Monday, July 17, 2023

Congressman headlining Grits' zine launch event

For folks in Austin, please come to Grits' zine launch Sunday, July 23rd, from 2-4 p.m.. We're going to record interviews w/ me and others by Congressman Greg Casar about the zine topic (the history of a neighborhood grocery store 2 blocks from my house that turns 100 years old this year) and publish it afterward as a podcast. Event is at:

Community Garden wine bar
Hudspeth's Corner
1401 Cedar Ave., Austin, 78702
(between 12th and MLK, in East Austin)

The zine essentially takes the same investigative reporting skills Grits readers have seen me exercise on this blog for two decades, and applies them to a seemingly mundane topic -- a dilapidated corner grocery store -- with remarkable and compelling stories emerging that inform the whole history of the neighborhood.

If you can't come to the event, please do pre-order a zine, if you haven't already. And thanks, as always for your support over the years and into this next phase.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Pre-order Grits' new micro-history zine

With the paltry rate of posting on Grits, you might have thought I was no longer writing. But I'm pleased to announce a new zine I've been working on over the past couple of years: A micro-history of a small, 100-year-old neighborhood grocery store 2 blocks from my home, in a shopping center dubbed Hudspeth's Corner. (This is the cover art, above, by the wonderful Lakeem Wilson.)

No one living knew the site's origins, but it's a decidedly epic tale of the rise and fall of a segregation-era black family business. The saga, spanning 5 generations, provides a  unique window into the history of the whole neighborhood. (More or less against my will, the story includes significant criminal-justice themes as well.)

Undertaken as a palate cleanser after the 2021 legislative session, I began researching a series of deep, historical stories in the East Austin "Chestnut" neighborhood where I've lived for 33 years, all within a few blocks of my house. The rest will be released in 2024 and 2025, but because of the 100-year anniversary, Kathy and I wanted to get this one out now before we leave in August to go to Mexico for the rest of the year! 

It would really help if folks pre-ordered copies; you can do that here, ensuring your copy will get dropped in the mail the moment it rolls off the presses. (Price is $6 plus s/h.)

Then, on July 23, we're having a zine launch at the Community Garden wine bar at the Hudspeth's Corner site. Congressman Greg Casar has agreed to cohost and we're going to record a little podcast about the store featuring historians, preservationists, and neighborhood folks. If you're in Austin, join us! 

I'm excited to put this out; it's been a fun little project.

Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Near race war in 1868 Houston led to ban on carrying firearms for self-protection

I.C. Lord was the City Marshal in Houston following the Civil War who is credited with turning the Houston Police Department into a modern police agency, with uniforms, ranks, and patrol beats. I'd seen references to him being shot in 1868 in an episode of civil unrest by Houston freedmen, but until today hadn't ever seen the backstory. 

It turns out, if this contemporary press account is to be believed, Lord's injuries resulted from unusual episode involved a black lynch mob trying to break a black alleged murderer out of jail to hang him. This resulted in a tense standoff between armed black and white mobs that apparently, nearly led to a literal, violent race war in Houston. And it led the Mayor and Marshal Lord to enact a ban on carrying weapons in public, requiring that Houstonians "disarm themselves and place their entire reliance upon the execution of the laws by the officers thereof."

Today, this incident has been all but forgotten. This article was published in the Dallas Daily Herald, June 27, 1868 under the headline, "Disturbance in Houston." On Sunday, the 14th of June, 1868: 

A very serious disturbance took place in the city of Houston ... which it was at one time feared would result in much bloodshed and other riotous acts. 

A colored man, named Geo. Noble, and another colored man, named Bob Henrick, were at a colored dance, or ball, on Saturday night, in the suburbs of the city, near the "Old Grave Yard," at a place kept by a colored man named Bias. An altercation ensued between Bob Henrick and another colored man, whose name we have not learned. George Noble interfered and endeavored to stop the difficulty in an amicable manner. Bob Henrick took offense at this, and resenting it, put his hand upon his pistol, drew it, and fired, missing his aim. George Noble drew his pistol at the moment he saw the action of the other, and also fired, hitting Henricks in the neck, the ball coming out at the back of the shoulder. Henrick, however, is not dangerously wounded.

From the statement of Marshall I.C. Lord and Deputy Marshall J.N. Lord, we glean the following particulars of the subsequent event. Geo. Nobles immediately after the above occurrence went to Deputy Marshall Lord and stated his difficulty and delivered himself up, and was placed in confinement at the Bell Tower on Market Square. About 4 o'clock the next (Sunday) morning a number of freedmen, armed with guns, came to the calaboose and said they wanted Nobles. Of course, he was not given up to them. The negroes insisted that he should be given up -- and they believed he was not in confinement but at liberty.

One freedman, Ned Lockhart, offered to lead his companion to the calaboose, take him out and hang him. Marshall Lord went up to Lockhart and attempted to arrest him, but he broke away, but Lord succeeded in getting to him and struck him with his cane when a general melee resulted in which Marshall Lord was bruised and shot in the back of the head, and Lockhart was shot in the thigh, another freedman, who had shot at Marshall Lord, was pursued and after being disabled by a shot was also arrested and sent to the lock up. Immediately after these occurrences the colored people began to pour into the Market Square from all parts of the city, a large number of them being armed. Vengeance on the prisoner Nobles, was the generally expressed object, and bitter hostility and threats toward the white people were generally manifested and uttered. The Telegraph adds:

At this time the city bell began to ring to call the citizens together and they came pouring in, a great many of them armed, and as the two races mingled together and expressed their feelings according by the temper of the occasion, a bloody collision seemed for a while unavoidable.

After a time, however, the negroes dispersed, and in a little while the news spread rapidly that over five hundred of them were assembled at the colored Methodist Church, and that they openly proposed to march down Main street, seize all the arms they could, arm the black population generally, attack the whites, and  that the unarmed ones among them would assist by firing the city. This turned out to have been very nearly correct. But better counsels at length prevailed. Several of our prominent white citizens, who were either sent for or were of their own motion, together with the Mayor, made addresses to them, and they decided to abide by the decisions of the courts in all matters involved. At the same time, however, colored couriers were seen going in all directions, mounted and on foot, to summon their brethren from near and far.

While all this had been going on, the citizens had been rapidly organizing and arming both in independent companies and as a special police force. This work continued the whole day, and until after dark. The whole city was full of armed men and men arming. In addition to the large police force organized, the various fire companies were armed and ready to turn out at a moment's warning, besides the temporary organizations of citizens, each company being under the command of officers selected for the occasion. Signals were agreed upon to which every man was to respond instantly. Scouts and couriers were sent out, and the armed citizens not in the companies were generally agreed to turn out should a general fight ensue at any one place.

Thus was the evening and the night passed, until the next morning dawned on the city. The patrol went through every part of the city during the night, and strange to say hardly any colored men could be found. The women and children were all alone. The men had evacuated the city entirely. The most of them, however, returned in the morning.

The following was the arrangement agreed upon under the auspices of the Mayor:

"In the matter of the killing of a colored man by George Noble (colored) by which a serious public riot was imminent, His Honor, Mayor McGowan, appointed the following persons, to wit: C.S. Longcope, B. A. Shepherd, W.R. Baker, John Shearn, T.W. House, Elias Dibble, Charles Chatman, Sandy Parker, Dick Allen and John Sessums, a committee to concoct such measures as would tend to allay the excitement and prevent like occurrences in the future. And among other things, after appointing C.S. Longcope Chairman, and W.R. Baker Secretary, the committee unanimously adopted the following resolutions.

"Resolved, As the sense of this committee that while deploring the occurrences of this morning, that it is deemed proper that a thorough investigation should be had into the conduct of the persons who assumed the initiative in it, to ascertain if there was any partiality in the proceeding whereby the city was seriously endangered in its peace and in the preservation of property. If it be ascertained that there has been any wrongdoing on the part of any one, that steps be taken to appropriately punish any such party or parties.

"Also, Resolved, That the trouble in this community which was caused by the death of a fellow human being, and the wounding of several others, which threatened a general riot, grew out of the pernicious habit of carrying concealed weapons, and that the Mayor and Aldermen of this city be requested to pass an ordinance with sufficient penalties prohibiting the carrying on the person of all concealed weapons; and that the Council memorialize the State Convention to make a Constitutional provision of the sme import for the State at large."

                                                C.S. Loncope, Chairman

Subsequently to the above the Mayor of the city issued the following proclamation.

                                                Mayor's Office, Houston, June 16, 1868 

Notice is hereby given, that, in order to allay all feeling and excitement occasioned by the unfortunate occurrences of Sunday last:

It is hereby ordered that all citizens disarm themselves and place their entire reliance upon the execution of the laws by the officers thereof.

All parties who have been called upon to act, and were sworn as special police, are required to leave their arms at home and are relieved of active duty until called upon to prevent disturbances, regardless of the quarter from whence they arise.

I call upon all good citizens to assist in carrying out the laws, for upon the execution of them alone can we rest safely. 

And I earnestly request of all that they pursue their usual avocations, that all disquietude and feeling may be suppressed.

    A. McGowan,

    Mayor City of Houston

UPDATE: Another, contemporary story adds that the shooter was a black conservative sympathetic to the white establishment who had killed someone several months before and been acquitted. That article says that Marshal I.C. Lord had not taken the shooter to jail but was sheltering him elsewhere, and the mob demanded he either be jailed or hung. They dispersed when he was taken to the county lockup. He was convicted in 1869 and sentenced to two years in prison.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Jeff Blackburn Memorial Comments

On Saturday, per his request, I spoke at Jeff Blackburn's memorial service about our work together in the aftermath of the Tulia drug stings and at the Innocence Project of Texas; here's what I said. Below my comments, I've compiled links to a guest post by Jeff and various interviews with him on this blog over the years, if only for my own selfish purposes: It was nice to turn on a couple this morning and hear the sound of his nasally, flat, Panhandle drawl. They broke the mold after Jeff Blackburn and I probably will never stop missing him. Rest in Power, brother.


For the first year or so I knew Jeff Blackburn he was mad at me. I was part of a group of people who revived the ACLU in Texas after it had been dormant a number of years, and in 2000 we began organizing family members of the Tulia defendants to bring them to the capitol in Austin to push for drug-law reform.

Along with Vanita Gupta, who at the time was a 26-year-old rookie and is now the #3 at the US Department of Justice, Jeff had taken on a civil suit on behalf of the Tulia defendants, and he was sure their family members were going to say something at the capitol to screw up his case. We defied Jeff and did it anyway, which made him more or less apoplectic. He and I had some epic rows. But we also kept him in the loop, bringing him down to Austin whenever the families came so he could see first-hand what we were doing.

One of the “Tulia bills” we passed that session created a new requirement that prosecutors corroborate testimony by confidential informants to secure a drug conviction. In September 2001, when the law took effect, a reporter called around to the largest DA’s offices to ask how many cases they’d dropped as a result: The number was around 800, and that was just for the 5 or 6 largest counties. To be clear, for the non-attorneys in the audience, that’s 800 people who would otherwise have been convicted based solely on the testimony of drug dealers getting their own cases dismissed in exchange for cooperation.

One of my fondest memories was calling Jeff to tell him this news. I’ll never forget the long pause on the other end of the phone line, then he said quietly -- as quietly as I've ever heard Jeff Blackburn say anything -- “Henson, I couldn’t get that many cases dismissed in 10 lifetimes!”

From that moment, Jeff was hooked. We became collaborators, coordinating legal and organizing work to craft a narrative and build a movement beyond the confines of the courtroom. It worked. Eventually, 38 defendants were exonerated and Tom Coleman, the crooked cop who’d framed them, was convicted of perjury.

Not only were several significant pieces of legislation passed as a result, in 2006 we achieved the Holy Grail. Governor Rick Perry eliminated all funding for the task forces. When the Tulia drug stings happened, there were 51 of these things around the state employing more than 700 narcotics officers and making between 12-14,000 arrests per year. Fifteen years before anyone coined the phrase “defund the police,” we wiped them off the face of the earth.

Soon after that, Jeff founded the Innocence Project of Texas and I became their policy director. Once again, organizing exonerees to advocate for themselves was a central strategy, only this time Jeff was an enthusiastic supporter. I’m incredibly proud of that work, and I know Jeff was, too, but since Cory Session is going to talk more about that era in a moment, I’d like to pivot to another subject.

Since Jeff passed, a line from a pop tune by Lizzo has been ringing in my head. In one of her early songs, she asked: “Why men great till they gotta be great?” That applies to most men, but to me, Jeff was the opposite. Day to day, if we’re honest, Jeff wasn’t always that great. He was a curmudgeon; obstinate, profane, prickly, blunt. He was challenging to work with and five failed marriages tells you he could be a challenging person to live with. By saying that, I’m not telling you anything Jeff hasn’t said himself many, many times.

But when the time came that someone’s “gotta be great,” Jeff always stepped up. Every time. He thrived and excelled in those big, high-pressure moments and at crunch time was always his best self. That’s rare and part of what made him special. It’s certainly why he merited a massive, front-page obituary in the Houston Chronicle: Jeff’s work benefited many, many thousands of people all over the state. No other lawyer has had as big an impact on the Texas criminal-justice system in my adult lifetime.

Now that he’s gone, those of us who knew and loved Jeff and believed in his work incur an obligation. Leaving here today, all of us going forward will find ourselves in situations where we think, “If Jeff Blackburn were here, he would do X.” This knowledge creates a moral obligation. With Jeff no longer here, when you recognize a situation where you know he would have stepped up, that means you need to do it. That’s the best way we can honor his memory. The people in this room are a powerful force, and Jeff has given us a powerful example. My prayer is that everyone here today can find the courage and the will to follow it.

More of Jeff Blackburn on Grits:

Friday, October 14, 2022

Texas prison baseball league was shockingly well-developed

While I've been away from the blog recently, much of my time has been spent on a side project researching negro-league baseball in Texas, exhuming the Austin Black Senators' history from the fog of segregation and media bias. But in Texas, everything comes back to the justice system, and baseball historian Bill Staples, Jr. schooled me today on an aspect of the Texas prison system I never knew about: It used to have its own baseball league! Every unit fielded teams which played in an annual, 14-week pennant race. 

Baseball leagues 70 years ago were referred to as "loops," and according to this fascinating 1950 assessment of Texas prison recreation programs, the Texas prison "loop [was] divided into two divisions. Units situated south of the United States Highway 90A play in the southern division, and those north of the highway comprise the northern division."

Team names were as follows. In the southern division: Ramsey 1 Hardhitters; Ramsey 2 Monarchs; Darrington Devils; Retrieve Snippers; Ramsey Builders; and the Clemens Cats. The northern division consisted of the Eastham Buffs; Wynne Cobblers; Walls Tigers; Walls Black Tigers; Central 2 Cubs; and the Harlem 1 Red Socks. N.b. that the Walls Unit had segregated squads.

Occasionally, perhaps ringers would come on the scene when some professional athlete would get into trouble

Teams played a series with each other team in the division, and the two with the highest winning percentages were declared pennant winners, earning them the right to face off against each other in an end-of-season, 3-game championship series. Sometimes, papers would even publish box scores of the games.

Among the league rules: "an escape by any member of a baseball group during the season of the sport can bring suspension of the entire ball club for the remaining season."

It appears prison baseball existed in Texas even earlier, but the league/pennant format was created in 1949. Staples found reference to the Walls Tigers Cyclones* from 1930. In the first half of the twentieth century, prison baseball appears fairly widespread. In Wyoming, even death row inmates played on baseball teams.

At the Texas Prison Museum, according to Texas Highways magazine, there is:

a large display case with baseball uniforms, team photographs, and game programs from the prison baseball team, the Huntsville Prison Tigers. Prison officials organized the team and built a ballpark in 1924. The team played area semi-pro teams until they disbanded in 1943, a casualty of budget-tightening during World War II.

We know they didn't disband permanently in 1943 because teams were still active in 1950, but the construction of a prison ballpark in 1924 likely marks the beginning of the program.

According to the 1950-prison-rec-program assessment,  wardens could approve exhibition games on Sundays in addition to league-scheduled contests. Some of these were played before free-world crowds. This flyer from 1942 advertised a baseball game between prison-system all stars and the Southern Select, an "All Mexican Team From Houston." Admission was 25 cents and included entertainment by the "Prison Military Band."

In general, recreational activities seemed more widespread and salutary than TDCJ supports now:

The major activities, which are open to all inmates of good behavior, include competitive sports, such as baseball, volleyball, boxing, tennis, and softball; individual physical activities, such as horseshoe pitching and washer pitching; social games, such as checkers, cards, and dominoes; recreational reading; an annual rodeo; musical activities, including; a weekly radio broadcast; crafts; and motion pictures.

The prison rodeo, begun in 1931, funded a portion of the recreation budget. 

In 1934, prisoners tried to stage an escape while staff were distracted by a game between the Humble Oilers and the Walls Tigers:
The inmates were leading 5-1 in the 9th inning when all hell broke loose. Suddenly and without warning, gunfire came from the over the walls of the prison. It sounded like a war had begun. Guards yelled and threatened the convicts to hit the ground. All inmates went belly down immediately. But in the stands it was pandaemonium. Everyone there scattered wildly in all directions away from the Walls.
There's an entire, book-length account of this escape attempt, which did not involve any of the baseball players.

Given the success of the baseball league competitions, which were the most popular sport among inmates at the time, a suggestion was floated that, "Inter-unit boxing tournaments might be staged," though it's not clear that ever happened. On the other hand, I'd never have imagined teams from Texas prison units played in a baseball league and staged and annual pennant race, so who knows? 

These days, Texas prisons are so understaffed, prisoners are lucky if they get an hour in the rec yard: during COVID lockdowns, they often didn't even get that. They're not playing tennis, much less traveling the state to play baseball in front of paying, free-world crowds.

Still, it's also not like Texas was spending lavishly on prisoners in 1950. From the same report:

Texas taxpayers are getting off very lightly in the operation of the prison. Only two states in the Union spend less per man: Mississippi and Alabama. Texas spends about $310 per year per inmate. Many states spend more than $1,000 per man, while Connecticut tops the list with $1,468 spent on each prisoner in custody.

It's often said that budgets are values documents, and that applies here: Texas wasn't spending much on prisoners, but of what they spent, the state clearly prioritized recreation activities and prisoner well being more than today. The MLB Hall of Fame has a web page on "Baseball Behind Bars" describing early teams at Sing Sing in New York, and its conclusion sums up the values that might prioritize spending tax dollars to create sports leagues for prisoners:

It might be easier to write off all of this coverage of prison baseball as media exploitation, but there is something to be said for the real, positive difference baseball made in the lives of the inmates who played on teams and in leagues while they served out their sentences. The Sing Sing baseball program received praise for the “spiritual change in the men” from the likes of Dr. Katharine B. Davis, the Commissioner of Correction of New York City in 1915. Baseball might be “just a game,” but as any fan knows, it is also one of the things that makes life enjoyable.

*Staples informs me the reference to the prison team he found from 1930 was the Walls "Cyclones," but by 1934, the Tigers were competing. It's possible there were already multiple teams by that time, or that the name changed at some point.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Reimagining History at the Austin Police Academy

For the past year, Austin has deployed a group of community folks and city staff to analyze the curriculum at the police academy and suggest reforms: It's not going well.

The community reviews material, makes recommendations, but little gets implemented. It seems at this point like the goal is to stall until interest dies down and no one notices that nothing ever got changed.

A case in point is a section on constitutional history that Grits wrote about last year. It turned out, the instructor largely based the curriculum on a book by a John Birch Society propagandist who authored a nutball history called "The 5,000 Year Leap" which was popularized after his death by right-wing broadcaster Glen Beck.

This text makes a variety of unusual claims, pretending the Founding Fathers intended to create a Bible-based government (no "separation of church and state" here) and that the Jamestown settlement represented the birth of free markets and private enterprise. Jamestown, of course, was a company town, the company was owned by a king, and the economy was built on slavery and indentured servitude. But the author, Cleon Skousen, was never one to let facts get in the way of a good, neo-fascist narrative.

My wife is on the review committee and she asked your correspondent to assess this section when it first came up in 2021. Grits quickly discovered that some of the weird, faux history came from the Skousen book, including various jingoistic graphics that I located via a Google Image search.

Grits purchased a copy of  "The 5,000 Year Leap" and it's a piece of work. Much of it was just strange, fundamentalist rambling and little of it is relevant to policing. Skousen concocted 28 "principles" he claimed the Founding Fathers adhered to, but they're his creation, and more a reflection of the views of the hard-right edge of modern religious conservatives than any consensus held by the founders.

The latest version of the Austin police academy training eliminated much of the most explicit, ideological aspects from the book but kept the focus on pre-Constitutional history Skousen promoted, leaving the new version an odd and decontextualized shell of its former self.

The city staffer assigned to lead the review, Anne Kringen, pulled this course from the committee's review list last year, saying they wanted to make changes and come back with a better version. But before the review could occur, the same instructor taught this similar but stripped down version to cadets. 

Cadets were once again taught obscure details about colonial history, starting with the birth of free markets in Jamestown and emphasizing selected aspects of the Articles of Confederation and the Connecticut Compromise, but not the aspects you might expect. The lesson plan and power point contained no mention of slavery, the 3/5ths Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, gender-and-property-requirements for voting, or any discussion of the interests of southern slave owners which dominated that document's formulation. 

Just before the curriculum was taught this summer, they asked a UT law prof, Andrea Marsh, to assist. She was called in at the last minute and not in any way involved in developing the history section taught to cadets. Andrea taught the final part of the constitution section, which is quite straightforward, accurate, and easily the only useful or valid part of any training cadets received on this topic. 

Kringen did not inform Andrea why she was brought in, did not tell her about concerns with the John-Birch-Society-themed historiography, and never mentioned Cleon Skousen or "The 5,000 Year Leap." Andrea told my wife she found the history "weird" and didn't understand why it was being taught to cadets.

When Kringen was asked why this was still going on, her response bordered on gaslighting. She claimed Andrea had performed an "evaluation" of the APD instructor's teaching, which was patently false. Andrea sat in on the class the day he taught, but had no input into the content and did not perform any kind of "evaluation." Moreover, because she wasn't told about the concerns with sourcing or the Bircher orientation of the instruction material, she had no context to understand what she was hearing, though she certainly could tell it had little to do with policing.

Kringen told the group it was "unfair to disregard Andrea’s evaluation and my decision to get her perspective and share it with the committee by characterizing it as being an attempt to validate anything." But again, Andrea made no "evaluation." She just sat through a "weird" lecture that seemed irrelevant and inappropriate to teach to cadets.

Kringen tacitly acknowledged this, saying Andrea thought, "some of the time spent on history could be better utilized. Her suggestion to improve the class would be to reduce the time spent on pre-Constitutional history and focus more on the [state-licensing-agency-required] bullet points." Of course, getting rid of the "weird" history rooted in Bircher ideology and focusing on actual police training was what the committee asked for a year ago. But that was not done.

Kringen still insists the same instructor should continue to teach the class and, in practice, completely defers to instructors as to what changes should be made to the curriculum. At this point, it's fair to say nothing substantive can or will change as long as that's the process.

I don't know Kringen so Grits cannot say whether this is an example of overt bad faith on her part or if she is simply disempowered in the process and police-department brass won't let her fix what's wrong. But it doesn't really matter which it is, the results are the same.

If the curriculum review can't get this fixed, it's hard to imagine anything will change regarding police training in Austin.

Clearly, that's exactly how the Austin PD brass wants it.

Monday, July 04, 2022

#CJreform Movement Poorly Positioned to Confront Re-Criminalized Abortion

During my three decades working on criminal-justice reform, when abortion came up, your correspondent always took the attitude, "That's someone else's job." Not anymore. As of last week, abortion became a criminal-justice issue in Texas, full stop.

The US Supreme Court's abandonment of Roe vs. Wade -- combined with a decision last year by Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature to re-affirm criminal statutes on abortion from the 1925 Penal Code, if and when Roe ever fell --  suddenly have dumped the abortion question back into the realm of criminal law. 

SCOTUS decided Roe v. Wade when I was four years old, so I've never known a world in which the criminal courts managed women's reproductive choices. Thus it's easy to forget that the Wade in Roe v. Wade was Henry Wade, the Dallas County District Attorney,* and that for a century-plus before that, both obtaining and assisting with an abortion were crimes for which people were arrested by police, charged by prosecutors, sentenced by juries, and imprisoned in the same facilities as murderers and thieves.

Statutes banning assisted or intentional miscarriages were on the books in Texas from at least 1854, before being updated to include the word "abortion" in 1907 and then codified into the Penal Code in 1925. Attorney Doug Gladden goes through that statutory history here

Gladden identified 40 abortion convictions in Texas appellate records: 24 before 1925, 16 of which were reversed, and 16 from 1925 to 1971, of which five were reversed. Some cases may not have been appealed, and records may not be complete, but even so, this tells us abortion statutes weren't frequently enforced. 

What they did do was prevent most legitimate, trained doctors from performing them. In Greenville, for example, in 1905, a black doctor was arrested for performing an abortion on an 18-year old girl. In 1907, a physician was prosecuted in Haskell, TX, for performing an abortion on his 13-year old sister-in-law, who had been raped. In El Paso,  Dr. Andrea Reum, whose husband was also a medical doctor, was prosecuted after performing an abortion on a young black woman. She was a rich society lady who wore fashionable gowns and diamonds while incarcerated in the county jail. 

The earliest case I found reported in Texas newspapers was n 1890 in Comanche, when a medical doctor was arrested for performing an abortion. Charges were later dismissed when the victim refused to testify.

Such episodes were widely publicized in the press and sent a message to physicians that performing abortions would cost them their licenses. In 1919, the Legislature passed HB 235 making that official, requiring license cancellation by the state medical board for any physician found to have given a criminal abortion.

The Amarillo Globe News in 1960 cited local physicians' concerns that the abortion ban forced women to have "do it yourself" abortions, and reported that most women seeking the procedure were married.

Forbidding safe abortions didn't mean women wouldn't pursue unsafe ones, en masse. By the time of Roe v. Wade, the practice had become widespread. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in 1966 an estimated one million women had criminal abortions, and 8,000 of them died as a result.

By contrast, in 2021, the Guttmacher Institute estimates about 930,000 women had safe, medical abortions, though the US population is much larger than in 1966. So legalizing abortion empirically didn't make their number increase; it only made things safer and less threatening for women and the nurses and physicians brave enough to help them.

If it's true that abortions were more prevalent under a criminal sanctions regime, from a policy perspective, re-criminalizing greatly increases the harm without achieving the desired result.

The other big intersection of criminal law and abortion rights in the wake of the Dobbs opinion arises for women under supervision of the justice system: Either out on bail or on probation or parole. Whether these women will be allowed to leave their jurisdiction to get an abortion will be decided on a judge-by-judge basis: Some will routinely allow it; some never will. This will create a patchwork of policies as well as massive incentive for defendants to lie to the courts and abscond.

Presently, because this hasn't been an issue the criminal-justice system dealt with in more than a half century, there's no criminal-justice reform group obviously well-situated to confront these questions. The ACLU will step up, one assumes, but they're being pulled in a million directions and don't have a winning track record on these topics. Meanwhile, abortion-rights groups who one would anticipate would be most aggressive haven't dealt with the justice system in a half century and will have a steep learning curve. Grits fears that neither the abortion rights movement nor the #cjreform movement are well-positioned to confront what's coming next.

MORE: A slightly expanded/edited version of this post was published in The Texas Observer.

* An earlier version of this blog post said Henry Wade was Harris County DA. He was DA in Dallas County. I regret the error.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Custodians of History: Old prosecutor files include marginalized voices usually excluded from public media and discourse

Conversations about crime data and police and prosecutor files most frequently pertain to the news of the moment: Did bail reform cause crime to increase? Was this or that police officer held accountable? Are black folks disproportionately stopped for traffic offenses?

But lately your correspondent has undertaken a research project reminding me that these records have much greater value than just informing policy debates of the moment. In many cases, they're the only records available involving important historical people and events. District Attorney and police agencies are among the earliest, continuously operating government departments, and case files are a rich source of detailed, local information.

This is especially important when mainstream information sources about marginalized people are scarce. For example, in New York City, prosecutor records were used to document the early 20th century exploits of an undercover policewoman investigating abortion doctors. Wrote one of the authors of that investigation:
These files record the lives of marginalized populations, often silenced in the historical record. Poor New Yorkers, women, immigrants, queer residents, and people of color, whose lives might have evaded contemporary published material but whose voices appear -- albeit refracted through the justice system -- in these archives.
We're finding that's true in the historical stories I'm researching centered in East Austin. Researching black history in Texas from the 1920s and '30s is a tremendous slog: only a few editions of the main black newspapers remain, and the white press largely ignored black news, sports, and culture. But many of these same people interacted all too frequently with the justice system. To the extent their voices can still be discovered at all, often it's only "refracted" through that ignominious but invaluable lens.

After 75 years, Texas state law eliminates most confidentiality restrictions and discretionary authority to withhold release on criminal records, making them technically public. But most DA's offices don't treat them that way. Here in Travis County, my wife and I recently filed an open records request for files from the early 1940s. The Travis County DAO initially replied that they intended to deny disclosure under all the "discretionary" exceptions they could identify. 

We appealed the matter, pointing out that the Public Information Act doesn't afford them any of those discretionary exceptions. The DA agreed, and supposedly we'll get those records soon. But what's really needed is for prosecutors to develop written policies about record retention and release, then to migrate files to local archivists better trained to handle and preserve them. 

What kind of records are we talking about? Certainly, it differs case by case. But we have lots of examples because, in 2009, then-Travis-County-District-Attorney Ronnie Earle transferred 35 boxes of records, mostly from the 1940s and 1970s, to the Travis County Archivist, which also retains old records for the constables offices, the probation department, and other county law enforcement agencies.

The transfer of these 35 boxes appears to have been a one off. The archivist said there was something in the database about concerns that the files were deteriorating wherever the DAO stored them before. Regardless, they're now all sitting on a shelf at the archivist's office on Airport Blvd.

Kathy and I went to review several of these boxes to see if they contained files related to the now-long-deceased people I was researching. They did not. But Kathy noticed these documents in an unrelated case in which prosecutors adamantly struck black jurors in red pen:

Here's another example:

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure these aren't Batson-approved jury-selection practices. After I posted these photos on Twitter, I got an email from the Travis County DA's first assistant saying she'd referred it to their Conviction Integrity Unit! Bully for them.

This naturally spurred my curiosity. This was a case I was neither looking for nor familiar with, but I'd snapped a photo of the caption and cause number:

It turned out to involve a man named Arthur Raven and a codefendant, Audrey McDonald, and would have been an extremely high-profile case. (Long-time readers will recognize a pattern: the higher-profile the case, the more likely somebody cuts corners to secure a conviction, as with this jury-selection process.)

Raven, a white man, was the first football coach at Reagan High School when it opened in 1965 and from the beginning was highly successful, winning three 4A state championships in 1967, '68, and '70. Reagan was a predominantly black high school, built to replace the old L.C. Anderson HS, which closed in 1971. After his third state title, Austin ISD elevated Raven to become athletic director district-wide.

His son, Arthur Jr., was a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper. In 1972, he  attempted to capitalize on name recognition from his father's success to run for Sheriff against 20-year incumbent T.O. Lang. Lang was a "Shivercrat," a conservative Democrat who'd spent World War II as Austin PD's liaison with the FBI hunting subversives. After the war in the late '40s, he was an APD homicide detective before running for office.

To this day, no one ever held that position longer and, after two decades, lots of people thought it was someone else's turn.

Also running against Lang in 1972 was Raymond Frank, a leftie reformer attempting to capitalize on the same momentum that ousted a wave of right-wing Texas Democrats at the Legislature following the Sharpstown banking scandal. Insiders blamed Raven, Jr., when he split the traditional law-enforcement vote, allowing Frank to push Lang into a runoff. Lang lost. And his allies were furious.

Once in office, District Attorney Robert O. Smith almost immediately turned his sights on Frank. A grand jury under his direction issued a report critical of the new Sheriff. Frank turned around and accused Smith of corruption and manipulating the grand jury.

Arthur Raven, Sr., was accused of coercing prostitution while all this was going on, but convicted of a lesser, misdemeanor charge while the jury acquitted his codefendant. We didn't read the whole prosecutor's file, just this portion concerning jury selection. But news accounts say Raven took the stand in his own defense, testifying most of the day as the defense's only witness. Your correspondent hasn't done enough research to form an independent opinion, but Raven certainly thought he was being railroaded.

Was Smith retaliating against the old ball coach because his son's campaign helped the DA's nemesis get into power? Grits has no first-hand knowledge. But I bet I'm not the first person to imagine so.

To be clear: I haven't read the file and just snapped a few photos and read a few news clips. I don't know who was in the right in these controversies, whether Arthur Raven, Sr., was guilty, or if his prosecution was politically motivated. But this glimpse into the historical record shows how important these old files can be to interpreting past events. Knowing prosecutors went to unethical lengths to exclude black people from Raven's jury is an important part of that story that would remain hidden if one relied only on news accounts.

In 2009, Ronnie Earle (God rest his soul) thought it was fine to make records from the 1970s public at the Travis County Archivist. That policy should be formalized. It's a waste of scarce resources at the District Attorney's office for lawyers to review every request. Better to pass that task along to library-science professionals employed precisely to perform these tasks.

I'm looking forward to receiving the records we requested, which I have no doubt will answer a long list of nagging questions surrounding the historical research Grits has been working on.

Once we get them, the next step is for the DA's office -- eventually, for every DA's office -- to develop written policies for retention and release of historical records. We hear a lot about police and prosecutors as custodians of public safety. They should also be recognized as custodians of history, and behave as such.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

In 1950s, Austin removed lights and sirens from police cars: Result was award winning traffic safety record

Speeding with light and sirens is among the most dangerous things police officers do on the job, and about as likely to get officers or civilians killed as gunplay. Over the last couple of decades, this blog has documented efforts to reduce those deaths via policy tweaks and new technology.

But in the 1950s, Austin police took an even more drastic step to reduce police-vehicle accidents: Grits was today years old when I learned that, in the 1950s, the Austin Police Department removed lights and sirens from its police cars to encourage better driving by its officers. 

It worked. Accidents involving officers plummeted and the city won a national safety award for its vehicle fleet.

In an Austin Statesman article dated December 27, 1955 titled, "Siren, light removal makes police unhappy," the paper reported that "removal of the sirens and red lights has materially reduced accidents involving police cars rushing to other smashups or speeding to the scene of a crime."

Police Captain George Rogers, head of the department's traffic bureau, said "it was a very important factor" in Austin's winning of the 1955 fleet traffic safety award.

The award - presented by the National Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Safety Council - recognizes the Austin police department's fleet safety record as the best in the nation.

They began removing lights and sirens as they replaced old patrol cars starting in 1953. According to Captain Rogers, "Some of the boys got it in their heads that because they had sirens everyone would get out of their way, but of course that's not true. We figured we could save equipment by removing them, and we have."

Rogers noted that since July only two police cars have been involved in accidents - a substantial better showing than in the past.

[City Manager Terrell] Blodgett put it this way: "We did it to reduce accidents. We felt that the few seconds saved (because of sirens) were not worth the chances of accident and injuries.

"Rank and file" grumbled about the change, but for at least a few years, it stuck. 

I can't tell precisely when lights and sirens made it back onto Austin police cars. But in 1971, the Legislature passed a state law mandating that "an emergency vehicle on an emergency call must use red lights and a siren." Not long thereafter, two Austin police cars were totaled when they hit each other driving with lights and sirens to a non-emergency call. One of the officers was seriously injured. Reported the Statesman at the time:

At one time, the Austin police force did not have plainly marked patrol cars and only had a small red light which an officer placed on the dashboard of the unit when stopping another car.

No car was equipped with sirens at that time. ("New police Code 3 policy requires sirens, red lights," Austin American Statesman, Dec. 28, 1971)

This is a shockingly forward thinking policy prescription for the 1950s and I'm amazed police brass were willing to stand up to the rank and file to enact it. Less surprising are the facts that a) it undeniably reduced accidents and saved lives and b) eventually the city succumbed to pressure from the "rank and file" to change it back.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Not that anyone cares, but "violent victimizations" were actually down last year

Your correspondent has not been writing here recently because I'm in the process of evaluating the continued effectiveness of making fact-based arguments on public-policy topics. Texas politics no longer seems to value facts, so I'm not sure what benefit there is from discussing them. Hewing to them just makes one a target and causes one's enemies to believe the opposite out of some twisted, oppositional principle.

And yet, facts persist. Sigh. Let's talk about one that nobody in the political class wants to believe, and that will certainly only bring Grits grief for even mentioning: The just-released National Crime Victimization Survey - one of the two main measurements of crime in the United States - found that, "From 2019 to 2020, the total violent victimization rate declined 22%, from 21.0 to 16.4 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older." Burglaries and trespassing complaints declined, the survey found. And the decline was especially pronounced among youth age 12-17, for whom violent victimizations decreased 51%.

Does that jibe with the breathless news coverage about crime you've read in the last year? Of course not. The decline in violent victimization won't attract viewers/readers the same way as "Be afraid, killers on the loose," so it won't be reported. Compare this to how the increase in murders played out in the press last year.

As John Pfaff observed on Twitter, this news reinforces the extent to which the reported crime increase being touted near-daily in the press has been largely about homicides. Assaults and violent victimizations overall were down last year, according to this metric, particularly in suburban areas. Simple assaults were down, but also more serious ones. Firearm victimizations, which in this survey includes pointing a firearm as well as firing one, declined from 481,950 in 2019 to 350,460 in 2020. Burglaries were down 19%.

The NCVS is one of two main, national crime measurements in the United States. The "Uniform Crime Reports" (UCR) count crimes reported to law enforcement agencies, while the NCVS surveys crime victims to include crime victims who didn't report to police.

The NCVS is especially important right now because of changes to UCR data. Without going too deep in the weeds, the feds are shifting to an incident-based reporting system that supposedly is more accurate but results in data that's not an apples-to-apples comparison to what was reported before. Plus, many smaller agencies haven't yet made the switch. So for the next few years, it will be problematic to judge crime trends based on these data: They'll be establishing a new baseline that's not comparable to the old numbers.

The NCVS, by contrast, is still performed as it was in the past, though in-person interviews were halted last year for a time bc of COVID. Moreover, the story it tells corroborates UCR data on crime beyond homicides: News reporters and criminologists have puzzled that murders increased but reports of other types of violent crime went down. The NCVS confirms that crime victims simply were victimized less, not just that reporting went down because of distrust of police (or whatever reason one wants to assign).

So many in law enforcement have taken the recent murder spike as an excuse for a money grab, there's little reason to hope public policy might adjust to reflect actual, in-real-life crime data. So Grits offers up the NCVS analysis without any real belief that it will convince anybody of anything. Everyone will just look at it for evidence that confirms their priors, cherrypick that, and move on.

In the context of declining violent crime victimization, it's worth revisiting recent research from Dr. Bill Spelman at the UT LBJ School. He analyzed the major risks of death for Austinites and found murder was a far less salient risk than traffic deaths, suicides, or drug overdoses.

Anyone truly concerned about "public safety" in this town would, by any reasonable measure, be chiefly concerned with the causes of death on the right-hand side of this chart. But we spend most of our time in city politics and a majority of the city budget on the causes on the left hand side. It's exhausting. And stupid. And I don't know if it can or will ever change.

A good start would be for Austinites to vote against Prop A. Early voting is going on right now and election day is next Tuesday. But if you've read this far, you're probably already a Prop A opponent. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

More police won't help with Austin's biggest public-safety threats

Let's talk for a moment about public safety in Austin.

The argument for Prop A - the GOP-backed initiative to force the city of Austin to hire 500+ more police officers - is premised on the notion that Texas' capital has become uniquely dangerous as a result of the city council's anti-law enforcement policies. Local media have doubled down on this meme, touting Austin's "record" number of homicides while downplaying the fact that we're now a city of a million people and the record was set 40 years ago. 

How journalists present this information tells us more about them than whether Austin is a safe town. You can run with the scary headline, "Austin hits all-time murder record," or the equally accurate, "Austin has slightly more murders than when it was a much smaller town 40 years ago." The former may work better as clickbait (which is why they do it - hi, Tony Plohetski!) but the latter, contextualized account gives a more accurate sense of the threat.

Though you wouldn't know it from the local media's framing, the murder spike in Austin last year tracked nationwide trends and other Texas cities - including Republican-led communities like Fort Worth and Lubbock - saw even greater increases. So the notion that the murder spike resulted from Austin-specific policies or local attitudes toward police are dubious at best: Nobody thinks Lubbock's city council is anti-police, and they saw a 105% increase in homicides last year.

Even if you think crime is a problem, there's strong evidence hiring more police won't help. The question of whether hiring more police reduces crime has been intensively studied for decades with consistent findings, according to a 2013 metastudy analyzing hundreds of research findings over 40 years. Those researchers concluded, "This line of research has exhausted its utility. Changing policing strategy is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding more police."

Prof. Bill Spelman, a criminologist and former Austin city council member, now retired from UT's LBJ School, made similar assertions on local Fox news this week. He pointed to the lack of correlation between police staffing size and homicide increases last year, noting that departments of all sizes saw murder spikes, including agencies with high and low staffing ratios alike.

Indeed, Prop A arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the safety risks faced by the public. Murders are a scary way to die, but in Austin they're an incredibly uncommon one. By comparison, more than one thousand Austinites have died from COVID in the past year and a half. Prof. Spelman analyzed the various death risks in Austin and compared them to national averages. Here's what he found:

Austinites are far less likely to die from murders than other Americans, but we're not doing nearly so well on drug overdoses and suicide. In fact, former Austin Police Chief Brian Manley refused to allow police officers to carry donated Narcan to prevent overdose deaths, declaring that providing medical care was EMS's job. His successor, Joe Chacon, reversed that policy earlier this year, but police in Austin have not until VERY recently considered drug overdoses their problem.

Austin PD has also resisted efforts to send mental-health workers to suicide calls. The city funded a pilot to have teams led by medical professionals handle most of these cases, but after the first year, few real-world calls had been diverted.

Suicides and drug overdoses aren't areas where police play a meaningful role and increasing their number won't prevent deaths by those causes.

Similarly, there's little evidence increased policing will reduce traffic deaths. Statewide in Texas, traffic enforcement decreased by more than half since 2008, during a period when the population and miles driven boomed. And yet, accidents-per-mile driven fluctuated over this period then declined: There's been no apparent public-safety detriment from most traffic tickets going away.

Indeed, in Austin, in particular, the biggest sources of traffic deaths stem from flaws in traffic engineering. This city has until recently prioritized automobile traffic over bikes and pedestrians, so when those groups interact with cars, it often doesn't end well. Public-works improvement like segregated bike lanes and pedestrian tunnels will do more to prevent these deaths than hiring extra cops. But ironically, Prop A would prevent such spending by forcing the city to prioritize hiring police.

For that reason, on traffic, Prop A arguably makes Austin less safe.

Spelman's research re-frames the public-safety question more broadly to include ALL the threats people face, not just scary murderers. And as soon as one considers that broader question, the murders don't seem so scary. They're terrible events happening to small numbers of folks, but their existence shouldn't cause us to de-prioritize responses to threats that pose equally grave danger to far more people.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Politics explains oddities and strange bedfellows in Harris County bail debate

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg issued a 56-page report disputing the findings of federal bail monitors overseeing the settlement agreement between plaintiffs and the county.

Her arguments are so disingenuous, it's a bit tiresome to go through them for rebuttal. But since the Houston Chronicle editorial board recently anointed themselves the DA's PR agents, it's worth at least pointing out her most egregious misstatements. 

The biggest one is a common misrepresentation that you rarely see people claim in writing; it's always something whispered behind the scenes, until now. Ogg claimed: 
“Bail reform” has not been confined to misdemeanors, but has been implemented, in practice, for felony defendants at every level, even repeat violent offenders charged with some of Harris County's most notorious and deadly crimes, including, but not limited to murders and capital murders.
This is inarguably, factually, a lie. Not an overstatement. Not an alternative point of view. Not a difference of opinion. A bold-faced lie by someone who should know better. It's something opponents of bail reform say over and over, but when you dig into the stories, the person inevitably paid cash to get out. The Houston Chronicle looked at more than 200 murders committed by people out on bail since 2013. Less than 1% involved someone out on personal bond.

Regardless, over and over we see personal bonds blamed for crimes committed by people who paid to get out. On the floor of the Texas Senate this summer, Joan Huffman told her colleagues during the first special session that five people who were out on bond had been charged with murders in Houston since that body had adjourned. But it turned out, none of them were out on a personal bond. All of them had paid to be released and their cases wouldn't be affected by the bill. 

By contrast, misdemeanor bail reform involved the use of personal bonds, and misstatements like this are why the Legislature focused on banning them. But that won't affect "repeat violent offenders charged with some of Harris County's most notorious and deadly crimes." It's just not true, no matter how often it's repeated, including by Republicans I respect.

Ogg's central argument is that the number of crimes committed by people out on bail is increasing in Houston. Which is true -- and also far more people are currently awaiting trial than just a few years ago. She frames the discussion in a way that elides that key fact, knowledge of which might lead to different conclusions. Her key "findings" were presented as follows:
  • Re-offending by criminal defendants who have been released on bail is up.
  • Bond failures by criminal defendants are up.
  • Violent offenses committed by defendants free on bail is up.
As an improv comic might say, "Yes, and ..."

None of that is because Houston judges are hesitant to jail people. 

Here's what's really going on, and anybody who's not focused on these specific problems isn't shooting straight with you about wanting to reduce crimes by people out on bail: In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, flooded courthouses created a court backlog that increased the number of people out on bail three-fold, from a little over 30,000 people on bail to more than 90,000, reported the Houston Chronicle recently. COVID exacerbated these delays, while the latest COVID spike has heightened pressure to decarcerate local jails as a growing public health imperative

Harris County's criminal case backlogs could take years to work through unless, as Elizabeth Rossi and Amanda Woog suggested earlier this week on Grits,  the District Attorney begins using her discretion to dismiss broad classes of lower-level cases en masse.

Until then, one would expect the number of crimes committed by people on bail to increase as long as the number of people on bail is increasing.

That said, here's one more datapoint in defense of the federal monitors Ogg is ostensibly criticizing. By the data in her report, the number of crimes committed by this cohort (people out on bail) increased LESS than did the total number released pretrial. So she's complaining that the numerator in a fraction went up without telling you the denominator went up even more. I realize some people go to law school because they're not good at math, but even in that context, this is a little extreme. Her whole memo is based on such preconceptions.

In fact, there's evidence that, faced with a significant problem of the number of people out on bail tripling in a short period of time, judges did a pretty good job of vetting cases. Since the number of people out on bail tripled but the number of crimes committed by that cohort increased less than that, in aggregate, judges seem to have been making the best public-safety oriented decisions they could in response to a bad situation. 

In Texas politics, however, no good deed ever goes unpunished.

Grits believes the DA's complaints and indeed, the entire Texas bail-reform debate, can't be understood outside of a highly politicized context. Between County Judge Lina Hidalgo (who hasn't approved Ogg's open-ended budget requests) and recently elected Democratic Houston judges, some of whom supported her more progressive primary opponents last go round, Ogg and the governor find themselves, at least in the short term, with common enemies. I'm not saying it's planned; more like she's taking potshots, looks up, and all of a sudden she and the Governor are shooting at the same targets. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, etc..

Regardless, there's no way for Harris County to incarcerate its way out of court backlogs. It's a practical impossibility and from a perspective of responsible governance, absurd to demand it. But that's the simplistic vision of "justice" and "safety" that Ogg, Andy Kahan, and Governor Abbott would have you buy into.

If Ogg were working with other Harris County officials to problem solve by getting rid of the backlog, judges might give more credence to her requests for higher bail on actual "repeat violent offenders." And perhaps she'd get a more welcoming reception in her budget asks at the commissioners court. 

But some prosecutors believe it's never their place to negotiate. They see their role as either "I get my way or I'll fight you." That's what we're seeing with Kim Ogg, and it's a severe disappointment.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Prosecuting crimes of poverty isn't the same as combating a "crime wave"

The following is a guest blog post co-authored by Elizabeth Rossi of Civil Rights Corps and Amanda Woog of the Texas Fair Defense Project. Their organizations are among the civil rights groups involved in bail litigation against Harris County. Related: this discussion of the District Attorney's claims to be fighting a "crime wave" in Houston harken to this analysis of media coverage of crime and jails from a century ago. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Chronicle’s recent editorial “How Harris County prosecutors are trying to stop Houston’s crime wave,” casts District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office as engaged in some heroic task of ferreting out the County’s most dangerous “criminals,” when in fact the DA is funneling millions of dollars toward the prosecution of poor people charged with crimes of poverty. Without a shred of evidence, the Chronicle adopted the DA’s party line, asserting that “more prosecutions means more justice and a safer community.”

Expert research -- including some paid for by the County -- shows that's not true.

The County hired national experts at the Justice Management Institute last summer to address exactly this question. JMI assessed the backlog and concluded that the safest and most fiscally responsible solution to the backlog would be “to dismiss all non-violent felony cases older than nine months,” with certain exceptions for cases like DWI, so that the DAO could devote its resources to prosecuting violent cases. The experts at JMI pointed out that only 42% of all felony cases (not just “violent” crimes) closed in 2019 resulted in a conviction. The other 58% resulted in dismissal, deferred adjudication, or acquittal. And even among the 42% of cases that resulted in conviction, the majority involved people who were released immediately into the community on probation. The idea that the DAO is rescuing Houston from a “crime wave” by prosecuting years-old theft-by-check cases and other poverty crimes is laughable.

But the Chronicle ignores this information.

The paper also ignores a recent academic study by researchers finding that non-prosecution of low-level offenses can lead to less crime without any negative effects on public safety. Ogg has offered no answer to these findings. And now she is asking for millions of dollars more to fund 22 additional prosecutors to conduct intakes -- which will bring even more people into the broken system, exacerbating a problem that Ogg created.

The DAO is to blame for this tragedy. Ogg has enormous discretion to decide whom to prosecute, and most of the cases that Ogg is now begging for resources to resolve shouldn’t even be in the system. Evidence and research show that expanding the wasteful punishment bureaucracy through initiatives like the DA’s “triage” program does nothing for public safety, but does a lot to expand the government’s control over and surveillance of poor people and Black and Brown people, exacerbating poverty, separating families, and making it more difficult for people to find jobs and housing - all conditions that tend to increase future crime, not decrease it.

Ultimately the Chronicle piece is hailing prosecutors as heroes for solving a problem that they created and that they can end without spending a single penny more. Ogg doesn’t need more money to do her job. Instead, Harris County needs to invest that money in proven solutions to public safety issues-- programs like violence interruption, mental health, youth programs, non-carceral crisis response, streetlights, and other interventions that prevent harm before it occurs -- and should stop spending millions of taxpayer dollars for the DAO to prosecute crimes of poverty from 2016.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Time for the Texas #cjreform movement to get back to basics

Your correspondent hasn't been writing on Grits during the latest special session because it wasn't a time when Texas state leaders were willing to listen to reasoned argument, and this humble opuscule has little else to offer.

As I wrote after the regular session ended, it's important to be clear about what's happening here: Without exaggeration, we're witnessing the spearpoint of American fascism piercing the body politic in Texas. One is not proving Godwin's Law by observing this, it's just a fact.

Abortion laws based on mass snitching regimens that read like something out of The Handmaid's Tale. Gun statutes that appear to have been authored by Yosemite Sam. More border wall building, this time with DPS troopers making petty arrests for trespassing and mass magistrations being held in county-jail parking lots. Making the bail system harder on poor people. Homelessness rendered a crime. High spending levels for police mandated. Dozens and dozens of new crimes (including a first-degree felony for doctors performing unauthorized abortions). And everything including new voting restrictions done in a highly partisan, often retaliatory fashion.

Republicans were angry and much of what passed this year was done to punish their opposition for daring challenge them in swing districts or publicly talk about negative impacts from their policies.

Grits largely blames the Governor and Dan Patrick. Speaker Dade Phelan appeared well-intentioned, but the rookie Speaker was steamrolled by the other two and, in the end, was afraid to exercise his power in ways that would displease either of them.

As the poet long ago lamented, the best lacked all conviction while the worst were full of passionate intensity.

At the state level, it's only going to get worse before it gets better. The only way to stop what's happening is for Republicans to pay an electoral price. That can't happen until November 2022, and conventional wisdom says it won't, even then.

Republicans should be vulnerable, having utterly vacated the political center, but Democrats have so far fielded no credible candidates to challenge them, and proved with their failure to hold their quorum break that the party is devoid not just of strategic thinking but fundamentally of an identity as a coherent group. Republicans are united around a dystopic, right-wing ideology that is unworkable and harmful but at least consistent. The Democratic field brings to mind Will Rogers' observation more than a century ago: "I belong to no organized political party: I'm a Democrat."

At the local level, there are more opportunities. A lot of the energy from protests last year continues to animate less high-profile but still significant changes, particularly surrounding mental-health first response and addiction. Local groups are beginning to focus on police contracts, which by their nature are long-term fights that may not see results for many years, but which alter the terms of debate locally. And shifting the culture of policing is still on the table in a variety of ways.

None of this will happen quickly. But we can already see a desire to divert people out of the local jails during COVID, especially when their problem is primarily mental health, housing or addiction, starting to align with those trying to get police out of the social-services business. Where those collaborations flower, local work can produce big changes for people in the real world, even in the current political climate. That's where the criminal-justice reform movement should focus now. Unless and until statewide Republicans - particularly Abbott and Patrick - lose at the ballot box, there's nothing to do at the state level anymore but play defense against the bad stuff.