Tuesday, October 16, 2018

TX inmate population declined 7% over last decade - would be more but for increase in long drug sentences, declining releases

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) finally released its annual statistical report for FY 2017, 18 months after the last annual report was released, and more than a year after the fiscal year ended.

I'll dig into the report more deeply later, but let's look at some top-line trends.

At the end of August 2017, there were 145,341 prisoners incarcerated in TDCJ, a reduction of 10,785 from a decade prior in 2008, or a seven percent decline. (See the FY08 report.)

That's nothing to sneeze at, given that before then Texas inmate populations were rising on a steadily upward curve. But it's a smaller reduction than seen in other large states like California or New York. And Texas remains, along with Louisiana and Oklahoma, the global epicenter of mass incarceration.

The number of people entering TDCJ dropped over the period '08 to '17 from 74,283 to 65,278, for a 12 percent reduction over the last decade.

But that was offset by an 8.7 percent reduction in number of people released from prison in '17 compared to '08. So fewer people were coming in, but they're letting fewer people out, keeping inmate populations high. In the past several years, the percentage of sentence served by those released has been creeping up, from 58.1 percent in FY14 to 61.1 percent in FY17.

As Grits has mentioned before, the big growth area for both prosecutions and incarceration in recent years has been the drug war. Thirty percent more drug offenders were incarcerated in prison (meaning they're serving a sentence for third-degree felony or higher) in 2017 than ten years earlier, while 70 percent fewer cycled through the state jails. The number of people in SAFP drug treatment programs also dropped, by 42 percent, or about a thousand people.

Big picture: that represents a shift in drug punishments from shorter sentences and drug treatment to longer sentences and less drug treatment.

The number of people on death row declined over the decade from 346 in '08 to 224  at the end of FY17. But the number sentenced to life without parole skyrocketed, from 121 to 1,021.

And when one examines sentence lengths, the number of inmates incarcerated for longer sentences increased, while the number incarcerated for the shortest terms declined. Same goes for new "receives"; they tend to have longer sentences than in 2008. Sentence lengths overall appear to be shifting upward (perhaps, in part, as lower-level offenders are diverted out of the system).

More than 70,000 offenders are presently eligible for parole.

Grits' takeaway from these topline data: Texas has successfully begun to decarcerate, but in fits and starts. More than 10,000 fewer inmates in TDCJ is why the Legislature could close eight prison units over these last few years. But the prison population could have been reduced more if drug prosecutions hadn't ballooned and release rates hadn't declined.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Prison guard beat handcuffed inmate to death, how to build a better crime lab, the effects of criminal-justice debt, federal justice reform gets real, and other stories

Here are a few Texas justice stories that merit readers' attention this weekend, as well as some national items which caught Grits' eye:

Prison guard beat handcuffed inmate to death
The inmate beaten to death in the shower by a Huntsville prison guard this summer was handcuffed when he was attacked, reported the Houston Chronicle's Keri Blakinger in an update. The guard was charged with aggravated assault, but those facts read like a minimum of manslaughter, to me, and outright murder doesn't seem much of a stretch, given the clear intent. The CO had been ordered by a supervisor to stay away from the inmate after a confrontation earlier in the day, but he allegedly violated orders, took the inmate into an empty shower area, and beat him to death.

How to build a better crime lab
Our pals Sandra Guerra Thompson and Nicole Casarez from the Houston Forensic Science Center's board have a new academic article out titled, "Three Transformative Ideas to Build a Better Crime Lab," focused on crime-lab independence and governance.

Hack M.E.
Former Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo was a complete hack. KXAN recapped his hackery this week in the Michael Morton case.

Crowdfunding not enough $ for rape kits
The crowdfunding bill passed last session at the Texas Legislature didn't go nearly far enough to clear backlogs of untested rape kits, a new documentary demonstrates.

Man bites dog Prosecutors support expungement
The New York Times reported that some prosecutors are beginning to embrace expungement as part of reentry-related criminal-justice reforms. That's remarkable. In Texas, DAs in the past fought expungement bills tooth and nail. I'd love so see some Texas prosecutor embrace this tactic.

Where are police disciplinary records public?
Check out an analysis of the relative openness of police disciplinary records in all 50 states. Texas would have been among the most open 30 years ago. Today, we're among the middling group with "limited availability" of those records. "Limited" is definitely the operative word.

Effects of criminal-justice debt
Alabama Appleseed conducted a survey of 980 people who owed criminal-justice debt related debt. They found:
  • 83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay down their court debt.
  • 50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt.
  • 44% had used payday loans to cover court debt.
  • 38% committed a crime to pay off their court debt.
  • 20% were turned down for a diversion program like drug court because they could not afford it.
  • 66% received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if it were not for their court debt.
Reimagining prisons
The Vera Institute's new Reimagining Prisons report goes on Grits' to-read list.

Federal prison/sentencing reform may move after election
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell this week announced he would take a whip count on the FIRST-STEP-Act-plus-sentencing reform after the November elections and give the bill a vote if 60 members support it. Soon thereafter, President Trump added his full-throated endorsement, declaring he would overrule Jeff Sessions on the topic if the Attorney General opposed the bill. The president opined that sentencing reform must pass because black people are being treated "very unfairly." Notably, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley's sentencing reform bill has been tacked onto the FIRST-STEP Act, which passed the House on a bipartisan basis. Though perhaps it would be presumptuous to suppose new-found support for sentencing reform among GOP leadership had anything to do with the chairman expediting the Kavanaugh nomination, Sen. Grassley has recently carried a lot of water for the President and Majority Leader and now has chips to cash in. Glad he's using some of them on this.

Ted Cruz's vote key on federal justice reform
One more thing on federal reforms: Here in Texas, our job is to convince Ted Cruz to support the FIRST-STEP/Grassley reform measure. Texas' junior senator now finds himself on the opposite side of the issue from both President Trump and Senate leadership. If he were to flip, the opposition coalition would likely disintegrate.  Cruz was one of four senators to oppose Grassley's bill in committee and has been shedding his last remaining libertarian bona fides on justice reform to try to out tuff-on-crime Beto O'Rourke. Since he's in the midst of a hot election, though, perhaps that will translate into heightened sensitivity over constituent calls. His contact info is here.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Reporters mustn't overstate forensics accuracy - ballistics edition

In light of ballistics evidence from a federal database leading to arrests in linked, gun-related crimes, the Houston Chronicle last week ran a feature on how an ATF initiative is using ballistics evidence compiled in a national database to solve gun crimes.

But the story failed to acknowledge shortcomings with ballistics evidence and overstated the accuracy of firearms matching. In particular, they repeated the claim by law enforcement that, "The ATF database allows firearms experts to match high-resolution photos of marks left on bullet casings after being fired. The guns' firing pins leave a mark unique to each gun, allowing investigators to connect casings fired at different shootings."

The "unique" part is unproven. And the phrase "match" is overstated. The seminal critique on this topic came from the 2009 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, "Strengthening Forensic Science: A Path Forward." Ballistics matching is one of the areas of non-scientific "forensic science" being challenged in the innocence-era wave of re-evaluation.

The NAS report specifically discussed the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN) database described in the Chronicle article. At the time, it was still under development. However, the NAS cautioned that, in the end, the computer still doesn't do the matching. That's in part because, as they also showed, there are no standards to match to; it's a subjective comparison performed by an examiner. With the NIBIN system, according to the NAS report:
the final determination of a match is always done through direct physical comparison of the evidence by a firearms examiner, not the computer analysis of images. The growth of these databases also permits examiners to become more familiar with similarities in striation patterns made by different firearms. Newer imaging techniques assess toolmarks using three-dimensional surface measurement data, taking into account the depth of the marks. But even with more training and experience using newer techniques, the decision of the toolmark examiner remains a subjective decision based on unarticulated standards and no statistical foundation for estimation of error rates. The National Academies report, Ballistic Imaging, while not claiming to be a definitive study on firearms identification, observed that, “The validity of the fundamental assumptions of uniqueness and reproducibility of firearms-related toolmarks has not yet been fully demonstrated.”
So there is no computer matching of ballistics, it's done by examiners who make a "subjective decision based on unarticulated standards and no statistical information about error rates." Knowing that, all of a sudden, accusations based on ballistics evidence may appear less certain than portrayed in the story by the ATF.

For more background on critiques of ballistics and toolmark evidence (the former discipline is a subset of the latter), check out the 2009 NAS report. (Ctrl F and search on "toolmark" to find the relevant passages.) That report changed the terms of debates regarding traditional forensics like ballistics. And even though it's now nearly ten years old, with few exceptions (arson, hair and fiber analysis), forensics fields have taken at most baby steps to address the problems.

IMO, reporters should no longer write uncritically about disputed, comparison-based forensic evidence - even when police say it led to a "match" and make arrests based on the findings - without acknowledging that these are subjective comparisons, not scientific results. We've seen too many innocence cases featuring flawed forensics for the system to project that level of certainty.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

El Paso 'shaken baby' conviction latest capital case challenged under TX's junk science writ

Texas' junk science writ continues to impact high-profile capital cases, this time causing re-evaluation of faddish "shaken-baby" science, which in recent years has come under fire. An El Paso judge recommended a new trial for Rigoberto Avila, declaring scientific testimony against him in his case "false and misleading." Now the Court of Criminal Appeals must decide his fate. Reported the Texas Tribune:
“The new scientific evidence creates a compelling case for Mr. Avila’s innocence, and a judge has now found that the verdict against him rests on false and misleading testimony,” Avila’s attorneys, Cathryn Crawford and Rob Owen, said in an emailed statement. "After spending 17 years on death row – and facing four serious execution dates – for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Avila is anxious to present the reliable scientific evidence to a jury.” 
In August, podcast co-host Mandy Marzullo and I discussed how the junk-science writ has impacted death-penalty cases, and this story adds more context to that discussion.

The combination of Texas' Forensic Science Commission's work - along with the state's early adoption of the junk-science writ - has put the state at the bleeding edge of efforts to challenge faulty forensics. We have both a dedicated body charged with critiquing bad forensics and a legal means to challenge them that doesn't exist in other states. (Texas' near-term leadership on forensic reform was cemented after the Trump Administration nixed national USDOJ initiatives to update and improve modern forensics.)

In Texas, capital cases are the one sliver of indigent defendants whose appeals are all paid for by the state, meaning those defendants have access to attorneys to file a state habeas corpus writ. So it makes sense that many of the most high-profile, early uses of the junk-science writ would come in death-penalty cases. By contrast, plea the case to life without parole, and a defendant accused of the same crime with the same evidence would have no access to an attorney at the habeas corpus stage.

That's why the junk-science writ is being used disproportionately in capital cases. It's not that faulty evidence wasn't used to secure other convictions. It's that those other folks don't have access to attorneys or experts to challenge the false evidence.

The Daubert and Frye standards used by the courts have utterly failed to keep junk science out of Texas or American courtrooms on the front end. In the long run, Grits' hope is that the junk-science writ provides a back-door means to challenge shoddy forensics, and that, once discredited, courts will stop using that evidence going forward. That's what happened with scent lineups (using police dogs), and to me it looks like the most likely path for eliminating bad forensics in an era when judicial gatekeepers have utterly and profoundly failed us on the front end.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

For best outcomes, shift focus of justice system away from debt collection

More jurisdictions are recognizing that, when it comes to using the justice system for debt collection instead of, well, justice, the juice isn't worth the squeeze.

After a state Supreme Court Committee criticized New Jersey's municipal courts for serving as an ATM for local governments, the court issued an order which could lead to dismissal of 800,000 old warrants statewide, ceasing enforcement on warrants more than 15 years old.

Texas, it should be noted, has this same problem: Traffic ticket warrants remain active for decades, and people many not even know they still owe money. In Austin, the County Attorney made headlines by having people arrested to collect debt from traffic tickets from the 1980s!

Such examples of overreach have led to a bipartisan backlash: At their state conventions in June, both the Republican Party of Texas and the Texas Democratic Party included provisions in their platforms calling for an end to jailing drivers for non-payment of traffic tickets and other Class C misdemeanor debt, switching to commercial collections methods, instead. So maybe we'll see some movement on that front here.

Meanwhile, in California, Los Angeles County is eliminating $90 million worth of debt owed by families of juvenile defendants who were charged for their own incarceration. Declared an LA County Supervisor (the equivalent of a county commissioner in Texas), “It is simply not worth the cost and effort to the county — and more importantly, not worth the cost to families — to continue with these collection payments.”

Grits isn't sure if there's a juvenile analog to this policy in Texas, but some counties charge indigent adult defendants for their attorneys fees and even incarceration costs, creating the same conundrum for indigent probationers.

Among the reasons the Board of Supervisors took this action:
Research shows that juvenile detention fees impose financial hardships and strain on low-income families and weigh disproportionately on black and Latino youth who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and are often sentenced to longer terms than white youth. ... 
Research also suggests the fees may increase recidivism. A study of more than 1,000 youth in Pennsylvania found that the total amount of fines, fees and/or restitution significantly increased the likelihood of recidivism within two years, even after controlling for demographics and case characteristics. 
“The two main purposes of the juvenile justice system are to rehabilitate kids and to protect public safety, and it turns out these fees undermine both of those,” said [law professor Jeffrey] Selbin of UC Berkeley.
Grits recently highlighted a new study showing that, when police departments focus on revenue generation through traffic tickets, their skewed priorities result in lower clearance rates for other crimes. It seems likely that the same is true for probation departments: That focusing on fee collection reduces the likelihood that their charges will succeed on probation. The recidivism data cited above from Pennsylvania certainly seems to support that supposition.

FWIW, it's not at all clear that these moves to erase criminal-justice debt will result in less revenue. Debt collection in Texas has remained relatively steady in recent years, even as the number of traffic tickets and warrants issued has plummeted.

Indeed, when Texas reformed Class C sentencing in 2017 to let judges waive fines and sentence people to community service more readily, collections actually improved. IMO that's because local officials weren't spending so much time spinning their wheels pretending to collect un-collectable debt, so could focus on other aspects of their jobs.

The project of shifting the justice system's priorities from debt collection to public safety - which in many ways began with the Justice Department's report on abusive policies around traffic ticket/municipal-court debt in Ferguson, MO - inevitably will be slow and arduous because it involves so many different institutions and decision makers.

But it's beginning to happen, bit by bit, and every time it does, the "sky is falling" predictions of the debt collectors are discredited and public-safety outcomes improve.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Robot criminals, 'overstated findings' by a crime lab analyst, bail advice that was costly to ignore, and other stories

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

'Overstated findings' by DPS analyst
The Texas Forensic Science Commission dinged a DPS lab chemist for "overstated findings" in the blood-spatter case Pro Publica's Pam Colloff has been following. See her latest update here.

There oughtta be a law
Texas extended sex-offender registration requirements for thousands of people without any legal authority, the Austin Statesman's Eric Dexheimer reported. Now, some are suing, saying the state is breaching the "contract" entered into at their plea deals.

Are Texas senators nixing federal sentencing reform?
An op ed from a retired Houston cop says Texas' two US Senators, Cornyn and Cruz, "have become the face of opposition to sentencing reform, and without their support, our state began losing its leadership role on this critical issue."

Bail advice that was costly to ignore
Today, Grits ran across a 2014 report from the Texas Fair Defense Project recommending that Harris County shift to individualized bail hearings and get rid of its bail schedule. Not only did Harris County reject that advice, they spent $7 million fighting TFDP and Civil Rights Corps in court before losing and having to hold individualized hearings, anyway. They would have saved a lot of time and money if they'd just fixed the problems when advocates raised them.

Rethinking justice from 'Square One'
Via Sentencing Law and Policy, check out the Square One project encouraging the rethinking of criminal justice policy. Bruce Western argues that racial inequality and poverty underlie crime dynamics, while Arthur Rizer proposed a conservative paradigm for justice reform based on "limited government, parsimony, and liberty."

'A punishment need not leave physical scars to be cruel and unusual'
See a thoughtful critique of solitary confinement from SCOTUS Justice Sonia Sotomayor, beginning on page 15 of this pdf.

Robot criminals
For the reading list: Ying Hu, "Robot Criminals." Some of these questions arose in Grits' discussion of Houston's proposed sex-robot ban.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Should 'progressive' DAs pay dues to reactionary DA associations? Still waiting on 2017 prison data. and other stories

A few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention:

Should 'progressive' DAs pay dues to reactionary DA associations?
When the District and County Attorneys in Travis County recently proposed a merger, they sought support from local #cjreform advocates, who in turn pressed prosecutors for a number of reforms, among which was to stop paying dues to the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. (Unlike the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer Association, where dues are paid only if an individual lawyer chooses, prosecutors' dues are generally paid by taxpayers from a line item in the DA's budget.) Now, in New York, civil rights advocates are calling on "progressive" DAs to stop paying dues to their association on the grounds that it has been "a consistent barrier to criminal-justice reform." Same can be said for our Texas crew.

Ugly civil rights episode in DeSoto
A DeSoto woman who called the cops to break up a fight between her sons called the choice to dial 911 "the worst decision I’ve ever made as a mom." Although the situation had calmed down by the time police arrived, they emerged from their vehicles with guns drawn. The mother stepped in front of the scene, telling them "Don't shoot my sons." Not an insensible request, in the scheme of things. But "the officers slammed her down on the hot pavement as she tried to speak out." Her three sons were also arrested for interference with police. Two of them lost their jobs when they couldn't show up for work the next day. The mother lost her job, as well, "after she missed work to seek hospital treatment. Medical records show she suffered shoulder and ankle sprains, along with bruises to a knee and wrist." A spokesman for the police chief said the public's response in such situations should be to "comply now and complain later." The department has so far refused to release bodycam footage from the event.

Snitch testimony caused false conviction
An exoneration out of Tarrant County corrected a false conviction based on incentivized informant testimony.

Counties label shirked justice responsibilities 'unfunded mandates'
On Twitter, the Texas District and County Attorney Association has insisted that Texas mustn't undertake bail reform without the Legislature investing big bucks in pretrial services. But bail and pretrial detention are matters under county control and traditionally paid for by county budgets. If their systems are not meeting constitutional muster, they're on the hook for the expenses. For example, Dallas County must hire 24 additional employees to hold individualized bail hearings, the Dallas News reported. And the Legislature hasn't mandated a darn thing! The Texas Association of Counties has taken to referring to all requests that counties perform their basic duties competently as "unfunded mandates," but these mandates arise from citizens' basic constitutional rights, not the Legislature. Even if the Lege fails to pass bail reform, these lawsuits will continue county by county, and local taxpayers will still be on the hook.

Still waiting on 2017 TX prison data
It's been almost 18 months since 2016 data was released, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice still hasn't come out with its FY 2017 Annual Statistical Report. WTF?

Voters, press, overwhelmed by judicial race volume
Ridiculously, "there are 75 contested judicial races alone on the November ballot" in Harris County, reported the Houston Chronicle. Notably, in 2020 Texas will eliminate straight ticket voting. But it's almost an insurmountable task for voters to independently evaluate that many judicial candidates. Most of these should be appointed slots.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant
California just made police disciplinary records and body cam footage public. Texas should, too.

The very model of a modern reform prosecutor
In Philadelphia, a couple of items related to new District Atttorney Larry Krasner caught my eye: 1) He is prosecuting police officers for civil rights violations in non-shooting cases, including inappropriate stop and frisks, and 2) he released an video/conversation with sujatha baliga, on the topic of prosecutors and restorative justice. Both are important developments.

Capital-punishment explainer
The Justice Collaborative has produced a lengthy, abolitionist-oriented explainer document on capital punishment with a lot of good information in it. Check it out.

School involvement and incarcerated parents
An academic analysis on topic from last year parsed the issue in a variety of media: a traditional academic article, a blog post, and a short podcast. Nicely done.

Police-involved deaths by race
A new study estimates the risk of police-involved death by race: "Police kill, on average, 2.8 men per day. Police were responsible for about 8% of all homicides with adult male victims between 2012 and 2018. Black men's mortality risk is between 1.9 and 2.4 deaths per 100 000 per year, Latino risk is between 0.8 and 1.2, and White risk is between 0.6 and 0.7."

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Pot-penalty-reduction policy has something in it for everybody

One often hears critiques that the justice system is "racist," and even those who hesitate to use that word must acknowledge that it produces discriminatory outcomes. The 21st century culture-war debates around #cjreform frequently are less about whether the system discriminates so much as whether there exists ill intent. Or whether, when discriminatory outcomes are so persistent and ingrained, the actors' "intent" even really matters.

When one examines the system closely, however, discriminatory outcomes aren't universal. They're more prevalent in some parts of the system than others, and one of the biggest sources of discriminatory outcomes is the Drug War.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition just put out a new data tool for analyzing criminal cases in Harris County since 2010, and it provides a useful starting point for demonstrating this observation.

For example, looking at countywide DWI data since 2010, we find that 13.8 percent of defendants were African American. Black folks make up about 19 percent of Harris County residents, so that's actually a lower proportion than their share of the population.

By contrast, when we look at marijuana arrests over the same period, we discover that a whopping 48.5 percent of defendants were African American.

Digging deeper to analyze results by agency, 59.25 percent of people arrested for marijuana by Houston PD were African American, 46.8 percent at the Harris County Sheriff, and 29 percent at smaller PDs in the county.

IMO, the difference here is that DWI arrests are mostly made as the result of fairly solid probable cause: Cops see someone swerving across lanes or smell alcohol on their breath at a traffic stop.

OTOH, it's hard not to conclude that there's more discriminatory targeting of black folks in the realm of drug enforcement. How else can HPD explain why nearly 60 percent of pot arrestees are black compared to a quarter of the city population? Nothing else but discriminatory enforcement makes sense to explain these data.

When Gov. Greg Abbott recently endorsed reducing marijuana penalties, he framed the issue as one of efficiency, wanting to keep pot smokers from needlessly filling up local jails at taxpayers' expense. But reduction of pot penalties can just as easily be framed as a racial-justice priority. In fact, both can be true at the same time.

A recurring theme on this blog, dating back to its earliest days, is that some of the strongest, most politically resilient reform proposals (and public policies, generally) are those with enough ambiguity to their meaning so that different constituencies can credibly tell themselves different stories about them without a fundamental contradiction. Reducing marijuana penalties fits that bill.

For liberals and libertarians, penalty reduction is a credible next step on the road to legalization, a goal prioritized in the state Democratic Party platform. It will eliminate more than 60,000 arrests statewide - disproportionately African Americans - the very first year the law is enacted. And it will contribute significantly to decarceration goals at Texas county jails.

For fiscally minded conservatives, those 60,000 defendants are costing taxpayers' needlessly for jail and indigent defense at a time when counties are complaining of unfunded mandates. Make the crime a Class C misdemeanor and the county neither must pay for their incarceration nor hire them a lawyer. So this is a "mandate" from which the Legislature could relieve county taxpayers.

Both these things can be true without either group of supporters disagreeing with the outcome of their allies' thinking, even if they may disagree with the priorities and ideological suppositions that got them there.

That helps explain why, despite the hyper-partisanship of the political moment, a Texas Tribune poll published in January found that 79 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans supported reducing penalties for low-level marijuana possession. (A majority in the poll, 53 percent, favored full-blown legalization.)

With the Governor's endorsement, Texas appears poised to finally reduce user-level marijuana penalties in 2019. Because they're racist. And because they're expensive. And inefficient. And discriminatory. And unfair. And because many people want to legalize it entirely. And because all those things can be and are true without being mutually exclusive. There's a little something in this policy for everybody.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

So many questions about H-Town sex-robot ban

Even the Chronicle's headline, "City Council may move to block sex robots near Galleria," raises so many questions ....

Will Houston only prohibit sex robots near the Galleria, and if so why has it alone been designated a sex-robot free zone? Will there be specified areas of town where one is allowed to have sex with robots? Areas where it's required?

It's not clear to me in which part of Houston it's legal to engage in coitus with a sex robot - whoops, oh yeah ... it's everywhere.

The Chronicle quoted an attorney declaring, “There are currently no laws in the U.S. to prevent the sale of the type of dolls intended for this ‘robot brothel."

For the record: If the City Council is interfering with their constituents' robot coitus, is that a cock-block, a bot-block, a bot-cock-block, or some other iteration Grits hasn't considered?

It feels like certain terms need to be updated for the scenario. The phrase "sex machine," for example, takes on completely different connotations.

If a person voids the warranty on one of these machines, would they be charged with a deviant sex act?

For that matter, which movements by the City Council, in particular, will block bot cocks? 

City Councils in Texas can only create Class C misdemeanors; they cannot create new crimes whose punishment involves jail time. So will the robots be ticketed? Or will their owners receive the citation while the bots are seized as contraband?

If police begin to seize sex bots, I'd expect the night shift in the HPD evidence room to become a much more popular assignment.

Or will this be a zoning initiative, where the City blocks bot cocks in some sections of town and not others? And how will neighborhoods know whether theirs is considered sex-robot friendly or if, as near the Galleria, they have been designated a Pleasure-Free-Zone?

Just to mention it, "brothel" appears to be a term used only by their critics, not the company itself. But the Chron story repeated the term ten times in one story and five times in another, including in both headlines. Not that they're taking sides, or anything.

Never mind that this is a "brothel" in which, under current law, no one can be prosecuted for solicitation, pimping, human trafficking, etc., or that the vicimization/degradation has been delegated to machines, which might be a better situation than the Best-Little-Whorehouse-In-Texas model.

It has to do with sex, so we'd better ban it.

The whole brouhaha began because "Toronto-based KinkySdollS had announced plans to open a Houston branch where 'adult love dolls' constructed of synthetic skin and highly articulated skeletons would be available 'to rent before you buy.'

To be fair, an adult love doll sounds like a big investment, so maybe rent before you buy isn't such a bad idea.

How many boat owners' spouses wish their partners had taken such a precaution?

Regardless, the Outrage-Industrial-Complex kicked into gear. Mayor Sylvester Turner soon announced he will not tolerate the sale of what amount to elaborate sex toys in his fair city.

However, the mayor comes at the argument from a point of weakness, knowing full well that, if the business opens, there is almost certainly a market for it. Hence, the need for a City Council vote.

For the time being, apparently, we're going to ignore the fact that the constitutional precedent against banning sale of sex toys is already well established. (If you'd forgotten, Sen. Ted Cruz can remind you; he's been through this fight.) 

These stories tickled my funnybone, but they also show how ill-conceived criminal laws get passed, with politicians and the media conjoined in a corrupt confederacy to "do something" about a made-up problem. 

The breathless response - bandying around the term "brothel" to maximize the shame/scandal factor aimed at a new local business - smacks of a prudery-based overreaction by government, intersecting with the media's need to promote salacious stories. Not exactly our society's best moment.

In the end, your correspondent agrees with the assessment of the Endgadget writer who declared sex robots "no more dangerous or awe-inspiring than a Roomba." And surely the government has better things to do than specify which body parts one can and can't insert into a Roomba.