Sunday, July 06, 2014

Crime lab misconduct, sex-offender residency, parole successses, and other stories

Hope you enjoyed a Happy Independence Day, Grits readers. Here are several items that didn't make it into independent posts last week but merit your attention:

Houston crime lab misconduct not caught by internal procedures
The Houston Chronicle reported (June 25) that Peter Lentz, the Houston crime lab tech accused of lying, improper procedure and tampering with an official record, was not identified by internal protocols but because, in February, he admitted the wrongdoing to two coworkers over drinks in a bar. MORE: From Paul Kennedy.

Texas civil commitment program melting down
The state's civil commitment program for sex offenders is imploding. The state plans to begin housing sex offenders in secure lockups because a halfway-house vendor is dropping its contract, citing public stigma and inadequate compensation. An attorney at the Harris County public defender told the Houston Chronicle that housing civil-commitment offenders in secure lockups is "clearly illegal." After all, they've already served their criminal sentences and are legally supposed to be undergoing outpatient treatment. Look for significant action on this topic next session, probably led by Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Sylvester Turner.

'Getting Life': Michael Morton Memoir
Michael Morton has just published a memoir about his false conviction and imprisonment for the murder of his wife and the dramatic events surrounding his nationally publicized exoneration. See the Statesman's coverage.

Higher parole rate, fewer revocations account for leveling of Texas' prison pop
Insiders know that, despite the attention paid to Texas' 2007 probation reforms, the parole side has been the main reason Texas' prison population has leveled off and even modestly declined in recent years. Why? Via YourHouston News, Texas parole commissioner Lynn Ruzicka said new programming has facilitated higher parole rates for eligible inmates and lower revocation rates for parolees. For example, "Out of the inmates up for parole, 27-28 percent were released in 2001 while the current release rate hovers around 35 percent ... A 2 percent increase in approvals translates into approximately 1,500 additional parole releases per year and an annual savings of almost $26 million, a 2010 report by the Center for Effective Justice showed." Ruzicka specifically said, “The release rate is going up because of the programs we have.” Further, "parole revocation rates for parolees with active cases fell from 12.2 percent in 2001 to 8.2 percent in 2010, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice."

A lawyerly protest: Handing out cards
You don't see this every day:
More than a dozen of the city's best criminal defense lawyers converged Friday on the 11th floor of Houston's criminal courthouse to meet defendants and hand out bright yellow 3-by-5 cards explaining their constitutional rights.

It was part of a protest by the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association against the way Michael Fields, a misdemeanor judge, handles initial appearances in his court.

"What he's doing is unethical, it's unconstitutional and it's illegal," HCCLA president Carmen Roe said after passing out several fliers. "When he starts trampling on the rights of defendants, that's when we get involved." ...

"We believe he's coercing defendants to either waive their right to a lawyer or enter a plea of guilty without their lawyer being present," said JoAnne Musick, a past president of HCCLA who was handing out fliers. "We've had complaints from people who asked for a lawyer and instead he handed them plea papers and had them enter a plea of guilty."

The judge, who denied any improprieties, said he changed his arraignment procedure earlier this year, a move that has generated the controversy. The Republican jurist has held the bench since being elected in 1998.
Paul Kennedy has called Judge Fields a "bully in a robe." Scott Greenfield provides more suitably outraged commentary.

Are compromised Van Zandt locks in other jails?
The Tyler Morning Telegraph posed the same question Grits asked in the wake of news about inmates compromising the locks at the Van Zandt County Jail: "Are the faulty locks in the Van Zandt County Jail in other jails?" For now, claims the paper, the surprising answer appears to be "no." "Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards Brandon Wood said that as of now, the manufacturer does not seem to have that lock model in any other Texas jails, but they are still taking more time to confirm that, and see about locks in other states."
Wood said there are about three main manufacturers that make lock systems for jails in the state, but the company that made the flawed locks was not one of them.

“The type of lock that was installed, although it is comparable according to the manufacturers specifications to locks that are typically seen in Texas county jails, this was the first time we’d seen this manufacturer in the state,” Wood said.

Wood said even though the company was new, the locks it made met state standards.

For security reasons, Ray requested not to reveal the lock manufacturer’s name. Keeping that information away from inmates could stop them from trying to manipulate similar locks.

However, the locks with the faulty pieces seem to only be in one batch of one specific model. It doesn’t look like the manufacturer has locks from that bad batch anywhere else.

“We do not believe that any of those locks are in any other county jails, however we have issued a technical assistance memorandum and notification to the sheriffs to conduct a walkthrough of their own facilities and determine if they have any of those locks,” Wood said.

As every jail in Texas investigates its own locking system, the manufacturer in question is looking into any locks it has installed in other states.
They ought to publish the manufacturer's name. It's going to eventually come out, anyway.

Alleged civil service cheats indicted in Cameron County
Reported AP, "Eleven former and potential South Texas sheriff's deputies have been indicted in a civil service exam cheating scandal involving a cellphone image of the test."

Private prison focus: Immigration
The blog Texas Prison Bidness highlights documented troubles at five "criminal alien requirement" prisons in Texas covered in an ACLU report released earlier this month:
Forensics a 'decades-long experiment' sans scientific method
At Slate, Mark Joseph Stern picks up the meme that much forensic science isn't actually science, an uncomfortable fact made irrefutable by the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report calling for the application of the scientific method in forensic fields. He argues that, "Far from an infallible science, forensics is a decades-long experiment in which undertrained lab workers jettison the scientific method in favor of speedy results that fit prosecutors’ hunches."


Anonymous said...

Parole Success... SSDD

Go ahead and let parole grade their own report card and say that it reduces recidivism 99.9%.

Everyone knows that County Jails are responsible for reducing prison beds. Offenders awaiting trial and waiting to catch the chain typically served out their sentence term sitting in the County Pokey.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@8:50, this is not California. It's not true that "County Jails are responsible for reducing prison beds."

Anonymous said...

Texas civil commitment program melting down

Yes, it is clearly illegal. But SCOTUS has signed off when they let Kansas get away with it. Their prison system has a program where they hook electrodes up to sex offender's genitals and show them pictures of kids to test if they are "well enough" to be released.

This is the new bunk science with forensic investigators - they know if you're likely to re-offend by using some machine that's about as reliable as a polygraph. Some quack inventor is making a boat load of money off that scam.

Anonymous said...

RE: Houston crime lab misconduct not caught by internal procedures

Just past the 80 minute mark

Rios claimed that the error was discovered before tech review, during analysis of the data. But she never stated that Lentz was the person who brought the error to the attention of his supervisor.

Instead, Rios scapegoated Lentz in order to cover-up her woefully incompetent quality assurance parameters in her lab.

Anonymous said...

Immigrants are too often victimized by Border Patrol agents and prison guards.

Anonymous said...

America, a force for inequality and injustice in the world, is getting a taste of what our policies have done to Central America. They now come to us and say, “Now you take us.” About time.