Thanks to "enhancements" based on felonies committed two decades ago, a Hays County man received a six-year sentence for stealing $45 worth of ground beef and toys for his children from a Walmart just before Christmas last year. The kicker: Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown was foreman of the jury who convicted this latter-day Jean Valjean. Les Miserables similes aside, there needs to be some statute of limitations on how long old convictions can be used to enhance new misdemeanors into lengthy prison sentences. Nothing about what this guy did 20 years ago predicts that he's a danger today; in fact, the nature of this latest trumped-up "felony" indicates his priorities have shifted. The fellow committed what otherwise would have been a Class C misdemeanor theft so he could give his kids a modest Christmas, and "To love another person is to see the face of God."
Judges call for independent crime lab
Travis County judges are calling on the city to separate its crime lab from the Austin Police Department, a move presaged by recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences in its landmark 2009 report. Grits agrees with that assessment, with one caveat: They should make the lab truly independent, as was done in Houston. What they shouldn't do is shift those functions to the county medical examiner, as some have suggested. Let's please do this right the first time. In related news, Sen. Cornyn is pushing legislation to reauthorize federal funding for crime labs and reducing rape kit backlogs.
Contempt of cop: A case study
This article from Meagan Flynn at the Houston Press depicts a class example of an arrest for "contempt of cop" by a Harris County Sheriff's deputy.
Can bureaucracy prevent jail suicides?
Despite this Texas Tribune story, Grits suspects that far too much credit is being given to a new intake form when it comes to reducing jail suicides. We'll have to see if reductions hold long-term. But it's just as likely that jails stepped up prevention efforts because the Commission on Jail Standards began making suicides a greater point of emphasis and Sheriffs didn't want to end up in the paper with the next Sandra-Blandesque death occurring in their facility. If that's the case, suicides will continue to fluctuate and may go back up as new incidents arise. I hope I'm wrong, but it seems hard to believe such a small bureaucratic change could make a huge dent in a problem rooted deep in the human psyche. My instincts say to look for a) alternative explanations and b) future increases.
Veterans courts are cool, but don't scale up
This Houston Chronicle article touts veterans courts as an intervention that works, and they do, but it's also true that they're resource intensive and don't scale up well given the volume and gaping needs of the target population. Reported the Chron, quoting the judge in charge of the project: "The common denominator of the veterans in his court is a 'very low sense of self-esteem and self-purpose,' along with self-hate." But couldn't you say that about defendants in every criminal courtroom in America? Strong probation methods work, but they require more resources than most county governments are willing to provide, and you can't place it all on the backs of defendants through expensive court fees. These courts are important experiments, but they are not yet scale-able solutions and are unavailable to most veterans who commit crimes.
Asset seizures skyrocketed since turn of century
Total assets seized by Texas law enforcement increased more than 150 percent from 2001 to 2013, according to Right on Crime. At this point, agencies have become reliant on the income in unhealthy and problematic ways. If the interdiction strategy were working, one wonders, wouldn't authorities seize LESS illicit assets over time?
LWOP for illegal immigrants makes no cost-benefit sense
Here's a legislative proposal that would cost a small fortune with little public safety benefit to show for it: Authorizing life without parole for first-degree felonies committed by illegal immigrants. Life without parole didn't exist in Texas until 2005, when death penalty abolitionists made a deal with the devil, creating the new punishment as the sole alternative available to their clients in death-penalty cases. IMO that legislation threw their clients under the bus. Since then, we've seen hundreds of people sentenced to LWOP while death sentnences dropped. But LWOP is also a death sentence, just in slow motion. Next we had people wanting LWOP for sex offenders, then for sex traffickers, and not for illegal immigrants. There's no public safety argument for this policy and the cost-benefit analysis cannot stand up to scrutiny. This is just pandering to nativist sentiments in a crass and ham-handed way. One hopes cooler, wiser, and more cost-conscious heads will prevail as the bill is considered at the Lege.
1033 program: Not as free as 'free' sounds
Lots of Texas agencies got "free" personnel carriers through the Pentagon's 1033 program, but the Texas Public Policy Foundation points out that that statement masks significant costs to locals from operating the vehicles.
Grits was interested to learn of the CAN-DO Foundation, which stands for Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders. As folks push Obama to maximize his use of clemency on his way out the door, it's worth mentioning there's still time for him to posthumously pardon the writer O. Henry, as this blog along with Pete Ruckman has long advocated.
Locked up for the holidays
In an item titled, "Locked up for the holidays," the Pew Charitable Trusts' Stateline site examined the impact of the holiday season on inmates and their families and charity work aimed at supporting both.