Saturday, July 21, 2018

Austin police oversight ineffective, says audit; local media silent on narrative-busting analysis

The Austin Civilian Review Panel, as it worked under the now-expired police contract, was a failed oversight mechanism, the city auditor found. A  report issued in June concluded that, "Citizen oversight did not create substantive change within the Austin Police Department, largely due to the effects of City procedures and police department practices."

Your correspondent has been saying the same thing about Austin's oversight system on this blog since at least 2005 (and on its now-defunct, antecedent website, earlier than that). Even at its best, it never made any impact on the problems that spurred its creation.

Austin's citizen panel had access to more information about Internal Affairs cases than the public, but less than they needed to do their  job, according to the report.

Moreover, city legal staff edited recommendations from the citizen's panel before the chief saw them, if he ever did, and the panel never knew how they were altered. (The department never responded to most recommendations from the panel.)

Indeed, because the recommendation letters were altered by city legal, the Police Monitor didn't have copies of the final versions, and neither city legal nor APD kept them, at least not systematically. Auditors recreated the recommendations from multiple sources to get a clear view of the system and generate metrics.

Once they made their recommendations, panelists told auditors they went into a "black hole" and the panel never knew what happened to them - neither how the legal department may have changed the recommendations nor whether or how APD responded to them.

It's not that citizen panelists weren't doing a decent job: The appendix at the end of the report lists panel recommendations which, had the department quickly responded and made real changes to policy and procedure, might have saved lives. The panel recommended policy changes related to mental-health first response, firearm discharge, care for injured suspects, ride-along rules and much more. With no public debate and no discussion with the panel itself, these recommendations simply faded to nothing.

That's why your correspondent joined the Austin Justice Coalition in December to ask the city council not to renew the police contract. The oversight system, as I told the city council that night, was a "piece of junk." It was always a piece of junk. And we knew it long before this audit parsed the details. But it's nice to see it in an official city document. It's one thing for Grits or local police critics to say the system isn't working, and quite another for the city auditor to say so. Makes the conclusion harder to argue.

BTW, providing further evidence that local media has been completely in the can for the police union when it comes to debates over the contract and police oversight, this audit has received almost no media attention. The Austin Monitor covered it when it came out, and did a short followup, but neither the Statesman nor any local TV station - where activists' complaints last year about a crappy oversight system were routinely poo-pooed and dismissed - has seen fit to relate the auditors' findings to their readers/viewers.

Funny, that. IMO, if the audit had parroted their police-driven narrative from last year that the oversight system is wonderful and it would be a tremendous loss if it were eliminated, this story would have been front page news and led nightly coverage on multiple local stations.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Do ankle monitors on parolees make anyone safer?

In response to episodes where two different parolees being supervised by ankle monitors reportedly committed murder, one of them allegedly killing three people, law enforcement officials in Houston have been blaming TDCJ for not notifying them more promptly that a potentially dangerous parolee wasn't being monitored. From the Houston Chronicle:
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the current system reveals communication gaps between TDCJ and local law enforcement. 
“There has to be a better way to identify those individuals that are parole violators who pose a serious threat to public safety,” said Gonzalez. 
Rodriguez’s case is not the only one in recent days that raised concerns about the monitoring of dangerous parolees. Earlier this month, parolee Garry Jenkins, 56, slipped out of his house after curfew — a violation that should have been detected by the ankle monitor that was a condition of his parole — and later allegedly stabbed his mother to death. Five days later, after being arrested for violating parole, he was charged with murder. 
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the recent incidents highlighted the need to notify law enforcement of potential parole violations more quickly. 
“We need to come up with a process that’s almost instantaneous,” said Acevedo, who added that he wants to work with other departments around the area to create a regional task force dedicated to parole violations. 
Houston Police Officers Union President Joseph Gamaldi agreed. 
“We need to know when these monitors are … being cut off, so we can send people out there to look up these people and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” Gamaldi said. “Three days is entirely too long before we know about it, that (someone) could get out there, do crimes and victimize people in our community.”
To the uninitiated, a call for "almost instantaneous" notification whenever parolees' ankle monitors raise a red flag surely sounds reasonable. But people in law enforcement circles - including IMO the officials making these comments - know it's complete bullshit.

In reality, ankle monitors are unreliable supervisors that create more problems than they solve. They exist because the idea sounds good in principle to the political class and is promoted aggressively by vendors, who've seen a big increase in market share. But in practice, if Houston PD began hunting down parole violators every time they (may have) absconded based on GPS data, they'd do almost nothing but that and still not make a dent in the problem they're trying to solve.

That's because ankle monitors have been plagued with false positive problems, to the point that they generate so much bad data as to be practically useless for supervision purposes.

In California, ankle monitors strapped to "high-risk" felons resulted in "agents [who] are drowning in a flood of meaningless data, masking alarms that could signal real danger." One expert told the LA Times in 2014:
"When these alerts are in the tens of thousands, it seems like an unwinnable situation," said Matthew DeMichele, a former researcher for the American Probation and Parole Assn. and coauthor of the Justice Department's guide on electronic monitoring. 
"In some ways, GPS vendors are selling law enforcement agencies, politicians, the public a false bag of goods," he said.
In Massachusetts, according to criminal-defense lawyer Daniel Capetta, "About 3,000 people are currently subject to electronic monitoring in Massachusetts. It has been reported that of these 3,000 GPS bracelets, there are approximately 1,800 alerts generated per day. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, there is no real problem."

In 2007 in Arizona, "140 offenders monitored that year experienced a total of 35,601 false alerts, due to problems such as low batteries or signals lost in dead zones." Of those, "The study group found 463 confirmed violations, meaning that false alerts outnumbered proven infractions by a 77-1 margin."

An essay from the Brookings Institute last year was titled, "Decades later, electronic monitoring of offenders is still prone to failure." Many GPS trackers are easily removed. They mainly exist to provide the public a false sense of security, a CYA backstop for probation and parole departments, and political cover for judges and/or parole boards making release decisions. 

By reducing available supervision resources thanks to spending so much time on false positives, however, arguably these devices harm public safety when used as widely as they are today. It would be even more harmful if HPD officers began spending lots of time tracking down parolees every time an anomalous blip shows up from their tracking device.

Not only can false positives make it hard to track actual evil-doers, they risk punishing innocent people because of technological glitches. Notably one of the inventors of an early GPS monitoring system now thinks they're used improperly and their functions could be shifted to smart phones. He also thinks companies that operate these services should be liable when they exacerbate public safety problems instead of improve them, characterizing their rent seeking posture coupled with a let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may attitude as a "negligent tort."

The same cost-benefit analysis related to ankle monitors applies to sending local police chasing after every parole absconder. According to the latest TDCJ Annual Statistical Report (2016), as of Aug. 31, 2016 (page 5), there were 12,883 parolees, out of 113,363, categorized as "pre-revocation, not in custody." Figure a fifth or so of those are in Houston. However, most of those pose nothing like the danger of the "mattress killer" parolee who allegedly went on a killing spree after cutting his ankle monitor. In fact, many of them just missed a meeting, will likely show up at the next one, and would not be revoked even if captured and brought in.

The truth is, even if TDCJ had notified them "instantaneously" in the recent cases, the Sheriff's Office wouldn't have followed up until a crime had been committed. The Associated Press reported that Harris County "deputies don’t necessarily search for parolees who have violated their terms of release and would only arrest those offenders they come across during the course of a patrol and run a background check."

The chief, sheriff, and police union have a mutual interest in hyping fear in an era of declining crime when law enforcement is making fewer arrests than any time in decades. They all have an interest in bigger budgets, more officers, and increased moral authority for themselves when the public sees them as protectors rather than incompetent bureaucrats.

So there's self-interest in their decision to ignore the problems with ankle monitors - even though their shortcomings are widely understood in law enforcement circles - and IMO it's that self interest we're seeing bubbling up in these comments. It's a win-win: deflects blame for local crimes onto TDCJ, and sets them up to look like champions of public safety when really the solutions suggested harm public safety thanks both to their politicized nature and extreme impracticality.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Junk-science writ doing the work, HOPE-less, considering prison ecology, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention this afternoon:

Junk-science writ doing the work
Texas' junk science writ continues to kick ass and take names. The Collin County District Attorney stipulated that bite-mark evidence is junk science in a hearing on the habeas corpus writ of Kousoul Chanthakoummane, Michael Bowers reported on Twitter. See more background on the case from the Texas Tribune. Notably, Virginia this year considered becoming the third state (after Texas and California) to let people challenge flawed forensics through a habeas corpus writ, but the measure failed to move in the House after passing the Senate. Grits continues to believe the junk-science writ deserves to be passed everywhere; flawed forensics are an issue in all jurisdictions, not just in the two most populous states. For more background on why this is needed, check out an excellent, extended article on flawed forensics published in Congressional Quarterly last year.

Eliminating Class C arrests could resolve Bexar jail beef
The biggest beef between the San Antonio PD and Bexar County over whether the PD will use the county's new jail intake facility is maintaining a space for processing Class C misdemeanor arrests. Given that both Texas political parties have endorsed eliminating most Class C arrests, maybe there's another way to skin that cat.

Convict leasing history unearthed
Check out the Houston Chronicle story about dozens of bodies of former inmates unearthed at a Fort Bend County construction site. These were inmates who died working for the Imperial Sugar company through Texas' old convict leasing program. MORE: From The Smithsonian magazine , the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Graham PD criticized for tazing autistic man
Experts say police should have talked to the man longer and perhaps noticed signs of his disability instead of just tazing him and taking him into custody.

Wishful thinking not a strategy on mental health
"The Harris County sheriff’s office doesn’t want its jail to be the largest mental health facility in Texas anymore," reported Politico. But given that about a quarter of the 10k jail population suffer from a diagnosed mental illness, the small-time programs described don't sound like they'll solve the problem anytime soon.

Death disparities in Denton
There's only one criminal defense attorney in Denton County qualified to handle death penalty cases, and he says he's not getting the same resources as the prosecution. He also wonders why some cases are charged as capital, a comment that underscores how Texas prosecutors have taken to charging more routine murders as potential death penalty cases.

HOPE-less
The HOPE probation program out of Hawaii isn't delivering results when implemented elsewhere. The NIJ has a study of four pilot sites, including in Tarrant County, TX, and here's an academic analysis describing some of the problems. Grits had written about the Tarrant pilot when it launched, I'm disappointed to learn it hasn't generated improved results.

'Plea deals have unbalanced Oklahoma's justice system'
From the Oklahoma Policy Institute, see an interesting critique of how the plea bargaining process leads to a bloated justice system.

Considering prison ecology
Historically, environmentalists haven't always been allies of the #cjreform movement (#understatementoftheyear). So I was interested to run across these environmental critiques of prison systems:
Smart decarceration
There's a new book out on smart decarceration policies that will go onto Grits' reading list.

Wrongful convictions and their causes
Check out an extended bibliography on the topic.

Crime data over time
A Ph.D. candidate out of the University of Pennsylvania has compiled reported crime and arrest data for US police departments dating back to 1980. Check out the tool he's created here.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Odes to bipartisanship, on #cjreform and beyond

While this blog has focused on bipartisan #cjreform planks in the Texas Republican and Democratic Party platforms (see a link roundup and discussion here), GOP SD 11 Chairman Scott Bowen published a column last week at Big Jolly Politics detailing bipartisan platform agreement across an array of issues.

Texas Rs and Ds agree on a lot more than you think.

RELATED: See also a column at BJP from Howie Katz, who comments at Grits under the pseudonym BarkGrowlBite, discussing #cjreform planks in the state GOP platform. According to Katz, "One would have to think that some of these planks were written by Democrats, not by Republicans." But the response in the comment section found numerous GOP stalwarts taking issue with that assessment. Well worth a read for those interested. (See also Grits' writeup of #cjreform planks in the state GOP platform.)

FWIW, having worked the Just Liberty booth at the GOP convention and spoken to hundreds of delegates in San Antonio about criminal-justice reform, my experience coincides with recent polling of GOP primary voters on the topic: Much of the Republican base supports #cjreform, even if many elected officials and the consulting class remain scared of it. And Democrats have moved even further down the same path.

As SD 11 Chair Scott Bowen asked rhetorically in his column, aptly titled, "The Bipartisanshp Platform," "Why haven’t we accomplished the things we all agree should be done?" Why, indeed?

Prison system is Texas' third fifth largest employer

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the state's third fifth largest employer, according to Grits' calculations.

I began to investigate that ranking after seeing an article from US News and World Report titled, titled, "Can the Rural Prison Economy Survive the Decarceration Era?" According to that story, the Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania is the 15th largest employer in that state. How does that compare to Texas, I wondered?

TDCJ employs more than 37,000 people at any given juncture. How does that compare to other large, Texan employers?

There doesn't appear to be an official government listing of each state's largest employers, and I couldn't find specific data either from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Texas Workforce Commission. (Let me know in the comments if you're aware of better sources.) Googling around, however, I found several unofficial lists purporting to identify Texas' largest employers. See here, here, and here. None of these included the prison system in their lists. That's a mistake.

Two of those sources listed two entities - the Texas A&M University System (50k) and Shell Deepwater Development (44k) - as having more employees than the Texas prison system, followed closely by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston (35k). This source added the DFW International Airport at the top of the list, at 60k employees.

So depending on whether we include the DFW Airport, TDCJ is the third or fourth largest employer in Texas. Grits would tend not to include the airport. Apparently, the 60k figure is for all employers; only 1,900 of them are employed by the airport proper.

In that light, I'd call TDCJ Texas' third largest employer. HOWEVER: A commenter pointed out that Walmart and HEB both employ more than any of those entities, which would make TDCJ the fifth largest. See the correction below and the comments.

If the state corrections agency is the 15th largest employer in PA and the third fifth largest in Texas, that tells you the penal system here is a much more significant part of the economy.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about four out of every 1,000 jobs in Texas are correctional officers in prisons and jails, totaling about 48,600 statewide.

CORRECTION: A commenter pointed out that Walmart (171k) and HEB (90k) both have more employees than those listed, which would make the prison system the fifth largest employer in the state. Again, if anyone has a better list than the sources above, let me know in the comments.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

FIRST-STEP opposition shows why partisanship is the bane of criminal-justice reform

Just Liberty this week will launch a new action alert asking Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to support the federal FIRST-STEP Act, which regrettably puts us at odds with some national reform groups like the ACLU and the Leadership Conference (now headed by our old pal Vanita Gupta, lately of Obama-Administration fame).

Other #cjreformers like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the #Cut50 campaign, and Right on Crime support the measure.

Decision Time
As Just Liberty's Policy Director, I had to make my own assessment. And from a #cjreform perspective, it's impossible not to conclude that FAMM and #Cut50 are right on this one and ACLU and the Leadership Conference are letting partisanship impede doing what's best for prisoners.

The main criticism of the FIRST-STEP Act is that it doesn't go far enough, failing to embrace sentencing reform measures which would more fundamentally confront federal mass incarceration trends. Here's how a San Antonio Express-News editorial described those complaints:
Progressives are sharply divided on the measure, mostly because of what it doesn’t do. The bill — sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Doug Collins, R-Ga., and strongly pushed by President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner — does nothing to address the main problem, which is that this nation sends far too many people to prison and keeps them locked up far too long. 
Truly meaningful change would involve sentencing reform, for which there is some bipartisan support in Congress — but not enough to get such legislation through both chambers. It is hard to imagine that Trump, who tries so hard to project a tougher-than-thou image, would sign a bill significantly reducing sentences. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who believes in throwing away the key, would have a conniption fit. 
The First Step Act ignores the “front end” of the problem — sentencing — and focuses exclusively on the “back end.” It would provide $50 million a year for five years in new funding for education and rehabilitation programs in federal prisons, encourage inmates to participate in those programs by giving them credits for early release, and allow some prisoners to serve the balance of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.
Good > Perfect
So our liberal friends don't oppose the things in the bill so much as they think OTHER things should be in there. In other words, they're allowing the Perfect to become the enemy of the Good. Grits supports sentencing reform, too, and I wish it were included in the bill passed by the House. Those national groups are not wrong to insist that it's needed.

But this is not a sentencing reform bill. OTOH, on the issues it does address, most of them are modest improvements over the status quo.

In Texas, that's always been my threshold for whether to embrace reform. "Is it an improvement over current law?" If yes, don't oppose it unless it harms somebody. By that standard, supporting the FIRST-STEP Act is a no-brainer.

Indeed, thanks to changes in how good time is calculated, there are 4,000 people who would be released immediately if the law is enacted. Without the bill, they stay locked up.

That, to me, is where Grits parts ways with Gupta and Company: I'm not willing to tell an incarcerated person - much less 4,000 of them - that they should spend more time in prison because IMO some bill doesn't go far enough. These liberal critics aren't the ones doing the extra time!

How incrementalism works
Partisans ensconced in D.C. gridlock fail to understand some of the lessons on bipartisanship we've of necessity learned in Texas: Getting folks from both parties to support a modest reform today can help persuade legislators to do more later once they see the public reaction and find that there's no backlash, or at least that it's survivable.

For example, in Texas, former House Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen passed legislation in 2003 mandating probation on the first offense for low-level drug possession cases, diverting a few thousand people from Texas prisons. He was challenged in 2004, called "soft on crime" by his chief political opponent, but won anyway. After that, and really, because of that, legislators felt comfortable embracing bolder decarceration reforms in 2005 (vetoed), paving the way to pass the ambitious 2007 probation reforms championed by Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Jerry Madden. Members needed Chairman Allen's electoral example to see that, if they stuck their necks out, they wouldn't get them cut off! (For more background, David Dagan and Steven Teles described these episodes in their book, Prison Break.)

While there's still far to go, over time this approach has made a significant dent in mass incarceration in Texas, symbolized most prominently by the closure of eight prison units, including four closed during the most recent legislative session.

Similarly, if Congress were to pass the FIRST-STEP Act and Republican legislators were to discover in November that they received credit for its passage instead of blame, that will make them more likely to vote for sentencing reform in the future. That truly would be a "first step." Big ships turn slowly, and the slowest to turn of all vessels are ships of state.

It took decades to build America's carceral state, there aren't going to be any quick, one-bill fixes. And future fixes become less likely if liberals blow up efforts at #cjreform bipartisanship.

Why multi-issue groups are the bane of #cjreform
But maybe the real issue is Democratic partisans who don't want Republicans to get credit for something good while they see those same Republicans on the opposite side on other debates that they care about. To that extent, splits on the left over the FIRST-STEP Act point to another problem that's plagued justice reformers since your correspondent got into the game back in the 1990s: Multi-issue groups will always sell out a #cjreform agenda when it conflicts with other liberal goals, in particular on pro-choice, gay-rights, environmental issues, and increasingly in the Trump era, immigration.

Many Democrats oppose the FIRST-STEP Act simply because they don't want to give President Trump " a win." To me, that's flat-out unpatriotic, no less so than all the Republicans in Congress who considered it their mission in life to see President Obama fail. (It may sound corny, but I want America to succeed, even under President Trump.)

It's also politically inept. Politics is the art of the possible, and while Republicans control Congress and the presidency, this is what's possible. In poker terms, take the chips on the table and live to play another hand.

If Democrats want US policy to go further, win some damn elections. But if this bill was proposed under a Democratic administration and Congress, these same groups would all support it. It's hypocritical and counter-productive to oppose it now.

RELATED: Washington Examiner, "Time for bipartisan deal making on criminal justice reform."

Saturday, July 14, 2018

"Isolated incident" at TDCJ means things that happen to lots of people all the time

Not long ago, Grits parsed statements from Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman and concluded that his consistent pattern of responding to systemic problems with claims that they're "isolated incidents" amounted to a "practice of deflection and deception," corrorborating what a whistleblower called a "culture of coverup" at the agency.

Here's a good example: An article by the indefatigable Keri Blakinger at the Houston Chronicle - focused on a major and three guards who were indicted for planting evidence on inmates and then filing false grievances - included a reference to this now-routine, "isolated incident" response:
A Texas prison spokesman last month called the screwdriver-planting scheme an "isolated incident." Since then dozens of inmates and their families have reached out to the Chronicle, the Office of the Inspector General and Texas Inmates Families Association with similar allegations. 
"Officers planting drugs, weapons, and other forms of contraband is a fairly regular occurrence in TDCJ," one inmate said, after detailing another alleged evidence-planting incident he says he witnessed at Ramsey Unit. 
In the past five years, there have been more than 75 arrests or charges of tampering with evidence or records filed against TDCJ officers, records show. That figure only includes cases investigated by the Office of the Inspector General, and it doesn't indicate how the cases were ultimately resolved.
Sound like an "isolated incident" to you?

The agency lessens its credibility when it responds to legitimate criticisms of systemic failures by scapegoating the lowest level individuals instead of accepting accountability for things that go wrong.

This is why advocates have called for independent oversight at the agency, a point made in the story by Jennifer Erschabek of the Texas Inmate Family Association:
"We've been fighting for independent oversight for years and haven't been able to get any traction," said Jennifer Erschabek of the Texas Inmate Families Association. "They always say there's the ombudsman, the House Corrections Committee, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the board - but that's never been effective for us because we never get the transparency or accountability we need on these issues. It takes the news media to get to the bottom of this and get to facts."

Crime still plummeting; juvie arrests down 57% in TX since 2010

In May's Reasonably Suspicious podcast, we discussed the remarkable decline in DWI and public drunkenness arrests statewide in Texas over the last few years, but it turns out that's part of a broader trend. Arrests of all types have declined a lot.

DPS arrest data is only available through 2016, but from 2010 to 2016, the number of adults arrested  in Texas dropped by 26 percent, from more than a million to 759,000, falling more or less in tandem over the period with the reported crime rate.

Juvenile arrests in Texas declined even more, dropping an eye-popping 57 percent over the same period.

The percent reductions in DWI and drunkenness were even greater for adults, so those charges are a leading cause of the statewide decline. But the reduction in overall arrests tells us this is a bigger trend, not just an issue related to alcohol consumption.

As I'd mentioned on Twitter, polls show most Americans believe crime is increasing, despite these remarkable trends in the opposite direction. Indeed, not only have crime rates fallen since 2010, they were falling for nearly two decades prior to that. Arrests didn't begin to decline until much more recently.

This reduces pressure on cities to hire more police officers, on counties to expand jail capacity, and ultimately reduces the need for the state prison system to keep so many units open.

That's bad news for local probation departments, the bail-bond industry, and the criminal-defense bar, all of whom see their revenue decline as a result. But for everyone else, there's nothing but a tremendous upside.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

"Justice Needs a Platform" campaign updates, and notes from the Ophidian Uprising

If you enjoyed (or were creeped out by) the idea of "snakes on a plane," you'll get a kick out of this month's podcast intro focusing on an astonishing rash of snake-related law-enforcement stories slithering up out of the news mire in Texas over the last several months.

Shifting back to our regular, half-hour format, in the July episode of the Reasonably Suspicious podcast, cohost Mandy Marzullo and I discuss outcomes from Just Liberty's "Justice Needs a Platform" campaign, which aimed to install criminal-justice reform planks into the platforms of both major Texas political parties. You can listen to it here:


See also Grits' written summaries of Just Liberty's platform campaign results:
And check out special podcasts aimed at the GOP and Democratic state conventions interviewing conservative and liberal opinion leaders on why they supported criminal-justice reform planks in their party's platform. IMO the R podcast was particularly strong:
Here's what's covered in this month's podcast:

Top Stories
  • Just Liberty's "Justice Needs a Platform Campaign"
Death and Texas
  • Do we need concussion protocols for criminal-defense attorneys?
Oddmakers
  • How will bail reform proceed in Texas?
  • A TN judged ruled revoking drivers licenses for nonpayment of debt to the government is unconstitutional. What are the chances this practice ends in Texas? (See related commentary from Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project, who believe, "A legal challenge similar to the one filed in Tennessee could be successful in Texas.")
The Last Hurrah
  • SCOTUS: Cops need warrant to access personal cell-phone location data
  • Do video games cause or reduce crime?
  • How many felonies can Texans commit with an oyster? (redux)
Grits will add a transcript to this post later today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

$16 Billion in TX crimjust spending disproportionately goes to corrections

A new, quite user-unfriendly preliminary report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on law enforcement expenditures and employment gives a 30,000-foot perspective of Texas and national criminal-justice spending.

Out of the total $283,554,687,000 that BJS estimates Americans paid for criminal-justice in 2015, here's the big picture breakdown of how it was spent:
Police: 47.8%
Judicial: 21.6%
Corrections: 30.6%
Texas, though, spent a greater proportion on "corrections" (basically, jails, prisons, probation, and parole) than the national average and less on our courts.
Police: 46.2%
Judicial: 17.8%
Corrections: 36%
The 2015 total spent in Texas on criminal-justice by state and local actors, according to BJS, was $16,004,955,000 - that's more than $16 billion, with a "B."

In terms of per capita spending, Texans paid $269.31 per person for police, $209.60 for corrections, and $104.40 per person to pay for the judiciary. Total per capita spending on the justice system was on the low side, with only a few southern states spending less per person.

In 2015, Texas had 55,700 sworn police officers out of the 719,422 nationwide, or about 8% of the national total.

More than 93% of those sworn officers were employed by local police departments and county sheriffs, with municipal PDs making up more than 2/3 of the total.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Critique of bail reform and public safety ignores best evidence

An odd editorial last month on the TribTalk site by Stacie Rumenap, identified as President of Stop Child Predators, titled, "Bail reform: A slap in the face to victims and survivors," deserves Grits' readers attention as an example of fallacious anti-bail reform arguments.

The whole article is premised on conflating violent sexual predators with the masses of low-level folk who cycle through the average county jail on everything from marijuana possession to driving with an invalid license. For example, she writes:
it’s my job to educate families on sexual assault prevention and to stem the tide of dangerous trends that allow predators to roam our streets and commit such grotesque crimes in the first place. 
That’s why I am surprised that proponents of bail reform are calling for changes that will make it easier for criminals to get out of jail and recommit crimes in Texas, a state that has historically remained “tough on crime.”
That "criminals" category cuts a wide swath, capturing rapists and pot-possessors in the same breath. But surely the public interest in detaining those two categories of offenders differs widely? Can we really make no distinction between them?

Rumenap further lamented that  "reformers are not taking into account the impact bail reform will have on victims of sexual assault, especially child victims of sexual assault. The silence has been deafening. Bail reform has resulted in widespread release of defendants without bail and without consequence, raising alarming questions about public safety."

Let's stop right there and say that, no, in fact the exact opposite is true! Public safety is probably the strongest argument for using risk assessments instead of money bail. The best reason to do it is precisely to have less violent crime!

The Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M studied the pool of released defendants in Travis and Tarrant Counties, which use a risk-assessment and money bail system, respectively, over three-and-a-half years to compare outcomes.

During that period, the study found, released defendants in Tarrant County were responsible for 20 percent more crimes committed and 12 percent more serious violent crimes. Here are the details (p. 49):
financial bond is less effective at preventing involvement in criminal activity. The rate of new offending stands at 13.5% in the financial release system, a rate 20% higher than in the risk-informed system (11.1%). Violent offending is also 12% more prevalent where people are released based on ability to pay – 2.7% in Tarrant County compared to 2.4% in Travis County. Of all offenses committed by people on bond, 50% more are violent felonies where release is determined by financial ability (7.5% versus 4.9% in the risk-informed jurisdiction). 
So more crimes were committed by pretrial defendants under the money-bail system, and a much greater proportion of those (50% more!) were violent crimes.

Perhaps most significantly, as Grits has noted before, there were zero murders committed by pretrial defendants under the risk-based system in Travis, compared to ~18 under a money bail system in Tarrant.

In other words, the best, Texas-based research found exactly the opposite of what Ms. Rumenap is claiming.

That's why anyone seriously concerned about public safety in light of these numbers should support risk-based bail reform. There may be other valid arguments against using risk assessments (e.g., they work best as part of a well-developed pretrial services system that doesn't everywhere exist). But the best public-safety arguments are on the side of reformers.

SEE ALSO: Responses on TribTalk to Rumenap's article from the Smart on Crime Coalition and Mary Mergler of Texas Appleseed.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Snopes on Harris County Fentanyl Story, Gross on Innocence and Misdemeanors, Conservatives for Justice Reform, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention:

Austin cops said they shot a man because he fired upon them but he did not
Here's the story. He still faces aggravated-assault-with-a-deadly-weapon charges even though police now admit no such assault occurred.

Correction on fentanyl poisoning non-story not nearly as widespread as initial misinformation
Grits has been saying for months that the opiod epidemic in Texas is overstated compared to the problem of meth addiction and overdoses, and that hysteria over fentanyl is largely unwarranted here because the drug does not mix with the relatively impure black-tar heroin common in Texas and California markets. So I was not suprised to see Snopes rule that the fentanyl-soaked flyers touted by the Harris County Sheriff's Office as causing the hospitalization of a deputy was a bogus story. Though HCSO said "field tests" indicated fentanyl on the flyers, lab tests confirmed that was false. Laughably, HCSO said in a statement, "The Sheriff’s Office is also working to verify that deputies have access to the most reliable field testing kits available." Faulty field tests used by law enforcement in Harris County have been responsible for hundreds of false convictions, so don't hold your breath.

Unconstitutional to take away drivers licenses for nonpayment of debt?
In Tennessee, a federal court ruled it unconstitutional for state government to take away drivers licenses for nonpayment of debt. This could be a major sleeper issue. See coverage from AP and the New York Times.

Innocence and misdemeanors
Samuel Gross from the National Exoneration Registry has a short, new article out on innocence in misdemeanor cases, estimating the frequency at which innocent people are convicted of misdemeanors and discussing the reasons why these cases are seldom unearthed through routine court processes. With the exception of the Harris County exonerations based on erroneous drug-field tests, "Most of the [misdemeanor] defendants were exonerated either because videos that proved their innocence came to light after conviction, or because the police officers who testified that they had been assaulted were themselves charged with perjury, violence or other misconduct."

VT first state to "raise the age" beyond 18
Vermont became the first state to "raise the age" at which youth are charged as adults to 19 by 2020 for most crimes, moving it to 20 in 2022 under legislation signed by their Republican governor. MORE: From our friends at the Columbia Justice Lab.

On conservatism and justice reform
Several recent articles on the intersection of conservativsm and criminal-justice reform merit readers' attention. Check out, "Conserving Criminal Justice Reform" from the R Street Institute, "Where the Right Went Wrong on Criminal Justice" from The American Conservative, and "No More Pits of Despair," a column from the Washington Post about Jared Kushner and justice reform in the Trump Administration. In related, Texas news, check out the criminal-justice reform planks added this year to the Texas state GOP platform, here's where those planks agree with the Democratic platform, and here's a special, hour-long edition of our Reasonably Suspicious podcast interviewing Texas conservatives on various justice reform topics.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Study: Bad cops immune to criticism, need greater oversight, accountability

At Texas Standard, we find a report on a new study by Shefali Patil out of the UT-Austin business school proclaiming that police accountability activism causes liberal cops to become dispirited and do a lesser job than their conservative colleagues.

Basically, Dr. Patil and her researchers created four datasets: 1) They surveyed 164 officers at two agencies, then 2) had veteran police managers review body cam footage from those officers and score them. 3) They examined supervisors' ratings of 82 officers across four agencies. And 4) they ran a "time-lagged survey of 184 officers in a single agency."

Leaving aside the small sample sizes described there, and the VERY small sample sizes from which the opinions of subsets of officers would be drawn, as it turns out, the peculiar definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" may underlie the conclusions in this study. Here's what they were measuring when they say "liberal" and "conservative":
More-liberal individuals believe in creating communal relationships between authority figures, like employees, and the people over whom they hold power, while more-conservative individuals believe in maintaining the dominance of authorities and us-versus-them power dynamics
This, my friends, is a weird definition for conservative and liberal in 21st century America. And in the context of policing as a profession, it's not really a distinction between liberal cop and conservative cop but "good cop" and "bad cop."

If you're a cop who believes the sum total of your profession amounts to "maintaining the dominance of authorities and us-versus-them power dynamics," you don't understand your job and probably should find other employment.

Meanwhile, show me the police chief who is not interested in "creating communal relationships between authority figures, like employees, and the people over whom they hold power."  That's the goal of every well run department and if it's not, WTF?

It should also be mentioned that the conservative/liberal axis used in the study is more or less foreign to any common, political context in which those words are used. For example, when I googled "conservative ideology" and "liberal ideology," here were the top-of-page definitions which came up:
As a general ideology, Conservatism is opposed to the ideals of Liberalism and Socialism. Conservatism generally refers to right-wing politics which advocate the preservation of personal wealth and private ownership (Capitalism) and emphasize self-reliance and Individualism. 
Liberalism, political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to be the central problem of politics. Liberals typically believe that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, but they also recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty.
One might bicker with the particularities of those definitions, but they certainly don't have much in common with the very particular axis of authoritarianism along which the study authors want to divide their research subjects.

The authors of the police study are describing an authoritarian mindset, not a "conservative" one. (Liberals, after all, can use government power to impose their authority, too.) On the "liberal" side, they're describing a "liberal" belief in civil society in the broadest, historical sense, not adherence to political liberalism, a Democratic voting history, etc.. They could have run voting records for their research subjects but did not. I'd be interested to learn how many "liberal" cops vote in Republican primaries.

So this study is really saying that authoritarians who have no business being cops in the first place don't really care when people criticize police, and it's only the folks who're trying to do a good job and feel unfairly criticized who become dispirited.

If true, that's still a problem. The police accountability movement needs to learn to create an atmosphere where good cops feel supported and the bad ones become dispirited and feel pressured to leave.

But failing to criticize bad cops won't change things, either, and neither will kowtowing to authoritarians who "believe in maintaining the dominance of authorities and us-versus-them power dynamics."

Neither does the study really tell us that "liberal" cops are more dispirited. Instead, the definition of "liberal" chosen is a euphemism for officers executing the mission statement of nearly every department in the country.

Instead, let me turn to where I agree with the study's authors: on what should be done to address the problem of authoritarian officers who are immune to public criticism. According to Ms. Patil:
“What I found in a related study is that when officers face these misperceptions, they actually perform better if they have standard protocols that they have to follow in specific situations.” 
But doesn’t giving workers more autonomy usually improve job performance? “Not in this case,” Patil insists. “Police officers with high autonomy often do worse.”
So less autonomy for police officers (read: stricter management, more oversight, greater accountability) is the researcher's prescription for solving the problem she's identified.

One doesn't have to buy into her definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" to agree with that. Campaign Zero and the Police Executive Research Forum think the same thing.