Saturday, June 21, 2014

Pot penalties, jails and mental health, prison heat, recording interrogations, immigration and judges

Here are several items that aren't going to make it into independent Grits posts but which deserve readers' attention:

Pot penalties too harsh on large amounts and small
The Statesman editorial board joined the chorus this week to say the 5-99 year penalty range being applied for pot brownies to a Williamson County teen is too harsh. While I don't believe the kid's at significant risk of spending 99 years in TDCJ for the offense or anything like it, it's true the penalties are out of whack. We've talked about reducing marijuana penalties on the misdemeanor end, but is there any level of marijuana possession that deserves the same first-degree felony charges one would get for murder or kidnapping? Really all Texas marijuana penalties, not just user-level penalty categories, should be ratcheted down one notch.

Harris Sheriff blasts state for failure to fund mental health treatment
Reported Ross Ramsey at the Texas Tribune, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia says the Department of State Health Services "is not offering the care that it is required to provide." "Given proper treatment, the sheriff argues, some patients would not be committing the crimes of which they are accused. Instead, they end up in Harris County’s jails, where they are a health care and financial burden to the county." Garcia's "recommendations include increasing staff for the hospitals and expanding capacity by contracting with local providers whenever possible" I do find questionable Garcia's claim that "the majority of people who are in my custody who are in this mental illness category are coming here largely because of their illness and not necessarily because of their actions." IMO, that's not true, and the best research on the topic conflicts with that view. Mental-health treatment is an important component for the sub-group of offenders who need it, but it's not a silver-bullet cure all.

Veterans, PTSD, and medical pot
Grits recently spent a morning in San Antonio listening to Texas legislators from two House committees discuss Veterans Courts and treatment services for ex-military personnel charged with crimes who suffered from PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. But nobody addressed the question from the angle taken by Bill Martin in this June 2014 Texas Monthly story, "War Without End": Medical pot. The subhed to his story sums up his well-versed argument: "As veterans return home from combat in the Middle East, many struggle to leave their experiences behind. They are sleepless, anxious, and angry. And medications often make the situation worse. No wonder a growing number of former soldiers are turning to a treatment that makes them criminals in Texas: Marijuana."

Texas heat litigation seeks class-action status
Yet more litigation has been filed related to excessive heat in Texas prisons, this time out "at a Navasota lockup where [inmates] allege it is so hot that metal tables are too hot to touch and metal-walled cell blocks are like ovens." According to the Houston Chronicle, out of all the various heat-related lawsuits against TDCJ, this is "the first one seeking class-action status that could open the prison system up to statewide litigation." See additional coverage from Texas Monthly and the Washington Post.

A law enforcement response to a humanitarian crisis
So thousands of unaccompanied minors show up at the Texas border from Central America: Texas' response: DPS will conduct another pointless "surge" at a cost of $1.3 million per week. If Texas Republicans want to a) show it's untrue they cease to care about children the moment they're not aborted, b) convince Latino voters to stop believing they're a bunch of xenophobic zealots, and c) confront actual problems at the border instead tilting at trumped up fictions, why not respond with humanitarian assistance for the kids instead of overtime pay for troopers to drive around the Valley? Just a thought.

New US Senate filibuster rules haven't busted Texas' federal judge shortage 
Like the Statesman editorial board, I'm glad to see more federal judge slots filled in Texas, but as  Jazmine Ulloa reported, "federal judicial vacancies across the state remain among the highest nationwide, even as the Texas courts struggle to handle some of the busiest and most complicated dockets in the country. Recent budget cuts have compounded the problem." Couple the ongoing shortages with the recent arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children at the Texas border and all the family law issues those cases will entail, and the feds need to fill judicial vacancies in the southern and western districts, in particular. Wrote Ulloa, "Two more vacancies are expected within the next year," so, "If there are no replacements by then, one federal bench in every five in the state will be empty. And there aren't enough judges allotted to Texas' Western district to handle their dockets, even if they were fully staffed at present levels. How is it possible to stiffen up immigration enforcement if the federal judiciary isn't staffed up sufficiently to handle the caseload?

Arguments against recording interrogations falling by wayside
If the FBI can record custodial interrogations, why can't Texas? Momentum on this issue is shifting. The Rodney Ellis/Terry Canales bill requiring police to record interrogations in serious cases has a good chance to finally make it through the Texas legislative process in 2015.


Anonymous said...


Where are the millions going for the state 'surge'? Are some of the gov's cronies getting a piece of the pie or is it simply overtime and travel expenses? Third possibility is a way to boost money not otherwise budgeted to organizations such as DPS (the gov's bodyguard service). Any info? Thanks.:~)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't know anything beyond what's been reported about how the money will be spent, 3:59. But from what I can tell, this is being billed specifically as a DPS surge, so that would probably mean extra trooper patrols, chopper/drone flights, boat rides, etc., not grants for locals to do overtime like some past "surges." At least that's how I read it.

Anonymous said...

Sheriff Adrian Garcia is right. The state is not properly funding mental health services. It's sad that the Harris County Jail is the single largest provider of mental health in the state. Jailers and correctional officers in this date are not properly trained to care for the mentally disabled. You will see more litigation on this issue in the near future. The state has cut back almost 20% of its funding over a decade for mental health, despite a growing population. These disabled individuals are being placed into our criminal justice system in record numbers. The prison system is not seeing the mental health dollars with this large increase which is resulting in 8th amendment violations and ADA issues.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Grits, do we have any chance of seeing the Rodney Ellis/Terry Canales bill amended to include 'all' Felonies & 'any' Misdemeanors where a person stands to lose freedoms (jail / prison) related to a possible guilty verdict or plea leading to such a sentence?

As it is, I simply see a red flag predicting that bad cops & rogue ADAs will shift targets over to the lesser (not so serious) cases to feed to their plea-mills, Guilty or Not. If it's got to do with cherry picking, I'm against it. Wrong is wrong no matter what the charge is categorized as when it involves jail / prison. Plus, there's no good reason to cut the Police & DA's INTAKE(s) any slack in this bill based on the charges sought and eventually granted.

*Also, what would have to happen in order to make this very topic worthy of inclusion in the first gubernatorial debate? Therefore, the voters could get a good look at both the R's & D's stance(s) 'prior' to casting their votes. Thanks.