Sunday, December 27, 2015

Debating the biggest Texas criminal justice stories of 2015

On Christmas Eve, the Texas Tribune published a list of the "Top Crime News of 2015," so rather than catalog Grits' own such greatest-hits tally, let's build on the Trib's nine-item inventory of the year's most important criminal-justice news stories.

First, numbers five and six surely must be moved to one and two. There's no question that Sandra Bland's death and the murder of Deputy Darren Goforth in Houston were the two top criminal justice stories of the year, in many ways helping define the national conversation, pro and con, surrounding the #blacklivesmatter movement. Beyond that, it's hard to see how the Waco biker shooting didn't make the cut: Nine people were killed, four of them by police snipers, after which 177 people were jailed for trumped up conspiracy charges on $1 million bail with virtually no evidence presented to the court to justify it. As prosecutorial and judicial overreach goes, Texas hasn't seen anything on this scale since The Great Eldorado Polygamist Roundup.

Some of the others I might not have included, or lowered in ranking. The execution of one of the Texas Seven escapees likely refers to an episode Texans under 40 won't even remember. And, like the death of rookie Correctional Officer Timothy Davison, which the Trib ranked number two, the episode had few policy implications compared to the way the Bland and Goforth episodes are already driving legislative work. Ditto for the Bernie Tiede case, which has media legs because his story was made into an excellent movie but which has few broader implications for the state. (That's also the reason I wouldn't have included Rick Perry's indictment, which the Trib also left off; his case is entirely atypical.)

I'm tempted, even, to say the same about the Scott Panetti case, which drew attention for the crazed antics of a mentally ill man representing himself on capital murder charges, though there are at least bigger-picture policy questions at stake beyond just his case.

Whether the source of execution drugs is secret wouldn't have made Grits' top ten list. It's an interesting topic, but "Texas AG bad on open records" is hardly news anymore, and IMO it's not one of the most important criminal justice stories of 2015.

The ones we agree on beyond Bland and Goforth: Decriminalizing truancy and the DNA mixture debacle. Those are big stories, the latter with national and even international implications.

For me, I'd have included the fascinating race this year between the Legislature and the Court of Criminal Appeals to interpret Texas' new, much-admired junk science writ.

Grits would also argue for assigning near-top billing - probably #4 on my own list - to a topic the mainstream media hasn't even covered: The adjustment of property theft thresholds for inflation, which boosted the threshold at which thefts become a felony from $1,500 to $2,500. By comparison, in Virginia that threshold is $200. In an era when so many people seem to be favorably discussing ways to lessen incarceration of non-violent offenders, I'm surprised this hasn't gotten more attention.

To me, the debate over the last slot comes down to the creation of a new "Exoneration Commission" and the Forensic Science Commission launching case-by-case reviews where flawed scientific testimony helped convict people. The forensic reviews win out, IMO, because they're concretely happening whereas the work of the Exoneration Commission remains speculative.

There's an argument for including new assessments of the massive DPS border surge showing few safety gains on the border and measurable declines in safety elsewhere in the state. For that matter, the legislature's rebuke of DPS' unilateral move to gather all ten fingerprints from Texas drivers was a pretty big deal. One could also make an argument for including Texas' two big contributions this year to the national debate over police shootings: The creation of new reporting about people wounded or killed by police and a Supreme Court case establishing immunity for a state trooper to shoot at vehicles from an overpass, even against direct orders from a superior.

So any such list is subjective, there's always room for debate. But here's how Grits would have ranked Texas' top criminal justice stories of 2015:
  1. Sandra Bland's death
  2. Darren Goforth's murder
  3. Waco biker shootout, aftermath
  4. Raising property theft thresholds
  5. DNA mixture debacle
  6. Decriminalizing truancy
  7. Ending pick-a-pal grand juries
  8. Strengthening junk science writ
  9. Flawed forensics reviews
Honorable mention:
See also Grits' recap of 2015 TX legislative accomplishments.


Gadfly said...

As a newspaper editor, I have noticed the theft thresholds indeed.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If you noticed them, it must have been on this blog, or just reading the penal code. To this day I don't think it's been reported in the Texas MSM.

Gadfly said...

Grits, I first noticed them here, but, as a "community" non-daily newspaper editor, I write up the weekly police report, so I've seen them in action. I specifically noted the new $100-750 instead of $50-500 on Class B misdemeanor theft a few weeks ago.