Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Odds and ends ... stuff I missed

While I've been catching up on sleep, reading email, and procrastinating returning a week's worth of phone calls, I wanted to mention several items I noticed recently that merit Grits readers attention:

R.I.P. David Ruiz (1942 - 2005).
David Ruiz -- whose litigation in the 1970s against Texas' prison system "transformed our prison from a backwards Southern plantation-style system into a modern penal system," according to former district judge Scott McCown -- died this weekend in a prison hospital in Galveston. ("Inmate who fought for prison reform dies," Houston Chronicle, Nov. 14) His courage and brilliant amateur lawyering dramatically improved prison conditions for hundreds of thousands of incarcerated Texans. May he rest in peace.

With or without task forces, drug use continues.
The drug task force in Kerrville is shutting down, with agencies making plans to finance their own local drug units in its stead. ("Drug task force may lose its funding," Kerrville Times, Nov. 15) It sounds, though, like the unit wasn't doing much good. “'Cocaine and marijuana we’ll always have,' [the task force commander] said. 'We’ll always have a problem with heroin (because of long-term addicts.)'" If that's the case, then, one wonders what benefit resulted from the task force's lock-em-up approach in the first place? I'll bet crime doesn't increase one iota as a result of the agency's demise -- as in Chambers County, a lot of folks being arrested probably aren't a threat to public safety.

Anatomy of a false conviction.
A Texas Ranger's false testimony helped send two legal immigrants to prison. Their convictions are being contested by attorneys hired by the Mexican consulate. ("Texas Ranger admits giving incorrect testimony at trial," Houston Chronicle, Nov. 15) Descriptions of the suspects given by the victim as she was dying were misstated in the Ranger's reports, and he failed to notify prosecutors of possibly exculpatory evidence.

Reporting prison rape.
Michelle Deitch thinks Texas shouldn't be criticized for reporting prison rape more often than other states, because most states just aren't collecting the information. ("On prison rape, Texas tries to report it right," Austin Statesman, Nov. 9)

A middle ground approach on the drug war. I mentioned two panels on criminal justice topics I attended at the Texas Book Festival, but here's a report from another one on drug violence and the Texas-Mexico border. ("To snuff the weed, kill the root," SA Express News, Nov. 13) Author Don Henry Ford, Jr. suggests a middle ground approach falling somewhere between "legalization" and our current failed strategies.

Driving over the speed limit is illegal, but we don't throw an offender in jail unless he endangers the lives of others. Fines and loss of driver's licenses and other privileges are used to force people to comply or face constant harassment. This is the approach we should take with people using drugs. Face these sanctions or enroll in treatment programs.

For those who continue to sell hard drugs, prison will remain a necessary evil. However, the excessive sentences now required are not effective. Prisons serve as training grounds; criminals enter as novices and are released as seasoned professionals.

I suggest shorter but tougher sentences spent in isolation cells for first-time drug offenders and any others deemed salvageable.

Maquiladora prisons? Mexico is contemplating them. ("Cross border prison industries, inc.," El Paso Newspaper Tree, Nov. 14)

Alabama confronts prison overcrowding. Alabama's Governor Riley says the state must implement recommendations from his prison crowding task force or face a fiscal crisis: "'It is not a radical approach. It's one that's been followed around the country. Alabama is in a minority in not having moved further forward in community corrections,' said Birmingham lawyer Bill Clark, a task force member." ("Riley sets his focus on prison reforms," Birmingham News, Nov. 12.)

The task force found that drug use was so pervasive in prisons, it's the wrong place for inmates who want to stop using.

"Instead of just putting them in this environment where their drug habit gets worse, their criminal record gets worse, they should be treated in a different environment," [a drug rehabilitation counselor on the panel] said.

Alabama's legislative session begins in January, when the task force's suggestions will be considered as formal legislation. (See also "Groups say prison not addicts' place," Montgomery Advertiser, Nov. 15) They like grits in Alabama, don't they? ;-)

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