Sunday, May 30, 2010

'Unthinkable' prison closures now on table at Texas Lege

Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman has a feature today ("More programs, fewer beds could help prisons' bottom line," May 30) covering themes that will be familiar to Grits readers: "For Texas, a state that officials say has never closed an entire adult prison, a public discussion could be coming to do just that." The article opens:

During an initial round of budget cuts for many state agencies this month, the Texas prison system took a lesser hit.

On Friday, though, state leaders directed agencies — including the prison system — to propose an additional 10 percent in cuts that may be necessary to balance the budget when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

How to do that without cutting programs? Consider closing a prison or two.

That's the suggestion of a growing number of officials who admit such a notion would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

If that happens, it would represent a significant shift in the state's criminal justice policy. For decades, Texas focused on building more prisons in the name of public safety, tripling the size of the system in the 1990s alone. But in recent years, the state has found that greatly expanded treatment and rehabilitation programs can reduce the number of people in prison — and save money.

The units Ward identifies as possible candidates for closure have all been discussed previously on Grits in that context:

Prisons mentioned as possible targets for closure include the Central Unit in Sugar Land, surrounded by suburban sprawl and sitting on land that is now worth tens of millions of dollars; the Dawson State Jail in Dallas, located in the Trinity River bottoms on land now wanted for development; the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville that is relatively small and expensive to operate; and the privately run Mineral Wells Unit, a pre-parole lockup that has been plagued by contraband problems for years.

I agree with most of what's written here, with the exception of when Ward predicts: "New projections due out in June will forecast the number of prisoners Texas will see in coming years, and if they show an uptick in felons, then all bets are off to close any prisons." That's a political assessment, not a policy analysis. If the Legislature really decides to cut 10% from TDCJ's budget, it would require policy changes to reduce inmate numbers even more. But it's absolutely possible from a practical perspective; the barriers are all political.

Here's a chart accompanying the story demonstrating savings and reduced inmate numbers following the 2007 probation reforms:

IMO similar amounts could be saved if the Lege enacted a handful of simple policy changes that in the scheme of things aren't really that controversial. In California, which faces a budget crisis of historic proportions, lowering prison costs is one of the only significant budget cuts supported by the voters in public opinion polls.

See related Grits posts

Extended case study of Tyler youth who slayed special ed teacher

The Dallas News has published an excellent, extended article by Lee Hancock on the sad case out of Tyler where a mentally ill youth named Byron who was hearing voices stabbed his special ed teacher, Todd Henry, at John Tyler High. I'd refrained from commenting on this high-profile case because we knew so little about the youth and the situation beyond the bare facts of the murder, but now Hancock has provided a wealth of detailed background. Here's a notable excerpt:

bureaucrat after bureaucrat seemed bent on making a deranged child someone else's problem. Byron was pushed from school to treatment center to prison and back in a pattern that, on paper, looks like treatment by transfer.

Official fears about what Byron might be capable of went largely unshared until Henry died. Fragmented educational, mental health and justice agencies appeared incapable of communicating with one another, even after state psychologists declared Byron too sick for juvenile prison and unstable enough to warrant locking up every knife in his family's home.

"I'm not mad at Byron. I just want him put where he can't hurt anyone ever again," said Henry's widow, Jan. "I'm angry at the system. It failed Todd. The system put [Byron] in my husband's classroom. Todd didn't have a chance. And that can never, ever happen again."

Byron is jailed, awaiting pretrial hearings. His court-appointed lawyer, Jim Huggler of Tyler, echoes Jan Henry's assessment. He says Byron needs what he has never gotten – consistent mental health treatment.

"He hasn't just fallen through the cracks. The system keeps throwing him through the cracks," Huggler said. "Everything set up to prevent what happened to Mr. Henry was broken."

Experts say such disconnects are sadly common. The head of a Michigan juvenile agency recently told Congress that the problem of juvenile offenders getting little coordinated care until they commit horrific crimes is "the hidden secret that nobody wants to talk about."

Granted permission by Byron's mother to access his official records, the News found that:

The agency forms, memos and reports – a five-foot pile of paper that weighs 70 pounds – trace a descent into chaos. From his arrival in Texas as a Hurricane Katrina evacuee until his arrest for Henry's slaying, records show that Byron had:

• 20 transfers among schools, treatment facilities and TYC prison units.

• 10 transfers in 18 months in TYC. That included three trips to the unit for the most disturbed juvenile offenders and a mental hospital stay.

• Treatment by at least 10 psychiatrists who prescribed six drugs, including four antipsychotics. Eight psychiatrists saw him in TYC.

• Cycles on and off psychiatric drugs. Byron was taken off drugs for 82 days by TYC psychiatrists who declared he didn't need any treatment. When he refused medications, some TYC psychiatrists instituted a bizarre punishment. They ordered all drugs withheld, sometimes for weeks at a time. Juvenile justice and psychology experts call that practice unconscionable.

The notion that TYC psychiatrists took the boy off his meds as punishment reaches beyond the "bizarre" to gross incompetence or intentional negligence. Any medical professional who was aware of that practice and didn't object should be fired and pilloried. Yesterday.

FWIW, in 2007 about the time this boy entered the system, Ben Raimer from UTMB was telling the Legislature that the quality of mental health treatment at TYC had declined because of the loss of key staff, underfunding by the state, and a "chaotic" environment. So there's a very real extent to which the Lege shares responsibility with the bureaucracy: They were told mental health services for such youth were inadequate and declining, but rectifying those problems always seemed pretty far down the priority list during debates dominated by allegations of staff-on-youth sexual assault.

There are many other remarkable implications to this story. (A sidebar identified possible reforms suggested by the incident.) The entire, lengthy article is worth reading in full as a case study of the consequences of relegating mental health treatment to carceral institutions instead of hospitals or community-based assistance. Too many mentally ill offenders are passed from bureaucracy to bureaucracy just like Byron instead of getting focused or effective help. In that sense, this story is a painfully common one, differing only from so many thousands of others in its spectacularly tragic denouement.

RELATED: Listening to voice hearers outside the justice system.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Impotent Austin police oversight lamented

Noelle Davis at Southern Shift posted this video to YouTube with excerpts from a community meeting in Austin last week in the wake of a report released on a controversial, racially charged shooting incident that recently rocked city hall. Participants offered complaints about the opacity and ineffectiveness of police oversight in Austin and the overweening power of the local police union to thwart the discipline process:

I'd expressed similar frustrations in a recent post, "Long ago concessions by city contract negotiators delayed release of report on police shooting."

State won't exempt public safety agencies in next round of budget cuts

State leaders on Friday ordered Texas government agencies to identify another round of possible budget cuts, and this time public safety agencies won't be exempt. Reports the Austin Statesman's Mike Ward:

According to Friday's directive, the only exceptions listed in the letter are for school funding, for debt service on bonds, to "maintain benefits and eligibility in Medicaid" programs, the Children's Health Insurance Program and foster care programs , to maintain health and human services eligibility staffing and to keep the state pension and benefits programs properly funded.

That list does not include public safety and prison budgets that earlier got a partial exemption from the 5 percent cuts.

This was easy to see coming: If the state must actually cut $15-18 billion, there's no way cutting corrections costs can be taken off the table, with apologies to Sen. John Whitmire who advocates otherwise.

I actually believe it's possible to cut TDCJ's budget substantially - probably by more than 10% in the near term - if the 82nd Legislature enacts policy changes that reduce the prison population and allow closure of several of Texas' more expensive prison units. However, the cuts suggested by TDCJ when the state leadership previously asked for them are unrealistic and highly politicized, cutting things that would harm public safety and generally make no sense. I agree fully with Sen. Whitmire that those cuts should be rejected. But here's how I think the Texas Lege could substantially cut costs at TDCJ:

Instead, TDCJ has suggested slashing diversion funding, cutting health care to levels that would bring down federal litigation, reducing the number of guards without reducing the number of inmates, and has refusedto consider prison closures even though operating the agency's 112 units takes up 80+% of its budget.

IMO that's just a political tactic, telling the Legislature that if they want cuts, TDCJ administrators will try to make sure it's all the recent programming approved in the last two sessions that gets the axe first while prisons remain sacrosanct. That's the position TDCJ successfully took in 2003 and the result raised costs instead of lowered them; it'd be a shame if the Legislature took the same sucker bet again.

New revelations mean it's time for Craig Watkins to give AG constable corruption cases

After initially denying it, Dallas DA Craig Watkins acknowledged this week that his office was notified in early 2008 about corruption allegations regarding Dallas County constables - in particular alleged kickbacks from a towing company employed without authorization. A Dallas News editorial rightly says the revelation wounds the DA's credibility.

The DA continues to dodge all the hard questions about this story, but according to columnist Gromer Jeffers, Jr. (who seems to serve the role of a Watkins campaign flak though he's paid by the Morning News), Watkins' official spokesman "Eric Celeste scoffed at the GOP criticism. 'If they want to use an issue Craig has already addressed, that's fine,' Celeste said."

That's flat-out delusional. It's sure not just Republicans critical of Watkins. The whole constable mess was dug up and forced onto the table by Democrat County Judge Jim Foster, and Democratic primary voters ousted one of the embattled constables primarily over these allegations.

I've long argued that Watkins should either hand off these cases to Attorney General Greg Abbott or the US Attorney should step in. This revelation that Watkins sat on corruption allegations for so long leaves him in an untenable position as prosecutor: If he fails to act he'll look like he's covering up corruption. If he moves forward it will keep the issue in the news with his name attached to it and none of the questions about motive will be adequately answered until the cases are finally complete, perhaps years from now. Neither are tenable options.

This week's revelation should spur Watkins to reconsider immediately his decision not to pass the constable cases off to the Attorney General. He's said before he thinks the AG has partisan motives, but in this instance I don't believe that's true. It's Abbott's job to step in when the local DA is conflicted, and at this point Watkins (or his critics) could cite a long list of conflicts.

Politically, handing off the cases to the AG would take some of the immediate heat off the DA. When asked about the cases, Watkins could credibly refer all inquiries to the AG instead of saying "no comment" over and over to the same, obvious questions. Instead, he and his spokespeople keep digging him a bigger and bigger hole.

The status quo is untenable. Watkins should recuse his office, send the cases to the AG, and get out from under this mess before it tears down his administration and his reelection chances.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Many Texas prisoners released unsupervised

Readers might be interested in several presentations to the newly formed state Reentry Task Force which have been posted online. The Task Force's Housing Workgroup/Discharge Planning Committee meets next Wednesday.

A presentation by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in April contained these topline tidbits:
  • Total TDCJ releases in 2009 (Prison, State Jail, SAFP) = 72,218
  • Of those released, 32,705 are on a flat discharge and not under supervision
  • 54.1% of individuals currently incarcerated have a sentence of 10 years or less
See also this chart presented to the task force by TDCJ detailing how many offenders returned to each of Texas' largest counties, including the number returning unsupervised:

These data belie a "lock 'em up" mentality since in practice most offenders get out eventually. Often when inmates are forced to serve their full sentence, they leave prison completely unsupervised. Especially for more serious offenders, it probably makes sense to release prisoners before they've completely served out their sentences so there will be supervision and reentry assistance during the period when statistically they're most likely to re-offend. Granting parole for inmates with long sentences when they have even a year or so to go (so the offender spends at least one year under supervision when they get out) would likely help both reduce recidivism among parolees and lower inmate populations at the margins.

When detective work becomes yard work

This item cracked me up, from Raw Story:

Like the old song goes, one of these things is not like the other...

However, remind a police officer in Corpus Christi, Texas of those famed Cookie Monster lyrics and they're likely to give you an annoyed look.

That's because a recently discovered cache of plants, initially pegged by officials speaking to local news as "one of the largest marijuana plant seizures in the police department's history," turned out to be a relatively common prairie flower of little significance.

Texas officers ultimately spent hours laboring to tag and remove up to 400 plants from a city park, discovering only after a battery of tests that they had been sweating over mere Horse Mint, a member of the mint family -- effectively turning their ambitious drug bust into mere yard work.

The plants, which bear very few aesthetic similarities to cannabis, were reported by an unnamed youth who came across them while riding a bike in the park around 8 p.m. on Thursday. Upon visual inspection, police apparently agreed that the inoffensive plants had to go.

My favorite part is that as the officers pulled weeds in the park, they actually counted the number of plants, probably gleeful at the size of the "crop" being seized. In fact, reported KRIS-TV, "officers only stopped collecting the plants because it got too dark, and planned to return in the morning to look around for more." For the record, via Wikipedia, here's what horse mint looks like:

And here's a mature, female marijuana plant:

I realize most of you aren't trained, professional observers like Corpus Christi police officers, but do you think you'd be able to tell the difference?

I've got some weed pulling that needs to get done in my yard, but it's probably not worth the hassle of false criminal allegations to get the cops to take care of it.

Jailing parents for truancy

If Texas schools were better, perhaps I'd be more open to the idea of ticketing and jailing kids and their parents for truancy. As it stands, it's hard for me to blame youth for voting with their feet and leaving school early, and I doubt criminal enforcement can do much to change that. For some reason there's come to be a belief in this society that every social problem imaginable - from addiction to high-school dropout rates to mental illness - can be solved through criminal enforcement. I don't know how we reached such an odious historical moment, but it IMO bespeaks a lack of imagination more than anything else.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Medical marijuana popular among Texans; legalizers outnumber prohibitionists

The Texas Tribune included a question about marijuana legalization in a recent statewide poll. Here are the (to me) somewhat surprising results:
These data seem remarkable to me for two reasons. First, those favoring legalizing at least small amounts of pot outnumber outright prohibitionists by a wide margin (42-27). And combined with those favoring broader legalization, 69% of Texans favor legalizing medical marijuana, according to this poll. I wouldn't have expected either of those results.

One wonders what sort of seismic political shift would be required for Texas' policies to match the preferences of its voters?

TX juvie probation chief may be tapped by Obama to run OJJDP

The publication Youth Today reports that Texas Juvenile Probation Commission chief Vicki Spriggs is the frontrunner among finalists to lead the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the US Department of Justice. Here's how Youth Today described Spriggs:
Vicki Spriggs, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission.

Spriggs appears to be the frontrunner at this point, from what JJ Today hears. Her background includes one of the qualities many in the field view as critical for the next administrator: experience in running a big juvenile justice system.

Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (TJPC), with a staff of about 66, oversees the county departments that each year handle more than 40,000 juveniles on probation. Another agency, the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), is responsible for juveniles who are incarcerated in secure facilities.

“OJJDP needs strong leadership after the long dark years of the Bush administration,” said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. “Vicky Spriggs has demonstrated dynamic and effective leadership in Texas and would bring those skills to OJJDP.”

Another national JJ figure, who believes Justice should have tapped Vinny Schiraldi for this job months ago, disagreed.

“She was not part of the reform movement in Texas,” he said. “She’s no Vinny Schiraldi.”

A Texas JJ reform advocate – Marc Levin, director of the Austin-based Center for Effective Justice – told us that while Spriggs might not be out advocating reform, her implementation of changes has been excellent.

Last year the state year approved a “committed reduction” plan to provide funds to any county that agreed to lower the number of juveniles it committed to TYC facilities. Commitments to TYCin 2010 are down 40 percent compared with the same time frame in 2009, according to Levin.

“TJPC put together the whole framework” for that concept, Levin said. “A lot of impetus for change will come from outside the system. But I certainly give[Spriggs] and the commission credit for implementing them. I would be disappointed to lose her.”

Spriggs has strong ties to some national juvenile justice organizations. She is the current chair of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the Oakland-based research and training/technical assistance organization that handles projects with a number of states and counties, as well was with OJJDP. She is the Texas team leader for the Mental Health/Juvenile Justice Action Network, part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative.

Spriggs is also director of the 13-state southern region for the National Association of Probation Executives. A number of those states have some work to do when it comes to complying with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

The other leading candidates are from New Orleans and New York. I suppose "Good luck" is the right thing to say, but frankly I'd hate to see Vicki go and after the series of questionable appointments at TYC after Dwight Harris left (before the Governor IMO finally got it right with Cherie Townsend), I'm more than a little afraid of who might be selected to replace her.

Reentry focus of House committee, prison ministry at end of June

The House Corrections Committee will meet in Houston June 30 to focus on reentry issues, meeting in the hearing room for the Harris County Commissioners Court. They'll be discussing their Interim Charge #3:
Study current re-entry programs and procedures across the juvenile and adult criminal justice continuum. Make recommendations to ensure that offenders who are released or discharged have the necessary supervision and access to employment, housing, treatment, and other support programs to allow successful entry and integration into the community. Evaluate the working relationship between state agencies facilitating re-entry and make recommendations on how to achieve greater efficiency and cost savings.
That same week, Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship will be holding its "Out4Life" conference on reentry in San Antonio June 28-30.

Do community college cops really need a SWAT team? Should hall monitors in middle school be next to acquire tactical gear?

From the Houston Chronicle we get this disturbing, bordering on ridiculous news:

The Houston Community College Police Department is the subject of several investigations following the firing of at least three officers.

Those officers and others still on the force also have raised questions about Police Chief Gregory Cunningham's qualifications for the job, as well as his decision to create a heavily armed tactical unit.

There's no reason in the world that a community college police department needs its own SWAT team any more than do constables when larger, better trained and equipped agencies already have those resources. And the lack of professionalism demonstrated by firing one's internal critics demonstrates why I dislike the proliferation of small, specialty departments generally, much less their acquisition of military-style tools and tactics.

RELATED: See this recent interview of Reason Magazine's Radley Balko (on Russian satellite TV, of all places) regarding the pointless proliferation of SWAT teams and their overuse:

SEE ALSO: Do small police agencies need redundant SWAT capacity? Budget crisis changing the debate. AND MORE: See this excellent, extended item from Drug War Chronicle titled "Reining in SWAT - Toward effective oversight of paramilitary drug units."

New sentencing blog on the block

Doug Berman turns us onto the new blog SentenceSpeak from the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. I was particularly interested to read this post quoting Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on the question of mass incarceration:
When a questioner referred to comments Kennedy made in 2004 about America’s exploding prison population, the justice responded:

"If you were asked to design a penal system that would win the prize for the worst system, the one you’ve got would at least be runner-up.

“If cost is a way to activate human compassion, I’ll take it. We are squandering our resources and spending them in the wrong way.”

Kennedy said he approves of sentencing guidelines but is critical of mandatory minimums that are often imposed in drug cases.

Asked how he would define an activist court, Kennedy quipped: “An activist court is a court that makes a decision that you don’t like.”
There's also an interesting post regarding a Supreme Court ruling on the propriety of alleging crimes during the sentencing phase for which the defendant was never indicted are only supported by a preponderance of the evidence, not the higher standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." This prosecutorial tactic is allowed in Texas state courts where the standard of proof for offenses alleged at sentencing is "beyond a reasonable doubt." But SCOTUS unanimously rejected the practice in federal venues where the standard of proof is only a preponderance of the evidence. Justice Kennedy wrote, "Elements of a crime must be charged in an indictment and proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt." (CORRECTION: This version corrects an erroneous interpretation in the original text; see the comment section for more detail.)

Check back with SentenceSpeak for coverage of federal sentencing issues that Grits typically doesn't tackle.

Howdy Mr. Secret Service Man

I'm guessing Victoria, TX will be getting a visit from US Secret Service agents soon after an anti-Obama graffiti spree included "Kill Obama," as seen in this photo from the Victoria Advocate. Also evidenced in the photo: Graff writers don't have the benefit of spell-check.

Interestingly, the Advocate also provides a (helpful?) service where readers can purchase the image on mouse pads, coffee cups key chains, tote bags, and other swag, just in case you want to cherish the memories.

I've argued repeatedly the best way to deal with such incidents is rapid cleanup, particularly when the perpetrator is unknown. It does more damage to have a story and photo spread across the country that makes Victorians look like ignorant hicks than it would cost just to buff it off as soon as the graff was reported.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dozen Dallas officers disciplined for high-speed chase violations

Given that traffic accidents are the most common cause of on-the-job deaths for police officers, this action by the Dallas PD makes sense even if officers seemingly reflexively chafe at limits on high speed chases. Reported the Dallas News ("More than a dozen police officers disciplined for roles in 2009 chase," May 26):
More than a dozen Dallas police officers, including a supervisor, have been disciplined over a lengthy May 2009 high-speed chase of carjacking suspects during rush-hour traffic.

Punishments range from two 5-day suspensions, to the recommendation that two officers be demoted and minor discipline such as written counseling.

An internal investigation earlier concluded that numerous officers violated the department’s pursuit or emergency driving policies while heading to the chase, while actively involved in it, or while following it.

Those violations included barreling through school zones and residential areas at high speeds, running up on sidewalks, failing to obey traffic control devices and going the wrong way on one-way streets.

“Operating a motor vehicle – a four-ton police car – in that manner was reckless,” said Assistant Police Chief Floyd Simpson, who supervises the city’s seven patrol stations.
An attorney for the officers impudently tried to claim that “Yet again the department has taken over a year to second-guess the split-second decisions of hard-working officers pursuing a car full of aggravated robbery suspects.” But those split second decisions overrode both the officers' training and department policy, and if they're allowed to flaunt those policies without consequence then other officers will do the same next time around.

Ironically, given that sort of resentment by line officers over restrictions on high-speed chases, such policies are largely designed to protect officers, who are most at risk in such situations. But they also protect the public. In this case, "In-car video shows children on the sidewalks as a patrol car races through a school zone."

When policymakers look for ways to make police officers' job safer, this is one of the most effective available methods that's actually within the department's control. Nobody can prevent a crook from taking a shot at an officer, but supervisors can prevent that same officer from driving recklessly and harming themselves or others, and they're right to do so.

RELATED: Via Unfair Park, the Dallas County Sheriff's Office has posted this short video to YouTube "the Sheriff's Department's latest offering: "a short video highlighting the importance of safe driving of squad cars," which Robert Wilonsky notes "consists almost entirely of smash-em-ups filmed from dashcams." The video points out in the opening that in 2008, 41 US police officers were killed feloniously, and 68 were killed in accidents.

See related Grits posts:

Texas' latest DNA exoneration implicates Houston crime lab

The Houston Chronicle reports on Texas' latest DNA exoneration, this one stemming from a mistaken eyewitness and faulty forensics from the Houston crime lab:

A Houston man freed last year after spending 23 years in prison for a rape he did not commit cleared another hurdle Tuesday in his quest to be declared “actually innocent.”

DNA test results released in court Tuesday show that Ernest Sonnier, 47, was not involved in a second rape, which ended in a murder for which he was a suspect in 1985, said Alba Morales, the Innocence Project staff attorney handling the case. She said the test excluded Sonnier from being involved.

In the rape for which he was convicted, DNA testing over the past two years implicated two convicted felons as the perpetrators of the 1985 crime, Morales said.

Sonnier was released last Aug. 6 on a personal recognizance bond that included travel restrictions, including wearing an ankle monitor. State District Judge Michael McSpadden ruled Tuesday that Sonnier can travel freely and no longer must wear the monitor.

For more background see the Justice Project's report on Sonnier's case.

Via The Defense Rests.

Auditor: Dallas DA told of constable allegations in 2008

The County Auditor says Dallas DA Craig Watkins' office was told two years ago about alleged "unreceipted" payments from a towing company to Dallas County constables, reports the Dallas News ("Auditors office says it can prove Dallas DA's office got towing memo in 2008," May 26):
The Dallas County auditor's office said Tuesday it has proof that a memo outlining criminal allegations against Constable Jaime Cortes' precinct was hand-delivered to District Attorney Craig Watkins' office in February 2008.

Watkins, responding to criticism that he has been slow in reacting to corruption charges against constables, denied Monday that he or his office knew in 2008 about the allegations of kickbacks to Cortes' office from the Dowdy Ferry towing company.

He said his public integrity unit never received information about the allegations from the auditor in 2008.

Not only does the auditor's office say it has proof that the information was passed along, but County Auditor Virginia Porter said Tuesday that Watkins' office last year blocked public release of the memo containing the kickback allegations.

In an October 2009 letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott, the district attorney's office argued that the document was confidential and should be withheld for various reasons after The Dallas Morning News requested information from the auditor about all five constables' offices.
Relatedly, county commissioners have offered a deal to Constable Derick Evans (the other accused constable lost his primary and resigned) that would force him to use a county-approved towing service and stop having deputies assist in campaign fundraising. He has yet to announce whether he'll agree to the terms.

County Judge Jim Foster continues to call on Craig Watkins to investigate alleged bribes at constables offices, but IMO if he was going to, he'd have moved by now if his office was informed two years ago. I continue to think the US Attorney should step in since Watkins won't act himself or pass the cases along to the Attorney General.

RELATED: From the Dallas News, "Dallas County DA quiet on whether auditor can release '08 memo on Cortes allegations."

El Paso medical examiner ousted

County commissioners in El Paso on Monday voted 3-1 to fire county medical examiner Paul Shrode after the Ohio Parole board recommended clemency in a capital case because of discrepancies in Shrode's testimony and false credentials on his resume. In Ohio, reports the El Paso Times,
Shrode testified that he knew from his autopsy that Nields beat Patricia Newsome in Cincinnati in 1997, left for 15 minutes to six hours, then came back and strangled Newsome. Shrode's supervisor later told the parole board that Shrode had no scientific basis for the claim, which helped establish to jurors that Nields acted in cold blood.
There are also two pending complaints against Shrode with the Texas Medical Board, one over a sloppy autopsy in El Paso, and the other filed by activist David Fisher of Elgin over fictional elements of Shrode's resume. The Fort Worth Weekly last year ran an informative story about Fisher's activism surrounding Texas medical examiners.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

2009 crime data released

The FBI has released crime data for 2009. Overall:
Preliminary figures indicate that, as a whole, law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation reported a decrease of 5.5 percent in the number of violent crimes brought to their attention for 2009 when compared with figures reported for 2008. The violent crime category includes murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The number of property crimes in the United States in 2009 decreased 4.9 percent when compared with data from 2008. Property crimes include burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. Arson is also a property crime, but data for arson are not included in property crime totals.
Here are the data for Texas cities with more than 100,000 people:

Whitmire, Patrick suggest seminary inside prison

Reports Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman:

After visiting a once-violent Louisiana prison that is now ranked as one of the most tame thanks to a minister-training program, two key state senators today proposed bringing the concept to Texas.

The proposal is to locate a religious seminary inside a Texas lockup.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, a member of the committee, said they think that the rehabilitation project that has worked well at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola could be just as successful in Texas.

Whitmire and Patrick spent three days last week at the Angola lockup, once ranked as the most violent prison in America, along with representatives of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Bible College.

“I found this to be a remarkable program that Sen. Patrick and I will present to state leadership and the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and will work with Texas prison officials to locate the right unit, the right warden, and the right staff to duplicate the effort in Texas,” Whitmire said.

“It certainly deserves the attention of our state leaders and prison officials.”

As the largest maximum-security prison in the United States with about 5,000 violent-crime felons — more than 3,600 of them serving life sentences — the prison now houses an arm of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary which provides a four-year program that so far has trained about 150 ministers.

In Texas, Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth has sometimes been the domain of feuding factions of Baptists, which makes me wonder which religious group would be chosen for such a task and whether that might generate unforeseen controversy? Will the seminary train Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Unitarians, Muslims, Wiccans? Quien sabe? Moreover, each of those groups has internal factions to contend with; none are monolithic and the brand of religion taught will inevitably fail to match every taste.

Depending on how they implement it I suppose there could be some establishment clause problems, but in general I see this as basically just a job training program, not much different than if they decided to train groups of inmates as yoga instructors who would then provide classes to their peers. Not everybody can or should be a preacher, though (particularly not everybody in prison - there are enough charlatans in the field already!) and I wish there was a broader focus on providing meaningful job skills in emerging industries.

Monday, May 24, 2010

UTMB business in black as hundreds of health workers laid off at state prisons

I'm not sure what to think about the news that UTMB is financially in the black for the first time in years because of state and federal cash infusions following Hurricane Ike. I particularly wonder how that squares with hundreds of recent layoffs in their correctional managed care division? Those two bits of news seem incongruent.

Consultant hired to "assess sexual safety" of TYC youth

From a May 18 message to staff from TYC Executive Director Cherie Townsend:
The TYC has entered into an agreement with The Moss Group to assess the sexual safety of youth in all TYC facilities. Andie Moss and her staff and team of consultants are reviewing all of our policies, procedures, and practices on paper and then visiting all facilities over a five-six month period. When they visit facilities, they are talking with youth and staff in focus groups and observing our operations on all shifts. They have already spent time at Turman House, Giddings State School and Corsicana Residential Treatment Center. This is a great opportunity for us to have an independent assessment of the culture at each of our facilities as well as the safety of staff and youth. I am confident that all staff and youth will share whatever is on their mind with them—it’s important that you do, so that we can continue to improve what we do and our outcomes.
This contract comes on the heels of a federal survey released earlier this year which found that
Two Texas Youth Commission facilities - Corsicana and Victory Field - reported among the highest rates of sexual abuse of all secure juvenile facilities: respectively, 23.7 and 24.6 percent of youth at those facilities claimed to have engaged in sexual contact with facility staff, while 13.7 percent of youth at Corsicana said they'd been sexually victimized by other youth in the past 12 months. See Table 5 on page 8 of the pdf.

Also, "Approximately 95% of all youth reporting staff sexual misconduct said they had been victimized by female staff. In 2008, 42% of staff in state juvenile facilities were female."

It should be noted that, under the law, any sexual contact between youth and staff is considered per se abuse, even if the youth consented or sought out the contact. However, 8.9% of youth at Corsicana and 11.7% at Victory Field reported that staff sexual misconduct involved use of force (Table 6).
At least when Townsend is asked by legislators down the line what was done in reaction to this damning federal report, she can tell them one of the units (Victory Field) was closed and these consultants were hired to suggest improvements systemwide. If they come up with some good ideas, all the better. One wonders: If Dwight Harris had been that proactive, would the Youth Commission have ever gotten into the mess it did in the first place?

In other TYC news, regarding mandatory interim budget cuts at TYC, Townsend writes:
I am very pleased that our target was adjusted to $18.8 million. This means that our target was reduced by $2 million. Our plan to achieve the adjusted target is primarily through savings that have been and will continue to be achieved through our reduced populations. We will continue to manage our position vacancies as well as reduce administrative costs such as office leases and operational costs related to lower populations and reduced travel. There is no plan to close additional TYC facilities or to implement a Reduction in Force.

SCOTUS to review Hank Skinner case

Radley Balko lets us know that:

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to Hank Skinner, a Texas death row inmate who is trying to get access to DNA evidence that he claims will clear his name.

The Court has already ruled that there is no constitutional right to post-conviction DNA testing, but Skinner’s claim is that he’s entitled to the testing under federal civil rights law.

Interestingly, it was Justice Scalia who first stayed Skinner’s execution in March. Scalia has written in a couple of opinions now that the U.S. Constitution does not prevent the government from executing an innocent person.

[Balko] wrote about Skinner’s case in February.

I have no opinion regarding Skinner's guilt or innocence; I simply haven't followed the case closely enough to say one way or the other. But if only to avoid a repeat of the Todd Willingham fiasco - where credible evidence that he was convicted based on flawed forensics wasn't seriously considered until after his execution - and to preserve the integrity of the system in the public eye, it's important the testing be done before Skinner executed.

That's as much in the interest of the pro-death penalty movement as it is Hank Skinner. Why risk an embarrassing, damaging "Oops" after the fact if it's possible to doublecheck potentially exonerating leads on the front end?

I'd have thought after the Willingham mess that Texas courts and the Governor might have learned this lesson, but they seem doomed to repeat history rather than learn from it. Very frustrating. With Nietzche's Zarathustra, one sometimes wonders, "Must one smash their ears before they learn to listen with their eyes?"

RELATED: See Michael Landauer's latest on the case from the Dallas News Death Penalty Blog.

Compensation increased, but reentry transition still rocky for exonerees

The Texas Tribune reports that last week Christopher Scott and Claude Simmons became among the first Texas exonerees to receive compensation under Texas' new statute passed last year. But the story primarily focuses on the six months from the time they were released until compensation came through. Writes Erin Mulvaney ("The Price of Innocence," May 23):

“It felt so pitiful just being let out of prison and feeling like you have to fend for yourself,” says Scott, who is 39. “You can only rely on your family members so much.”

Simmons and Scott were two of the first exonerees to be eligible for the benefits of legislation that Gov. Rick Perry signed into law in 2009. The Timothy Cole Act, named for a posthumously exonerated inmate, increased the financial compensation for Texas exonerees from $50,000 to $80,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned. It also provides a monthly payment from that lump sum to act as a steady source of income and an initial payment of up to $10,000 to help exonerees get established right after their release. The legislation “was a great step,” says Michelle Moore, a public defender in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. “They just didn’t give thought to how it would be handled.”

Simmons and Scott couldn’t agree more. The two men were convicted of capital murder in a 1997 shooting death linked to a Dallas-area home-invasion robbery after being misidentified as the assailants by an eyewitness: the victim's wife. The University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network and the Actual Innocence Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin worked on the case for years and eventually built a case to help exonerate them.

The trouble started soon after they got out. First, they struggled to collect the $10,000 the Legislature had promised to help with their reintegration process. Then they were unable to collect non-monetary benefits like clothes, money, and temporary housing, which are available to paroled prisoners but not to those who never committed a crime in the first place. They finally received their compensation checks last week — six months after being freed.

“Exonerees aren’t given a dime when they leave prison. Many don’t have a place to lay their heads at night,” says University of Texas at Arlington Exoneree Project director Jaimie Page, who helped get Scott and Simmons identification and other staples after their release. “If they have no family — and many do not — they are essentially homeless.”

I worked on that legislation last year as the Policy Director for the Innocence Project of Texas, and am sorry to learn there are still glitches showing up during exonerees' reentry transition. Of course, around 72,000 people per year released from Texas prisons face virtual identical reentry problems, but exonerees did nothing to earn them.

It's hard to devise a way to trigger payments before someone has finally received their pardon or had their writ of habeas corpus approved by the Court of Criminal Appeals. That's the disconnect causing the funds not to be released along with the prisoner. OTOH, I doubt exonerees would prefer staying in prison another six months until the courts processes their cases and the money comes through. If anybody can think of a workable fix, please say what it is in the comments.

I was proud of that legislation and extraordinarily pleased that it passed, but that doesn't mean it can't be tweaked and improved going forward.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Non-DNA cases the future of innocence in Dallas, but Bexar stuck in the past

Now that the Dallas DA's conviction Integrity Unit has mostly vetted the old DNA samples, they're starting to look through possible innocence cases in cases without DNA, which are much more numerous but also harder to definitively prove. Here's how the story in the Dallas News by Jennifer Emily opens ("Dallas County district attorney's conviction integrity unit to focus on non-DNA cases," May 23):
It's been almost a year since the last DNA exoneree walked out of a Dallas County courtroom and into the world as a free man.

The flood of exonerations in Dallas County, where since 2001 more wrongfully convicted people have been freed through DNA testing than anywhere else in the nation, is slowing to a trickle. There are only so many cases where genetic evidence is available to test.

But the work is far from over.

The emphasis of the conviction integrity unit established by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2007 is shifting toward challenging cases where there is no DNA to test, but where questions remain about an inmate's guilt or innocence.

Without DNA evidence, these cases require more time and can mean investigating a crime that occurred years ago as though it just happened: tracking down witnesses, comparing fingerprints to see if there is a match when one didn't exist before, seeking new evidence.

Watkins says he hopes his office can use lessons learned during years of DNA testing to improve police work. Bad witness identification, for example, has been a factor in most of Dallas' DNA exonerations. There are also several cases where prosecutors or police withheld evidence that could have prevented a conviction.

Watkins said his perspective has changed since the unit began. He's realized that it can do much more than free the innocent.

"At the time, I started out looking at legitimate claims of innocence, and obviously we still do," said Watkins. "But now, it's how can we improve prosecutor and police techniques. It's about the ability to argue for changes in the law."

This is the future of overturning wrongful convictions in Dallas County.
Really, this is the future of the innocence movement generally, certainly in Texas. For the next few years there will continue to be limits on the number of DNA exonerations for several reasons.

For starters, many convictions where DNA testing was never done happened long ago, but sentences are so long that often offenders are still locked up or on parole. Meanwhile, frequently old evidence has been long-ago been destroyed. One notable exception is a cache of 5,000 old rape kits recently discovered that were unknowingly retained by the San Antonio PD - a circumstance that's essentially similar to what happened in Dallas where a private lab happened to have kept old biological samples from several decades past. In Bexar County, though, DA Susan Reed and the police chief have said they'll only pursue DNA testing where it might prove guilt in an unsolved case. They've so far refused to rexamine old cases - as the Dallas DA did, partnering with the Innocence Project of Texas - to make sure this evidence exonerates the innocent as well as convict the guilty. (Reed has a Democratic opponent and if I had my druthers he'd make establishing a Conviction Integrity Unit a central campaign issue and hammer her on this decision.)

More broadly, biological evidence only exists in 10% or less of violent crimes, so 90% of convictions for violent offenses will never be implicated by DNA testing at all. In many more cases, DNA evidence alone isn't dispositive (e.g., a crime scene in a defendant's home would likely have their DNA there whether or not they committed the offense). The same flawed policing techniques, however - overreliance on faulty eyewitness lineups, pseudoscientific forensics, false confessions, lying informants - are used in both types of cases. There's no reason to believe the rate of proven false convictions wouldn't be 10x higher if there were a way to discover those cases with the same level of certainty as with DNA evidence.

The next big area for exonerations will be convictions based on flawed forensics. Convictions based on pseudoscientific arson experts, dog-scent lineups, and other non-scientific forensics deserve to be revisited comprehensively, following the model of Dallas' Conviction Integrity Unit.

The article also give some raw data that contributes to our understanding of the overall rate of false convictions. In all, 1.4% of cases examined resulted in exonerations, which falls squarely within the range of estimates from other sources. Writes Emily:

Of the 502 cases the Dallas County DA's office decided to examine for potential DNA testing, prosecutors tested and have the results for 50 cases. Many of those requests had been denied by the previous district attorney, Bill Hill.

So far, seven men have been exonerated through those tests and guilt has been confirmed for 28 inmates, Ware said. The remaining tests were inconclusive. Some could end up being investigated further, but others do not have other evidence to pursue.

Six cases are in testing and the conviction integrity unit is gathering DNA swabs for another half dozen.

The more than 400 cases the DA's office didn't test either had no genetic evidence or the DNA would not have proved guilt or innocence.

DNA could also be tested in a couple of cases where the inmate died. "They're not at the front of the list," Ware said. "But we're not going to rule it out."

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Perry posthumously pardoned a Fort Worth man, Timothy Cole, after DNA showed he was wrongly convicted of a rape in Lubbock.

That 1.4% number falls squarely within the range of estimates seen previously for the rate of false convictions. Josh Marquis, a DA from Oregon once cited on the subject by Antonin Scalia from the bench, has given the lowest number I've seen: He's settled on an estimate that innocents are convicted .75% of the time. Nationally, 2.3% of defendants sentenced to death row were later exonerated; in Texas that number is 1.5%. Overall, exonerations made up 3.3% of the first thousand cases solved in Texas by DNA. (I've also argued that focusing exclusively on DNA exonerees understates innocence figures by excluding false drug war convictions; e.g., IMO the number of "innocence" cases in Dallas should include all the victims from the fake drug scandal.)

The Dallas DA's Conviction Integrity Unit number may be the best little study on this subject I've seen yet, even if it's an inadvertent one. A random cache of DNA samples are found, 502 are examined (a large enough sample for statistical validity), and 1.4% result in exonerations. If Bexar County found sustainable actual innocence claims at the same rate among the much larger batch of DNA they discovered, San Antonio conceivably might see dozens of DNA exonerations.

For that matter, if the false conviction rate overall turns out to be 1.4%, that would mean more than 2,100 actually innocent people are presently locked up in TDCJ.

UPDATE: I'd forwarded this post to Mike Ware at the Dallas DA's Conviction Integrity Unit, and he replied thusly:

Scott, read your blog on dmn article on our work in the ciu on non-dna cases and, as always appreciate your interest in and support of our work. One thing that I think you should be cautious about is taking our raw numbers and using them to quantify the rate of wrongful convictions. For example, many of the exonerees had more than one case (one for example had eleven) so I think even using your methodology the rate of wrongful convictions would be higher. But it is a complicated issue, and I would be cautious of attempts to simplify it in order to quantify it, not that it can't be done.

That's a good point. In particular, there were exonerations under the previous DA Bill Hill that came from the same DNA cache, so the 1.4% number is definitely low. Those analyzed by the Conviction Integrity Unit mainly represent cases where Watkins' predecessor had successfully opposed DNA testing before he got in office and the Democrat reversed his decision.

DA convicted of misusing asset forfeiture funds

State Sen. John Whitmire's asset forfeiture reform legislation died last session during the infamous Voter ID meltdown in Texas' House of Representatives, but the conviction of a District Attorney out of Kerrville for misuse of forfeiture funds should put the topic back on the Legislature's radar screen. Reports the SA Express News ("Former District Attorney sentenced in Kerrville," May 22):
Former District Attorney Ron Sutton on Friday said state officials eager to tighten statutory controls over forfeited funds orchestrated his prosecution to cast him as evidence of a problem.

A defiant Sutton made the claim minutes after being sentenced to two years deferred adjudication on two counts of misapplication of fiduciary property worth $20,000 to $100,000, and being ordered to pay $20,000 restitution.

Not so, said special prosecutor Bill Turner and Jerry Strickland of the attorney general's staff, which investigated Sutton, who was the lead prosecutor in the five-county Hill Country judicial district for 33 years until his retirement in late 2008.

“Nobody at the state level has tried to influence me in the investigation and prosecution of this matter,” Turner said.

This outcome is almost as surprising as the fact that charges were brought in the first place. It's not as though Sutton is the only prosecutor who has violated asset forfeiture laws. DAs for years have treated asset forfeiture income as their own personal fiefdom but there's historically been nobody out there grading their papers. In this case the central issue was a high-profile trip to Hawaii and the lack of auditing and required approvals for expenditures.

“The law specifically requires that seized funds be audited, maintained in the county depository, and requires commissioner court approval for expenditures for employee expenses,” Turner said. “These safeguards were not in place for funds forfeited in the 198th Judicial District Attorney's Office.”

That lack of accountability paved the way for misuse of the money, he said, noting, “This was a case of bad judgment, as opposed to greed.”

Turner said the six-day Hawaiian stays for bar conferences weren't valid expenditures because work was only conducted on three days, and because Sutton covered the travel costs of workers' spouses.

He also said the state constitution prohibits staff bonuses like those Sutton paid of $500 and $1,000 to 11 subordinates between 2002 and 2008.

No charges are expected against the prosecutors, secretaries, probation officers or spouses who benefited from the improper expenditures.

“The gatekeeper is responsible for the expenditure,” Turner said. “The recipients are not.”

Sutton said he didn't fight the charges because he couldn't afford a trial — which could have cost as much as $50,000 — nor risk being convicted.

Sutton complains that he couldn't afford to take the case to trial so he pled guilty even though he (says he) believes he is innocent. Well, cry me a river! How many defendants in the identical position has Sutton coerced into plea deals, likely patting himself on the back afterward for being such an effective prosecutor? What's good for the goose will do just fine for the gander, thank you very much. Prosecuting over the trip to Hawaii alone might have seemed a little chickenshit, but the bonuses to staff were flat out illegal if they weren't approved by the commissioners court. And he's not the only DA doing that, either.

The best way to solve these problems would be to assign asset forfeiture income to non-law enforcement purposes - in Indiana all seized money goes to schools - so there's no temptation to pad the budget by pursuing forfeitures. Counties want to keep the money saying "we found it," but they also "found" prisoners sent to TDCJ and the state pays all those costs. Why should counties keep income resulting from prosecution but the state pay all the costs of punishment?

Chairman Whitmire's bill didn't go that far, proposing to strengthen controls over the money but leaving it in the hands of law enforcement. Since his legislation came so close to passage in 2009, expect Whitmire to take another crack at forfeiture reform next session, at which time I suspect his committee will be revisiting the details of Mr. Sutton's conviction.

See related Grits posts:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Graff writer beaten by inmates at TYC's Evins Unit: Chooses isolation

Jeremy Roebuck at the McAllen Monitor has the sad story of a teen convicted of a felony graffiti offense who was sent to TYC then victimized by inmates with more serious criminal histories ("DOJ: Youth prison continues to improve conditions for inmates," May 21). The story opens:
Andrea Rogers barely recognized the sullen teen sitting across from her as her 17-year-old son Brandon.

With eyes swollen shut, teeth chipped and a constant migraine, the boy — an inmate at the Evins Regional Juvenile Facility in Edinburg — worried about his mother’s reaction to his altered appearance.

A September 2009 beating by fellow inmates left Brandon so doubtful of correctional officers’ ability to protect him that he voluntarily secluded himself in the facility’s isolated security ward. He has refused to rejoin the general population for more than seven months.

“He’s all broken out. He’s super-duper skinny. He looks unhealthy,” said Rogers, his mother, after a recent visit with her son. “He begs me not to come see him. He doesn’t want me to see him like that.”

While Evins has taken substantial steps toward improving its record of protecting inmates’ civil rights in the past four years, problems still persist at the facility, a recent federal audit shows. ...

Investigators with the Texas Youth Commission — the agency charged with oversight of Evins and the state’s nine other juvenile lockups — eventually determined that guards failed to provide adequate supervision on the day Brandon was assaulted.

The correctional officer monitoring his dorm walked away for eight minutes, allowing a group of teens all the time they needed to enter his room unnoticed and beat him, according to a Feb. 2 letter sent to his mother outlining the incident.

This narrative brings to mind several topics that Grits has focused on regularly. First, it points to the absurdity of making graffiti a felony in many circumstances including when performed at schools, churches and community centers - the places youth spend the most time. (Only felons can be sent to TYC.)

This youth had no business being sent to prison with more violent offenders who wound up victimizing him; that's a counterproductive punishment for graff writing. He's been exposed to more serious criminality in TYC than he ever would have participated in wandering the streets of his hometown with a paint can. This example reinforces why so much research on effective community supervision emphasizes keeping lower risk offenders away from more serious criminals instead of putting them all in the same environment. When that happens, low-risk offenders pick up both knowledge, criminal connections, and sometimes, as in this case, risk being victimized themselves. Graffiti is a local problem that should be handled locally. Making the offense prison eligible in so many circumstances was a big mistake.

Second, one unfortunate aspect of all the TYC reforms after the sex-scandal broke in 2007 was how few changes specifically targeted the Evins Unit in Edinburg. I say that because, if you were to rank the agency's biggest problem units before the scandal broke in the media, Evins would have been at the top of anybody's list (which is why it's presently under federal oversight). Brandon's case is not the first time failure to provide adequate staffing at Evins left inmates unsupervised and resulted in violence, something that clearly hasn't been resolved by ongoing federal litigation.

Finally, the story also reports on dramatic changes at Evins in the last couple of years which are themselves worth noting:

Evins has come a long way since [2007], and the facility is almost unrecognizable, said Superintendent Billy Hollis.

The old barracks-style housing, which monitors said contributed to the escalation of violence, has been entirely replaced by mostly single-cell pods.

A new incentive-based behavior management program offering television time, board games and sketch paper for good behavior has begun to catch on with most inmates.

Periodically shifting guards to different duty posts has largely eliminated the opportunity for specific staff members to develop unhealthy relationships with individual teens.

And for the first time since the Justice Department began its twice-yearly audits of the facility, reports of abuse and misconduct dropped during the first quarter of the 2010 fiscal year, which ended in November.

On a recent tour, Hollis pointed to one of the 900 surveillance cameras that have been installed across the facility as the primary factor in stopping the violence. With almost every minute of life recorded, administrators can better investigate incidents when they occur.

“Cameras are a part of everyday life here,” Hollis said. “They’re everywhere. They see everything.”

To say the least, the incident described in the article's lede seems to contradict superintendent's claims of improvement, or at least complicate them. Many of those structural changes - the installation of cameras, moving away from barracks-style dorms - were implemented at other TYC units as well.

However, changing the culture among staff is a separate problem that the Justice Department clearly thinks still hasn't been solved. "Stories like Brandon’s, coupled with reports of inmate-on-inmate extortion, gaps in guard supervision and continued staff frustration with new policies and procedures prompted U.S. Justice Department auditors to urge continued court-ordered monitoring in a report released earlier this month," wrote Roebuck.

RELATED: See Evins' agreed order (pdf) with the feds.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sheep, goats and trolls: An observation regarding the Houston Chronicle comment section

A blind prisoner with a history of mental illness died after he threw urine on a guard at a TDCJ medical facility and an extraction team removed him from his cell. The news story doesn't describe his injuries or say whether they were caused by the extraction team. But especially notable to me were the rabid, borderline inhuman statements bandied about in the comment section at the Houston Chronicle. Here's a sampling among the "most recommended" comments:
  • "So what your [sic] saying is Estelle Prison Unit has a room available starting today?"
  • "One less inmate to give 3 square meals a day and a bed to."
  • "Our TDCJ gaurds are making $20,000 a year to deal with this scum. May he rest in hell...."
  • "One less criminal to worry about!!!"
  • "Reward the officers who killed him... let's quit giving lawyers public funds to allow scum like him to come back and prey on the innocent"
Some of these folks think they're being humorous, some are just jerks, and of course there's crossover between those categories. For my part I find it embarrassing to even share a species designation with such fools, much less the appellation "Texan." I was raised to believe such statements tell us more about those making them than the target of their ire, and that eventually the sheep will be separated from the goats.

Officer death contradicts Houston PD claims that all its cops wear seatbelts

Reports the Houston Chronicle: "The Houston police officer who died Wednesday after crashing his patrol unit hit speeds of 90 mph and was not wearing a seat belt as he attempted to catch up to a chase of a suspected car thief, HPD Chief Charles McClelland said." My condolences to the officer's family and friends on their loss. As in so many other cases, it's hard not to wonder if this outcome couldn't have been avoided if Officer Eydelmen Mani had just buckled up.

Earlier this year, the Chron's Moises Mendoza wrote a story on the subject of police and seatbelt use, noting at the time that "During the past three years, 16 Texas police officers were shot to death, but 18 died in car and motorcycle crashes." Today's story notes that:
it's unclear how bad the problem is in Houston because HPD has no formalized way to track the issue, despite a state law and agency policy mandating seat belt use by everyone.

And statistics HPD does maintain raise questions.

In 2009, for instance, the department reported that officers were buckled up in every one of the 752 on-duty traffic crashes that year. With less than half the number of crashes, the Harris County Sheriff's Office reported 18 officers were unbuckled that year.

The department, however, has repeatedly insisted it doesn't have a problem. In a February interview, Assistant Chief Martha Montalvo said she thought almost all officers buckled up and added there was no evidence that the department's statistics were incorrect
Now we have solid evidence of an HPD officer driving - and dying - without his seatbelt on. One wonders if HPD will continue to bury its head in the sand on the subject. Until then, I'll just repeat my earlier observation on the subject that:
Overall, more than 2/3 of Texas police officer deaths on the job stem from traffic accidents, a state senate committee was told last year. (The other major cause of officer deaths is suicide - a total which dwarfs the number of traffic accidents and shootings combined.)

In addition to putting officers' lives at risk, police failing to use their seatbelts undermines their credibility with the public. This widespread acceptance among law enforcement of colleagues who flaunt the law on seatbelt use appears hypocritical in this age of "click it or ticket" media campaigns.

Officers told Mendoza they had good reasons for not using a seatbelt, but civilian drivers can make excuses too and that won't get them out of a ticket. Instead, the real reason so many cops don't use seatbelts is simple: They know other cops, including their supervisors, not only won't call them on it but will make excuses to the media if they're ever criticized for the practice. The attitude seems to be "seat belts for thee but not for me."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Which prison health employees getting the axe at UTMB?

Here's a little more detail from a FAQ on UTMB's home page explaining which medical staff at Texas prisons are getting the axe:
• What is the breakdown of the reduction in force by position types? Jobs affected: 133 registered nurses; 56 medical assistants; 47 facility clinical associates; 43 administrative staff; 33 dentists; 19 dental assistants; 15 dental hygienists; 5 human development consultants; 4 vocational nurses; 3 patient care technicians; 2 physicians; 1 optometrist; 1 mid‐level practitioner; and 1 clinical associate. Of the 363 employees affected, 306 are female and 57 are male. The ethnic breakdown is: 240 White; 71 African‐American; 42 Hispanic; 9 Asian; 1 Native American.

• What units/cities will be affected? The reduction in force will affect CMC employees at all 86 outpatient units that UTMB staffs in central, coastal and east Texas. These units are organized into nine geographic regions. Reductions per region follow:
  • Galveston, 12
  • Beeville, 30
  • San Antonio, 28
  • Gatesville, 33
  • Dallas, 24
  • Palestine, 64
  • Huntsville, 76
  • Houston, 51
  • Beaumont, 45
Especially noteworthy and potentially problematic are the reduction in the number of R.N.s. UTMB is also eliminating roughly half the dentists they presently employ. "UTMB estimates that the reduction in force will save approximately $22 million over the 14‐month period between July 21, 2010, and Aug. 31, 2011."

Relatedly, see this "white paper" (pdf) from UTMB's Ben Raimer titles "Healthcare in the prison system: A looming fiscal crisis." Major cost drivers for the system identified by Raimer were:
  • Aging offenders
  • HIV infection
  • Serious mental illness
  • Hepatitis C virus
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Kidney failure and dialysis
  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
One particularly astonishing fact bite jumped out at me: "Approximately 19,700 offenders incarcerated in a TDCJ facility in April of 2010 had a diagnosis of HCV infection." That's an enormous number. In addition, "In FY 2009, nearly 9,200 TDCJ offenders in the UTMB-CMC sector were diagnosed with a serious mental illness, compared with only about 5,600 in FY 2004. This increase in the prevalence of serious mental illness among TDCJ offenders has significantly strained the personnel resources of the mental health program."

UTMB was already skirting the borderline regarding provision of acceptable levels of inmate healthcare; these cuts may set the state up for litigation down the line of the type that's driven California's health costs through the roof.

Roundup: Short takes on big topics

Here are a few items that may interest Grits readers:

The mounting crisis in indigent defense
According to Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune, "Texas is reaching a crisis point, putting itself at risk of a civil rights lawsuit — or worse, a total meltdown of the criminal justice system — because it so severely shortchanges the system designed to ensure impoverished accused criminals get adequate legal representation, advocates told a Senate committee last week."

Strange TX bedfellows model unlikely alliance on criminal justice reform
Writes Jessia Pupovac at the Crime Report, "Texas’ experience has gone a long way towards convincing other states to take the political risk of criminal justice reform. The savings achieved by the abandonment of expensive new prison-building projects have converted Texas legislators into effective national champions for reform."

Judge shopping for defense counsel that won't seek her recusal
Mark Bennett says Houston Judge Nancy Johnson shopped around for defense counsel in cases involving illegal immigrants looking for lawyers who would waive detention hearings that might force her to recuse herself because her husband is the acting US Attorney.

Jails as the new mental hospitals
Read Tom Kirkendall's post reacting to news that the number of mentally ill housed in prisons outnumbers those in hospitals.

A captive labor pool
I was surprised last session to see nonprofit groups showing up to oppose potential modifications to community service requirements because they didn't want to reduce their free labor pool. This story out of Kilgore describes the array of nonprofits and municipal functions that rely on local inmate labor in Gregg County.

Forward thinking on graffiti
Jeff Gerritt at the Detroit Free Press makes an observation about graffiti echoing suggestions frequently touted here on Grits. "Instead of trying to eradicate urban art, maybe the city ought to try to relegate it to certain public places. Philly has done it with mural art. With city government support, Philadelphia has become the mural capital of the world, attracting tourists worldwide."

Hiding police addresses lets them hide from accountability
Not long ago Texas moved to conceal police officers' and later judges' home addresses in public records. In California, a similar law has resulted in police officers ignoring thousands of parking tickets because the systems use public records to notify offenders and seek collections. I'll bet if Texas reporters cross-referenced parking absconders with local police rosters, the same thing is happening here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Study: Ugly defendants more likely convicted, get more prison time

Reports CBS News: "According to a Cornell University study, unattractive defendants are 22 percent more likely to be convicted than good-looking ones. And the unattractive also get slapped with harsher sentences - an average of 22 months longer in prison."

Rather than surveying undergraduates, which was this study's methodology, one imagines it might be possible to devise a study that tested this finding empirically. Take a subset of cases that went all the way to a jury. Rank defendant mug shots by attractiveness (perhaps using focus groups). Then chart the outcomes, grouping similar types of cases, for the homely and handsome alike, following up with juror interviews to round out the dataset with oral accounts. It would be a lot of legwork (that's why God created grad students and interns), but there's enough data available to do such a study.

If true, then it turns out justice isn't blind at all. In fact, she may think some of those defendants are kinda cute. :)