Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Texas news sources and methods

A couple of folks in the last month asked that I blog on how I find information from around the state that appears on Grits, so I thought I'd share a few sources that help make looking for information easier. I might make this an occasional series on research sources and methods. Hope you find these links useful:

Texas criminal justice news:
Texas government info:
  • The Texas Legislature Online is the best and only free, public place to get information about pending and past legislation, going back many sessions. This site gets better every session, and this year was superior, in many ways, to paid subscription services.
  • The Texas House and Senate each have separate websites, both of which include live and archived video feeds (House, Senate) of floor and committee debates. (To find the video you want, get the date of the committee hearing by searching the bill number on the capitol website and looking for the hearing date under "Actions," or check the "Committee" pages on the House and Senate websites for meeting minutes to get a date. That's the information you need to look up the right video.)
  • Want to know which state representative's district covers Brownwood, or which state senator represents Lufkin? Use this helpful search tool.
  • The Texas House Research Organization also compiles lots of useful material, particularly bill analyses of most bills that are debated on the House floor, and the Legislative Budget Board has everything you'd want to know about the state budget online. All you need is the patience to hash through it all.
  • It's easy to look up Texas statutes, or search them by keyword.
  • The Texas Public Information Act is, like, really cool. Bloggers should use it more often. Hell, print and broadcast journalists should. I mean, government generates a LOT of documents, and in Texas the public gets to look at nearly all of them. Emails, faxes, phone logs, appointment calendars, message slips, databases, you name it. Learn more about how from the Texas Attorney General's open government division, or download a copy (pdf) of the AG's comprehensive open records handbook.
Can't tell the players without a program:
  • Look up Texas lobbyists by name or by client.
  • Look up Texas political action committees.
  • Look up political contribution and expenditure (C&E) information for state officials from the Texas Ethics Commission here, or use this more user friendly database run by a nonprofit. Federal contributions are online here.
  • C&Es for county officials including commissioners, judges, DAs, constables, county clerks, treasurers, etc., are all filed in paper copy form at the elections division of the county clerk, usually at the local county courthouse. C&Es for mayoral and city council races are on file at the city clerk.
Sources and methods:
  • If you're not using Google News' customized search term feature, start immediately. Most of us are only typically interested in a few topics related to work, our hobbies, whatever. If you go to Google News, click on the link to the right that says "Edit this Customized Page." You can delete the standard news headings off the toolbar to the left and create your own specific to the search terms you regularly monitor. (This has been a godsend monitoring drug task force scandals.)
  • The Alltheweb search engine seems to pick up news stories from rural papers Google misses.
  • I regularly look at three blogs -- Research Buzz (currently offline, but really useful), Search Engine Watch, and Searchblog -- that between them keep me up to speed, I feel like, on new information sources and search tools. PI Newslink also regularly links to interesting information sources, often criminal justice related.
Let me know of other useful information sources you know about.

God help New Orleans

Holy. Sh*t.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A few new laws I like

Hundreds of new Texas laws take effect this week, and both MSM and the blogosphere have remarked on some of them. I want to highlight a few new Texas statutes taking effect September 1 on the criminal justice front that haven't received much press. Nothing comprehensive, but items that deserve broader attention. (Maybe later this week I'll look at a some new bad ones.)

Stronger Probation Perry DIDN'T Veto
: The death of HB 2193 strengthening Texas' probation system wasn't the last chapter in efforts to bolster the state's broken community supervision system. (At this point, nobody even knows how many probationers have absconded.) As Grits reported this weekend, three "Riders" to the state budget will reduce probation caseloads in 48 counties, require those counties to adopt "progressive sanctions"-based supervision models, pay for 500 new treatment beds, and reduce probation revocations by more than 2,000 per year statewide, averting hundreds of millions in new incarceration spending. Each new dollar spent saves ten in the out years. Without HB 2193, though, Texas prisons are still overflowing.

Carry a Legal Weapon in Your Personal Vehicle
: HB 823 (Keel/Hinojosa) defines "traveling" in the law so that legal gun owners who are not engaged in criminal activity can carry a firearm in their car while driving if it's not in plain view. As recounted here and here, I played a small role in that legislation on behalf of ACLU of Texas' legislative committee supporting the bill. The National Rifle Association brought forward the legislation, and the police unions fought it bitterly. Apparently they want to be the only ones who can have guns. But the "strange coalition" between NRA and ACLU overcame the opposition. I hope Scott's happy. UPDATE: Kevin helpfully notes in the comments that Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal intends to continue to prosecute these cases. That's pretty much just spitting in the eye of the NRA and soon-to-be-Court-of-Criminal-Appeals Justice Terry Keel. I wonder how other prosecutors will handle it? Injustice Anywhere has more.

Prisoner ID Gets You A Drivers License
: Astonishingly, for years one of the big barriers to prisoners' successful re-entry into society has been acquiring a drivers license. The Texas Department of Public Safety wouldn't accept photo ID cards from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the prison system, as valid. So ex-prisoners had to run around looking for their birth certificate or other forms of identification, which at a minimum causes delays. In other cases, they just wouldn't get a drivers license, or would use falsified documents to get a fake one. So the lapse not only harmed reintegration efforts, it created new security risks -- a double dipper. New legislation forces Texas DPS to accept TDCJ identification cards as valid ID to get a drivers license. It's about time.

Drug task forces get more oversight:
Regular readers know Grits and the Texas House of Representatives would like to see Byrne-grant funded drug task forces abolished, but the Senate and the Governor didn't agree, so they got greater oversight instead. With passage of HB 1239 (Hodge/Hinojosa), Texas DPS got real command and control authority over multi-county drug task forces, though many are still bridling at the arrangement. Texas DPS and the Governor will decide in September which drug task forces can remain in business. Many are tarnished with scandal. The total number of drug task forces in Texas declined from 46 to 25 in the last four years. A majority of Texas counties no longer benefit from federal Byrne grant money to support a drug task force, though they are eligible to receive funds for other programs like drug treatment and probation services.

Probation allowed for state jail felons
: This was a very good bill as filed, but language in the final version removed limits on the amount of county jail time judges can order as a "condition" of felony probation. (I can't prove it, but I was told Harris County prosecutors were behind the added language.) So low-level drug users (less than 1 gram) might be sentenced to "probation" and still serve time in the county jail, now more time than ever. That contributes significantly to the overincarceration crisis in Texas county jails with little benefit to public safety. (The Lege tried to close that loophole this year in HB 2193 by disallowing jail time as a probation condition, but that bill was vetoed by the Governor.) The practice of using jail as a probation condition for state jail felons recently drew down media heat on Harris County judges for causing unnecessary jail overcrowding. Apparently, though, some folks would rather see MORE probationers in the county jail. Luckily, since most county jails are full in Texas, I doubt judges will go crazy giving probationers jail time. The net result should be more low-level drug users receiving probated sentences instead of going to prison, and that's a good thing.

Lege Avoids $1 billion in New Prisons
: Perhaps the best thing the Legislature did this year on the criminal justice front was something they didn't do -- pass a raft of new prison sentence increases or create a bunch of new crimes. Sure, there were a few penny ante ones, and I haven't seen anybody compile a final tally, but most of the really budget-busting penalty increases proposed this session did not pass.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Roundup at 100,000 visitors

Sometime Monday morning, Grits for Breakfast will reach the 100,000 visitor mark (at least, counting from when I put a site meter on three weeks after Grits' October 6, 2004 launch). That's not much compared to Texas' big guns like In the Pink, Burnt Orange Report, Pink Dome, or Kuff, much less Talk Left, Doc Berman, or the national A-list bloggers, but pretty good, I think, for a state-level, single-issue blog.

In commemoration, I want to say "thank you" to everybody who reads and links to this weblog. I appreciate you a lot. I'm writing this stuff for me, for sure, or God knows there wouldn't be so much of it. But I'm awfully grateful when folks tell me they're enjoying
Grits and finding it useful.

With that formality taken care of, h
ere are a few items I've run across recently that merit presentation in a roundup format:
  • Biased jury selection: The Dallas News put up an excellent page devoted to its series on the role of race in Dallas county jury selection. Dallas prosecutors exclude black jurors at twice the rate they exclude whites.
  • Teach 'em a skill: The SA Express News tells how the Bexar County Jail has teamed up with a local construction-trades training program to give inmates skills and reduce recidivism.
  • Judges say long sentences don't promote justice: The prolific Doc Berman points here and here to cases where Federal Eighth Circuit Court Judge Donald Lay, the most outspoken advocate for drug courts within the federal judiciary, used opinions written in everyday drug cases to advocate for increased use of drug courts and fairer federal sentencing practices. Berman also tells of another federal judge who felt the sentence for a bank robbery getaway driver was too long compared to more culpable accomplices. (BTW, I'm frequently reminded that a lot of Grits readers in Texas aren't necessarily otherwise acquainted with the blogosphere, but if you care about criminal sentencing at all, especially at the federal level, Doc's Sentencing Law and Policy is consistently a damn good blog. Read it often.)
  • No means no! (to vehicle searches): Scott Morgan has a good example of how to say no to a police officer's request for a so-called "consent search" of your vehicle at a traffic stop.
  • Say it ain't so, Thurgood: I sure didn't know this: Thurgood Marshall was probably an FBI snitch against a more radical, less-well-known rival in the civil rights movement. I sent around the clip to some friends to confirm the shocking allegation, and a knowledgable African American ally in the civil rights movement responded thusly: "I've known this for years," he said, "and, sad to say, it seems to be true." Another liberal attorney I checked with, though, didn't want to know: "I need to believe in Thurgood Marshall," she replied.

Would drivers with contraband consent to searches?

Kimberly liked Grits' recent posts on racial profiling, but ponders, "I'm a little torn about written consent to search vehicles. I'm not sure who would consent, knowing they are carrying contraband..."

Thanks for the shout out, Kimberly. That's an understandable worry, though keep in mind that we're only talking about cases where police have no reasonable suspicion to search.

Even so, it's a strange-but-true fact that drivers carrying contraband still consent to vehicle searches at about the same rate both verbally and in writing. When Austin PD implemented a requirement for written consent in 2003, for example, the total number of consent searches dropped by more than 60%, but the
rate at which officers discovered contraband remained flat, at just over 12%.

It may not make logical sense, but empirically, drivers with contraband are not more likely than others to deny officers written consent to search.

Consent searches have been a favorite Grits topic. See coverage of Texas' vetoed legislation that would have required written or recorded consent to search at traffic stops here, here, here, here, here, here, and the veto report here.

Texas leads nation in jailing pot smokers

Texas incarcerates more people for marijuana than any other state, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a D.C.-based think tank, said in a new public policy report published last week. In Texas, "marijuana arrests comprised 56 percent of total drug arrests (48,963 out of 88,053 total arrests). Texas currently has 1,215 people in prison for marijuana as the controlling offense."

JPI cited federal estimates that 829,000 Texans currently use marijuana, meaning that, if the use estimates are accurate, Texas arrests about 6% of pot smokers in the state, annually. That's huge. I wonder how many pot smokers they'd have to arrest to actually create a deterrent? More than we can afford to incarcerate in overcrowded Texas county jails and prisons, that's for sure.

Nationally, nearly half of all drug arrests in 2003 were for marijuana, chalking up $5.1 billion in enforcement, adjudication and incarceration costs for marijuana alone, the group reports.

Download the full study here. Via Solutions for Texas.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Silver linings: Probation strengthening measures Perry DIDN'T veto

Most Grits readers know I was pretty upset at Gov. Perry's veto of HB 2193, which would have strengthened Texas' probation system and reduced the need for new prison building. With Texas prisons overflowing, lawmakers were relying on stronger probation to avoid the cost of new prisons.

I haven't talked as much about probation-strengthening measures in the state budget that
weren't vetoed -- particularly several "riders" to the budget that allocated new money to probation programs.

Rider 71, in particular, allocated an additional $14.1 million per year to hire new probation officers to reduce local caseloads. But to qualify, counties must pledge to reduce the number of revoked probationers by at least 10% and to enact a "progressive sanctions supervision model."

By Grits' calculations based on data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Community Assistance Division, that new probation spending will result in a $10 savings for every new dollar spent, if agencies meet their goals.

What other state expenditures earn that kind of return? Not many that I know of. Truly, failure to invest in stronger probation is penny wise and pound foolish.

The numbers add up pretty quickly. In July, TDCJ sent out a memo to Texas probation departments (Word doc) soliciting participation in the Rider funding. All told, 48 probation departments were eligible to receive the new Rider 71 money for probation officers (see Attachment E, p. 19). TDCJ also estimated how many fewer revocations would be necessary for each county to meet their 10% goal (Attachment F) -- 2,084 people per year in the 48 eligible counties.

The average revoked probationer in Texas spends
4.3 years in prison. Thus, estimating incarceration costs at $16K per person per year, keeping 2,084 people on probation each year who would otherwise be revoked would avert upwards of $143 million in incarceration costs, or more than $286 million total.

As budget savings go, that isn't chump change -- it's big bucks. And it represents the benefit of strengthening probation in just 20% of Texas counties. Think of the possible savings if Gov. Perry hadn't vetoed requirements to make probation stronger at ALL Texas departments.

Two other budget provisions help to strengthen community supervision of offenders: Rider 72 specified that funding for "diversion programs" be prioritized to go to departments that have adopted "progressive sanction" models, while Rider 73 appropriated $13.6 million per year for 500 new drug treatment beds. The new funding will take effect at the beginning of the new state fiscal year in September, regardless of Governor Perry's ill-conceived veto of HB 2193.

ACLU vs. police unions on interpreting profiling data

Yesterday Tom Gaylor, a Texas police union lobbyist portraying himself as a "criminologist and sociologist," responded in the comments to Grits' post detailing new federal racial profiling statistics. Later, King Downing, director of ACLU's New-York-based national campaign to end racial profiling, sent me a response to Gaylor via email. Tom's arguments were so typical of police obfuscations about profiling that, with King's permission, I wanted to publish his riposte here. Tom's comments King is responding to are included in bold:

Whether intended or not Tom Gaylor’s response misses the point in many serious ways:

“This and other studies like this have continued to fuel the fire of racial tension between law enforcement and minority groups.”

The studies don’t fuel the tension—they try to measure it. Gaylor is blaming the messenger. The thermometer doesn’t cause the fire.

“…these studies…have never and will never be able to explain the reason for the disparity…”

Gaylor is using a straw man. The studies don’t claim to explain the reason for the disparities. The studies were begun in response to police, in the absence of data, dismissing the community’s complaints as anecdotal evidence.

“…special interest groups rush to label police as racists.”

Gaylor is running out of straw. I challenge Gaylor to present one quote from an organization claiming police are racist as a result of a racial profiling data report. And in my book, law enforcement is a special interest group, and a powerful one at that. Ask any politician who tries to pass even a modest a racial profiling law.

“As a sociologist and a criminologist the danger of never determining why the disparities exists is that we will never be able to address the real issues.”

Nothing Gaylor says is true. The reason for the disparities can be determined—ask the police. In Rhode Island’s study police were asked in advance of the results if there were any reason they might have disparities. Researchers looked into the stated causes, and found that they had no relation to the differences. Best of all, they were able to include this finding in the report itself. In the past such explanations by police went unchallenged because the research had ended.

“In criminal statistics and prison populations minorities groups are drastically overrepresented so why should we be surprised that the numbers of minorities searched or arrested would be any different.

“More crime is committed by those and against those who live in lower socioeconomic areas."

Minority crime statistics are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you target them, you will see more of them in court and in jail.

And what about white-collar crime? Can we say “Enron?” Compared to street crime, its costs are staggering. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimates that six percent of revenues are lost through occupational fraud and abuse: asset misappropriation, corruption, or fraudulent statements. Applied to the Gross Domestic Product, this adds up to about $600 billion, or about $4,500 per employee. The typical criminal is an older white man in the upper company hierarchy. Median losses for the oldest employees (over 60) were $500,000, which was 27 times higher than losses caused by employees less than 26 years of age.

If it costs society so much where is the “war” on corporate crime? Where are the politicians “get tough, lock ‘em up, throw away the key” speeches? Why aren’t older white males being targeted, arrested, filling the jails? Of course, that would be racial profiling.

Despite Gaylor’s claims to the contrary, stereotypes about race and crime drive law enforcement and are not “well beyond the control of law enforcement officers.” As they see “hit rate” data showing that once stopped, people of color are not more likely, and often less likely, to have drugs or weapons on them than whites, are causing objective sociologists and criminologists, and police, to see that race is not a legitimate factor in stops and searches. These true scientists are using the data to press police for explanations, not provide them with excuses.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Feds: Racial profiling occurs during searches at traffic stops

Via CrimProf blog, while much attention has focused on the Bush Administration's sacking of a Justice Department official who opposed the coverup of statistical evidence of racial profiling at traffic stops, just as interesting are the findings themselves:

Based on interviews of about 80,000 drivers in 2002, a DoJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (BLS) study found that whites and minorities were stopped at roughly the same rate, but minorities were about three times as likely to have their vehicle searched by police after they'd been pulled over. According to BLS, "During the traffic stop, police were more likely to carry out some type of search on a black (10.2%) or Hispanic (11.4%) than a white (3.5%)"

The DoJ findings jibe with what we've seen from Texas' racial profiling data, which showed that minorities are subjected to searches significantly more often after they're stopped, especially to so-called "consent searches."

A 2005 study, sponsored by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas LULAC, Texas NAACP and ACLU of Texas, similarly found disparities in "post stop" search practices by Texas police. Reports from 1,060 police and sheriffs' departments were gathered and analyzed representing millions of traffic stops.
Often search rates vary more in Texas by department than they do by race, but two out of three Texas law enforcement agencies reported searching blacks or Latinos at higher rates than whites following a traffic stop. Of those, a majority reported disparities of 50% or greater. That's a lot -- more than enough to qualify as a statistically significant difference -- but less than was reported in DoJ's survey.

Of course, survey data and raw data from traffic tickets won't give an apples to apples comparison. But generalizing broadly from the Texas and national numbers, this much still can be said: While debate continues about
whether minority drivers are stopped more frequently, it's pretty clear from available statistical evidence that black and Latino drivers are treated differently by police after they've been pulled over.

The Texas Legislature this spring debated and passed legislation to require police officers to obtain written consent to search vehicles at traffic stops without probable cause, but Governor Perry vetoed the bill.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Immigration cases up 345% on Texas border

Who says the feds aren't enforcing immigration laws?

According to a new report by the Transactional Records Access Clearninghouse (TRAC), recommendations by the U.S. Attorney for prosecution of small-time immigration cases
in Texas' Southern District (Houston) "jumped by a startling 345%, increasing from 4,062 to 18,092 in just one year. While Texas South is one of the five federal judicial districts along the Mexican border, the extraordinary increase in criminal immigration cases there was far steeper than that documented for any of the other border districts or for the nation as a whole." Nationally, one in three federal convictions relate to immigration violations.

TRAC's data implies that immigration cases have essentially swamped Texas' Southern District:
Texas South, originally established in 1902, currently is the seventh largest [federal court district] in the nation with over 7 million residents, 43 counties and more than 150 assistant U.S. Attorneys.

From December 2001 until June of 2005 the U.S. Attorney in Texas South was Michael T. Shelby. He is now an attorney with Fulbright and Jaworski, a major national law firm based in Houston. In his May 13 resignation statement, Mr. Shelby praised the work of his office in handling cases involving international terrorism, corporate fraud and public corruption, but did not mention criminal cases involving immigration violations.

Given the circumstances, this seems a curious lapse. According to the case- by-case information provided the Executive Office for United States Attorneys by the district he until recently headed, the office in FY 2004 prosecuted a total of slightly more than 21,000 individuals, 18,340 of whom it said were charged with immigration violations. By comparison, his office said, it only prosecuted 90 white collar crime matters, 35 internal security and terrorism matters and 15 official corruption matters.

They could triple that number of prosecutions and not make a dent in illegal immigration into Texas. Those are your federal tax dollars at work, folks. I don't know a thing about immigration law, but as a practical matter, obviously current practices are overwhelming Texas' federal courts. See the rest of the excellent report from TRAC. Via CrimProf blog.

UPDATE: Doc Berman has a related item.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Protest tickets from red light cameras

The City of Houston will begin to give tickets to alleged red light runners using cameras at intersections this fall. Regular readers know I think this is a terrible idea that will actually increase injury accidents.

The launching of this boondoggle gives rise to Grits' mischevious muse: I wonder, if Houstonians, or at least a bunch of them, all chose to contest their tickets from the get-go, how long would the city keep the program up in the wake of looming court backlogs?

These camera-based tickets are civil, not criminal penalties, meaning their issuance automatically raises equal protection (14th Amendment) claims -- some red light runners are prosecuted under criminal statutes, where an officer must witness a traffic violation to give a ticket, while others are charged with civil violations where drivers don't enjoy the same protection from abuse.

Plus, the fine is based on no evidence but a photograph that doesn't show the surrounding street, the light, the circumstances, etc.
You'd think drivers could successfully contest tickets by telling the judge, given the totality of the circumstance (slick streets, another driver following too close, etc.), that it was less dangerous to run the light. What evidence could be introduced that says otherwise?

Message to Houstonians: If you don't like the proliferation of government surveillance cameras around your city, contest red light camera tickets when they come in the mail. Every time. Make them prove it. Why not?

Red light cameras aren't about public safety. They're about generating revenue. If increased court costs ate up their profits, I doubt the city would actually pay extra
for red light enforcement. If they were willing to do that, they'd just hire enough officers to enforce the traffic laws in the first place.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Judges responsible for Harris jail overcrowding

Who is responsible for the overincarceration crisis at the Harris County Jail? It's the judges' fault, the Houston Chronicle's Steve McVicker reported this morning.

That isn't news to regular Grits readers, who already know that Harris County judges frequently require defendants to post cash bond unneccessarily and jail drug users instead of sending them to treatment. Even so, I'm glad the local media has figured out who's to blame. Earlier reporting made jail overcrowding sound inevitable, like an Act of God.

Looking for more? In several prior posts
all linked here, Grits discussed in detail the causes of overincarceration in Harris County, adumbrating more fully the two studies cited by the Chronicle.

UPDATE (8-23): The Chron's editorial board followed up, placing responsibility for county jail overcrowding squarely where it belongs: on former prosecutors turned "activist judges." They wrote:
The county's judiciary is drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of former prosecutors and is known for tough sentencing. However, it makes no sense to fill the jail to overflowing with nonviolent defendants who lack the financial wherewithal to buy a get out of jail pass.

Likewise, throwing prisoners convicted of minor drug offenses into the county jail is bad justice. State law recognizes that society is best-served by rehabilitating minor drug offenders through treatment and counseling in a nonpenal setting. Activist judges here, ignoring the conservative mantra that judges should follow the law, decided on their own to thwart the intent of Texas lawmakers.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

'Round the web

Here are a few interesting items that caught my eye recently:

Say "Howdy!"
to two three new criminal justice blogs: Texas Criminal Justice, Meth Mouth, and the Busted! blog, plus the Victoria Advocate has added bloggers.

Documenting a Police Killing: Greg Moses posted many of the key documents related to the shooting of Daniel Rocha in the back by an Austin police officer. Rocha was unarmed and his shooting sparked community outrage. See the Statesman's coverage of the protest after a Travis County grand jury no-billed the officer this week.

Minutemen armed and patrolling Houston: These clowns bothered me less when they were basically a bunch of rednecks sitting around in lawn chairs on somebody's ranchland in the desert facing south. Roaming the streets of Houston packing heat, aiming to photograph allegedly undocumented immigrants (how do you tell?), is a recipe for big trouble. That said, this precedent is heartening. At first I assumed the "Minutemen" moniker to be an homage to the militia that challenged the British in 1775 at Lexington and Concord; now I suspect the appellation was suggested by their wives.

People whose opinion shouldn't matter: Injustice Anywhere rightly wonders why the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court -- who doesn't even hear criminal cases -- was the lone dissenter among the U.S. Conference of Chief Justices on a resolution opposing Congressional legislation to limit habeas appeals. That opinion should be regarded with as much import as the plumber's advice regarding the electrical wiring.

If they start this in Texas I'm switcing to satellite TV: In Florida, police are enlisting cable company and pest control employees to look for and report suspicious activity on their routes, via Crimprof blog.

Legal vs. scientific presumptions
: A Virginia judge says DUI laws are unconstitutional because they improperly create a presumption of guilt based on breathalyzer test results, reports DUI Blog.

Drug courts touted as meth solution
: President Bush responds to Congressional scare tactics on meth by dispatching three cabinet members to promote drug courts and treatment programs, a solution that's worked in Texas.

Peru protests Texas police
: The Peruvian government is demanding answers after one of its citizens, Edgar Vera, died at the hands of the Allen Police Department. Allen is a suburb of Dallas. Vera was pepper sprayed and "mistreated," witnesses say, while being arrested for an outstanding warrant related to an old seatbelt violation. He remained on life support for two weeks longer before dying Friday morning in a McKinney hospital.

Sex, Drugs and Petty Crime: A User's Guide

Last fall a friend asked whether a young author could send her book to me for possible review, and soon thereafter I received in the mail Neeraja Viswanathan's Street Law Handbook. I read the book, submitting a short review to the Texas Observer, then promptly forgot about the piece. Anyway, I ran across the text this morning on my hard drive, and since the Observer never ran the article, I thought I'd publish it here. My apologies to Ms. Viswanathan for the tardiness.

My suggested title was "Sex, Drugs and Petty Crime: A User's Guide."

Viswanathan, Neeraja
The Street Law Handbook: Surviving Sex, Drugs and Petty Crime
Bloomsbury Books, 2004,
230 pages

Most folks have occasionally wondered one or more of the following, "Okay, exactly how much trouble will I get in if I use or share marijuana, drive with an alcohol buzz, have sex with a minor, take this hit of Ecstasy, purchase or view pornography, or pay for a blow job?" (It could be just me, but I doubt it. Even Jimmy Carter admitted he'd sinned in his heart.)

If you consider those or related questions of immediate, pressing concern, first-time author Neeraja Viswanathan has created a new resource for you, The Street Law Handbook: Surviving Sex, Drugs and Petty Crime.

Viswanathan is a lawyer, but she's attempted to keep the legalese to a minimum to create, essentially, a handbook for those engaged or potentially engaged in petty lawlessness, not their critics or their attorneys. The book does not undertake a judgmental tone, but instead matter-of-factly walks through the most common petty crimes: drug use, laws restricting sex, assaults, public disturbances and the like, and their likely consequences.

She's included many anecdotes, often taken from prominent court cases, though with the names all changed to humorous pseudonyms, to illustrate the dizzying array of "Street Law Concepts" peppered throughout the book (94 in all)

Upon seeing the most common petty crimes all compiled and discussed together like this, what struck me most was the extent to which petty crime enforcement, really, is about punishing juvenile behavior among young adults. For example, drinking to excess certainly occurs into the later years, but clubbing and partying are the province of the young, and that's when drinkers are most at risk of encounters with the law.

Similarly, I know life-long pot smokers in their 60s who have never been arrested. So how is it that the kid up the street went to prison for several years for delivering weed? The difference is maturity of approach and demeanor. The deeper I read into this book, I realized that young people should be Viswanathan's real market.

Of the prominent petty crimes, only soliciting prostitutes falls mainly in the purview of middle aged, mostly married men, and only the most pathetic of those are picking up hookers on the street. Most of the rest of the book, though, seems to speak to young people, who are more likely to find themselves in risky situations. I'm as cantankerous, my wife tells me, as when we met in my early twenties, but I haven't punched anyone since I was nineteen, and I felt a little silly after the drunken tussle even then. If your idea of a good time is to get drunk and mix it up, though, Viswanathan lets you know what to expect.

That's why I'm giving my copy of The Street Law Handbook to my 19-year old daughter when I'm finished with this review. It's not that I necessarily think she's engaged in any of these behaviors. She's a good kid, but she's the most likely person in my family to be tempted. Having learned long ago that my own lectures produce limited results, I find myself increasingly settling for giving her honest, neutral information and letting her make up her own mind.

For that purpose, The Street Law Handbook is a valuable book, but it has some shortcomings. Attempting to be casual, Viswanathan occasionally omits certain formalities, though perhaps one should blame her editors at Bloomsbury books for that. The first reference to outgoing U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, just calls him "Ashcroft." If the target audience really is young people engaged in the world of petty crime, one probably shouldn't assume such knowledge.

The 17 tables estimating punishments for various crimes will be useful for Texans, but not for most of the country. Viswanathan chose seven cities - Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas, New York, and Dallas - to give examples of minimum and maximum punishments. Since Dallas' laws on most crimes she discusses are state laws, the information therein applies equally across Texas.

With only 17 tables, though, I thought it a significant oversight not to do the extra research for all 50 states. Not only would it be more comprehensively useful, it would have allowed her to market the book in each particular locality. Without the localizing tables, I'm not sure I'd recommend this book, say, for somebody in Ohio. A lot of what folks are interested in is "what penalty should I expect?"

In a similar vein, while I understand the desire to keep it simple, the book contains no index, footnotes, sourcing or even a bibliography, not even a "for more information" section pointing to other resources. Most of the examples given were from Supreme Court cases I knew about, so I'm not saying her information isn't correct. If she wasn't going to tell most folks the specifics for their locale, though, it'd have been nice to at least tell them where to look.

I had a couple of substantive quibbles with the Viswanathan's specific advice, most importantly as it pertains to whether one should consent to a search.

She states that if an officer asks for consent to search, you can decline, but fails to advise readers with the pros and cons of that decision. "If the cops don't have a search warrant, they may ask you to consent to a search - usually telling you that it'll be less trouble than making them come back with one." The next two sentences should be, "This is always a big fat lie. Tell them 'no' and direct them to the shortest route off your property." Instead, she just leaves that comment hanging.

She does go that far in another section, "10 Rules About Home Searches," stating, "Never sign the consent form. Always ask for a warrant." But the question of consenting to searches is raised in several other places, and her advice in those sections isn't nearly as clear and unambiguous.

Police get away with that kind of garbage at traffic stops all the time. On behalf of ACLU I've occasionally given "Know your rights" trainings to young people over the last few years, and one of the inevitable questions is, what if the officer says he'll bring in a dog if I don't consent. I tell them to call their bluff and decline, but Viswanathan says, "Whether you consent is up to you. You have the right not to consent, but if the manner of your nonconsent makes him suspicious, he might detain you longer." That's too weak, and doesn't tell a reader how to decline consent in a way that is non-suspicious.

Elsewhere, Viswanathan appears overly concerned with how the cop feels about you having rights. Here's her advice on consent searches. "Cops prefer if you consent to a search, because getting a search warrant can be a pain in the ass. You don't have to consent, but it's best to withhold consent in a way that doesn't make the cops suspicious."

She just leaves that line hanging, too. What should a non-lawyer do with that recommendation? I would have said, "Always refuse consent. Never give a police officer permission to search you, your car or your property. If need be, they can get a warrant."

Viswanathan is not a working criminal defense attorney. "She has practiced corporate litigation and has assisted in white-collar criminal defense cases," her book bio notes, and perhaps that explains her slightly academic approach, and the lack of more prescriptive how-to advice. The book is well written, though, and she does a good job conveying legal concepts to a lay audience without confusing them or dumbing down the subject matter.

If you're going to get The Street Law Handbook for a young person in your life, I'd strongly suggest packaging it with the DVD,
Busted! The Citizen's Guide to Police Encounters. (You can order the DVD online for $10 at They'd actually make a great companion set. (Ed. note: Grits discussed that video here.)

Busted!, narrated by former ACLU executive director Ira Glasser, gives some nuts and bolts details that Viswanathan left out. Most importantly, it provides concrete examples and language for how to refuse consent and how to manage interactions with officers in ways that don't cause a situation to escalate, the main missing component in The Street Law Handbook.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Drug war no longer a growth industry in Texas?

Thanks to Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith for forwarding the link to the free media preview of Nate Blakeslee's September feature about Tulia-style Texas drug task forces, aptly titled "The War on Thugs." You should read the whole thing yourself, but I HAVE to preserve this quote from his lede:
Over the past four years, close to a quarter of all narcs in Texas have been laid off, victims of a severe contraction in the state’s biggest anti-drug bureaucracy. Even more cuts may be on the way, depending on the outcome of a budget fight currently going on in Washington, D.C. The writing on the wall is easy to read: After almost two decades of lavish funding, the drug war is no longer a growth industry in Texas.

No longer a growth industry? In Texas?! How's that for a turning point? Don't stick around here any longer: Go read the rest. Good stuff, Nate, and good luck with your book on Tulia coming out this fall. Also, kudos to Evan Smith, who does as good a job as any editor I know promoting TM's stuff in the blogosphere.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

What they're reading at the Harris County probation department

A political acquaintance emails this fun news:
I was at a criminal justice seminar at the University of Houston Clear Lake and the speaker was with the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department and they passed out a blog you wrote regarding probation reform in Harris County Texas. ... The probation department has your blog info and is distributing it to their staff.
Nice to know SOMEBODY's reading this stuff. :-) Here's what Grits has published recently on the topic of Harris County jail overcrowding.

Harris County bail series

Why is the Harris County Jail overcrowded?

SEE ALSO: Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding.

"Trash in, trash out"

Checking in a little earlier than planned to post a correction: it turns out the number of probation absconders in Texas probably isn't as high as the official 77,000 figure cited during legislative debates over HB 2193. Indeed, Texas probably doesn't know the exact number of probation absconders because our system is so screwed up, though the number is likely less than 77K.

Here and here, Grits cited stats from a recent consultant's report that based its estimate of the number of absconders on the same source as state legislators. After I posted this item about Travis County's high absconder stats, I received word that the local probation department, although it was the source for the the statistics in question, didn't consider the numbers accurate. They apparently say the Travis number is so high (39% of the supervised population) because no one is ever taken off the absconder roles, so some probationers' names from the sixties are still there. Those criticisms made their way to me third-hand, and I haven't seen the stats yet to know for sure.

Meanwhile, though, the Dallas probation department was also interrogating the absconder numbers. The Dallas News had reported from the same source
Grits used, which it turned out more than doubled the actual number of absconders in Dallas last year. Like Travis, they're apparently keeping absconder names on the roles going back many years. Monday, Dallas News reporter Brooks Egerton revisited the absconder question:

Judge [Vickers] Cunningham and some department officials said they thought the report overstated the problem of unaccounted-for probationers.

The 10,000-plus figure is cumulative dating to the mid-1990s, Dr. [Jim] Mills said, not an annual number for 2004. The annual total for 2005 will be about 4,200 absconders, according to calculations he showed a reporter last week.

Dr. Mills acknowledged that his department's own faulty data, which had been submitted to state officials, formed the basis for the report's conclusion.

"Trash in, trash out," Judge Cunningham said.

A consultant who prepared the report said the uncertainty about the numbers is another sign of a department in disarray.

"They don't have any quality control," said Dr. Tony Fabelo, former director of the state's Criminal Justice Policy Council. "They cannot deliver the product."

So Dallas still loses about 11% of its probationers per year, a far cry from 22%, but still pretty poor. If it's true Travis' absconder list dates to the '60s, that would explain why their number looked like such an outlier compared to the others. Who knows how many probationers they really lose per year? It would also mean their quality control was even worse than Dallas'. Plus it's a waste of scarce county jail space to incarcerate an "absconder" whose probation term ran out 25 years ago.

Report author Dr. Tony Fabelo is the premier expert on Texas incarceration policy, and usually a stalwart source of quality analysis on these topics. But his conclusions can never be better than the data he's given to work with, and when probation departments report these loosey goosey numbers, they have only themselves to blame when the public asks, "You lost HOW many probationers?"

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Kings of the hill

The Mexican cartels feuding over distribution routes into Texas -- most notably I-35 running north from Nuevo Laredo to Dallas and beyond -- have taken control of most drug-related organized crime networks historically controlled by Colombian nationals, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

The Monitor reflects on how, as Grits
mentioned earlier, new laws in the United States restricting cold medicine and other "precursors" for home manufacturing of methamphetamines have rapidly transformed the meth production market, enabling large Mexican producers to fill the growing demand previously met by small domestic labs.

I don't know any more about what's going on at the border than what I read in the newspapers, but I'll say one thing: to judge by what's happening in Nuevo Laredo, the whole "tough on crime" approach hasn't worked too well for Mexico. According to the State Department, "Penalties for drug offenses are strict, and convicted offenders can expect large fines and jail sentences of up to 25 years."

CrimProf blog

Chief: Police association lawyers manufacturing polygraph results

The main benefit to Texas police officers of membership in a police association (which is the equivalent of a union in a right-to-work-for-less state) comes when their job is threatened, even or perhaps especially if they might be fired because of job-related misconduct. That's because the unions, having largely written their own employment laws at the state legislature, have a cadre of experienced lawyers with resources so vast even big cities like Austin or Houston find their legal staffs signficantly outgunned.

As opposed to a traditional union concept, in Texas departments that don't have collective bargaining police associations function more like a pre-paid legal fund.

Police association attorneys have a reputation for ruthless, scorched earth strategies -- they'd rather see a good police chief lose his job than a crooked line officer -- and that often makes them an enemy of accountability, even if they represent members of noble profession. It's just so seldom the noble ones, it seems, who need lawyers.

Hitchcock Police Chief Glen Manis' thinks attorneys from the
Texas Municipal Police Association are phonying up lie detector tests to save the job of Hitchcock Police Association President Chris Day. Day was fired for racial slurs directed at another officer, reported Scott Williams of the Galveston Daily News. (TMPA is a parent association for many smaller police associations around the state.)

“It kind of sends a red flag up to me that we give him a test and it’s inconclusive, but every time his attorney picks a tester for him he passes,” Chief Manis said. Day's lawyers claimed he passed three different polygraph tests, but those are not admissible in court because of unreliability.

Reported Williams, "Day was accused of opening files with pictures of a Bayou Vista officer’s family and typing racial epithets and expletives into those files." He has remained president of the police association despite losing his job.

Ironically, Day stands accused by a jailhouse snitch: A firefighter named Richard Gammill who was jailed earlier this year on unrelated charges involving alcohol and minors. Gammill claims he witnessed Day typing the slurs.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Don't federalize crimes because of unrelated weapons

I was quoted in the Odessa American newspaper Saturday regarding their new local-federal firearms task force, weighing in with a pro-Second Amendment comment:
Texas American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Scott Henson said he fears the task force will target ex-convicts [people] for firearms violations regardless of whether the circumstances pose a threat to public safety.

“One critique I’ve had has been of federalizing non-gun related crimes because the criminal owned an otherwise legal gun, sometimes hunting-oriented weaponry,” Henson said.

“Gun owners shouldn’t be automatically targeted for extra law enforcement attention unless the gun is being used as part of the criminal enterprise.

“A drug user, for example, or somebody cooking meth in their kitchen, shouldn’t be prosecuted more severely for the 12-gauge shotgun in the closet they use for bird hunting, but that kind of thing happens,” he said.

Lack of counsel, information, may contribute to bail barriers

This is the fourth in a series analyzing Harris County bail policies and their effect on jail overcrowding. See Parts One, Two, and Three.

Part of the reason Harris County judges
over the last decade required cash bond from those who are low-flight risks may stem from defendants' lack of representation at their bail hearing.

According to the JMI consultant's report, most defendants in Harris County aren't represented by counsel at their bail hearing. "Unless they have retained their own attorney, defendants are typically not represented by counsel when they first arrive at this courtroom, though if they request counsel a lawyer may be appointed to represent them during this session."

So, without a lawyer, what chance do defendants have, really to make their case for low bail or release on personal recognizance? Plus, even if they had attorneys, their lawyers aren't routinely getting information that might convince the judge to make bail less onerous.

An elaborate system exists in Harris County to identify lower risk defendants who don't necessarily need to be incarcerated while awaiting trial. The Pretrial Services unit goes to great lengths to prepare a 4-page "Defendant Report" for most defendants, which is provided to the magistrate at the bail hearing. That document summarizes information from interviews and assigns the defendant a risk category -- low-risk, medium risk, etc..

When a defendant is judged to be "low-risk," the Defendant Report should provide a good starting point to argue for low bail or release on personal bond. Often, though, that detailed assessment isn't a factor when judges set bail. According to JMI, "Some judges make extensive use of information in the Defendant Report when fixing a bail amount and setting other conditions of release, while others barely glance at the form or simply do not use the information at all."

What's more, even if a defendant retains counsel, their lawyer may not be able to get access to the risk assessment report. "The defense attorneys do not routinely receive a copy of the Defendant Report, but some judges try to make sure that they receive a copy."

Defendants without attorneys can't adequately argue for their release at a bail hearing. Attorneys without access to risk assessment information are in the same predicament. In both instances, the net effect is to increase the likelihood defendants will receive cash instead of personal bonds, meaning more people will be incarcerated pending trial in Harris County simply because they can't pay.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Should county government subsidize bail bond companies?

This is the third in a series analyzing Harris County bail policies and their effect on jail overcrowding. See Grits full Harris County jail and bail series linked here.
When one reads of the dramatic shift by Houston's elected judges from releasing defendants on "personal bond," or a promise to appear, to requiring them to post bail in cash, the obvious first question is, Cui bono?, or "Who benefits?" Obviously, elected judges and prosecutors benefit by portraying themselves as "tough on crime" in the next election, but the JMI consulting report hints at another answer -- bail bondsmen. The consultant posed the questions:
First, is it desirable to use the Pretrial Services Agency as a kind of publicly-supported guarantor or service provider for surety bond companies? In cases where a defendant on surety bond is released under special conditions that provide for monitoring and supervision by Pretrial Services, such monitoring and supervision should help ensure the defendant's law-abiding conduct and return for scheduled court appearances. One practical effect of this practice is to reduce the bonding company's risk, at no cost to the bonding company.

Second, to what extent does the pressure to provide supervisory services for defendants released on surety bond (including some defendants who can fairly be characterized as "high risk") tend to divert the agency's staff from performing other essential functions-in particular, (a) the supervision of defendants on personal bond for whom they have direct responsibility; and (b) obtaining and presenting information on low-risk defendants who remain in detention because of inability to post financial bond?
The report makes clear that, in the past, when defendants were released on cash bond, the bonding company took on pretty much full responsibility for their supervision. Today, though, at a time when more defendants than ever in Harris County must pay cash bonds, county Pretrial Services provides substantial supervision over large numbers of bonding agencies' clients. So what justifies the bonding companies' fat fees?

The JMI report never names names, but the authors implicitly accuse surety bond companies of privatizing their fees while Harris County Pretrial Services supervises their clients. The result doesn't just soak defendants and taxpayers, there are also opportunity costs: The policy "divert[s] the ageny's staff from performing other essential functions," especially
identifying low-risk offenders who shouldn't be detained.

If anybody in Houston wanted to take on a fun research project, it'd be interesting to go through the elected judges' contribution and expenditure reports at the Harris County Clerk's elections division to see how often bail bondsmen show up, and how much they give. Those county level contribution reports aren't online. Maybe next time I'm there ...