Monday, April 30, 2012

Drug analyst at DPS crime lab issued erroneous reports

The following notice was posted on the Texas District and County Attorneys Association website on Friday:
ALERT: DPS Houston Regional Crime Lab Issue 
Posted: Friday, April 27 
Yesterday, DPS sent an email to the prosecutor offices that use the DPS Houston Regional Crime Lab. To ensure all affected prosecutors are aware of this situation, we reprint it verbatim (without attachments) here: 
Dear District Attorney: 
The Department of Public Safety has discovered errors with the analysis of drug evidence conducted by one forensic scientist in our Houston Regional Laboratory. He has been suspended from casework pending an internal investigation. In reanalyzing evidence in one hundred of his most recent cases, we identified errors in two other cases. Because of this discovery, we believe it prudent to review his entire body of work since he began examining evidence in early 2006 – specifically on any cases pending prosecution or which resulted in a conviction or deferred adjudication. Attached is a list of cases from your jurisdiction. If you wish to have the evidence in any of these cases re-analyzed by another DPS Forensic Scientist, please contact Laboratory Manager Keith Gibson at [redacted]. We will then arrange with the law enforcement agency to obtain the evidence from them and complete the re-analysis. A new lab report would then be issued. 
We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause and are taking additional steps to prevent any such occurrence in the future.  
Keith A. Gibson
Regional Laboratory Manager 
Texas DPS Houston Crime Laboratory
After talking to several affected prosecutors, the general consensus is to follow a protocol that looks something like this: 
1. Notify the courts of the issue.
2. Notify the local criminal defense bar.
3. Pull all of the cases on the list provided by DPS – check the disposition for convictions.
4. Find the evidence, if it still exists, and submit for retesting (DPS or your local departments may have it).
5. For any case with a bad retest, or cases with now-destroyed evidence, request that the court appoint an attorney to take the case through a writ process if appropriate.

Odds and ends: From DNA exonerations to the drug war

Here are a few odds and ends that may interest Grits readers.

Pair of Dallas false convictions to be overturned after 28 years
Two more Dallas men this week will begin the formal exoneration process after 28 years incarcerated based on a false conviction. Thanks to DNA, the real suspects have now been identified.

Constables performed private work on county time
Until recently, some Harris County constables were supplementing their income with contract work delivering eviction  notices for landlords while on duty. Three precincts stopped the practice after it was first publicized. Five others still  perform the function, and "None of the constables contacted agreed to release documents relating to their notice delivery business."

Dallas DA rectifying prosecutor misconduct
On page four of the Dallas DA's quarterly newsletter (pdf) is an item titled "District Attorney agrees to vacate conviction of Ricky Dale Wyatt based on prosecutorial misconduct in 1981 aggravated sexual assault." In Dallas over the weekend, a criminal defense attorney told me that in 25 years of practicing in Dallas, he'd never had a prosecutor hand over exculpatory evidence (i.e., "Brady  material") until Craig Watkins took office and threatened to fire those who didn't comply with the rule. See their past newsletters.

'Rocket docket' for trials
In San Antonio, Bexar County judges are planning a series of back-to-back trials to catch up on their backlogged docket, but the District Attorney says it creates too much work for them. They're calling it a "rocket docket," which is a term usually reserved for plea-mill scenarios as opposed to taking cases to trial.

Reduced jail pop credited with passed inspection
The Harris County Sheriff credited the decline in inmate numbers for helping the Harris County Jail pass inspection this year 

Prison chapel isn't open court
A trial held in a prison chapel does not satisfy the requirement for an open court, ruled the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. More from Liberty and Justice for Y'all.

Praising prison ministry work
A couple involved in a prison ministry program received the Governor's 2012 Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award. Also, see this profile of a Pennsylvia ex-offender moving to Texas to work in a Dallas-based prison ministry after being sentenced to life without parole as a 17-year old in 1977, released as a result of a 2010 US Supreme Court decision declaring LWOP for juveniles to be cruel and unusual punishment.

'Life without parole is a terrible idea'
So argues Houston attorney David Dow in The Daily Beast.

Immigration law as family law: Unescorted minors captured at border rises
Illegal immigration overall is way down, but for some unexplained reason authorities have seen a sharp rise in the number of unescorted minors captured making the illegal crossing. "From October 2011 through March, 5,252 kids landed in U.S. custody without a parent or guardian — a 93 percent increase from the same period the previous year." This raises the biggest pragmatic concern about git-tuff immigration policies like those pursued by the Obama Administration: As a practical matter, immigration law is mostly a subset of family law. If these kids are coming to be with family members on this side who can't resurface without deportation, it raises a particularly poignant dilemma.

Even cartel guns not smuggled from US mostly come from here
Two thirds of guns where Mexican authorities seek to match serial numbers to US records turn out to have come from the United States, reports the Texas Tribune, news punctuated by a recent arrest of a US trucker smuggling 268,000 rounds of ammunition southward. My friend Alice Tripp from the Texas State Rifle Association correctly points out that that doesn't mean that 2/3 of guns used by Mexican cartels were illegally smuggled from the US. But I don't discount the 2/3 number as much as she because the two other major sources of cartel weaponry also involve guns originally made in the United States: Most prominently, the United States spent decades funneling weapons to fight proxy wars against Marxists and nationalists throughout Central America right up until the Cold War ended. Less well publicized, defectors from the Mexican military and police often take weaponry with them when they go which was often purchased from US manufacturers, secured through US aid programs, etc.. So even the weapons that weren't illegally smuggled into Mexico often ultimately, originally came from the United States, often by perfectly legal, even US-government sponsored means. Gun smuggling southward is a real thing and a serious concern, but even if the flow of smuggled US guns stopped tomorrow, there are plenty of other sources to ensure that won't be the pivotal element that stops the killing.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Case of the Bluffing Referees: Corruption allegations swirl around contract privatizing El Paso truancy enforcement

An extraordinary,  near-mind blowing tale of graft and greed out of El Paso left this reader's jaw adrop. (The story by Zahira Torres is also an early frontrunner for Understated Headline of  the Year: "New Beginnings anti-truancy program failed to deliver on promises to EPISD," El Paso Times, April 28.) Despite the bland headline, with every unfolding paragraph it's clear this is a much more insidious tale involving not just failed policy but a grotesquely deformed, insular and graft-driven juvenile justice system.

In short, for a pricetag of nearly 20 times what it would have cost the County Attorney to do it both legally and in-house, El Paso juvenile court Judge Alfredo Chavez convinced the school district to contract with a private company to "bluff" truancy enforcement -- a tactic that worked only until students and their parents figured out that the private "referees" had no authority to carry out their threats (which included dropping students from school rolls and even ordering youth to Mexico). This multi-million dollar contract went to men now under indictment on El Paso bribery charges related to a second judge on the county juvenile board. Now, everyone is under investigation.

Back in 2004, El Paso ISD asked juvenile court Judge Chavez to "assign two part-time referees -- court employees who could hear judicial cases -- to the truancy program," reported the El Paso Times. The County Attorney came forward with a proposal to do the job for around $50,000. Instead, Judge Chavez brokered a contract between El Paso ISD and "New Beginnings, a local company run by Cirilo 'Chilo' Madrid and Ruben  'Sonny' Garcia, would spearhead the program. Both men now face federal fraud charges for allegedly bribing County Judge Dolores Briones in exchange for her vote on an unrelated government contract for another company, LKG." Reported the Times, "New Beginnings is now being investigated by the FBI for the $3.2 million in contracts it obtained from the El Paso Independent School District over the five-year period ended in 2007."

New Beginnings reportedly couldn't and didn't perfom the court functions being privatized, instead constructing what seems from a distance almost a surreal Potemkin Village where company officials would bamboozle kids and their  families: "as a private company, New Beginnings did not have the authority to impose legal sanctions on truancy offenders.," wrote Torres. "The company instead would hold mock court hearings before students reached the stage that a real court appearance was necessary. It was a program that one district administrator called 'a bluff factor.'"

So, instead of working with the County Attorney's office to actually establish a truancy program - a subject fraught with its own issues independent of alleged corruption, to be sure - Judge Chavez pushed to privatize the process for $925,000 per year, having it overseen by company-paid "referees" with no legal authority who tried to "bluff" youth into accepting their unofficial edicts, which some unwitting youth probably did, at least in the beginning.

It gets worse, though, when we get to the judgments being meted out by corporate "referees": "notes from a meeting in 2006 in which participants discussed problems with New Beginnings, mentioned concerns with ordering students who were younger than 18 to be dropped for attendance, ordering students to return to Mexico, the truancy court's lack of law enforcement authority and the fact that New Beginnings did not file cases with the justice of the peace courts but instead left that task to school districts." (emphasis added, and then some: Santa Madre de Dios!)

Pretty soon, even the kids saw through the scam and the program ended in 2007 because:
El Paso Independent School District leaders saw a steady decline in attendance rates while the company had the truancy court program.  
State records show that the attendance rate at the district was 95.4 percent in 2004-05. That number dropped to 95.3 percent in 2005-06 and further decreased to 95.1 percent in 2006-07.  
Mark Mendoza, the district's former pupil services director, cited those figures in 2007 when he persuaded school board trustees to end the contract with New Beginnings and implement an in-house dropout recovery and truancy program. The program run by the EPISD does not include the truancy court component. 
"There was a bluff factor that was used," Mendoza said. "People thought that it was a court and, so, during their initial time with New Beginnings, the attendance increased temporarily. Once they figured out that this was not a court and that there was really no teeth behind it, then the attendance for the students would drop in every single case."
At least two of the six county juvenile board members, both judges, have been accused of steering lucrative juvenile contracts in El Paso to Mssrs Madrid and Garcia:
The board then in a 6-0 vote approved appointing two part-time referees who would be paid by the district's contract with New Beginnings. The board members were Chavez, Judges Patrick Garcia, Alex Gonzalez and Bonnie Rangel, Justice of the Peace Guadalupe Aponte and County Judge [Dolores] Briones.  
Briones pleaded guilty on Dec. 9 to a charge of conspiracy to commit theft or embezzlement of federal program funds. She was implicated in a scheme to take kickbacks from a federal grant linked to LKG Enterprises.
As mentioned, this jaw-dropping tale left Grits feeling downright naive. Juvenile  boards are a seldom-examined political backwater where few reporters venture, and quite frankly even fewer understand what they're reporting on. I can't help but wonder how many other similar examples one would find if reporters or auditors comprehensively examined school-district and/or juvenile board contracts on truancy in other jurisdictions? Would they discover similar shennanigans in Dallas, or Bexar?

For that matter, this catastrophic failure makes me wonder at the overall strategy of Texas post-2007 juvenile justice reforms, which have been recently called into question for other reasons. The Legislature's big-picture strategy under Chairmans Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Jerry Madden has been to rapidly de-incarcerate youth prisons and shift focus to grant-funded community-based programs administered locally. El Paso ISD's contract with New Beginnings ended just before the 2007 statewide reforms. But still, this sun-town saga makes me wonder whether adequate oversight infrastructure exists to monitor those contracts?

Grits tends to operate on the assumption that most folks are acting in good faith until they give me reason to believe otherwise. This bizarre, corrupt episode makes me call such assumptions into question. It would never occur to me that local juvenile judges might so  brazenly abuse their authority, though I guess after the judge in Pennsylvania was convicted for taking kickbacks for  sending youth to a private facility, one shouldn't be surprised. Even so, I must admit, I am.

Read the full story at the El Paso Times, it's quite a tale.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fort Worth drug court modeled after Hawaiian HOPE program

The Texas Public Policy Foundation's Vikrant Reddy recently published an op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram praising Judge Mollee Westfal's new "SWIFT' court which is
modeled after the successful HOPE Court in Hawaii, which uses swift and certain sanctions to manage low-level drug offenders.

In the HOPE Court, a judge tells a probationer that instead of prison, he will be permitted to return home, where he can continue to work and provide for his family. The probationer also is told he will be called back frequently to the court without advance notice to determine whether he is complying with his probation terms. If he is not in compliance, he is placed immediately in county jail for the weekend.

There is no additional warning or protracted trial process -- only swift and certain consequences.
A HOPE probationer offered drugs at a party on a Thursday knows that if he is summoned for a random drug test the following morning and fails, he will lose the opportunity to relax with family and friends over the weekend.

The HOPE model understands that people respond to immediate and commensurate punishments like this better than to longer and more severe punishments that seem tenuous and remote.

After Hawaii introduced HOPE in 2004, the rate of missed and failed drug tests dropped by nearly 80 percent. A probationer in HOPE is 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime than one who is not in HOPE. As a result, HOPE probationers are sentenced to about 50 percent fewer days of jail time.

Attorneys and probation officers were initially skeptical about being called into court for every minor probation violation, but the volume of work per offender has decreased over time.

Social scientists have long understood that people respond best to immediate punishments. Cesare Beccaria, an 18th-century thinker who is regarded as the founder of modern criminology, argued that swiftness and certainty in punishment are more important to deterrence than severity.

Beccaria, who was quoted by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, was deeply influential at the time of the American founding. Modern research on human behavior has validated his time-honored criminological theory.

But it is worth setting aside all of the complex academic literature and realizing that SWIFT-style policies are just a return to common sense. Any parent could explain why HOPE works just as well as any professor.
Revoked felony probationers currently account for more than one-third of Texas' prison population and nearly half of the state jail population.

Texans pay approximately $600 million to incarcerate these individuals, but if probation were improved, the state would be able to reduce these costs and prioritize existing prison space for violent offenders who most need to be taken off the streets. Reform of this sort could also improve public safety and return low-level criminal offenders to productive, law-abiding lives.

Hawaii was a useful model for Tarrant County. It may soon be that Tarrant County is a useful model for the rest of Texas.
See earlier coverage from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from when the SWIFT program launched last summer.

Oddsmaker: When judge finds willful Brady violation, what are chances state bar will discipline?

Here's your chance to play oddsmaker.

A judge in Denton County says two prosecutors withheld evidence and committed prosecutorial misconduct, banning the pair from his courtroom for the offense. Reported the Denton Record-Chronicle ("Two banned from Burgess' court," April 7):
A state district judge has banned two assistant district attorneys assigned to his courtroom from returning, ruling that they committed prosecutorial misconduct and don’t have “the innate intellect of a fifth-grader.”

Bill Schultz and Forest Beadle were working as family violence prosecutors, trying Silvano Uriostegui on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in the 158th District courtroom of Judge Steve Burgess. After Burgess’ March 2 ruling that they willfully withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense — evidence that would have helped in his defense — Schultz was moved to the district attorney’s civil division and Beadle was moved into the 16th District Court.

Both men declined comment, citing policy to refer questions to the first assistant district attorney, who acts as spokeswoman for the department.

District Attorney Paul Johnson has defended the two prosecutors, and Jamie Beck, first assistant district attorney, said they were not disciplined but rather  counseled on the law as it pertains to the sections the judge ruled they violated during that trial. She said they would be required to take remedial courses in issues surrounding exculpatory evidence.
The prosecutors did not inform defense counsel that their star eyewitness had not, as earlier represented, positively identified the defendant, her husband, instead referring to the suspect as "he or she" and declaring she never saw a face.

The Record-Chronicle adds that the situation - though not a formal grievance - has been forwarded to the state bar:
Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct provide that such conduct as the two prosecutors were found to have committed should be reported to the disciplinary council of the State Bar of Texas. Johnson, in a three-page letter to the council, wrote that he was satisfying that requirement but that he was not submitting a grievance against [prosecutors Bill] Schultz and [Forrest] Beadle. He defended their actions, stating that they did not intentionally withhold evidence.
If the conclusion of the Record-Chronicle account accurately portrays it, Judge Burgess sounds furious over the incident:
In his ruling on the writ of habeas corpus, the judge was detailed in his criticism of the way the evidence was handled.

“My jaw dropped to the ground when Mrs. Uriostegui testified the way that she did,” Burgess said in his ruling. “I was shocked. And for the state to actually know this and not disclose it, the only good thing I can say from this miserable hearing is at least Forrest Beadle told the truth and was not evasive and was straightforward. I don’t particularly like his answers, but he at least was honest.”

Burgess apparently was referring to notes Beadle made during the hearing that were subpoenaed by Amador that Amador was making another “[expletive] Brady motion.”

Burgess said that he could not fathom how someone who had been to law school and had practiced as long as Schultz and Beadle could not know they were violating rules of exculpatory evidence.

“And how disingenuous it is to get up here and testify that you don’t think that it’s Brady that the victim can’t identify by face or by anything other than smell and a boot who the attacker is ... ,” he said. “I’m going to have to ban both Mr. Beadle and Mr. Schultz from my courtroom. They’re not allowed to appear in this courtroom until I rule otherwise.”

Burgess said that it was particularly sad that the actions of the prosecutors robbed Maria Uriostegui of justice for the injuries she suffered. He found that the prosecutors goaded the defense into entering a plea bargain to avoid an acquittal in the case.

“A woman that was knifed nine times in the gut and elsewhere doesn’t get justice because nobody can read Brady, understand Brady, or has the innate intellect of a fifth-grader,” the judge said.
See the rest of the Record-Chronicle story for more detail.

My question: Given that the only prosecutor in memory publicly sanctioned by the state bar was Terry McEachern from the infamous Tulia drug stings - and that a recent survey of prosecutor misconduct findings by Texas appellate courts found no examples resulting in public state bar discipline - what are the odds the state bar publicly sanctions either or both of these prosecutors?

For my part, even if every jot and tittle of the judge's criticism is accurate, I couldn't go higher than 5% and would have a hard time justifying that number. Terry McEachern was disciplined because in that one case lightning struck, national and even international media honed in on the tiny South Plains community, and the activities he'd concealed of his undercover officer, Tom Coleman, were too well documented to ignore (largely thanks to mi amigos Nate Blakeslee and Jeff Blackburn, to give credit where it's due). So much attention had been drawn to the case IMO that the state bar disciplinary committee felt they would discredit themselves if they didn't act. But the system shouldn't require the case to be the subject of a 60 Minutes segment or a BBC documentary before the state bar mandarins decide to rein in rogue prosecutors. As a starting point, when judges tell them prosecutorial misconduct is going on in their courtroom and the elected DA's response is to move alleged Brady violator to another court, that should send up enough red flags to warrant a fuller investigation, even if the prosecutors' boss didn't submit a formal grievance.

Lubbock considers Tim Cole memorial

The Lubbock City Council is considering a memorial for Timothy Cole, who was posthumously exonerated and pardoned after a false rape conviction and died in prison before his name could be cleared. They at first suggested constructing a fountain in his honor but decided to delay the idea, questioning the wisdom of building another fountain in the middle of a drought. The majority of the council though, reports the Avalanche Journal, remains supportive of a memorial of some sort. Cole's half-brother, Cory Session, suggested a less costly cenotaph might be to rename the portion of Texas Avenue in front of the courthouse where Cole was convicted after him, though he reminded them, “I would say to any of the council members that might bring up the cost, there is no greater than the cost that has been paid by my mother and my family; that’s immeasurable.”

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Austin film event: Meeting the Murderer

I received email notice of an upcoming Austin event featuring a film and discussion of restorative justice and in particular the sort of victim-offender dialogue described in this recent Grits post. Here are the details:
The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Trinity United Methodist Church present

From Violence to Restorative Justice
A Screening of the documentary “Meeting with a Killer: One Family’s Journey”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 7:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.

Trinity United Methodist Church
4001 Speedway
(northeast corner of 40th and Speedway)

Join us as we watch one family’s journey to forgiveness and reconciliation following the murder of their loved one. After the screening, a discussion will be led by Ellen Halbert, the professional mediator who helped make this real-life mediation possible.

Ellen Halbert has been involved in the criminal justice system for over 25 years. In 1991, she was appointed to a six-year term on the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. She was the first victim of crime - and first female - to serve on the nine-member Board that oversees the massive criminal justice system in Texas. Ms. Halbert is presently the Director of the Victim Witness Division at the District Attorney's Office in Travis County, Texas.

Refreshments will be served.
This event is free and open to the public.
Free parking is available in the lot across the street from the church.

'If you pray, pray for Ian Grayson': Austin teacher in bigger trouble than pot bust

More details are coming out via the Austinist about the Austin high school teacher reportedly arrested for .033 ounces of marijuana. Now KXAN-TV, on whose report Grits' earlier post was based, has reported additional, clarifying detail about why police executed the search warrant. Says the Austinist:
Now we know why the police were there - on the 13th, Grayson allegedly sent "inappropriate" text messages to a sixteen year old, one of his students.

And there's more. According to the "Proposed Suspension Without Pay of Term Contract Employee Pending Termination" for Grayson, the teacher "had been previously arrested on February 25, 2012, for driving while intoxicated and failed to timely disclose said arrest to AISD..."

Regardless of how you feel about the marijuana charge, we can all recognize this case isn't so much about bong-rips as a pattern of illegal activity, the worst of which, obviously, has nothing to do with a few sprinkles of pot.
The alleged inculpatory texts certainly justify the warrant, and if that had been reported I'd not have questioned its issuance. But I still find the arrest for de minimis pot possession in such a situation to be bit like piling on. (They let him bond out, reported KXAN, so presumably nobody told the judge he was an immediate threat.) Any sex-crime charges he may end up facing would be much, much more serious than pot possession in a school zone.

To add a grim prequel to the current trials of Ian Grayson, a Grits commenter pointed out a heart wrenching story about Ian Grayson's family that I'll excerpt here in closing:
Ian Grayson is Rod Grayson's son...Ian was a baby when he lost his father, Rod...student (now attorney) John Daniel Christian fatally shot Rod Grayson in class in 1978...Ian grew up without a father and chose teaching as his honorable decision...perhaps part of a family's legacy of being teachers...for whatever reason, a good man and a good teacher have been destroyed ... 
This is the second time that Austin students have lost a talented and caring teacher named Mr. Grayson, although we can only hope this farcical time is not permanent. John Daniel Christian, then a Murchison student, now a lawyer, fatally shot his teacher Rod Grayson one May day in 1978. We (Texans) gave the lethal injection to David Powell for a murder committed on the same day, but most people have forgotten (or never knew about) Rod Grayson and his shooter. Very, very, sad. If you pray, pray for Ian Grayson.
From all I can tell via our friends at Google, the story about Grayson's father checks out, and Michael Corcoran has much more, calling the murder "Austin's secret." Grayson's killer was "the son of George Christian, former White House press secretary under Lyndon Johnson, John Christian [who] is currently a tax lawyer in Austin." Reports Corcoran, "Recently suspended Austin High School geography teacher Ian Grayson was only a year old when his father was killed in that classroom."

What a terrible, multi-generational family (and AISD) tragedy; much bigger, and profoundly sadder, it seems, than just a small-time pot bust.

Déjà vu at TJJD: 2007 all over again?

Reports Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman:
As the former superintendent of the Giddings State School claimed in a lawsuit that he was fired in March for reporting violations of state law and growing safety issues at the troubled lockup, a legislative inquiry was expanded Wednesday to focus on whether 5-year-old reforms to the troubled system are still working.

"Everything is on the table now as far as I'm concerned," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who authored many of the reforms.

"Based on reports that we have confirmed from independent sources, it would appear that the management of the (Texas Juvenile Justice Department) has not been properly managing or protecting the youth and staff. You could change the names and dates, and it would be 2007 all over again."
If you'll excuse me, please go here to read the rest of Ward's missive, and I'm going to walk outside now to pound my head against the side of a tree.

Hannah Overton prosecutor on the dock

I wouldn't do justice to the recounting, so interested readers should see coverage by Texas Monthly's Pam Colloff, from John MacCormack at the San Antonio Express News, and Michelle Villareal at the Corpus Christi Caller Times of day three of an extraordinary evidentiary hearing in Hannah Overton's habeas corpus writ. Suffice it to summarize, once Overton's attorneys interrogated the prosecution team on the stand, prosecutorial misconduct allegations are back on the table, even though the Nueces DA's office had successfully chipped away at the allegation the day before. For convenience, here's Colloff's complete coverage of the evidentiary hearing for Overton's habeas writ so far:
At the Caller Times, Villareal is liveblogging today's events at the hearing.

Of course, this development only reinforces Grits' sense that the Governor should pardon Hannah Overton if her habeas petition fails.

On immigration, mass incarceration, revanchism, and the wet dreams of private prison executives

That's right, you're not from Texas. But Texas wants you anyway.
- Lyle Lovett

Supreme Court commentators speculate that Arizona may get clearance to round up and incarcerate illegal immigrants en masse under a law making state criminals of people with federal immigration violations. If that happens, though, other, more rational states can and almost certainly will make different choices for their own economic well being, as was their wont until relatively late in the nation's history.

From a constitutional and historical perspective, states including Texas regulated immigration instead of the feds until after the Civil War. For example, when leftist Germans rebelled in 1848-9 and were subjected to mass exile, New York wouldn't let the radicals in (according to Ernest Fischer), so they sailed down the coast and around the Gulf to Galveston, which as a result became the entry point throughout the 1850s for so much of Central Texas' German population in the earliest years of Texas statehood.

As late as 1869, Texas still had a state immigration officer. It wasn't until the late 1870s, when California wanted to stop the entrance of Chinese "coolies" while the federal government needed them to build railroads, that Congress declared immigration decisions exclusively under federal purview. And with states rights at their low ebb during Reconstruction, they found few if any jurists with the ideological predisposition to stand in their path.

So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if, in a lurching feat of revanchism, the 21st century Supreme Court sides with Arizona and begins to re-empower states on immigration. If that happens, Grits expects or at least hopes Rick Perry and Co. will take a much different approach from that of AZ Governor Jan Brewer, who mused about the prospects for "mass incarceration" after oral arguments, according to NPR:
Outside after the argument, Arizona's governor was asked if, in fact, the state does have plans for a mass incarceration of the estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants in her state.

[Gov. Jan] Brewer paused for quite a long while and then replied: "If they're breaking the law, there's that possibility, I would assume."
One rarely hears it admitted publicly, but there it is. This is why maximum immigration enforcement is the private prison industry's wet dream, perhaps the only potential market on the horizon that could replace lost demand for prison beds if the drug war were ever to end (a possibility disclosed to investors in corporate filings as a serious risk to their long-term financial health). "Mass incarceration" is exactly what happens from criminalizing immigration status.

Texas locks up fewer than 160,000 inmates in state prisons, but according to census data, the number of "unauthorized" immigrants runs to ten times that number - more than 1.6 million people. To actually accomplish such a goal would require upheaval rivaled in history only by Soviet transmigration policies under Stalin, rounding up and incarcerating millions for the crime of finding a job, working, and raising a family on the wrong side of the border.

Of course, other common words for immigrants, unauthorized or not, are "customers," "employees," even "small business owners," and for the most part the Texas business community, at least, believes we need more of all of those. Imagine the economic impact if tomorrow all the nativists' fantasies were fulfilled and Texas suddenly had 1.6 million fewer consumers.

America is a nation of immigrants and the striving mentality they bring with them to their new home has defined this country's values since its inception. Let states call the shots to a greater degree, and some will cut off their noses to spite their face, as Arizona has done. But not all of them, and I believe Texas may still be a prominent exception: A lot of these billionaire Texas political donors are happy to spend money "swift boating" John Kerry or bankrolling presidential attack ads, but aren't necessarily on board with the whole round-up-my-employees thing.  Nor is much of law enforcement, for that matter. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus recently criticized proposals like Arizona's, declaring, “It would ruin the fragile relationship we've worked so hard to try to build in the community.”

Certainly there are plenty of Texas Republican primary voters slavish to such round-em-up demagoguery, but that segment of the party's base is split off from the GOP's biggest money-men on the issue. You saw the disconnect between Texan attitudes on immigration and the national GOP base when Rick Perry was blasted in the presidential campaign for signing Texas' DREAM Act. Most Texans are practical, particularly when it comes to business, and as a practical matter turning productive workers into prisoners whose room, board, and healthcare taxpayers must finance amounts to a fool's errand.

Grits supports comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for two simple reasons: I oppose mass incarceration and support expanded immigration to boost the long-term stability of the economy. Further, it's smarter to choose to expand legal immigration thoughtfully than to live in some denial fantasy and pretend US labor demands haven't been the driving factor behind illegal immigration trends.

So let Arizona chase away their businesses' customers and their schoolchildren's playmates. As Lyle Lovett crooned, "Texas wants you anyway."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Governor should pardon Hannah Overton if habeas petition fails

Pam Colloff at Texas Monthly's Daily Post blog is providing blow by blows of Hannah Overton's habeas hearing evaluating allegedly flawed forensic science, as ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Here's what she's posted so far:
Attorney John Raley, who led Michael Morton's defense team, represents Overton, who was convicted of poisoning her 4-year old son with salt based on reportedly shoddy forensics. The San Antonio Express News, however, reports that defense claims that prosecutors withheld evidence in the case fell apart on the hearing's second day. Wrote reporter John MacCormack, whose writing first highlighted the case, "After two days of presenting evidence, Overton's lawyers appear to have made little headway in their quest to prove that her 2007 trial was unfair or that prosecutors cheated."

Whether the defense had access to contrary forensics or not, Grits still is troubled by some of the reported testimony indicating that at a minimum, forensic flaws were minimized if not intentionally concealed. A prosecution witness, Dr. Edward Cortes, testified that "I told [then-assistant D.A. Sandra Eastwood], I said ‘I hope you’re going to come forward with some other charge other than capital murder ‘cause I don’t think this was capital murder. I don’t think there was intentionally,’" reports Colloff. Instead of changing the charges, though, the prosecution simply didn't call the witness.

MacCormack writes the wind was taken out of the sails of Overton's defense team when it was revealed Dr. Cortes was actually an uncalled witness on the defense witness list, which raises the question of whether the defense failed to adequately prepare. (It's possible, one supposes, courts could afford Overton relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel as opposed to "actual innocence.") But even if the defense could have interviewed Cortes (they did not), more concerning to me is that prosecutors heard that advice from a medical expert but ignored it, downplayed it, and plowed right ahead.

Overton's case demonstrates, as Judge Cathy Cochran wrote in the order granting this evidentiary hearing, how the "disconnect between changing science and reliable verdicts that can stand the test of time has grown in recent years as the speed with which new science and revised scientific methodologies debunk what had formerly been thought of as reliable forensic science has increased." The stakes, as Judge Cochran put it, are high: "public support of the American criminal justice system depends upon its confidence that the courts reach accurate verdicts based upon reliable scientific evidence," and that's seemingly not what happened here. Bottom line: Can habeas corpus rectify false convictions based on flawed forensics, or have recent court decisions and legislative interventions so restrained the Great Writ that it can no longer perform that function?

Experts seem to agree the forensics weren't legit in hindsight, but when matters of science are decided in the jury box, emotion can too often overwhelm expertise and non-scientist judges are frequently poorly positioned to perform a meaningful gatekeeper function. But when errors happen, one expects institutional actors to exercise their discretion to prevent injustice. To that end, the Express-News called on prosecutors to capitulate in a strong editorial this week which opined:
Nueces County District Attorney Mark Skurka should do the right thing and acknowledge that the sensational prosecution of Hannah Overton for the death of her son was a miscarriage of justice.

Instead, his office is wrongly fighting the exoneration of a woman who is innocent of any crime and is likely the victim of prosecutorial misconduct.

In 2007, a jury in Corpus Christi found Overton guilty of capital murder for forcing her 4-year-old foster son to ingest a lethal amount of salt.

She is serving a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

But as San Antonio Express-News staff writer John MacCormack has reported, the case against Overton — which was prosecuted by one of Skurka's predecessors — was deeply flawed.

His immediate predecessor, Anna Jimenez, who was a member of the Overton prosecution team, acknowledges that the conviction was “an injustice.”
If Overton's habeas petition does not prevail, Governor Rick Perry should pardon her.

MORE (4/26): From the Corpus Christi Caller Times, "Former Nueces County District Attorney: Lead Overton prosecutor had unethical tactics."  According to the Caller Times, "Former Nueces County District Attorney Anna Jimenez testified Wednesday that she thought Sandra Eastwood, the lead prosecutor in Hannah Overton’s case, resorted to unethical behavior during the 2007 trial." The former DA and prosecutor partnered on this case and their relationship has a complicated backstory:
Gerry Goldstein, one of Overton’s attorneys, showed Jimenez a section of a medical examiner’s report with supplemental information from the Police Department. According to the report, an officer was given a sample of Andrew’s vomit from an urgent care center.

Also in the report were photos of stomach content samples at the medical examiner’s office, where the contents were laid out and labeled.

Jimenez said the first time she saw the photos was about a week ago when Cynthia Orr, one of Overton’s lawyers, showed them to her.

Jimenez said the defense attorneys asked for the vomit several times, but Eastwood told her that it did not exist.

“She is not truthful,” Jimenez said of Eastwood.

She said there were several times that Eastwood violated court orders, wasted the court’s time with delays and wanted the jury to feel sympathetic toward her.

Prosecutor Bill Ainsworth argued that Jimenez has no solid proof that Eastwood withheld evidence from the defense.

Jimenez testified that she told Eastwood that Overton should not have been convicted of capital murder.
Jimenez, who assisted Eastwood in the prosecution of Overton, later served as district attorney and lost the election for the position in 2010. Jimenez fired Eastwood that year on unrelated issues.
See also from the Caller-Times, "Witnesses in Hannah Overton's hearing: Flaws in case."

State bar dismisses Bradley grievance, receives new one, election looming

Continuing its de facto policy of virtually never disciplining prosecutors for alleged on-the-job misconduct, the state bar dismissed a complaint against Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley this week over the Michael Morton case, reports the Austin Statesman: The state bar's board of disciplinary appeals "reviewed the complaint as filed, taking no additional information, and determined that the accusations did not allege any violations of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, the ethics rules for lawyers, the letter said." Bradley had been accused of improperly delaying DNA testing and fighting to conceal exculpatory evidence being turned over to Morton's legal team.

Now the focus in the Morton case shifts to District Judge Ken Anderson. The court of inquiry to measure his culpability will take place September 11 in Georgetown: Be there or be square!

One of the problems with the state bar's reticence to discipline prosecutors is that even when complaints are dismissed, that does little to reassure the public that all is well. It's hard at this point to believe the bar would enforce rules for prosecutors in any event. Maybe it's true no violations occurred, but it's difficult for the public to have confidence in that judgment.

The dismissal, though, doesn't necessarily mean scrutiny has ended for Mr. Bradley. Your News Now Austin reports that another complaint has been filed against him alleging "the actions of Bradley and others on the state's Forensic Science Commission, resulted in a failure to properly investigate his previous complaints of negligence and misconduct at the Dallas County crime lab, Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science."

Reacting to the latest complaint, the Wilco Watchdog commented:
Bradley is now in permanent "no comment" mode. For the past month, he has failed to comment when pressed by the media to explain his false statements against the Cedar Park Police Association and other issues surrounding his application to become board certified in criminal appellate law. Since Bradley feels he is not accountable to the public and provide answers to questions regarding misconduct, on May 29th, the public can hold him accountable at the ballot box. Until then, expect more dodgeball.
As the Watchdog notes, there's a much better chance voters will hold Bradley accountable than the state bar. Time will tell.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Texas jail populations down 9.5% since 2008, declining faster than nationally

The Sentencing Project issued a press release today on a topic Grits has recently remarked upon: The decline in county jail populations, which have lowered significantly more quickly than prison populations. Says the Sentencing Project:
Washington, D.C. - An analysis of new data on jail populations in the U.S. shows that the number of people confined in local jails is declining at a more rapid rate than in state and federal prisons. The Sentencing Project finds that from 2007-2010 the incarceration rate in jails declined by more than three times the rate of prisons, 6.6% compared to 1.8%.

“The sustained decline in both prison and jail populations has produced no adverse effects on public safety,” stated Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. “We now have the opportunity to free up resources for public safety initiatives that do not depend on record rates of incarceration.”

The analysis is based on data released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in its annual report of individuals in jail, Jail Inmates at Midyear 2011. The report shows a decline in the number of inmates for the third consecutive year. In its reports, BJS provides figures for jail populations at midyear and for prison populations at the year’s end. Jails are local facilities that generally house persons awaiting trial or serving short sentences, while prisons are run by state and federal governments to confine persons sentenced to one year or more of incarceration.

The BJS report also documents a sharp 23.4% reduction in the number of juveniles housed in adult jails between 2008-2011. The practice of housing juveniles with adults has come under criticism from a broad range of organizations because of increased exposure to violence and abuse.

The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy.
See the DOJ report (pdf), which notes that: "Local jails admitted an estimated 11.8 million persons during the 12 months ending midyear 2011, down from 12.9 million persons admitted during the same period in 2010 and 13.6 million in 2008. The number of persons admitted in 2011 was about 16 times the size of the inmate population (735,601) at midyear 2011."

Surprisingly, the reduction does NOT stem from expanded diversion programs. Nationwide, 62,816 defendants were "supervised outside of a jail facility" at mid-year 2011, down from 72,852 at the same point in 2008.

Inmates held on immigration detainers were one of the few countervailing trends: ICE detainers accounted for 3.3% of local jail inmates in 2011 nationwide, compared to 1.7% in 2005 (the 21st century floor).

Exceeding the national trend, Texas jail populations have reduced 9.5% overall since 2008, according to the Commission on Jail Standards, with Harris and Bexar Counties registering especially significant declines. Grits compiled this data (which includes prisoners housed out of county) from TCJS reports from the last five Aprils:

By arbitrarily picking April as the measuring stick, these data likely understate Texas' true jail population decline since jail populations max out in the summer. According to press reports, e.g., Harris County's jail population topped out at more than 12,000, including out of county inmates.

I'm curious: Why do readers think jail population declines (and smaller reductions in the prison incarceration rate) took so long to materialize after crime began to go down 20 years ago? Does it have more to do with crime trends or how localities are processing cases pretrial (personal bonds, GPS monitoring, etc.)? Are recent reductions sustainable or a mere blip on the radar?

Grits' sense is that these reductions represent just the beginning of what's possible. IMO there's a lot more slack in the system to take up, and a lot more county budget savings to be had from jail population reductions if local officials - particularly those concerned with high taxes - will embrace the meme. 

See related, recent Grits posts:

Committees to address jail overcrowding, border security

The House County Affairs Committee will meet Thursday in El Paso, and one of items addressed will be their interim charge to "Conduct a general study of issues facing county jails. The study should include innovative ways to address overcrowding, the impact homelessness has on the county jail population, and recommendations for handling inmates undergoing detoxification and withdrawal from drugs and alcohol."

Grits can't attend, but I'm curious: What recommendations would readers offer to address crowded jails, homelessness, and "inmates undergoing detoxification"?

In another away-from-the-capitol hearing, the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee meets this morning in Copperas Cove to:
Examine the extent of interstate coordination concerning border security and intelligence sharing and determine whether any changes to state law are needed to enhance that coordination and cooperation.

Examine state and federal law to determine whether existing provisions adequately address security and efficiency concerns for steamship agencies and land ports of entry along the Texas-Mexico border.  Evaluate whether the state and the federal government have provided sufficient manpower, infrastructure, and technology to personnel in the border region.
Regrettably, neither of these events will be broadcast live.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rules are for other people: Police dashcam edition

Last year Dallas PD established a unit to review daschcam video, the Dallas News reported, but has suspended the program "because officers felt they were being nitpicked with disciplinary action for minor infractions" ("Dallas police to suspend squad car video reviews due to officers' complaints," April 23). Here's the list of nitpicky offenses the local union says shouldn't be monitored in that way:
These kinds of problems were found during the review process. Some could be considered serious violations warranting disciplinary action; others fall into a gray area where officers feel they should be allowed to exercise discretion. Officers:

Gave chase without activating lights and sirens.

Exceeded the speed limit in residential areas or active school zones during chases.

Topped the speed limit by more than 20 mph during pursuits and other emergency calls.

Failed to stop at stop signs or red lights during chases.

Violated the strict pursuit policy, for instance by chasing a motorist who fled while getting a traffic ticket.

Failed to activate wireless microphones, resulting in no audio recording of events during an investigation or arrest.

Failed to notify dispatchers that they were involved in pursuits.

Deactivated video recorders during police pursuits and assist-officer calls.

Failed to download video from their squad cars at the end of every shift. (If this isn’t done, the unit sometimes fills up and will no longer record.)

Moved GPS antennas from the car’s interior to the trunk, where reception is poor or nonexistent.

SOURCE: Dallas Police Department
Chief David Brown said, “The folklore among officers is, ‘I’m afraid to go five miles over the speed limit because I’ll be disciplined,’” but many of these seem like more serious infractions than that characterization implies.

On this blog I frequently see commenters insisting (e.g., here and here) that enforcing even the most petty criminal statute or bureaucratic regulation is vital because "it's the law" and otherwise we'd have anarchy if schoolteachers didn't lose their jobs over marijuana, if people who overstay their visas aren't deported over a traffic ticket, etc.. I wonder, will those same critics feel that every jot and tittle of the law and city policy should be enforced on Dallas police officers, or is strict enforcement only something that should apply to pot smokers and Mexicans?

'Pre-crime,' 'smart' bullets, driver data and privacy

A few recent stories related to law enforcement technology caught Grits eye:

Harris criminal courthouse called "Grand Central Station for Houston's misery"

Patti Hart at the Houston Chronicle has a column today describing the central dilemma behind a real source of innocents convicted of petty offenses as well as overcrowded jails. It opens:
I've come to think of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center as Grand Central Station for Houston's misery, an opinion that was only hardened when I recently spent a few mornings observing our courts handle jail inmates charged with misdemeanors.

Every day about mid-morning in Harris County's 15 Criminal Courts-at-law, a door swings open and six to 10 men wearing orange jail jumpsuits, usually shackled together in a long train, are directed by a sheriff's deputy to march in front of the judge's bench. (Women are handled separately, and often appear alone.)

Responding to a (frequently bored-sounding) judge who appears to be reading from a script, they all plead guilty. The question-"How do you plead?" - is a rhetorical one, of course. The judge, the prosecutors, the court-appointed lawyers, in fact, everyone in the courthouse knows that these criminal defendants have been offered a Hobson's choice. That is, no choice at all: Take a guilty plea, or sit in jail until you can have a trial and plead not guilty. When that time rolls around, you'll have spent more time in the slammer than if you pled guilty.
She points to a report published last year from Houston Ministers Against Crime which:
concluded that expediency seems to dominate equity. Instead of taking into account a defendant's economic circumstances, as required by the state "Harris County rarely deviates from its predetermined bail schedules." Jailing people who have not yet been convicted of even a petty crime is unjust - and costly to taxpayers, the report said. "The rigidity of these rules contributes to high pre-trial detention rates in Harris County and exacerbates the County's budget woes."
See the full report (pdf).

See also related Grits posts:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Travis County Sheriff criticized over optional immigration policy at jail

Travis County ranks 39th among US counties in population but "ranks 11th nationally in the number of people deported from its jails since Secure Communities came online here in June 2009," according to an Austin Statesman report. "Even though ICE says the program prioritizes dangerous criminals, national security threats and repeat immigration law violators, the paper found that more than 1,000 people in Travis County have had detainers placed on them after arrests for traffic violations and other Class C misdemeanors — offenses that typically result in only a fine."

Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton insists that ICE detainers are "mandatory," but the Statesman notes that other counties across the country limit who they tag for deportation:
Officials in several counties that have stopped honoring detainers did so after trying to officially opt out of the Secure Communities program.

ICE initially asked each local jurisdiction to sign "memorandums of understanding" before launching the program, giving local authorities the impression that they could pull out of the agreement.

When several states tried, however, ICE voided those memorandums and indicated the program was mandatory.

Those counties then changed their policies on detainers unilaterally, after ICE officials told them the detainers weren't mandatory.
It was always clear to this correspondent that a) the ICE detainers under Secure Communiteis are not mandatory, even if some nativists and/or federal bureaucrats would like to pretend it is; b) Sheriff Greg Hamilton has chosen to be much more aggressive on detaining low-level offenders for deportation than is required by law; and c) to the extent ICE detainers are mandates, they are unfunded ones with significant consequences for local jails. I'm glad to see Hamilton's primary opponent calling him out on this policy.

See related Grits posts:

Chuck Colson, RIP

While the web is filled with commentary on his passing, see especially a tribute from Christianity Today to Chuck Colson, the Nixon-era dirty trickster turned prison evangelist and reformer, who died last week of a brain hemorrhage. Cynics often pooh-pooh jailhouse conversions, and Colson's in particular has been derided by liberals for decades. But the prison stint served for his Watergate-related crimes transformed the compiler of Nixon's "Enemies List" into a pioneer of the conservative justice reform agenda whose influence will long outlive him. Whether one agreed with his theology or political views, without Chuck Colson, Grits certainly doubts the nascent Right on Crime effort could ever have materialized. May he rest in peace.

The half-empty glass: Reporting on juvie crime accentuates the negative

In a bit of a glass-half-empty story, the Houston Chronicle reported yesterday that sexual assaults are the only major juvenile crime category in Harris County which has not declined since 2007 ("Sex crimes by juvenile offenders are on the rise in Harris County," April 21):
In the last five years, the number of juveniles committing sexual assaults has increased 17 percent in Harris County while most other major juvenile crimes have shown significant declines, probation records show.
Sex offenses climbed from 121 to 142 during that period, while other violent juvenile crimes declined such as murder and robbery, dropping by 28 percent and 24 percent.
Here's a chart accompanying the story which graphically displays the data:

Writes reporter Cindy Horswell, "The U.S. Justice Department says 36 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by other children. Five percent of all sex offenders are younger than nine, and 16 percent are younger than 12, records show."

Certainly it's curious that sexual assaults alone continue to increase, with all other juvenile crime in Harris County seemingly in decline. But when the reporter jumps directly to the suggestion that we now have a new problem thanks to rising access to pornography, we've abandoned reasonable discussion for the kind of hype that sells papers but does little else. That we're dealing with very small numbers and countervailing overall trends encourages particular caution in over-interpreting the data. (That also goes for numerical declines in categories with small totals, including murder data.) In a jurisdiction the size of Harris County, a delta of 21 cases over five years is still small enough that any number of factors could affect it, from reporting rates by victims to charging decisions to changes in investigative focus by police.

Indeed, the same data could have been used to emphasize how far juvenile crime overall has fallen, a trend that's not limited to Houston. A recent report from the Juvenile Probation Commission (large pdf, p. 16) offered a statewide assessment that mostly jibes with Harris County's juvie crime drop: "In fiscal year 2011, there were 79,732 formal referrals to juvenile probation departments throughout the state. This represented an 11% decrease in referrals from the previous year (89,419 formal referrals in fiscal year 2010)." In 2001, according TJPC (see this report [pdf]), statewide juvenile referrals totaled more than 113,000, so we're talking about a significant drop in juvie crime over the last decade, even as the state's population ballooned.

The really good news, statewide even sexual offenses may be on the decline. The TJPC last year reported a slight drop in 2011 of juveniles in sex offender treatment programs, to 1,065 from 1,164 the year before. They also reported a drop in those receiving "residential placements" as sex offenders, from 368 to 310. While Grits can't immediately locate comparable data back to 2007, those numbers further recommend caution when interpreting Harris' situation. If expanded access to porn really caused an increase in Harris County sex assaults by juveniles, why hasn't it done so statewide?

Overall, juvenile crime trends in Texas are quite encouraging. But unfortunately good news on crime doesn't sell papers, hence the media focus on the single Harris County category with a worse outcome.

Grits continues to believe larger macro trends having little to do with the justice system account for much of the recent crime decline for both juveniles and adults. After all, even if you believe that keeping adults in prison longer (and for lessor offenses) has contributed to the overall, long-term crime reduction, that doesn't explain why juvie crime is declining even more rapidly. I often wonder if one of the biggest factors may be the rise of the internet, cell phones and video games, which occupy an extraordinary amount of youths' time that in my day would have been spent running the streets with much more potential for getting into trouble. The kid playing Grand Theft Auto IV for hours (or for that matter watching porn) is at home staring at a screen, not out jacking my car, spraying graffiti, burglarizing my house, etc.

Whatever the cause, with regards to juvie crime the glass is more than half full, scary headlines aside. It may sell newspapers, but hyping juvenile crime during this period of historic decline makes it harder to do more of what we are doing right and risks repeating old mistakes if the trend really does turn around.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Notify cell phone users when law-enforcement accesses personal data

Check out this must-read item from MSNBC about state and local law enforcement accessing locator information from personal cell phones, using data uncovered by the ACLU from open records to analyze the growing frequency of such requests and the millions of dollars earned by cell phone carriers from the practice.

Grits was particularly interested in a suggestion by a former Justice Department official who "favors a system that would require cellphone carriers to inform customers – even after the fact – that law enforcement has obtained their location or cellphone call data." That would be an excellent idea for privacy legislation when the Texas Lege meets next year.

Juvie probation grant targets kids as young as six

A couple of recent news stories detailed a new grant program for Texas juvenile probation departments. Reported the San Angelo Standard Times ("Grant aims to uplift at-risk youth," April 4)
In its first round of grant awards, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department gave $1.3 million to 23 county juvenile probation departments for projects addressing the needs of children ages 6 through 13.

"A 6-year-old is more manageable; they haven't developed as many habits," Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Mark Williams said. "By teen years, if they've been running the household, it's harder to turn them around."

Members connected to the Youth Advocate Program will begin meeting with school counselors and at-risk coordinators who will identify students for the program.

Mentors, or what Gutierrez calls "life coaches," will go into homes and work with the family to teach them how to address problems.
According to KFYO radio in Lubbock, "Some of the services funded by the grants across Texas include truancy intervention officers, counseling services, afterschool programs, bullying prevention, and even a canine program, in which at-risk youth are paired with dogs from local animal shelters and taught how to train and care for the pets."

Interesting idea: One wonders what criteria will be used to identify at-risk kids who haven't committed criminal offenses yet? It would go a long way simply to provide supports for children with incarcerated parents.

RELATED: For more on juvie probation grants and programs, see a report from December (large pdf) titled "Annual Report to the Governor and Legislative Budget Board Juvenile Probation Appropriations, Riders and Special Diversion Programs" which was probably the last publication of the now-defunct Juvenile Probation Commission. Here are a few of the larger grant programs described in the document.
  • "The State Aid Grant now consolidated with ten other grants and renamed State Financial Assistance Contract provides funding to local juvenile boards"
  • "The Community Corrections Diversion Program Grant provides funding that supports an array of rehabilitation services for juvenile offenders including, but not limited to, community-based programs and services, residential placements as well as transition and aftercare programs or services."
  • "The Special Needs Diversionary Program (SNDP) Grant is designed to increase the availability of effective services to juvenile offenders with mental health needs."

Friday, April 20, 2012

We're all safer now: Austin teacher busted for .033 oz of pot

Reports Austin's KXAN-TV:
An Austin high school geography teacher has been arrested and charged with having marijuana and paraphernalia at his home, which is located within 1,000 feet of an elementary school.

Police had a search warrant for Ian Kristofer Grayson's single-family residence in the 6000 block of Leisure Run Road, located near Odom Elementary School.

Grayson, 34, has been a teacher at Austin High School since 2009, and from 2006 to 2009 he taught world history at International High School.

During the search, officers found .033 ounces of marijuana in two different glass containers and also in a trash container, which was empty except for the bag of pot and drug paraphernalia, according to Austin Police Department. Marijuana pipes, residue and other paraphernalia were found in various locations inside the home, including his bedroom, according to the arrest affidavit.
Since when does Austin PD seek search warrants for pot smokers? They'd have time to do nothing else if that were a common practice. It's worth mentioning they found less than a gram of pot, combined, scattered across three different locations in the house. Not exactly a kingpin, this fellow. Was this worth ruining the guy's life over - making him lose his job, trouncing him in the media? Who, if anyone, benefits?

One doubts Grayson's students would say they're better off for his arrest. One former student commented on the KXAN site, "I remember Ian Grayson from when I went to Austin High because he gave me a hug on my last day there." Another student declared, "Gotta love how they fire the best history teacher at our school because of something so stupid as possession. I guess an illegal plant takes more priority over a good education."

Whaddya think? Should police be executing search warrants in private homes for petty pot violations? Was AISD right to put the fellow on administrative leave or should he be reinstated?

Voters and the press should demand all Austin mayoral and city council candidates address this question as we approach city elections in May. Notably, in recent years Austin PD has placed increasingly greater emphasis on marijuana enforcement, with the number of new pot cases increasing 69% from 2007 to 2010. One wonders, for what purpose? Does that really reflect the priorities City Council expects APD to be focused on?

MORE (4/26).

Thousands petition Perry for Kerry Max Cook pardon

More than 32,000 people have signed an online petition urging Governor Rick Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to pardon Kerry Max Cook, who was falsely convicted of murder in Tyler, was cleared by DNA after 20 years on death row, but has never been formally exonerated. From the petition:
The case against me was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. Over the years, every piece of evidence used to convict me was revealed to be bogus.The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the prosecution had suppressed evidence that showed I was innocent in order to build their case against me.

Thirteen years after my innocence was proven and I was released from prison, the state of Texas still has not judicially exonerated me.

I was tried for this murder nearly four times. Despite an Appellate ruling throwing out my second conviction with findings that “Police and prosecutorial misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset,” the Smith County District Attorney’s Office was more interested in saving face than justice.

Unwilling to drop the charges against me, on the eve of my fourth trial, prosecutors offered a plea-bargain: plead no-contest with no admission of guilt, and go free. By this time my only brother had been murdered, my Dad had died of cancer, and my mother had abandoned me. Additionally, I  was unable to overcome the police and prosecutorial misconduct that prevented me from being found not guilty. I took the offer and walked out of the courtroom. But I have never been free.

Two months later, DNA evidence proved my innocence.

Because I pleaded no-contest to the murder, I cannot be declared actually innocent unless the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends to Governor Rick Perry that I be pardoned and Texas Governor Rick Perry agrees and sets me free.

Without being exonerated, I feel I am still in a Texas prison.

Please sign my petition and ask the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend to Texas Governor Rick Perry that I be pardoned and finally set free from my mental prison sentence now in its 35th year.
Go here to see the full petition and sign on.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Selected cell-phone jamming may boost prison phone revenue

With the feds seemingly unlikely to approve comprehensive cell phone jamming in prisons anytime soon, Texas is considering a different technology that selectively blocks non-approved numbers, which seems like a much more reasonable and effective approach. Reports the Austin Statesman's Mike Ward, "Instead of jamming cellphone calls around prisons as Texas officials had earlier proposed, the California system would block outgoing cell calls, Web access and text messages by managing the cellphone signals at prisons — and allowing only signals from approved numbers to go through."

In California, the prison phone service provider paid for the new equipment because of massive lost revenue from unused pay phones, and the new technology supposedly has turned that dynamic around:
Efforts to curb cellphone smuggling into prisons have come up short, even though the state has spent millions of dollars on screening devices, surveillance cameras, detection devices and even phone-sniffing dogs.

[TDCJ spokesman Jason] Clark said Texas prison employees last year seized 904 cellphones in prisons or headed there, down from 1,480 three years ago. Prison officials attribute the decline to $60 million in security upgrades.

By contrast, California last year confiscated 15,000 cellphones at its 33 prisons. That's up from just 1,200 five years ago, according to officials.

Dana Simas, an information officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that under a new contract, Global Tel Link has agreed to spend as much as $35 million to install new equipment at each prison within the next three years. The first California unit is to get the gear by October, she said.

The company will pay all costs, Simas said, because it will get the revenue from the pay phones inside prisons that will once again be in demand.

The way the new system works: Each prison will get its own cell tower that will allow prison officials to control all incoming and outgoing calls. All others will not go through.

"After this system goes in, smuggled cellphones will be nothing more than glorified paperweights," Simas said. "A couple of years ago, there were long lines at the pay phones — hours long. By this year, no one was using them, there were so many smuggled cellphones."

'As good as DNA'? Court of Criminal Appeals considers dog-scent lineups

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals yesterday heard arguments in a murder case where the conviction hinged primarily on a "scent lineup" conducted by former Fort Bend Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett, a rare forensic technique first developed in Communist countries that has been derided as junk science. The CCA already overturned the conviction of the defendant's father in a case arising out of the same episode. Here's the initial coverage:
From the Statesman:
In the years since [Megan Winfrey's conviction], a number of scientists and dog experts have denounced Pikett's methods as unethical, unprofessional and biased in favor of law enforcement.

At least one member of the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed. "Personally, I think the dog-scent stuff, particularly as done by Pikett, is junk science and should never have come into court," Judge Cheryl Johnson said.
Absurdly, prosecutors told jurors at trial that the dog-scent lineup was "as good as DNA." Winfrey's attorney, Shirley Baccus-Lobel, told the CCA that "The problem with bad science masquerading as science is it results in attaching a significance to unremarkable events." San Jacinto County prosecutors told the court that although the case was circumstantial and "parts of it are weak," they should uphold the conviction anyway. (I know, you're shocked.)

See also earlier coverage from the Tribune, and these prior, related Grits posts: