Saturday, June 15, 2013

Perry vetoes empower prosecutors, except for one Travis County drunk Democrat

Just a couple of criminal-justice related vetoes on Governor Rick Perry's 2013 list, but they were both significant.

Perry vetoes only de-incarceration bill of the session
This one was particularly a bummer. I do not understand why Gov. Perry picked HB 1790 to veto - out of all the criminal-justice bills sent to him Grits had considered it among the most innocuous, though it was the only piece of legislation passed by the 83rd Texas Legislature that would have even a minor de-incarceration impact. His stated reasoning for doing so makes little sense to me except through the lens of maximizing the prerogative of the executive branch. Here's the text of the accompanying veto message: "The intent of House Bill 1790 can already be achieved under current law. A mechanism already exists to prosecute a state jail felony as a Class A misdemeanor in circumstances where the prosecutor sees fit. Adding the option to reduce the conviction at the back end of a case will cause additional and unnecessary court procedures, reduce judicial efficiency, and add to the costs of our criminal justice system."

Certainly in some cases prosecutors can already choose to prosecute a state jail felony as a Class A misdemeanor through their front-end charging decisions. But the point of the bill was to provide incentives for succeeding on probation by offering a reduced charge on the back end as a carrot. In the version that passed the Legislature, prosecutors would still have veto power. But Perry's complaint appears to be that they're not the exclusive decisionmakers.

Perry's cost argument in the veto message is a total red herring. In FY 2012, some 23,449 revoked probationers entered TDCJ, or 31.5% of all new receives during that fiscal year. Lowering that number even a fraction would reduce incarceration costs on a magnitude that far outweighs the cost of an extra hearing, particularly one that only happens if probationers are successful! Bad, inexplicable veto.

This theme of maximizing prosecutorial power, it should be mentioned, was also exhibited in the addition of "mandatory life" for 17-year old capital offenders, making the sole purview of prosecutors power that, under the law as it stands, presently resides with juries when sentencing 17-year olds - i.e., the choice to consider sentences less than "life."

Travis DA Showdown: Perry follows through on win-win gambit
The other big criminal-justice news out of Rick Perry's veto announcement was the line-item veto of the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County DA's Office, part of the governor's effort to strong-arm the current drunk DA in charge, Rosemary Lehmberg, to resign. Even Perry acknowledged the unit's "good work" but declared he couldn't justify funding it when the public had lost faith in its leader. (I wonder, btw, if there's been any recent polling on whether Travis County voters want Lehmberg out and a Perry-appointed replacement in: That'd be an interesting opinion survey.) The move was a win-win for Perry; Grits considered it a brilliant stroke from a chess-player's perspective. If Lehmberg had resigned, Perry would appoint her replacement - Terry Keel and John Bradley are the two names I've heard bandied about.

Since she called his bluff, OTOH, de-funding the Public Integrity Unit emasculates a prosecutorial division that's currently investigating some of Perry's Republican allies and programs and agencies run by his appointees. That has Democrats crying "foul" but that's insider baseball. The public doesn't react to such charges nearly as strongly as they do the images of Lehmberg kicking the cell door and shouting at jailers. Still, combined with the veto of two bipartisan ethics bills, including a requirement that 501(c)(4)s disclose "dark money" donors, it's not difficult to paint a portrait of the governor's veto decisions as self serving snubs to ethics enforcement. This may be a situation where history could judge that Perry overreached (for example, during any future presidential bid), despite achieving his goal of putting Lehmberg and Travis County Democrats in a short-term political squeeze.

The governor vetoed about $7.5 million allocated to the Travis DA's Public Integrity Unit over two years, according to news accounts. According to a report last fall (pdf) the DA has nearly one million dollars in her asset forfeiture account that could cover part of it. I suppose the Travis County Commissioners Court could pony up the rest, though that'd be a bitter pill to swallow. Or, since the question quickly becomes, "How much is the county willing to pay NOT to have a Republican DA," maybe somebody like Steve Mostyn or another partisan political donor could bail them out for a biennium. That's a lot of money but not so much that it's inconceivable some super-rich partisan might think it's worth it, given the stakes. Or, perhaps they could hit up the Obama Administration or some big foundation for an emergency grant to keep the PIU afloat for two years. ¿Quien sabe?

If readers can think of other possible scenarios for keeping the Public Integrity Unit open, please offer them up in the comments. And keep in mind: The question now isn't whether or not Lehmberg should resign but what should happen next? They've already lost their budget for two years, there's little else Perry can do to them aside from occasional (and well-earned) animadversions in the press. Those aren't going away until Rosemary Lehmberg leaves office. Until then, how might the Public Integrity Unit be funded for the next two years, or should the county let it die on the vine?


PAPA said...

Breaking the Law should be immediate cause of dismissal, no ands,ifs,buts, about it...there is too much of this going on all over the state,what is good for the goose should be good for the gander

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Public Integrity Units / Conviction Integrity Units.

Are you aware if Mr. Anderson has intentions to disban the Harris County Unit created & implemented by Mrs. Lycos? Might as well ditch it, it was made into a joke when she ordered her staff to ignore claims devoid of DNA, Death Row and not currently Open / Active cases. Kinda like inventing a first aid kit and only using the band-aides. What a crock.