Monday, June 24, 2019

Why revocations from probation and parole make up nearly half of Texas prison admissions and what to do about it

Two recent reports on supervising people in the community post-conviction deserve Grits readers' attention:

From the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Marc Levin has a 10-point agenda on parole that's more aggressive than any decarceration proposal that conservative group has promoted before.

Meanwhile, the Council of State Governments issued an analysis of the proportion of prison admissions related to revoked probation and parole terms.

Let's look at the CSG report first, since it provides the lay of the land. They have state-specific pages for each jurisdiction; here's the one for Texas.

By their calculations, 47 percent of people entering Texas prisons in 2017 were revoked either from probation or parole - 36 percent from probation, 11 percent from parole.

My first thought was to double-check their math, so here's my calculations using verifiable, public sourcing.

In Texas, according to an annual TDCJ report to the legislature, probation revocations to prison in FY 2017 totaled 23,101; of that, 11,522 were for technical violations.

In FY 2017, according to the Board of Pardons and Paroles' Annual Statistical Report, 6,555 parolees were revoked; of those, 1,043 were for technical violations.

Combined, that's 29,656 people revoked from probation and parole combined in 2017; 12,565 of those were for technical violations only.

TDCJ admitted 65,278 total people that year, according to the TDCJ Annual Statistical Report.

So, by my math, that's 45% of TDCJ admissions from probation and parole revocations, not 47%, with 19% coming from technical violations alone. (According to their methodology appendix, they had trouble coming up with data on technical probation violations, which may account for some of the disparity.)

But that's nitpicking. The authors' point was to demonstrate that nearly half of prison admissions arise from supervision revocations, not new convictions. That is certainly true, which brings us to Marc Levin's TPPF policy brief on parole.

Whereas CSG aimed to identify the scope of the problem, Levin proposes reforms to reduce unnecessary supervision and revocations.

In Mr. Levin's ideal world, prisons would begin planning for reentry soon after a person is incarcerated and make sure all necessary treatment and programming has been completed by the time they're first eligible for parole. Moreover, he would have the parole board mainly assess risk to the public going forward, emphasizing behavior while in prison and participation in programming. By contrast, in Texas, one of the most common reasons for denial of parole is "nature of the offense," which cannot ever change.

He touts a Michigan statute, in particular, which limits the reasons parole can be denied to 11, mostly public-safety oriented items. (The references in this document are a treasure trove.)

Levin wants to ensure parole conditions are manageable and adjusted based on risk level, with lower-risk people receiving less supervision. He wants prisoners to get credit for "earned time," which in Texas is optional for the parole board to recognize (this provides scant incentive for program participation, cooperation on work details, etc.). He would reduce barriers to employment for parolees and stop the use of regressive zoning practices to restrict where parolees can live. (January Advisors just did a major analysis on this topic focused on Houston.)

Levin wants to alter how parole officers are evaluated, focusing on recidivism reduction. And finally, he wants some reentry duties currently performed by the justice system to be performed by nonprofits and other entities, which incidentally is what happened recently in Colorado with its community reinvestment program.

I'm glad to see people thinking more deeply both about how to measure the community-supervision elements of mass incarceration as well as how to better utilize those tools for reducing prison populations and preventing recidivism. Taken together, these two documents reaffirm many of the findings in an analysis published last year from the Columbia University Justice Lab titled, "Too Big to Succeed" (which also has informative footnotes), that gave recommendations for cutting the size of community corrections systems in half.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Covering prosecutors in the media: A primer

Your correspondent was asked to speak tomorrow at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Houston on the topic of covering prosecutors. I told them I'd focus on three areas: Available data on prosecutors (focused on Texas), innocence issues, and context for covering so-called "progressive prosecutors." Since I had to prepare, anyway, here are a few highlights:

Texas prosecutor data

For the most part, data on prosecutors is scarce. In Texas, the first concerted effort to dig beyond the surface came from a reporter (now an attorney) named Cindy Culp, writing at the Waco Tribune Herald, 2009. (The stories are no longer available free online, but here are some excerpts, and Grits' contemporary coverage of her work.) The police union had accused the local DA of dismissing too many felony cases, so Culp examined case-dismissal rates in 3 counties - McLennan, Wichita, and Jefferson. She found:
Local prosecutors either refused or dismissed 50.3 percent of felony charges during 2006-08. For misdemeanor cases, there was a 39.7 dismissal/refusal rate, and for all cases combined, it was 43 percent. 
By comparison, during the same three years: 
* Prosecutors in Jefferson County, home to Beaumont and Port Arthur, refused or dismissed 45.7 percent of felonies, 40.4 percent of misdemeanors and 42.2 percent of all cases combined. 
* Prosecutors in Wichita County, where Wichita Falls is the county seat, refused or dismissed 46.3 percent of cases with felonies and misdemeanors combined. Data were not available broken down by felony versus misdemeanor.
The main thing Culp's work showed, however, was how hard it is to acquire meaningful prosecutor data and analyze it in a way that's useful and informative. She showed us more than we'd seen before, but also made more glaring the stark absence of data regarding prosecutorial decisions.

No one else attempted to track this data in Texas until the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition created its Harris and Dallas County Data Dashboards: https://tcjcdashboard.org/

This resource lets case data be broken down by charge, by race, by census tract, and by arresting agency. Probably the two most interesting and/or newsworthy analyses will pertain to racial disparities, which can be broken down by type of crime and arresting agency, and dismissal rates. That takes these analyses several steps beyond the Culp's agency-wide analysis. But it's not available except for those two counties. And it's not clear it could be replicated everywhere through open records requests; both those counties have more robust data systems that could be scraped for these purposes.

Otherwise, in Texas what's readily available is Office of Court Administration Data:
The annual report gives statewide and county-level trends for new cases, overall caseloads, number of convictions/pleas/jury trials, and case clearance rates. The number of new cases and convictions both are often a useful datapoint to combine with other sources to make various calculations. Summary information at the front of the report may be useful, but more interesting are the data tables at the end.

Data queries allow MUCH more detailed breakdowns by county. In addition to county-level data on the datapoints from the Annual Statistical Report, you can get data on motions to revoke probation.

One of the best-kept secrets in the Texas judicial data can be found with a municipal and/or JP-court query. Select "Additional Activity" at the drop-down box under "Section." There you can find data on arrest and search warrants, Class C fines, how many fines are waived, how many were satisfied through community service, jail credit, etc. Prosecutors play a role in all of these decisions.

Another data-based story angle: just recently, Keri Blakinger of the Houston Chronicle published a landmark article on prosecutor caseloads at the Harris County DA, showing that District Attorney Kim Ogg had significantly overstated the prosecutor-to-cases ratio when pitching the commissioners court to let her hire 100 new prosecutors. Her open-records-based methodology would be interesting to replicate in large cities where caseloads may be an issue. For more background on the caseload issues, see this academic article, also focused on Harris County. To my knowledge, this caseload story has not been replicated elsewhere. If you're going to do this work in Texas, the Indigent Defense Commission keeps excellent, county-and-lawyer-level data on defense-attorney caseloads for comparison.

Data gaps: There are more parts of a prosecutors' job about which we don't have data than those we do. One of the most glaring data gaps regards plea bargaining and the "trial penalty" - i.e., how much more harshly defendants are penalized if they insist on the state proving their case at trial. Most datapoints that exist for prosecutors involve taking cases to trial, but overwhelmingly most cases (97+%) are resolved by plea bargaining. That process is a black hole with scarce little quantitative or qualitative information ever arising from it. But it's the most important (and common) thing prosecutors do.

Finally, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and perhaps a few other new "progressive" DAs are beginning to generate more and different types of data. Although my presentation only discusses Texas datapoints, their example eventually may educate us about different analyses that DAs can do with their internal data that haven't typically been made public in the past. This is an aspect of the progressive DA movement that could have out-sized impact down the line, providing transparency to what has been an utterly opaque process.

Prosecutors and Innocence

My first bit of advice to this group when it comes to prosecutors and innocence:

Don't contribute to tunnel vision in high-profile cases: The cases that receive the most media attention paradoxically put the most pressure on prosecutors to cut corners to get convictions. In these instances, journalists play less a role of holding government accountable than government cheerleader, since the government (read: prosecutors) control all the evidence presented. That's both useful to understand after the fact when covering innocence cases, and a cautionary tale when covering cases on the front end. Sensationalized coverage of high-profile trials may not reach jurors, but it reaches voters and DAs react to it. (Watch Ava Duvernay's When They See Us on Netflix for an excellent example.) Given that we've seen so many such cases later overturned through DNA exonerations and other means,  the press has some soul searching to do when it comes to pandering to the public with salacious coverage and their role in generating false convictions.

Otherwise, when false convictions have already occurred, there are a handful of issues in innocence cases that fall directly on the shoulders of prosecutors. Here's what to look for:

Improper arguments: Prosecutors may say things at trial that can lead jurors to wrong conclusions: e.g., misstating the law, or relying on perjured testimony. These flaws likely will not be evident to reporters from the trial record (which is another reason to be cautious when covering trials up front), but typically will arise in appellate arguments down the line.

Failing to disclose exculpatory evidence: Brady v. Maryland is the federal case covering what prosecutors must disclose to the defense, but in Texas we passed the Michael Morton Act, which makes the requirements more stringent and requires disclosure earlier in the process. In Texas, prosecutors now must create a list of what was turned over and make it part of the record. This is an issue that will only come out in the appellate process; it's impossible to know at trial what evidence a prosecutor DIDN'T present. For an example of how to analyze appellate records to identify this type of prosecutor misconduct, see a study of California cases by the Veritas Institute.

Police records a gap in the system: Prosecutors cannot disclose records of police misconduct in Texas civil service cities governed by the state civil-service code: about 74 police departments out of nearly 2,000 statewide. That's because police-misconduct records in civil-service cities were made confidential by law in 1989, with departments forbidden even from sharing the information with other law enforcement agencies. (Of the large cities, only Dallas and El Paso aren't under the civil service system. Among sheriffs, only Harris County operates under this system.) In one case in San Antonio, a false conviction was overturned when police did not turn over video evidence of an officer assaulting a handcuffed defendant; instead, the defendant had pled guilty to assaulting the officer! So sometimes, Brady or Michael Morton Act violations may not be a prosecutor's fault, even if they're the ones with the legal obligation to turn it over.

The national exonerations registry is a great starting point for identifying innocence cases in your jurisdiction and for more examples of various types of prosecutor misconduct. Check it periodically for cases in your state that may have flown under the radar.

Setting expectations re: "progressive prosecutors"

Lately, we have seen prosecutors elected as "progressives" in America for the first time in nearly a century. But beware these labels. Podcast listeners heard a related discussion toward the end of our June episode.

Before Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, I considered the notion of a progressive prosecutor a myth. Krasner makes the best case for the possibility of a progressive prosecutor. Krasner's memo to prosecutors on charging and sentencing was a landmark moment, and self-styled progressive prosecutors should be judged based on how much of that agenda they're implementing in their jurisdiction. Most Texas prosecutors labeled "progressive," for example, aren't coming close.

But at the end of the day, I still don't believe in progressive prosecutors because the DA's function is fundamentally regressive. As I put it on the podcast, "A prosecutor has just one tool in the toolbox. They lash out with the power of the state to exact retribution on someone who violates its dicta." There is simply no "progressive" function involved in that activity. Their only power, and only leverage, comes from harming people in retaliation for ignoring state pronouncements. When that pronouncement is "don't murder" or "don't rape," the public broadly supports their function (at least until it came to light how often innocent people are convicted). But when that pronouncement is "Don't smoke pot," the prosecutorial function becomes more controversial.

My belief is that the #cjreform movement's focus on prosecutors has been overblown. They're important, but not the only decision makers in the system. And focusing exclusively only on them lets others - e.g., legislatures, police, judges, crappy defense attorneys - off the hook.

MORE: Here's a brief write-up of the panel.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Reasonably Suspicious, June 2019 episode: 2019 #txlege roundup, Dallas cops' racist Facebook posts, and are 'progressive prosecutors' really a thing?

Here's the June 2019 episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast:


In this month's episode:

Top Stories
Fill in the Blank
  • Texas Supreme Court: DAs can order prosecutors to violate constitutional rights
  • Bail-reform died, and that's a good thing
  • Should Texas prisoners all become plumbers?
Discussion: Are progressive prosecutors really a thing?

The Last Hurrah
  • Red-light cameras abolished, will debts be erased?
  • Colorado, Oklahoma surpassing Texas on #cjreform
  • Evidence left behind after Houston SWAT raid
Find a transcript below the jump.

Monday, June 10, 2019

86th Texas Lege a killing field for #cjreform

Having mentioned a handful of #cjreform victories from the 86th Texas Legislature - most notably, by far, abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge - we must also acknowledge that the session overall was a major disappointment for anyone interested in reforming the justice system.

Heading into the session, there was cause for optimism. In the Texas House, Speaker Joe Straus for a decade had refused to let #cjreform legislation receive floor votes, while Speaker Dennis Bonnen was much more willing to let members vote on significant reforms. The Governor had endorsed both bail reform and reduced marijuana penalties. And both party platforms had endorsed important reform proposals that entered the session with bipartisan support.

Accentuate the positive
Once the session began, however, it became clear the Senate in particular was all but a lost cause. Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire spent more time shooting down reform legislation than promoting it. (We must accept that raise-the-age and police transparency legislation, for example, will never receive hearings, much less pass, as long as he chairs that committee.)

Reformers have lost all our senate champions over the last few cycles - nobody has stepped up to replace Rodney Ellis or Konni Burton's work on these issues - and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick remains hostile even to minimalist reforms, like reducing pot penalties.

Indeed, since Patrick took over the role of Senate President in 2015, Texas has seen scarce little reform legislation compared to, say, 2007-2013, when an array of decarceration and innocence reforms established Texas as a national #cjreform leader.

These days, the Lone Star State can no longer claim that mantle. Not only has California decarcerated more significantly than Texas (with the help of federal litigation, to be sure), but since 2014, Oklahoma, Utah, Alaska, Connecticut and Colorado have all reduced user-level drug possession to a misdemeanor. Texas has never even seen such legislation get out of committee, and this session nobody even tried. Past efforts had evinced tepid support in the House, and the bill clearly could never even be debated in the Texas Senate under the current leadership.

Grits can think of only five significant #cjreform bills passed in Texas since Dan Patrick became Lt. Governor: 1) increasing property-theft thresholds (which happened in 2015 via amendment, not a bill), 2) eliminating the "key man" system for grand-jury selection (we were the last state to do it), 3) the 2017 Sandra Bland Act (which had the most popular provision that would have saved her life stripped from the bill), 4) debtors-prison reform legislation in 2017 that made it easier for judges to waive fines (though still, 10x as many are jailed as have them waived), and 5) this year's abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge, an effort 12 years in the making.

While these were not insignificant bills, they're definitely overshadowed by accomplishments in other states.

Beyond that, the capitol grounds are littered with the corpses of modest, bipartisan #cjreform legislation, much of which would have relieved pressure on cities and counties at a time when the Legislature also restricted their revenue. Here are some of the decarceration measures the Legislature failed to pass:

Reducing marijuana penalties
This passed the House with overwhelming support and would have eliminated around 75k arrests per year, as well as the resulting incarceration stints. But Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick were quick to shoot down the idea and declare it would never be heard in the Texas Senate.

Limiting Class C misdemeanor arrests
House Democrats famously shot themselves in the foot, killing legislation that, had it been law at the time, would have prevented Sandra Bland's arrest, incarceration, and ultimately her death. Statewide, there were about 76k Class C arrests in 2017, extrapolating from primary research by Texas Appleseed. In Austin, where police implemented a policy on Class C arrests that complied with the proposed law, arrests declined by nearly two-thirds. If that proportion held statewide, the law would have prevented 45-50,000 arrests per year.

Reducing DWLI penalties
Although the Driver Responsibility surcharge has been abolished, 1.5 million people still have their licenses suspended because of it. And when they're caught driving without a license a second time, they're charged with a Class B misdemeanor, meaning police arrest them and counties must pay for incarceration and indigent defense costs. HB 372 (Allen) got out of committee this year but the House Calendars Committee never gave it a floor vote. According to the Office of Court Administration, there were 22,427 new Class B DWLI charges in 2018. Her bill which would have changed the penalty to a Class C - would have prevented most arrests for this low-level administrative violation.

Eliminating debtors-prison practices
Regular readers know that more than a half-million Texans last year sat out their Class C misdemeanor fines in jail, while roughly a tenth of that number had their fines waived for indigence. Rep. James White filed legislation to stop arresting people who don't pay Class C fines and using commercial collection practices instead, a measure endorsed in both the Republican and Democratic Party state platforms. But heated behind-the-scenes opposition made it clear the bill faced trouble this year and likely couldn't make it through the gauntlet. So Chairman White "substituted" in the language from Sandra-Bland bill, discussed above, after Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Chairman Poncho Nevarez refused to give Senfronia Thompson's HB 482 a vote in his committee. In the end, debate over the original bill was vigorous, but never public. But a lot of intelligence was gained to promote the idea again in two years.

Bail-reform blues
Bail reform died, but that's probably a good thing. As Grits has described previously, the legislation in play failed to address constitutional concerns arising in federal litigation, and created a new, politicized advisory panel to monkey around in what should be evidence-based risk assessments. Texas is MUCH better off waiting to see what the courts do on this before legislating. Texas needs bail reform, but only if it's done right. This legislation was a hot mess.

In addition to all the bills dying that would have reduced incarceration in county jails, measures to limit state-prison intake numbers also foundered:

Three-strikes misdemeanor theft
Three-strikes theft reform (HB 1240 by Davis) was another good bill that died in the Calendars Committee without a floor vote. Presently a defendant's third misdemeanor theft may be automatically "enhanced" (read: increased) to a state jail felony, regardless of the item's value. This legislation would have scaled back the enhancement for lower-value items to go up only one category - e.g., theft of a Class-C-value item would be enhanced to a Class B, not a state jail felony. This legislation sailed out of committee and appeared to be doing fine until Dallas DA John Creuzot announced his own decarceration initiatives mid-session. One of them was that his office would use discretion not to prosecute people stealing personal items with no intent to sell them or profit. The Governor proceeded to go into full-demagogue mode, and his agents killed the bill in the Calendars committee.

Probation reform
A modest probation reform bill passed the House which looked for a moment like it had legs. Chairman Whitmire had filed the companion bill, and his former staffer Terra Tucker was promoting the bill for the Alliance for Safety and Justice. But Whitmire never gave the bill a hearing in his own committee, even though it cleared the House with plenty of time to pass. Further evidence the Texas Senate has become a black hole for #cjreform.

Pretrial diversion nixed
An agency bill proposed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice would have expanded pretrial diversion programming in ways that would have an undetermined but not insignificant de-carceral effect. The bill passed out of committee but died in Calendars without receiving a floor vote in the House.

Motion for a new trial
This one still has me fuming! HB 4202 (Smithee) was an elegantly designed bill which would have allowed for out-of-time motions for a new trial in cases where someone is sentenced to more than three years if the prosecutor and judge agree. Cases could either be dismissed or new sentences agreed upon. Debates surrounding the bill centered mostly on innocence cases - particularly the Houston drug convictions based on faulty field tests - but it also could have implications for people with unreasonably long sentences or even problematic death-penalty convictions. Astonishingly, this gem of a bill passed the Texas House with NO ONE voting against it! It cleared committee 9-0, passed the House 142-0, but never received a hearing after it was referred to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Another black-hole victim.

Earned-time Credits
After Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, which included provisions to give more generous "earned time" credits to offenders who demonstrate good behavior or diligent participation in programs, some observers hoped similar legislation in Texas might get a boost. But HB 1271 (S. Thompson) never earned the votes to make it out of the House Corrections Committee. While most decarceration bills in Texas have been aimed at lower-level non-violent offenses, this bill would (modestly) chip away at incarceration rates for people convicted of violent crimes whose only chance at release is parole. It also would provide new tools for administrators to punish inmate misbehavior, incidentally, as credits earned can also be taken away. Taking a few weeks or months off of the longest TDCJ sentences in exchange for pro-social behavior inside should be a no-brainer, from a corrections-best-practices perspective. But legislators remain fearful to do anything that might benefit anyone convicted of a violent crime, which is to say, a majority of Texas prisoners.

Other justice-reform legislation also fared poorly:

Death Penalty
The Texas House passed legislation to fix the state's unconstitutional standard for executing intellectually disabled people and another bill addressing capital punishment for people with severe mental illness. But the Senate radically watered down the ID bill and the two chambers couldn't come to an agreement. After the SMI bill passed the House, the Lieutenant Governor never referred the bill to committee; another black-hole victim.

Closing the 'dead-suspect loophole' to the Public Information Act
After Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody amended his legislation to close the "dead suspect loophole" to the Public Information Act to a Senate bill by Kirk Watson that restricted records access, the Austin senator refused to concur and took the bill to conference, where Moody agreed to strip it off. The amendment was the subject of an intense lobbying campaign by police unions, and in the quarter century I've known him, starting as Austin's mayor, Watson has never bucked their agenda. It's little surprise that this time was no different.

Transparency for police misconduct
Thirty years ago, police unions convinced the Legislature to exempt personnel files at around 70 out of 2,500 law enforcement agencies from the Public Information Act if they had opted into "civil service" provisions of Chapter 143 of the Local Government Code. But after the Lege passed the Michael Morton Act in 2013, it became apparent this provision was allowing police departments to withhold evidence of prosecutor misconduct even from District Attorney offices, leading to egregious miscarriages of justice. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa filed SB 433 to fix the problem, but it couldn't get a hearing in Whitmire's Criminal Justice Committee.

No A/C expansion for Texas prisons
A bill that began as a suggestion to provide air conditioning to Texas prisons became a bill to study the issue, then even that couldn't pass. Grits has said for years that only federal litigation will force Texas to do this, certainly as long as John Whitmire chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Personal location data remains poorly protected
In the wake of the US Supreme Court's Carpenter decision, the Texas Senate approved one of the few reform bills to come out of that chamber this year requiring law enforcement to secure a warrant to access personal cell-phone location data from cell-service providers, including both historical and real-time data. But Google and Facebook intervened in the House and the legislation died in the committee. Apparently they objected to transparency provisions that would let Texans know how often law enforcement access location data they hold about users. That's understandable - IMO people would be shocked if they knew how frequently law enforcement accesses that highly personal data. And the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is doing all it can to limit the extent to which Texas state courts require warrants under the Carpenter ruling. But in Grits' view, the tide of history is against them. This legislation would have prevented a lot of headaches.

Grits could go on. In many ways, the abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge was the biggest #cjreform success in years. But it was a lonely victory, and the dynamics on most other topics makes it difficult for reformers to muster a sanguine outlook for the near future without unforeseeable changes in the Texas Senate.

RELATED: In an assessment Grits would generously call putting lipstick on a pig, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition counted 79 "positive" bills which passed, a prospect at which they declared they were "thrilled." Beyond the ones mentioned in this post, however, from a decarceration/civil-liberties perspective, most of them were big nothingburgers, or else agency bills with which the #cjreform movement had little to do. I suppose one can look at many of those bills as modest incremental reform - a few more than others - but Grits comes from a school in which one claims no easy victories. The most important stuff, beyond surcharge abolition, all was lost.

AND MORE: See Texas Monthly's biting Worst-Legislators installment for Sen. John Whitmire.