto moratorium until SCOTUS decides on the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures, in Texas the bigger controversy arose around the de jure decision to execute Michael Richard after SCOTUS issued its decision to review lethal injection in Baze. How many sitting judges can say about 150 attorneys and a thousand other citizens have signed onto complaints against them with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct? Only one that I know of: Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller. Her decision not to notify her fellow judges of an 11th hour delay in a death penalty appeal - including keeping the jurist responsible for the decision out of the loop - arguably could have ranked at the top of the list except for one reason: Keller and the CCA have so long ago disgraced themselves that the egregious behavior that shocked the rest of the world seems to those of us here in Texas nearly routine. We'll find out in the coming week whether any Democrats will file to challenge incumbent Republican CCA members - I'll have more news on that score real soon. Arguably these judicial seats rank among the most vulnerable statewide races in the 2008 elections.

Actual and Perceived Corruption on the Rise
This year saw a great deal of both actual and perceived corruption discovered, with the public left wondering how deep it all goes. Though claims of terrorist infiltration along the border all turned out to be bogus, an increasingly impressive number of officers on the US side have been accused of accepting bribes at a time when cartels have begun to extend their influence northward, including recruiting hitmen among poor US teens in border towns. Meanwhile, the US Export Import Bank was revealed to have given millions in loans to known drug cartel members. A corruption probe in El Paso accusing public officials of bribe taking includes more prominent local names every time I see new coverage. In Houston, an assistant chief testified under oath that a woman who performed oral sex to avoid arrest engaged in a "consensual" agreement with the officer. In Dallas, more than a dozen Democratic politicos were accused of various corruption charges by the feds in 2007, including state Rep. Terri Hodge who allegedly accepted free rent for several years from a developer for whom she did political favors, according to the federal indictment. At the Texas Youth Commission, a probably unnecessary contract to re-categorize inmates was given with no bidding process to Gregg Phillips, a lobbyist friend of former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth who has been accused in the past of improperly steering state contracts to friends and family. The Bexar County Sheriff resigned to avoid a felony indictment for bribery regarding a contract with a private firm to operate the jail commissary.

New DPS Drug Enforcement Rules Boost Seizures, Reduce Arrests
Vying with the previous item for the "Most important, seldom told story of the year," the Texas Department of Public Safety reported this year that new drug enforcement priorities implemented in recently adopted agency rules growing out of the "Tulia" debacle had produced remarkable results, doubling the number of drug seizures in the first year while overall drug arrests declined 40%. That's because the new rules place "no priority" on arresting "end users," defined as "the intended user of illegal drugs [who is] generally motivated by addiction." Instead, DPS now targets "Drug Trafficking Organizations" with five or more identified participants. One especially notable aspect of this new strategy was the elimination of drug interdiction units on the highway: I was fascinated to realize that even though DPS no longer fishes for drug shipments on the Interstates, their total drug seizures increased. Congrats to Commander Patrick O'Burke and everybody else in DPS Narcotics for transforming the Tulia tragedy into a legacy of improved, more professional drug enforcement statewide.

Hype-Driven Pedophilia Law Makes Family Abuse Victims Less Likely to Come Forward
Succumbing to an extraordinary season of hype about child abusers during the 2006 election, the Texas Legislature in 2007 passed "Jessica's Law," an ill-considered piece of legislative flotsam that created a new crime, "continuous sexual abuse of a child," with minimum penalties of 25 years on the first offense and allowing death on the second, and eliminated the statute of limitations for sexual offenses against children. When the bill passed, I predicted that "the 25 year mandatory minimum first offense will be reduced by a future Texas Legislature soon after the first instance discovered where a family did not turn in a pedophilia case involving a young child because of stiff first-time sentences. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think so."

Border security policy misses target
Despite evidence that "Operation Linebacker" and its bureaucratic descendants failed to reduce crime in the areas that received new funding, Governor Perry and his legislative supporters dramatically expanded funding for this pork barrel program, approving more than $100 million for "border security" in the 2008-2009 biennium. So far, the Governor has focused on establishing a parallel bureaucracy to Texas' traditional security agencies like the Department of Public Safety that are under his control, but unfortunately these new entities don't typically communicate or work with other agencies, according to legislative testimony. Bottom line: That dynamic has made the Governor's homeland security division a quite expensive and counterproductive third wheel whose sole function appears to be to fight with older bureaucracies over "turf." This policy makes no one happy: Conservatives who want immigration enforcement will be disappointed because, despite all the hype, none of the money goes toward that purpose, while anyone concerned with battling drug cartels will find little direct correlation between new money spent and outcomes on the ground.

Healthcare in prisons and jails nearing crisis
With the federal government having ordered the state of California to open up the taxpayers collective wallet to pay for long-neglected prisoner healthcare, a looming subterranean health crisis faces Texas prisons and many jails. The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, in particular, has admitted in legislative hearings that the care they provide in adult prisons is "barely constitutional," while the care they provide at the Texas Youth Commission actually got worse after the agency went into conservatorship, UTMB reported. Until 2006 UTMB was responsible for jail healthcare in Dallas, but county officials ended that contract because of outcomes so bad they invited a federal civil rights lawsuit. Could healthcare in Texas prisons, which UTMB runs using the same telemedicine scheme used in Dallas, be far behind? How long will Texas get a pass for spending half the amount per inmate on healthcare compared to California and most other large states? Time will tell, but my guess is not long after a certain former Texas Governor leaves the White House - particularly under a Democratic President, but really either way - we can expect litigation aiming to force increased spending for Texas prison healthcare from the US Justice Department.

Honorable Mention:

Public Sentiment Waning for New Jail Spending
In what I consider a bellwether election on the subject in November, voters in two of Texas' most conservative, "tuff on crime" counties - Harris (Houston) and Smith (Tyler) - rejected new debt for jail building. In Tyler, where opponents mounted an active anti-jail campaign, voters rejected a new jail by a 69-31 margin. In Houston, heavy turnout in black neighborhoods and modest support elsewhere doomed the proposal by a narrower margin - 51-49 - with no opposing campaign and with blogs as the only vocal opposition. Notably, it was the first time Houstonians rejected bonds on any public ballot in more than 20 years. Voters may like the "tuff on crime" message, but these elections show they may not be so happy when presented with the long-term bill. The Legislature responded to local jail overcrowding by expanding the range of offenses for which police can use a "cite and summons" mechanism instead of arresting non-violent class B offenders, but so far officers in most counties aren't using this new authority. Time will tell if these is an electoral blip on the radar screen or the beginning of a more significant trend.

See last year's list, and a recent update on those stories.

Annual contenders:


Anonymous said...

Bush, Craddick, Keller and Rosenthal. I can't wait to see all the new people swept into office because of those four.

Anonymous said...

I figured the top story was you coming to Lubbock to meet The King.


Anonymous said...

I hope we see changes in the CCA/BPP and especially in the DA office in Harris Co.

What a relief it will be when Bush leaves office! Our country will probably not ever be the great nation we once were because of GWB and his VP and let us not forget Mr. Rove.

Right now I am so fed up with Mr. Bush and Co. I could throw up and Sharon Keller, what a travesty for her to ever get elected to the CCA. There are several female judges who also fit this mode and think because the title judge is in front of their name, they are honorable, but from what I have witnessed, some of the female judges do not know the meaning of honorable.

When you take Rosenthal out, remove his whole staff and then you start over with a clean slate and maybe some real justice will begin in Harris Co.

spearshaker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
spearshaker said...

(found too many typos in my original post)

Scott: You forgot to mention one aspect of Jessica's law that may reflect the actual attitudes of Texas Legislators: they exempted from "continuing sexual assault" the 17 year old who is banging his 13 year old girlfriend. A 13 year old CANNOT give consent and, if I recall correctly, cannot even be allowed to marry with a judge's consent i.e.; even this legislature recognizes that she is a child who should not be given a life sentence even with her parents' insistence. Might be interesting to check the marriages of current legislators and the age of their wives (or first wife in many cases).

Anonymous said...

I was informed tonight that Crockett State School is on lock-down and they had to call in riot squads (STAR Teams) to help control the situation. I guess they ran out of ice-cream in the kitchen!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Thats what happens when you have installed supt's with no experience at all. First he lost the respect of his staff. NOW the children are running the campus. And its only going to get worse.