Sunday, August 31, 2008

Delaying the truth in Charles Hood case harms pro-death penalty cause

If you don't think judges cover up for one another's misdeeds, consider the case of Charles Dean Hood, a convicted murderer who's scheduled for execution next month despite evidence that the judge and the Collin County DA engaged in an extramarital affair during his 1990 trial. Judge Verna Sue Holland went on to serve on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where eight of her former colleagues this summer ruled that Hood could not force her to answer for the alleged misconduct. Her ex-husband, now deceased, and a prosecutor who worked there at the time have said the pair were sleeping together.

So Hood's lawyers pursued a novel civil suit to get to the truth, but now another Collin County judge has set the hearing for two days after Hood's scheduled execution.

Meanwhile, Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey notes that "the two people who have absolute knowledge of the truth remain silent," writing that:

Three years ago Judge Holland told reporter Alan Berlow, whose piece on the alleged affair appeared on Salon.com, that it would be "unethical to comment" on a pending case.

That's absurd.

Houston lawyer Lillian Hardwick, who co-authored the Handbook of Texas Lawer and Judicial Ethics, says she can think of no ethical reason Holland can't come clean.

"In fact, the Texas Code suggests just the opposite, as applied to what she did on the bench and off the bench, while a judge," she said.

This is an instance where politicized pandering over the death penalty has prevented an honest rendering of the case. Those who most ardently support the death penalty seem to think that if Hood is executed, they "win," so they want it to happen without delay.

That's a foolish stance that's doomed to backfire. Holland's friends on the bench can't protect her indefinitely from having these misconduct allegations publicly aired. As I wrote in the comments on Friday, "this game of chicken is bigger than Charles Hood. Now we know the affair is still likely to be exposed even if it happens posthumously on behalf of Hood's estate.

"So the question becomes: Do Holland and [former DA Tom O'Connell] want to wait until the deed is done to reveal a conflict which would have easily granted Charles Hood a mistrial if true? My guess is they'd be disbarred over it. If the affair occurred, and if it didn't one can't help but believe they'd deny it, the pair will be doubly disgraced, both as adulterers and unethical barristers. Even more importantly in the big picture, they'll have done more to harm the cause of pro-death penalty advocates than any abolitionist ever could.

"One other aside: A lot of people, not just Charles Hood, got convicted in her court during the six-year period the DA was allegedly bedding the judge. These allegations open up many, many cans of worms."

Friday, August 29, 2008

Pre-Gustav prisoner evacuations at TYC, TDCJ

The Austin Statesman's Mike Ward reported three hours ago that:
Texas Youth Commission officials early today started removing incarcerated youths from the Al Price youth lockup in Beaumont, and state prison officials said they plan to start evacuating adult felons from two Beaumont prisons early Saturday.
On moving the prisoners, despite the hassle and expense, I say better safe than sorry if there's a chance of a Category 4 hurricane touching down there. Here's a picture from a state jail unit in Beaumont after the much-smaller Hurricane Rita in 2005:


Sometimes the weather can provide interesting opportunities to learn something unexpected about the system. After Hurricane Rita damaged several prisons and jails, a couple of Texas counties for a while found themselves in the position of being unable to arrest low-level offenders for several months because of weather-induced overcrowding. In Gregg County, the jail actually had extra space but was renting it out for immigration detention, so they chose to turn away arrestees instead. For the most part, officers gave out citations instead instead of processing defendants through the jail.

Because these counties went several months with radically reduced numbers of arrests, I suggested at the time that their crime data should be examined to determine if there was a resulting increase or decrease; that never happened, though a Gregg County commissioner later told me he didn't think there'd been a noticeable difference, which was also the conclusion reached by officials in Chambers County.

While one certainly hopes there's no damage necessitating similar outcomes because of Gustav, I'd still like to see some neutral and credible researcher go back and analyze crime data for those counties during the months after Hurricane Rita. I'd like to know whether their inability to jail low-level offenders tangibly, measurably harmed public safety.

RELATED: Texas Prison Bidness has been raising questions about treatment of immigration detainees held by private prison companies during the last round of evacuations in the run-up to Hurricane Dolly.

UPDATE: Judge recused who ordered search of attorney's files

Via Texas Lawyer's Tex Parte blog , we learn that "Collin County District Judge Mark Rusch has been recused from hearing a capital murder case" in which he ordered police to search a defense attorney's files. (See prior Grits coverage.) Bill Baumbach has more at the Collin County Observer, which profiles this case along with the Charles Dean Hood fiasco, in which a Collin County judge and prosecutor who allegedly had an affair during Hood's capital murder trial want to put off answering questions about it until after he's executed.

It can't be stated often enough: Collin County justice is really something!

Correcting forensic science errors

From the Justice Project this week comes another in their excellent series of policy papers on the causes of wrongful convictions in DNA exoneration cases, this time focused on flawed or biased forensic science. From their announcement:

This week, The Justice Project is releasing Improving the Practice and Use of Forensic Science: A Policy Review. This policy review provides an overview of the problems that plague forensic science, offers solutions to these problems, profiles cases of injustice, highlights states with good laws and policies related to forensic science, and includes a model policy.

Learn more about improving forensic science here.

As TJP President John Terzano wrote, “While forensic laboratories have yielded critical evidence in countless cases, preventable error has subverted justice, convicted the innocent, and jeopardized public safety. Law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the public at large all have a vested interest in making sure reforms are implemented to reduce the risk of mistakes and to elevate the quality and objectivity of forensic evidence and testimony.”

Read Terzano’s blog post here.

Research on the exonerations of innocent people has identified many of the primary causes of wrongful convictions. Based on these findings, The Justice Project has constructed a national agenda for reform designed to eliminate common, preventable errors that undermine the fairness and accuracy of our criminal justice system. Providing better oversight and practices in forensic science is one of TJP’s eight initiatives for criminal justice reform.

Learn more about all eight initiatives here.

The report features the story of exonerated Texan Brandon Moon both on the cover and as a key case study. This is an excellent and informative series which I'd strongly recommend to those interested in the topics they've covered. Here are the policy reviews they've addressed so far:

Snitches in the News: Informant use at root of many scandals

The reminder this morning about UT-Austin police spying on student groups led me to think about a topic I've strayed from recently on Grits - confidential informants. Several recent stories (most of them outside of Texas, to be sure) demonstrate that it would be easy to devote an entire blog to the subject of informants and the risks their use poses to police integrity and public safety. Here are some recent examples:
The In These Times reporter quoted one of Grits' favorite thinkers on the topic, Loyola (CA) law professor Alexandra Natapoff, who offered up this gem:

"The government's use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated and unaccountable," she says. "This lack of oversight and quality control leads to wrongful convictions, more crime, disrespect for the law and sometimes even official corruption."

She continues: "If the criminal system can't get homicide cases right, then it's very unlikely that we're getting other things right."

RELATED: See also this report (pdf) published last year by The Justice Project on the topic of wrongful convictions based on jailhouse snitches, including recommendations for reform.

Chief who approved undercover surveillance of UT-Austin political groups called to account by Georgetown student paper

Jeffrey Van Slyke, the former University of Texas Police Department chief who authorized undercover snooping on UT-Austin student groups, finds himself facing hard questions from a student newspaper in Washington D.C. about his policing record at UT in this high-impact piece from the Georgetown Voice.

Of the many regrettable UTPD episodes recounted in the story, perhaps the most controversial in an academic setting was Van Slyke's admitted, repeated use of undercover officers and informants at UT-Austin to infiltrate anti-war and pro-choice student groups:
On Monday, Van Slyke would not rule out using student informants at Georgetown.

“What I’ve done on other campuses doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to happen here, and my focus is on what’s best for Georgetown University,” he said.

Professor Tina Fryling, the chair of Mercyhurst College’s Criminal Justice Department and a specialist in criminal justice ethics, said she did not know how often informants and officers are used to report on campus groups.

“I would say it shouldn’t be common, because the whole point of having a college atmosphere is for people to explore their beliefs, their ideas, do whatever they need to do within a group,” she said.

Georgetown President John DeGioia said yesterday that he only approved of the use of student informants and infiltration in rare circumstances.

“I could probably count on one finger in 20 years of knowledge when we’ve been comfortable with having somebody engage in a way that would not be rather transparent,” he said. He added that he was not familiar with Van Slyke’s use of informants.
If nobody in the Georgetown University administration knew about UTPD's political use of undercover snooping under Van Slyke's watch, that means nobody bothered to perform any due diligence background check on the new chief. The incidents were nationally publicized; the first time happened within the month after 9/11, although the practice continued for years afterward. The Voice story shows a simple check of The Daily Texan archives would have revealed virtually all the controversies mentioned.

The student paper also contains an especially interesting passage based on Van Slyke's recently completed Ph.D. dissertation, adding a coda to the incident that's arguably the biggest public black mark on his stint at UTPD:

Van Slyke received his PhD in Education from UT last fall after successfully defending his dissertation about law enforcement ethics. In the dissertation, he describes unethical behavior he witnessed in university security forces: a cop plays Russian roulette with his revolver in front of colleagues, an officer and her boyfriend sneak into her boss’s office to “be tutored in biology,” and a policeman solicits prostitutes from his cruiser.

The dissertation also describes an incident of oral sex between a student and a campus police officer. In Van Slyke’s dissertation, an officer discovered a woman after her car hit a stop sign.

“As the officer assists the female student in removing her vehicle from the curb, he detects an odor of alcohol and determines that she is intoxicated. The officer also observes that the female student is scantly dressed and not wearing under garments,” the dissertation reads.

According to the dissertation, the woman then “engage[d] in oral sex with the officer” in a nearby parking garage. The officer eventually resigned after an internal investigation and was arrested for sexual assault, according to the dissertation.

The situation described in the dissertation bears similarities to an incident that occurred at UT in 2001, in which a UT student claimed that she was forced to perform oral sex on UTPD officer Sellers Bailey. In court, it was revealed that her blood-alcohol content at the time was 0.17. The officer was fired from UTPD (Daily Texan, May 2, 2003) and was eventually charged with sexual assault. He was later acquitted, in part because of his victim’s high BAC.

The victim also filed a lawsuit against Van Slyke and UT President Larry Faulkner, saying they had ignored warning signs about the officer, including a sexual harassment claim filed against Bailey by a female guard. The lawsuit against Van Slyke and Faulkner was settled out of court in 2004 (Daily Texan, June 18, 2004).

The story was accompanied with an editorial criticizing Van Slyke (who began his new job as Georgetown's public safety chief on June 1 after most students were gone for the summer) for refusing to discuss his UT-Austin record or rule out using informants to infiltrate student groups at Georgetown.

Seeing these incidents compiled all together reminds this alum that, at the time these scandals occurred, the UT-Austin administration circled the wagons around Chief Van Slyke instead of reining him in, tacitly allowing tactics like undercover surveillance of political groups. Perhaps with the help of the student press, Georgetown administrators will be more aggressive holding Van Slyke's feet to the fire.

Education and low crime rates in Barbados

Having lately discussed a new law enforcement initiative on early education and crime prevention and the relationship between crime rates and the ratio of security spending vs. education in different countries, I was interested to see this note from the London Telegraph about Barbados, which reportedly enjoys the lowest crime rate of all the Caribbean islands. The story begins with the typical tough on crime mantras:
"Police here in Barbados are very, very strict. Wrongdoers get no mercy!” chortles the minibus driver as we cross the island from airport to hotel. “Prison here is kill or cure. Usually kills you, ha ha! But if you do get out you won’t want to go back in again! And that’s the way we like it!”
Fair enough. But there's another, perhaps more significant cause for the low crime rate:

“What keeps Barbados law-abiding? Education, education, education,” says Claire Jordan, an earnest young hotel sales manager over breakfast by the beach. “The first thing our government did after independence in 1966 was to introduce free schooling. Anyone who gets straight As at A-level can go to university anywhere in the world and have the government pay for everything.”

She herself went to Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, then to an √©cole sup√©rieure in France, while her brother went to Harvard. “So everyone’s educated, employment rates are high — and in general that means very little poverty and very low crime. What crime does exist is often committed by other islanders coming here under the new policy in the Caribbean that lets anyone move anywhere, as in the EU.”

Score another point for education in the education vs. security spending debate.

Granted, this is a travel story. The writer got all her information from taxi drivers and hotel clerks on her way to and from the beach. What's more, Barbados is a tiny place - an island 14 miles wide and 21 miles long with just more than a quarter-million people; the approach would be quite expensive to scale up to an American context.

Still, one imagines the intense focus on subsidized education has a lot to do with the low crime rate. You've gotta admit, that's a pretty compelling reason for kids to focus on their education instead of running the streets.

Neighboring Trinidad and Tobago were already on my personal list of places I'd like to visit; perhaps Barbados will get added to the list.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

New TYC executive director hired

According to an email sent out by the conservator today to all Texas Youth Commission staff, TYC has finally hired a permanent executive director. Wrote Richard Nedelkoff:

I am pleased that I am able to tell you today that I have hired Cherie Townsend as the agency’s new Executive Director. While she officially comes on board October 1, Cherie will be attending some agency functions prior to that time.

Cherie brings a wealth of background and expertise in juvenile justice, having established a national reputation as an agent of change. I’m pleased someone of her caliber is joining us at TYC to help lead the agency forward, and I feel very strongly that she will provide the agency with the leadership needed to complete our reform efforts.

Cherie’s experience in juvenile justice spans more than three decades, including 18 years in previous positions at TYC. Most recently she served as director of the Clark County Juvenile Court Services in Las Vegas, NV where she was responsible for the leadership, planning, management and delivery of court services in one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. Prior to that, she served as director of Juvenile Court Services for the Superior Court of Arizona’s Juvenile Court Center in Maricopa County.

During Cherie’s 18-year tenure at TYC, she served as director of community services where she developed and updated programs to meet the changing needs of youth and families and to improve results and better manage at-risk youth in communities.
I know nothing about Ms. Townsend, but before her gig in Nevada, according to this brief bio:
Ms. Townsend served as Director of Juvenile Court Services in Maricopa County, Arizona. She has worked for the Texas Youth Commission in various capacities, including Director of Community Services. She also served as Director of Victim-Witness Services for the Travis County District Attorney in Texas. Ms. Townsend has earned a Master of Public Administration degree from Southern Methodist University and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Texas.
Her past experience with TYC may help some; certainly you wouldn't want someone with no Texas experience at all leading the agency through the Sunset process at the lege next year. But otherwise it's hard to say from this information whether they've selected the right long-term leader for the troubled agency. I hope so. Time will tell.

UPDATE: See TYC's press release on the announcement.

Why the scare tactics? Austin PD hyping stranger danger

Living in Austin, I find it unfortunate when our local police department uses scare tactics and hype instead of being honest with the public. This practice did not begin with new Chief Art Acevedo, but it's continuing under his watch to judge by a new video they're promoting on APD's website titled, simply, "Stranger Danger." It's about exactly what you might expect - hyping parental fears that a stranger might snatch their child and giving parents and kids all sorts of paranoid advice, some of which I think is flat out wrong. There's an intangible but important harm done by teaching kids to fear other people irrationally and IMO this video crosses that line.

In reality, how frequent are "stranger danger" type abductions? According to a 2002 national study by USDOJ, "an estimated 115 children and youth were the victims of a stereotypical kidnapping in the study year" out of a total of "58,200 nonfamily abduction victims." That's why "the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has never supported the “stranger-danger” message, especially because experience has shown us that most children are actually taken by someone they know or are familiar with."

So where's the video telling kids to beware molestation or abduction by their parents or close family friends?

At 115 "stereotypical" abductions per year (the number ranges, said DOJ, between 60 and 170), that's a rate of roughly .14 per 100,000 kids. Compared to other childhood risks, that's truly de minimus. By contrast, youth are 15 times as likely to commit suicide (2.1 per 100,000). This blogger takes the statistical analysis even further:
The odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 310,000. The odds of being abducted by a stranger? 1 in 610,000! Wow, that means that a child is more likely to die in a plane crash than get kidnapped by a stranger. That isn't the coolest thing though. ... The odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 240,000! That's right, do the math ... A child is 2 and a half times more likely to get hit by lightening than to get taken by a stranger!
To listen to the video put out by APD, you'd think kids were getting snatched off the streets by strangers in Austin at all hours of the day and night. That's a misrepresentation and it provides no obvious benefit to public safety (though perhaps for public safety budgets) for police to scare the public by promoting it.

Does jail work as an intermediate sanction?

With so many jurisdictions now using some version of so-called problem solving courts, the question arises: What are the best intermediate sanctions to use for probationers as opposed to revoking them to prison? In particular, are short jail stints the answer?

Recently Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation urged the House Corrections Committee to follow the lead of Hawaii's HOPE program, which routinely uses jail time to punish minor infractions, reportedly with great success.

By contrast, Doc Berman the other day wrote about a study out of Multinomah County in Oregon that reached the opposite conclusion, published this month in a new Vera Institute report (pdf): "The use of jail as an intermediate sanction was correlated with higher rates of recidivism, a relationship that should be examined more closely." I reacted to this news in the comments thusly:
With a massive shift occurring toward use of so-called problem solving courts, it's really important to identify what are appropriate intermediate sanctions. If it's jail, great - everybody's got one already. But if the Oregon numbers are right and using jails that way boosts recidivism, there needs to be more study and empirical testing about which intermediate sanctions DO work.
A commenter in response suggested that perhaps the issue is not whether jail works as a sanction but how it's used, with the HOPE program showing better results because of the "apparent genuine concern for keeping [probationers] violation free." That writer argued that "Judge Steven Alm's "warning hearings" alone are a cut above the usual assembly line indifference" and could account for the differing results.

Another possibility: It may also be that jail is not best used as the ONLY intermediate sanction but as one of an array of options. In Multinomah County, jail was nearly the lone alternative: "Of the 30 percent of the supervised population who were sanctioned, 92 percent received jail time at some point during their supervision."

Multinomah County sounds like its probation program is not using methodologies from drug courts and other strong probation initiatives like HOPE. "Most people (70 percent) did not receive any type of sanction or intervention while on probation or under post-prison supervision in Multnomah County." So perhaps jail sanctions in the HOPE program work better because they more closely supervise probationers in the first place, actively seeking to identify violations instead of just checking in once per month.

This question requires an evidence based answer. If it hasn't already been done, some researcher needs to define the entire array of possible intermediate sanctions used by problem solving courts and test them individually for effectiveness.

We've got enough specialty courts and strong probation programs in Texas where CJAD (the division in charge of probation out of the Department of Criminal Justice) should be be able to perform such an analysis if it hasn't already been done.

My own guess is that not that all uses of jail to sanction probationers increase recidivism, but that the problem lies instead with overreliance on jail and underutilization of alternatives. That's just speculation, though, in the face of conflicting empirical outcomes. If jail really does boost recidivism and other intermediate sanctions work better, practitioners need to know that.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Survey results: One third of Grits readers say 'Underage drinking for me but not for thee'

In a sense, the results of Grits reader poll last week about underage drinking surprised me. I'd posted the two-question survey after publishing this essay arguing that the legal drinking age should be reduced.

Nearly 500 Grits readers responded to the first of two questions on the topic: "Were you of legal age when you first drank alcohol?" An overwhelming 89% of you replied "No," meaning your first drink was actually a criminal act.

That's an overwhelmingly high figure; this wasn't a scientific poll so I don't know if those results are typical, but I wouldn't be surprised if they are.

However, that's why I'm a little surprised that answers to the second question - "Should the drinking age be lowered to 18?" - were split more or less down the middle, with 55% answering "Yes" and 45% answering "No." (In an informal survey like this that's a statistical draw.)

To judge by these data, give or take a few percentage points (slightly fewer respondents answered the second question), about one-third of Grits readers said their own first drink of alcohol was a crime but they don't support reducing the drinking age.

"Underage drinking for me but not for thee," appears to be the approach implied by these figures.

I've got a few questions for readers who answered that way: First, do you think of your own underage drinking as a criminal act? Do you think you'd personally have been better off if you were arrested and prosecuted for underage drinking? If not, why would you advocate that result for others?

Don't you think the fact of drinking's illegality makes it less likely a teen will talk to their parents or other authority figures if they have a drinking problem? Wouldn't you prefer your kids felt free to seek help when they're too drunk to drive or struggling with alcoholism? Do you want them hesitating to make a phone call that could save their life because they fear criminal sanction?

Finally, if you did not feel compelled to obey this widely flaunted law as a teen, why do you now believe your kids will, or anybody else's? Indeed, when adults told you not to drink, did that make you more or less likely to do so?

I'm not trying to be a smartass in asking these questions, I'm hoping readers who answered that way can help me drill down to understand their thought processes. On its face, these answers appear to evince a double standard. Explain to me please, those of you who adopted those positions: How can this be justified?

Harris County candidate forum focused on mental health and criminal justice

A reader points out this Houston Chronicle story describing "a forum on behavioral health and the criminal justice system" in which "Republican and Democratic candidates for county judge, sheriff and district attorney offered ideas meant to divert the mentally ill from jail to treatment."

Read the whole article for the various candidates' views. For my part, I'm amazed and pleased that there was even a forum on this topic, much less that so many candidates attended. That says a lot, I think, about the zeitgeist of the times, and also the budgetary impact of treating mental illness through the justice system: "Harris County spends an estimated $87 million a year to incarcerate and treat mentally ill inmates," reported the Chronicle.

Nearly every community in Texas faces similar local debates. Statewide, 30% of Texas prison inmates are past clients of the indigent mental health system. Indeed, lately I've begun to wonder if lack of health insurance and minimalist mental health coverage for those who are insured might be a significant contributing factor to criminality among the menally ill, just like failure to invest in eduction harms public safety. To the extent mental illness contributes to crime, and it does, expanding access to services before people offend would reduce both monetary and societal costs, as would diverting so-called "frequent flyers" into more stable, supportive environs.

I'm glad to see candidates being called to account on these topics and hope the forum's organizers will continue to remind the victors of their promises once the November elections are done.

Jury awards fat verdict against Dallas County over jail health failures

For the second time in 18 months, a jury has awarded a plaintiff nearly $1 million because of inadequate healthcare provided by the Dallas County Jail. Reports the Dallas News ("Jury orders Dallas County to pay $900,000 over lack of medical care for fomer inmate," Aug. 27):

A federal court jury ordered Dallas County on Tuesday to pay $900,000 to a former Dallas County jail inmate for denying him proper medical care while he was in custody.

The jury found that Stanley Shepherd's constitutional rights were violated when he was denied basic medical care while in the Lew Sterrett Justice Center on burglary and drug charges in late 2003.

Jurors in the weeklong trial issued their verdict Tuesday morning after deliberating since about 1 p.m. Monday, said Don Tittle, the attorney for Mr. Shepherd. If lawyers' fees and interest are granted, the county could have to pay more than $1 million, he said.

Commissioner John Wiley Price, who has spearheaded recent jail improvements and who voted against contracting out jail health in 2002, said he disagreed with the verdict.

"We will appeal the case. We are going to be vindicated on appeal," he said.

Tuesday's verdict is significant for two reasons, Mr. Tittle said. First, it's the largest jury verdict over a jail-neglect suit against Dallas County. And second, the verdict is an indictment of the county's entire jail-health system instead of one or several isolated cases, he said. In legal terms, that means the jail's "general conditions of confinement" led to the damage suffered.

"It's a finding that they failed to meet the basic essential needs of an inmate" because of systemic problems, Mr. Tittle said.

Mr. Shepherd, 51, who testified during the trial, entered the jail in October 2003 on a burglary and drug charge and suffered the stroke in January 2004. In the seven weeks before his stroke, he received little or no treatment or medication despite high blood- pressure readings, Mr. Tittle said. Mr. Shepherd told the jail staff about his blood pressure medication upon being booked into the jail, the suit said.

He was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital almost an hour after he was found on the floor of his cell, according to the lawsuit.

The charges against Mr. Shepherd were later dismissed.

Mr. Shepherd, who filed his federal lawsuit in 2005, uses a wheelchair and is paralyzed on his left side, Mr. Tittle said. He can only eat soft foods; his speech, hearing and sight are impaired; he is impotent and suffers from depression; and his wife must help him with everyday activities, the suit said.

With what we know about health care at the Dallas jail, I'd bet dollars to donuts Price is wrong the county will be "vindicated" on appeal. A report (pdf) from the feds issued this spring found some improvements, but overall said many of the same problems described in Mr. Shepherd's suit are still happening.

Indeed, given the details of the plaintiff's case and the clear culpability of the county, Mr. Price and the Commissioners Court might be better served spending money to improve jail health care instead of on appellate lawyers. When he makes comments like that it leads me to believe he's not serious about acknowledging or fixing the jail's problems.

To be honest, $1 million sounds like an awfully cheap payout considering what happened to this fellow and the permanent disabilities that resulted. How hard would it have been just to give him his high-blood pressure medicine, which was in the Sheriff's possession?

Plus, it's not like this is the first time this happened. As mentioned, last year Dallas County was ordered to pay damages for failing to provide adequate healthcare to three other plaintiffs; again from the Dallas News:

Tuesday's verdict – if intact after the county's appeal – will be the second six-figure payout in two years related to the jail's well-publicized problems in providing health care to its jail population.

In February 2007, commissioners agreed to pay $950,000 to the families of three mentally ill former inmates, one of whom died, to settle their civil rights lawsuit over jail medical care.

James Monroe Mims didn't get his medication for two months and nearly died after water to his cell was shut off for two weeks. Clarence Lee Grant Jr. died in his jail cell in 2003 after he did not receive any medicine for five days. And Kennedy Nickerson was found lying sick in the street after being released from the jail without medication or notice to his family.

Several scathing reports have criticized medical care in the Dallas County jail system, and the jails haven't met state standards since 2003.

The only reasons jail health won't be more of an issue in the hotly contested Dallas Sheriff's election are that it's unclear what if anything the GOP candidate might do differently, plus so much blame goes to the county commissioners court for failing to adequately fund jail health over the long haul.

Dallas County is presently in the midst of a self-manufactured budget crisis. The Commissioners Court has declared it won't raise taxes, then used the resulting projected shortfall to justify draconian cuts, mostly affecting services provided to the poorest among us. So unfortunately, in that context, major civil verdicts against the county may be the only way to get the Commissioners Court's attention and focus more resources on jail health on the front end.

UPDATE: Robert Guest adds that this is why Dallas should not be "using their jail to incarcerate those with outstanding traffic fines," noting that "To fill the coffers, Dallas launched the ill conceived "Operation Pay or Stay" program. The result is that one of the most dangerous jails in Texas, is now being used a debtor's prison." "Tarrant County has already had a traffic ticket arrest turn into a death sentence, wrote Guest. "It is only a matter of time before Dallas experiences a similar tragedy."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

That Dammed Border Fence


From the moment Congress first proposed putting a wall along the Rio Grande on Texas' southern border to reduce illegal immigration, I thought it was not just a bad idea but an insane one. As far as I can tell, when it's finished the United States will be the first nation state in the history of the planet to wall off a major river and leave the river on the other side!

Anyone who's spent time along the border knows that limiting river access - whether for crops, livestock or recreation - will cause the locals big problems. Plus, by building the fence in a river basin, the project almost ensures problems with erosion, runoff and flooding, not to mention disrupting the environment.

Local officials and landowners in the Rio Grande Valley fought construction of the wall, but have not succeeded in stopping it. Elsewhere, we can already see what's in store along the Rio Grande. Via one of my favorite bloggers, Bryan Finoki at Subtopia: A Field Guide to Military Urbanism, I saw this report that:
A 5.2-mile border fence recently constructed along Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument's southern border in southwestern Arizona became a dam in a recent flash flood, monument officials say.
Writes Bryan:
Apparently, the new $21.3 million, 5.2-mile fence along the monument's southern border, basically turned into a dam during the storms on July 12th. The wire-mesh construction, meant to prevent crossers and vehicles but allow water to pass through, halted the natural flow of floodwater along the border when, according to a National Park Services report (pdf), “Debris piled up against the fence, including in drainage gates designed to prevent flooding, and the 6-foot deep fence foundation stopped subsurface water flow.” So, instead of flowing north to south, as I understand it naturally should, the floodwater carried laterally through the port of entry pooling 2 to 7 feet high and causing tons of damage to the ecology and nearby businesses.

What’s a crime is that none of this came as a surprise to anyone. The DHS had been warned of this sort of potential before they chose to ignore the severity of that discussion, and decided to build a fence regardless, even though they claimed the design would not hamper this flow in any significant way. You can read the full report here (pdf) outlaying the ecological and infrastructural damage that was caused by the border fence, and what can be expected in the future.
That was as predictable as the sunrise. And what will be any different, exactly, about Texas' fence? If the feds can't contain runoff on a flat plain, how in the world do they expect the fence to interact with the environment along an actual, large river in the event of a flash flood? Where will this fence divert runoff otherwise headed for the river? There's no telling, but it's a safe bet we won't find out until the fence is built, the first gullywasher hits, and 2-7 feet of floodwaters back up into some Texas border town as happened in Arizona.

See the full post including an excellent batch of links at the end from Subtopia.

Police interrogation a 'guilt presumptive' process

The raft of DNA exonerations nationwide has focused greater discussion in recent years on a handful of common sources of provably false convictions. While erroneous eyewitness IDs dominate among causal factors, more than a few erroneous convictions have resulted from false confessions.

While the fact of false confessions is inarguable (in Austin's infamous yogurt shop murders, for example, dozens of people confessed to the same crime), the mechanics of how that occurs are only just beginning to be understood. While some false confessors are mentally ill or seeking publicity, others succumb to pressure to confess by police interrogators.

Hoping to "
to educate potential clients about police tactics and the psychology of the confession," Texas attorney and blawgger Stephen Gustitis examines new research on police interrogations from an article called Mourning Miranda by Charles Weisselberg analyzing training and tactics used by California police. (Others have commented on this writing here and here. ) Writes Gustitis:
Weisselberg started by distinguishing between an “interview” and an “interrogation.” An interview is non-accusatory. It's “free-flowing and relatively unstructured.” Its purpose is to gather information. An interrogation, on the other hand, is “accusatory,” conducted “in a controlled environment,” and involves “active persuasion.” Officers are trained and understand the difference between an interview and an interrogation. During an interview police establish rapport with a suspect and use verbal and non-verbal information to decide whether, in their view, a suspect is telling the truth. If officers become “reasonably certain of the suspect’s guilt,” they may initiate an interrogation. Consequently, an officer’s initial judgments about truth, guilt, and culpability determines whether the suspect will be interrogated. In contrast to interviewing, interrogation is a “guilt-presumptive" process.

Next consider the nine potential components, or steps, used in many police interrogations. First is the confrontation statement by the interrogator. Then the interrogator interjects a reason for the commission of the crime, usually a morally acceptable one. Then the interrogator prepares to overcome the suspect's denials. Steps four through six guide the investigator in overcoming the suspect's reasons why he would not, or could not, have committed the crime. In step seven the police offer a statement supporting the suspect's morally acceptable reason for committing the crime. And the final steps are take the oral statement and convert it into a written confession.
In a followup post, Gustitis further described common interrogation practices, declaring that typically:
police wanted to first isolate a suspect, allowing them to sit alone and in sparsely furnished surroundings. This increased stress and increased the person's incentive to free themselves from the situation. Then by confronting the suspect outright the police hoped to increase anxiety and induce a sense of hopelessness.

Investigators regularly confront suspects and emphasize to them the only question remaining open is "why" (and not "whether") they committed the crime. In other words, the police presume the person under interrogation is guilty. Additionally, some of the most common police tactics include appealing to the person's self-interest, confronting them with actual (or purported) evidence of guilt, undermining their confidence in denials, appealing to the importance of cooperation, offering moral justifications for committing the crime, and minimizing the seriousness of the offense.

The Miranda court recognized the prevalence and use of these police interrogation tactics and concluded isolation was one of the most significant aspects of these methods. They concluded custodial interrogations contained inherently compelling pressures that undermined a person's ability to make free and informed choices whether to speak to the police.
Weisselberg's description of interrogation tactics jibes closesly with that offered earlier this year by academic Richard Leo in his book "Police Interrogations and American Justice," who argued that police routinely use coercion, fraud and deception in ways that contribute to false confessions. Lying to suspects in particular can generate false confessions as well as other negative outcomes. Such practices are prominent features of the so-called Reid technique (see a description here) which forms the basis for most police interrogation training in the United States.

Recording interrogations would solve some but not all of these problems; many police interrogation techniques are based on inherently coercive approaches that lack scientific support. Particularly suspect is reliance on the interrogating officers' ability to detect deception that supposedly justifies use of more coercive techniques. Ironically, then, one of the main arguments against recording interrogations has been that police want to keep those suspect tactics secret for fear the public won't support them:
The F.B.I., in documents defending its policy [not to require taped interrogations], argued that taping was not always possible, particularly when agents were on the road, and that it was not always appropriate. Psychological tricks like misleading or lying to a suspect in questioning or pretending to show the suspect sympathy might also offend a jury, the agency said.
“Perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants,” said one of the once-secret internal Justice Department communications made public as part of the investigation into the dismissals of the United States attorneys.
That's not an acceptable reason to oppose taped interrogations, particularly in circumstances where a suspect has been isolated and read their Miranda rights. Just like cockroaches scatter when you turn on a light, my guess is that recording and thus exposing these tactics to scrutiny by judges and juries would, in the long run, result in their defenestration. At a minimum, recording would allow more comprehensive post-investigative analysis by researchers to identify unproductive approaches and best practices. Until then, for the foreseeable future, coercive tactics will remain a routine part of American police interrogation.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Charles Kuffner interviews Harris DA candidate C.O. Bradford

Charles Kuffner has an interview up with former Houston PD Chief C.O. "Brad" Bradford who's now the Democratic nominee for District Attorney. Bradford declared his support for a number of forward thinking ideas, including making the Houston crime lab independent from law enforcement, increasing use of personal bonds to relieve jail overcrowding, and letting police officers use new authority to issue citations instead of arresting for certain low-level offenses. Listen to the interview (mp3).

Kuff covered a lot of ground and got Bradford on the record about a number of subjects I'd not seen nor heard Mr. Bradford discuss, in particular the need to change the culture of the office and get away from judging success or failure solely on the basis of Ws and Ls in the courtroom, which he says is currently the main metric by which internal candidates for promotion are judged. Bradford also suggests creating a Conviction Integrity Unit modeled after the one famously created by Dallas DA Craig Watkins.

Kuff has only been interviewing Democratic candidates, so we may not see a comparable interview by him of Bradford's GOP opponent, former District Judge Pat Lykos. If Chuck won't mind the suggestion, this may be a good race to make an exception to the Dems only interview policy; it'd be good to get both candidates on the record regarding the topics covered in his interview.

Looking forward, AHCL over at Life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center has promised previews of contested elections in Harris County related to criminal courts, so we'll surely be getting more bloggerly analysis on this race in addition to the usual MSM coverage as the November plebiscites approach.

Too fat to jail?

Not long ago we saw a fellow escape from jail by losing so much weight he could slip through an air conditioning duct. Now we get a tale from the opposite end of the spectrum: A half-ton woman accused of killing a toddler in Hidalgo County who's so fat she can no longer fit through the door. What's more, "The local sheriff says the woman needs extensive medical care, so jail isn't an option anyway."

It seems to me the only difference between being trapped in her bedroom and trapped in a jail cell would be Hidalgo County taxpayers picking up her health care tab. What do you say we agree to just leave her there and call it "house arrest"?

Education investments, not security spending, separates the United States from Third World status

Speaking today of education and crime, I saw a sad and unreal statistic from the Salvadoran Public Security Council which found that "El Salvador spends some 11% of its GDP on security, yet spends only 2.7% on education." Their crime problem is a lot worse than ours, too; for that matter, it's substantially worse than Mexico's.

These stark data remind me of a recent exchange in Grits comments. Reacting to this Grits post, someone wondered, given Texas' high incarceration rates, "Do we need any more proof that Texas is really just another third world country?" I replied that no Third World country could afford incarceration rates that high, declaring "Mass incarceration is a rich nation's hobby."

To judge by these data, I may have misstated things. I don't know comparable US stats, but as a proportion of GDP, one anticipates a much greater proportion of public expenditures in the United States go toward education as opposed to items associated with security (though it's hard to say what effect the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are being fought with borrowed money, not directly out of GDP, had on that ratio).

For that matter, I've little doubt that those reversed spending priorities are a big reason why the United States has less crime and more economic prosperity than Third World nations that don't invest in education as heavily. Ideally the overall balance struck would decisively favor education spending. Particularly in the modern information-era economy, investments in society's human capital via education make everybody safer in the long-run with more overall bang for the buck than prisons and jails.

Read the full post from Mexidata.

Questioning impartiality of (particular) judges

Via Texas Lawyer - Two high-profile cases where defendants dispute the impartiality of the judge:

Recusal, round two: A convicted capital murderer gets another chance to disqualify the judge who presided over his trial. Senior reporter Mary Alice Robbins finds out why. ...

Death row inmate seeks depos: Charles Dean Hood has filed a petition in Collin County seeking to take the depositions of the judge and prosecutor for his 1990 trial, who he alleges were having an affair at the time. Senior reporter Mary Alice Robbins gets the documents.

Back to School: Fight Crime, Invest in Kids

As Texas kids head back to school today, it's worth raising the question of whether too much public debate is focused on crime and punishment and too little on investments in education and mental health care that might prevent more incarceration.

That's the gist of the "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids" initiative proposed recently by a national coalition of police, prosecutors and crime victims. I agree with Doc Berman that education and crime are too seldom linked in the public discourse. That's not just a "framing strategy," as Dan Filler put it it's a valid interpretation of the data that's become unpopular in recent years because of political arguments labeling its proponents "liberal" or "soft on crime." However, that doesn't invalidate the stance or reduce its import to mere clever political posturing. From the group's press release:
Research shows that high school dropouts are three and a half times more likely than graduates to be arrested and eight times more likely to be incarcerated. Nineteen of the top 25 largest U.S. cities have school districts where 40 percent or more of students do not graduate on time. Nearly 70 percent of all inmates in our nation's prisons failed to earn a high school diploma.

The law enforcement leaders are members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national anti-crime organization made up of over 4,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, and violence survivors. They called on Congress and state lawmakers to expand pre-kindergarten, one of the most effective strategies to increase graduation rates.

"If kids get strong start early in life, we can cut our dropout rate and improve our communities," Lynch said. "To help more kids get that strong start, we need to fund early childhood education programs and ensure that every child that qualifies is able to enroll."

The Fight Crime: Invest in Kids members released a report called "School or the Streets," showing that increasing graduation rates by 10 percentage points will prevent 3,000 murders and 175,000 aggravated assaults in America every year.
To the extent those estimates are accurate, failures by Texas public schools on a massive scale contribute mightily to the expanding prison population.

In May, former Secretary of State Collin Powell's organization, America's Promise, issued these data regarding dropout 4-year graduation rates in the largest Texas cities:
Dallas: 44.4%
Houston: 54.6%
San Antonio: 51.9%
Austin: 58.2%
Fort Worth: 55.5%
As Grits argued in reaction to that analysis, there are particular subgroups among dropouts who account for a disproportionate amount of crime and public safety resources:
Straight-up illiteracy is a key criminogenic factor. It's long been known, for example, that while dyslexics make up about 10% of students, they make up 30% or more of those in prison.

As far as reducing crime, an even more important subcategory are kids with incarcerated parents, who tend to be 6-8 times more likely than their peers to wind up incarcerated themselves. Making sure those kids stay in school and have real opportunities to succeed might be the single most important contribution society could make to reducing future crime.
Texas' massive prison system shows it does a good job of holding its citizens accountable (one in 21 adult Texans are in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole), but these high dropout rates show there's been little progress made holding schools accountable for their frankly lousy outcomes.

I spend a lot of time on this blog looking at the back end of the system's failures and how we manage those who've already violated societal rules. But there's little question reducing those massive dropout rates would reduce crime and systemic pressure on the front end better than anything that could be done after people have already offended. Worth contemplating, certainly, as everybody heads back to school.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Federal panel issues prison rape prevention recommendations

In reaction to the passage by Congress in 2003 of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the Department of Justice in recent years has focused greater attention on documenting, preventing, and encouraging prosecutions of prison rape, gathering data on the problem comprehensively for the first time and setting up a review panel to recommend ways to prevent it. (See transcripts and testimony from their initial hearings.)

Reacting to their recommendations issued on Friday, the Houston Chronicle ("Report advises how to prevent rapes in prison," Aug. 22) reminds us that Texas has one of the worst documented problems with prison rape of any state:

Last year, an arm of the Department of Justice — the Bureau of Justice Statistics — made its first attempt at complying with the law by conducting a survey of randomly selected inmates at a limited number of facilities. The inmates were asked to report whether they had been sexually assaulted in prison in the previous 12 months.

At Estelle prison, 16 percent of the inmates who took part in the survey reported being sexually assaulted — the highest rate of any prison that took part in the study. ...

Clemens prison had the second-highest rate, with 14 percent of inmates reporting that they were sexually assaulted.

The three other Texas facilities rounded out the top 10 prisons with the highest prevalence of inmates who said they were sexually assaulted. Allred's rate was 10 percent, Mountain View's 9.5 percent and Coffield's 9 percent. Mountain View is a women's prison in Gatesville, about 40 miles southwest of Waco. Allred is in Wichita County, and Coffield is in Anderson.

Arguably reporting on prison rape is so poor that Texas might be receiving an unfavorable comparison with other states just because TDCJ is more likely to report sexual assaults, not because more necessarily occur here. But whether the problem is substantially worse than other states or merely better documented, Texas still must address it. On Friday, the federal panel issued the following recommendations :

• Pornography should be banned among inmates, especially those who have a history of sexual assault or are at risk of becoming sexual predators.

• Prison staff should receive more and better training about sexual assaults. Staff should be tested to make sure that they have comprehended sexual assault policies.

• See-through doors should be installed on closets, high-risk cells, laundry rooms and other areas where assaults might occur.

• Inmates should have access to a hot line that allows them to report assaults to a prosecutor or inspector general.

• Strip searches of inmates should be conducted only by corrections officers of the same sex. ...

• [I]nstall videocameras in areas where assaults are most likely to occur, including isolated areas of kitchens, laundry rooms, shower rooms and cells of inmates at risk of being victims or rapists.

• Those who investigate sexual assaults should be independent of the prison system.

• Prisons should reduce overcrowding and maintain proper staffing levels.

TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons told the Chronicle that "a number of the panel's recommendations are already TDCJ policy, including assessing newly arrived inmates to determine whether they are at risk of being raped or committing rapes."

For more information on this topic see the resource page from the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

Levin urges Corrections Committee to mimic Hawaii's HOPE program

At the House Corrections Committee hearing last week, Texas Public Policy Foundation researcher Marc Levin said the state should consider adopting elements of the HOPE initiative in Hawaii - which stands for Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement. This morning I ran across this 2-page fact sheet from USDOJ describing the program, and also this Wall Street Journal feature from July.

The HOPE program is similar to strong probation mechanisms used in drug courts, but with a much broader population of offenders. According to the Wall Street Journal:
HOPE is the brainchild of Judge Steven Alm, an energetic 55-year-old former U.S. attorney for Hawaii who drives a black Corvette. He was assigned to criminal court in 2004 and immediately faced a slew of motions to revoke probation. In every case, he recalls, the defendant had "pages of violations stretching back months or even years" yet had suffered virtually no consequences for any of them.

That is the reality across the U.S., Prof. Kennedy said. Probation, administered by a patchwork of state and local systems and often starved for resources, "basically teaches people to ignore" probation officers' warnings, he said, until violations accumulate to a tipping point. Then, offenders face dire -- and expensive -- consequences: in Hawaii, as much as 20 years in prison.

To Judge Alm, this system seemed as absurd as parents failing to respond to a child's persistent misbehavior and then suddenly kicking him or her out of the house. His idea: Instead of one severe sanction after many violations, mete out relatively minor but "swift and certain" sanctions for every violation.

The judge holds a "warning hearing" to explain the HOPE rules. Under regular probation, for example, offenders are usually drug-tested only when they meet with their probation officer, giving them time to wash out the drugs. In HOPE, probationers with a drug problem must call in every weekday morning to see if they are scheduled for a random drug test that day.

Virtually every violation results in immediate arrest, a hearing within 72 hours and almost certain jail time, varying from a few days for a first violation to a few months for subsequent ones. Participants who accumulate several violations risk having probation revoked and being sent to prison for years.

"I thought it would be counterproductive," recalled probation officer Sheri Shimbakuku. "How will I help them if they're in jail?" But she says HOPE probationers seemed much more receptive to help: "Boy, it was just different seeing their reaction to being in jail."

Flash incarceration has been used around the U.S. by specialized courts established to adjudicate drug cases, with demonstrated success. But the Hawaii program is one of the first to test the approach among a broader group of probationers. In a randomized, controlled trial of more than 500 probationers, researchers from Pepperdine University and the University of California at Los Angeles found HOPE probationers were less than half as likely as controls to miss probation-officer appointments or test dirty for drugs, even though the controls knew in advance when they would be tested and HOPE participants didn't. These preliminary findings are being announced Thursday, and full results are expected by year end.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Failure to update state crime database affects employment options for the unconvicted

Texas' statewide crime database is woefully incomplete, containing no information at all about outcomes on more than 30% of cases, reports the Dallas News ("Counties fail to update cases in state crime database," Aug. 23):

The state's criminal database, riddled with holes four years ago, has just as many gaps today.

Although officials in Dallas and other poorly reporting counties promised in 2004 to do better, the Department of Public Safety says counties in the most recent assessment submitted outcomes on just 69 percent of criminal charges – the same percentage as before.

"That's astonishing. That's leaving a substantial total number of criminals unreported in the system," said John Bradley, Williamson County district attorney. "That's the biggest threat to public safety that you can imagine, particularly in a post-9/11 time when we rely on databases to protect the public."

Angie Klein, manager of the DPS criminal history records bureau, attributed the counties' lack of progress to slow resolution of many felony cases, and glitches in big urban counties, which can bring down statewide compliance rates.

"It's hard to keep trained personnel," she said.

Failure to update the database has real-world consequences because it's used for employment screenings:

The DPS database also is used to screen schoolteachers and volunteers who work with children, and caregivers for the sick and frail. Gaps can affect background checks run by employers on job applicants and landlords checking on prospective tenants. Everyone from job applicants to people trying to adopt children or buy guns can be affected, Ms. Klein said. No one knows how many Texans didn't get a job because an acquittal or dismissal wasn't in the system, she said.

An increasing number, though, are venting. A surge of complaints from people, mostly job seekers frustrated that their acquittals or charge dismissals don't appear in the database, has forced DPS to double the size of an error resolution unit, to 20 employees, Ms. Klein said.

Reading that, one is reminded of the Rothgery case considered by the US Supreme Court this Spring out of Kerr Gillespie County. Rothgery's original detention was for being a felon in possession of a handgun, but he wasn't really a felon - the crime database failed to report the updated outcome that the charge had been dropped to a misdemeanor (see the comments). And so began a years long-journey that led Mr. Rothgery all the way to SCOTUS. But it ironically could all have been avoided with better record keeping.

One notices there's no lack of enthusiasm for the system to record every arrest and initial charge - the recalcitrance comes, apparently, in updating when charges are reduced or cases are dismissed. E.g., "DPS has only half of Dallas County's "dispositions" – what happens to a charge after prosecutors and courts step in – for 2001 and 2002, and two-thirds for 2003." So while the original charges are recorded and that data routinely stored, many counties aren't updating it when case outcomes favor the defendant instead of the state. No wonder people are upset and suing when the database later wrongly accuses them and keeps them from getting a job.

Point-counterpoint on underage drinking

The Dallas News this morning published an excerpt from this Grits post on the merits of lowering the drinking age, using it as a counterpoint for a longer column reprinted from a Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, who makes a claim I don't believe stands up to rigorous scrutiny:
It's true that in the old days, there was no college culture of clandestine, off-campus binge drinking. It was out in the open, right on the quad. Another difference back then: There was more of it.
By what measure, exactly, was there more underage drinking 25 years ago than today? After all, how can we really know since it's been effectively driven underground? Just because you don't see it on the quad doesn't mean kids aren't drinking back at their apartment, frat house or other off-campus setting. (Is "out of sight, out of mind" really the approach we want to take on this topic?) Drunk driving has declined across the board, not just for teens. And to the extent overall teen drinking has declined, how do we know it isn't just a substitution effect with marijuana and other drugs?

What's more, Chapman's analysis ignores data indicating binge drinking increased as a result of raising the minimum legal age. If more youth drank before the drinking age rose but a greater proportion drank irresponsibly after the law changed, that's still an ineffective law.

Neat use of mapping software by criminal justice blogger

Not a Texas topic, but I thought I'd point readers to a really cool use by a criminal justice blog of a Google Maps application over at the Chicago Syndicate to create the "Chicago Mob Infamous Locations Map." (See a larger version.)

That's a neat use by a blogger of free Google Map software, making me think perhaps I can find uses for the technique on Grits. A similar method could be useful, e.g., for tracking police corruption episodes on the border.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hochberg: Create "warehouse" of publicly accessible criminal justice data

Rep. Scott Hochberg proposed an excellent idea at yesterday's House Corrections Committee as committee members were grilling witnesses trying to get to the bottom of data surrounding which counties sent how many offenders to state jail facilities and the related recidivism rates.

Office of Court Administration chief Carl Reynolds had suggested that the state needed a "systematic, ongoing" way to analyze criminal justice data along the lines of Dr. Tony Fabelo's now-defunct Criminal Justice Policy Council.

Hochberg said that every session there are "a whole raft of questions" being asked by the Lege and outside organizations but there's never any simple way to get at the answers. He suggested building "a repository of data that people could access to be researched without every request having to go" to each individual agency - some sort of "public data warehouse" of de-identified public data. "It's a drain on the agencies every time you have to go to them and go through a data request," said the Houston rep.

Hochberg said providing data to people outside the system helps solve the problem that you don't "find the things you don't know you're looking for" unless "you have that data out there and people are pawing through it." In particular, he said the same model has been successfull regarding data about public schools, resulting in helpful and insightful analyses by group's like Texas Appleseed, he said, who crunched the data in different ways and helped identify problems and solutions. Hochberg suggested the committee's interim report include recommendations regarding access to information.

From a blogger's perspective I love Hochberg's idea. In fact, if they're going to do it, I'd suggest the committee get assistance from researchers like Dr. Fabelo, UT-Austin's criminal justice data guru Bill Spelman or the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Marc Levin to identify what data and formats would be especially useful and probative.

There are many organizations and interests who participate in public policy debates on these subjects. Put information out there that's useful and I'll guarantee it would get used. For my part, if they create such a thing I'll certainly pledge to "paw through" the data.

Texas Criminal Justice By the Numbers

Just a few bits of telling data about Texas' criminal justice system compiled from prior Grits posts:

Proportion of Texas adults under control of the criminal justice system (in prison, jail, on probation or on parole): 1 in 21

Increase in Texas' overall population 1978-2004: 67%

Increase in Texas' prison population 1978-2004: 573%

Number of felonies on the books in Texas: 2,324

Number of Texas felonies involving oysters: 11

Percentage of TDCJ inmates convicted of drug offenses: 19.6%

Drug offenders as a percentage of total probation revocations: 37%

Percentage of state jail inmates incarcerated for less than a gram drug offenses convicted in Harris County: 50%

Percentage of Texas population in Harris County: 17%

Percentage of TDCJ pharmacy budget spent on HIV drugs: 48%

Percentage of Texas prison inmates who were clients of the indigent mental health system on the outside: 30%

Percentage of TDCJ inmates eligible for parole 66%

Texas prison staffing positions vacant: 3,040

Number of TDCJ staff fired for disciplinary infractions in FY 2007: 538

TDCJ prison guard pay ranked by state: 47th

Proposed TDCJ budget increase next biennium for the same prison population: 10.5%

Percentage of Texas drivers with no auto insurance: 25.5%

Proportion of drivers sentenced to pay "driver responsibility" fees who become scofflaws: 70%

Percentage of Texas adults with outstanding arrest warrants: More than 10%

Number of exonerations in Texas based on DNA since 2001: 34

Percentage of Texas cases solved by DNA resulting in exonerations: 3.3%

Percentage of Texas DNA exonerations where wrongful conviction was caused by a faulty eyewitness: 82%

Number of prisoners entering TDCJ for homicide in 2007: 849

Number of new TDCJ inmates in 2007 sentenced to death: 14

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Federal judge delays Jeff Wood execution

Greg Moses at the Texas Civil Rights Review and the SaveJeffWood.com website are reporting that a federal judge has issued a stay in the controversial Jeff Wood capital murder case. Wood was scheduled to be executed tonight.

UPDATE: CBS News has an initial report declaring that the delay was "so Wood's attorneys could hire a mental health expert to pursue their arguments that he is incompetent to be executed," an issue that nearly kept him from being prosecuted in the first place. According to the Houston Chronicle:
Wood initially was found by a jury to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. After a brief stint at a state hospital, a second jury found him competent. After he was found guilty, he tried to fire his lawyers before the penalty phase. The trial judge denied the request but Wood's lawyers followed their client's wishes and called no witnesses on his behalf and declined to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.
Doesn't sound like he allowed his attorneys to put on much of a defense, does it? Whether it's evidence of mental illness, it's certainly not a rational act to restrict one's defense in a capital murder trial, particularly when, as in Wood's instance, he wasn't actually the trigger man; he'd helped plan the robbery but was sitting outside in the getaway vehicle when the murder occurred.

I've long ago given up predicting the outcome of capital appeals in Texas, so who knows how this case will turn out. But it's clear federal courts still don't have confidence that Texas is responsibly handling its death penalty cases, a fact which contributes to the extensive delays in carrying out executions.

MORE: See additional coverage from the Stand Down blog, and here's a statement issued by the Texas Defender Service:
WOOD EXECUTION HALTED BASED ON TEXAS STATE COURTS FAILURE TO PROVIDE DUE PROCESS ON ISSUES RELATING TO WOOD'S MENTAL ILLNESS

Austin -- Today, the Federal District Court granted a stay of execution in the case of Jeff Wood to allow the court to consider compelling evidence that Jeff Wood is too mentally ill to be executed. The Court held that the Texas state courts have not carefully reviewed the question of Wood's competence and that a stay of execution is necessary to ensure that Wood's mental health issues are fully presented and considered by the courts. ...

"We applaud the Federal District Court for upholding Jeff Wood's rudimentary due process right to have his competency evaluated," said Andrea Keilen, executive director of Texas Defender Service, who, along with attorney Scott Sullivan, are representing Mr. Wood.

The Federal District Court authorized an attorney and the assistance of mental health experts, pointing out that the Texas state courts had not complied with the basic due process that the United States Supreme Court required in another Texas case - that of Scott Panetti, a mentally ill death row inmate with a 20 year history of schizophrenia, who was permitted to represent himself at trial dressed in a purple cowboy costume.

In its 20-page order, the Court stated, "With all due respect, a system thatrequires an insane person to first make "a substantial showing" of his own lack of mental capacity without the assistance of counsel or a mental health expert, in order to obtain such assistance is, by definition, an insane system."

Prosecutors have indicated they will not appeal today's decision.
AND MORE: See Judge Orlando Garcia's 20-page order (pdf). Judge Garcia found that although "evidence of petitioner's alleged incompetence now before this Court is far from compelling,"
Petitioner's motion presents non-frivolous arguments suggesting petitioner currently lacks a rational understanding of the connection between his role in the offense and the punishment imposed upon him.
Another money quote:
The initial constitutional deficiency with what transpired during petitioner's latest state habeas corpus proceeding is that petitioner was afforded neither court-appointed counsel nor expert assistance to challenge his own competence. Instead, the State of Texas insisted an arguably insane death row inmate proceeding without the assistance of court-appointed counsel was required to satisfy the threshold requirement of Article 46.05 ... [which involves] arcane pleadings so intellectually challenging they test the skill of even the most seasoned attorney.
Finally, one of the flaws in Texas statutes and their interpretation that created these constitutional defects is an issue that SCOTUS attempted to rectify in a recent bench slap against the 5th Circuit and the Texas CCA:
the Texas statutory definition of "incompetent to be executed" apparently applied by the state trial court during petitioner's most recent state habeas corpus proceeding suffers from the exact same constitutional defect identified by the Supreme Court when it struck down as too narrow two decades of Fifth Circuit precedent construing the Supreme Court's holding in Ford.
See the full opinion. (pdf)

Stories I'd blog about if I had more time

Quite a few news pieces caught Grits' attention recently that could each easily inspire its own blog post, but since I don't have nearly enough time to devote, let me just point readers to these criminal justice stories from the MSM: