Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Broken at every level: CCA needs new leadership

"The criminal justice system in Texas is broken at almost every level," the Houston Chronicle declared in its endorsement of Tom Price in his bid to unseat Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Chief Justice Sharon Keller in next week's GOP primary. Opined the Chronicle:
The incumbent, Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, has belatedly recognized that many indigent defendants in Texas don't get a fair shake. However, for years she has maintained that it is not the job of the courts to free innocent defendants from prison. The opinions she has written and joined have overlooked sleeping lawyers, constitutional ineligibility for the death penalty, police misconduct and evidence of innocence in order to keep defendants in prison.
That's not only all true, it actually understates how bad the CCA has been under Keller's reign. That's why Texas Monthly rightly named the CCA "Texas' worst court." (The Chronicle also endorsed state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, in his bid for a seat on Texas' highest criminal tribunal.)

See the Austin Statesman's coverage of the race for more.

Students voting to make UT-Austin SAFER

UPDATE: Congrats to SAFER Texas on their election victory.

UT-Austin students today get a chance to vote in a
plebiscite initiated by SAFER-Texas asking them to answer the following yes/no question:
“Should the university-imposed penalties for the use and possession of marijuana be no greater than the penalties currently imposed for the use and possession of alcohol on campus?”
The referendum is non-binding, but has already received much attention, including front page coverage in the Dallas Morning News. Lindsay at Majikthise wrote yesterday the drug policy reform movement should start small, aiming efforts and school boards and other local jurisdictions.This campaign fits that bill precisely. According to SAFER-Texas' press release issued this morning:
Students who support the referendum are encouraging the university to reduce sanctions for the use of marijuana so that students are not driven to drink. In December, the life of UT freshman Phanta "Jack" Phoummarath was lost to alcohol poisoning. Earlier this month in mid-morning, a UT student was found unconscious on campus and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services had to transport the student to the emergency room for treatment for alcohol poisoning.

"How many alcohol-related tragedies must occur on this campus before our university acknowledges that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol?,” asked Judie Niskala, UT Campus Coordinator for SAFER Texas. “We have received very positive feedback about our efforts from students on campus. These students understand the obvious truth – marijuana is simply less harmful than alcohol. They believe, as we do, that it is irrational to punish people more harshly for choosing to use a less harmful substance."

"We are optimistic that a strong majority of students will urge the administration to reduce university penalties for marijuana use and possession," continued Ms. Niskala. "Once they do, we hope university officials will demonstrate courage and commonsense and reform UT’s marijuana policies."

UT treats students who use marijuana more harshly than it treats students who use alcohol, even though marijuana is less harmful. UT is more likely to suspend a student for marijuana than alcohol, and punishes students for adult marijuana use at home unlike alcohol.

The UT Austin effort is part of a national public education effort initiated by a group called Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER). The SAFER campaign was originally launched January 2005 on the campuses of University of Colorado - Boulder and Colorado State University. Just four months earlier, two students -- Colorado State University sophomore Samantha Spady and University of Colorado freshman Lynn Bailey -- had died on these campuses from alcohol poisoning. SAFER argued that students should not be punished more harshly for using marijuana -- a drug that has never caused an overdose death - than for using a more dangerous drug, alcohol.
I think Lindsay's right that this is a good approach. Since it's non-binding, it's more public ed than substantive change, but the SAFER-Texas referendum makes an important statement about the real dangers from substance abuse, while building base among youth and opinion leaders who might support future reforms. If you're a UT Austin student, vote today for the SAFER-Texas initiative.

Monday, February 27, 2006

'Byrne Grant Substitute' task force from DEA makes Lubbock busts

A Grits commenter who's a retired DEA agent pointed out that a DEA task force in Lubbock has picked up where the now-defunct Byrne-grant funded one left off - indictments for 33 alleged members of a crack distribution ring were executed this week and most of the defendants rounded up. The commenter called the DEA task force a "Byrne Grant Substitute" and predicted other TX jurisdictions may team up with the feds after the Byrne money stops flowing next month.

Most of the pictures from the sting, as in Tulia, are of unkempt black people in their bedclothes being paraded before various local media like the subjects of a Communist show trial. That's ironic since the big news in Lubbock recently was an
uptick in violent crime due to white supremacist gangs - they're allegedly involved in drugs, too, but as happened up the road in Tulia, the DEA task force obviously targeted a different part of town. According to a press release from the US Attorney, most of the defendants in the DEA sting could face life sentences.

Apparently these task forces are DEA-led but have local staffing, much like Byrne task forces that had DPS-affiliated commanders. I have to wonder which agencies participated - if mulitiple counties were involved,
under state law I thought those officers are supposed to be under the command and control of the Texas Department of Public Safety, not DEA.

From what I understand, such DEA task forces have the same problems as the Tulia-style task forces that are nearly defunct in Texas, including a lack of accountability (from too many agencies with conflicting chains of command) and a focus on low-level street dealers instead of bigger fish. That's because local agencies who contribute staffing to DEA task forces pressure the feds to focus on small-time dealers locally instead of the big guys you usually think of DEA going after. That pressure will likely increase as Byrne grant money for drug task forces dries up. This'll be an important development to watch.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Cut and paste appeals for death row defendants

Chuck Lindell at the Austin Statesman reports ("Death row inmates share identical appeals," Feb. 26) on another black-eye incident for Texas' defense counsel and our system of indigent representation - one I think looks about as bad as the notorious "sleeping lawyer" case. Two death row inmates had nearly identical (and quite minimalist) appellate briefs filed on their behalf 1-1/2 years apart by a Houston lawyer, Leslie Ribnik, who also missed routine filing deadlines that will speed up one client's execution date. Ribnik's briefs were "word-for-word identical, right down to a capitalization error on page 17," Lindell reported, and avoided common death penalty appellate arguments to focus on one narrow claim.

For my attorney friends, how common is this? Are we living in the era of cut and paste lawyering?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Answering Harold Hurtt

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt asked, if you aren't doing anything wrong, why worry about cameras surveilling you in your apartment or home? Security and privacy expert Bruce Schneier put the question to his readers and was rewarded with many thoughtful and clever suggestions. And there's been lots more discussion throughout the blogosphere.

The answer from my original post on Chief Hurtt's outlandish proposal was quoted this week by Mike Snyder in the Houston Chronicle: "
Uh, because you respect the Constitution and personal liberty, maybe? The KGB used that same line in Communist Russia, one recalls, on their way to filling up a system of gulags."

Drug War Notes from Underground

In Central Turkey on the southen end of Cappadocia, Kathy and I visited several years ago a region where people once lived in amazing underground cities - the one we toured went seven stories deep, complete with fireplaces and ventilation shafts. The people mostly lived above ground but could flee below indefinitely in case of attack. That appears to be the strategy of a pot grower in Tennesee (see more photos) who constructed this underground growing facility in a cave adjacent to his house, complete with outdoor escape hatch. When you see this and think of the impressive cross-border drug tunnel discovered recently near Tijuana, it makes you wonder how much of America's drug trade has been driven literally underground. Via CrimProf Blog, which declares the technology in the pictured facility to have a "batman-villain" quality.

Austin has highest paid cops in nation

Via Officer.com, Austin, Texas has the highest paid police force in the country when compared to the cost of living, according to PolicePay.net. Plano, Lubbock, Corpus Christi and Dallas also made the top twenty. (Wanna bet that makes them the highest paid cops in the world?) Here are the wage scales for police in various Texas cities:

US Border Enforcement: From Horseback to High Tech

Deborah Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute has published a fine little essay on the history of the US Border Patrol, whose growth has skyrocketed over the last 30 years. Her historical perspective affords a refreshing alternative to the usual heated rhetoric on the topic. For example, I think it's easy to forget that there was no formal immigration enforcement on the Mexican border before 1904, and that:
Mexicans were able to enter the United States without quantitative limit prior to the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (implemented in 1968). And it was not until 1976 that Congress extended the strict, 20,000 per-country limit and preference system to countries in the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico.

By the late 1970s, migration pressures mounted in Mexico due to the new numerical restrictions. Apprehensions and deportations increased dramatically from earlier in the decade to more than one million annually. President Carter introduced a plan in 1977 to address illegal immigration that included enhanced enforcement efforts at the US-Mexico border.

By 1978, Congress had appropriated funds for 2,580 new Border Patrol staff, accounting for one-quarter of total Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) staff at that time.
So the frenzy about closing the southern border is pretty recent stuff - there was never a time when that border was closed, no golden era to hearken back to. It's just that 40 years ago, the same people crossing could have done so legally. It's also easy to forget how expensive this new approach has been, and how recently, in the scheme of things, policymakers have chosen to undertake that burden. The Border Patrol's budget, she reports, has grown more than 500% just in the past two decades.

Indeed, according to Meyers' data, when President Jimmy Carter launched the recent era of growth in 1977, perhaps fewer than 1,000 agents covered both northern and southern US borders. That figure quadrupled by the late '80s, then tripled again following passage of the Immigraton Reform and Control Act. By 2002, the article reports, the number of agents had risen to more than 11,600, plus another 6,000+ inspectors staffing various entry points.

I'm pretty sure that makes the Border Patrol the nation's largest law enforcement agency. One third of federal court cases now involve enforcing immigration status. I should mention that this big picture look makes it clear why President Bush's proposal for 1,500 more agents is on it's face insufficient if strict border enforcement is to be the sole response to illegal immigration - a symbolic gesture unlikely to resolve the issue to anyone's satisfaction.

Read the rest if you're interested in the topic. It's an informative, even-handed look at border enforcement containing a lot of history and data I didn't know.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Even more hyped border threats

Stories of an alleged military incursion on the Texas-Mexico border in January turn out to be just as baseless as allegations of Al Quaeda crossing the border -- another example of law enforcement exaggerating threats hoping to draw down homeland security money. I'd missed the Dallas News story saying so ("US, Mexico dispute Texas officers version of drug bust," Feb. 18), but at least the press is starting to run such recantations closer to the original misinformation in their news coverage:

[L]ocal officers say the incident involved heavily armed members of the Mexican military, adding yet more firepower to the violent and dangerous drug cartels trying to protect smuggling routes into the U.S.

U.S. and Mexican government officials say that the Mexican military was not involved and that the local officers exaggerated their account, playing up public fears in a bid to win support for increased funding for border security.

Texas sheriffs are lobbying for $34 million of $100 million in federal money earmarked for border security, money that would pay for additional sheriff deputies to act as a second line of defense behind Border Patrol agents.

"The sheriffs have found a way to get attention and hopefully increased resources for their poor counties, where law enforcement jobs represent the bread and butter of their economy," said Dennis Bixler-Marquez, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. "But at what expense and at whose expense?"

That's exactly right - they're hyping nonexistent threats at the expense of ignoring the real ones. I'm glad somebody's calling these guys on their BS, but doing so is a dangerous game -- try it, and the sheriffs might slur you, too. Congressman Sylvestre Reyes from El Paso questioned these most recent undocumented allegations and got smeared outrageously as a result: "I hear Reyes' doubts, and it only makes me question his loyalty to the United States of America," [Hudspeth County] Sheriff [Arvin] West said. "Why is he so cozy in bed with Mexico?"

A better question might be, why isn't Sheriff West cozier with the US homeland security apparatus? It turns out he didn't even report the alleged Mexican military incursion to the authorities, said the News:

Even so, as of Feb. 13, the threat had not been reported to the FBI or any other federal agency. Sheriff West explained: "What can the FBI do about it? I'd rather tell the media because at least the media will write about it."

Uh huh, why report a military incursion onto US soil to the federal government? Especially when the media will spread your misinformation so willingly? Plus, when you call the feds they keep focusing on all those annoying facts that don't seem to fit your story.

No border-based need to expand wiretapping

Here's a non-solution searching for a problem: Currently wiretapping in Texas is limited to prosecuting drug trafficking and murder, so Texas Governor Rick Perry announced he wants to expand eavesdropping authority to combat border violence. But that makes no sense - aren't drug running and murder exactly the crimes we're trying to stop on the border? How much more authority could they possibly need to use wiretaps to combat smuggling rings? The whole thing seems like an odd non-sequitur - another idea promoted for show that doesn't make anyone safer.

A preponderance of misunderstanding

The US Supreme Court says that a preponderance of the evidence must point to the voluntariness of consent when officers perform so-called "consent searches" at traffic stops. The Texas Constitution, though, requires that "clear and convincing" evidence be presented that consent was granted voluntarily. So what's the difference?

Not much, apparently, if you're a juror who never understood the legal jargon in the first place. From
The Texas Pattern Jury Charges Plain-Language Task Force ran its first test of the original admonitory instructions last week. Here is one tidbit.

When asked to give a percentage for how sure you must be to conclude that something was proved by a "preponderance of the evidence," the 25 test jurors gave the following percentages:



Of course, the correct answer is 51% or "more likely than not," which is the language California used in its new jury instructions in place of "preponderance of the evidence."
That's one of the sorry legacies of logorrheic law profs. Avoiding jurors having to wade through impenetrable legalese is one of the few upsides to the otherwise lamentable modern preponderance of plea bargains over jury trials. More than a preponderance, really - less than 1% of criminal cases in Texas ever make it to a jury anymore. When they do, I wonder how many jurors simply misunderstand what it is they're being asked to decide?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Something for Everyone: Magic Grits and Scalia Bashing

I went this mornng to hear Randy Barnett expound before the UT-Austin Federalist Society on the perhaps-odd subject of whether Antonin Scalia is insufficiently committed to "originalism." Barnett first became known to me as a contributor at the Volokh Conspiracy, then as the losing top litigator on behalf of the plaintiff in Raich v. Ashcroft. That case legitimized federal prosecution of medical marijuana-consuming patients in states where it was otherwise legal - in describing the loss Barnett said that at 6-3 against, his side had "beat the spread."

Anyway, if you're interested in why he thinks Justice Scalia is a big fat sellout, see
his paper on the topic. For purposes of this post, though, I'm pleased to report that when I approached Barnett afterward and mentioned this blog, he was immediately ready with a cultural reference to grits I'd not recalled, a scene from the movie My Cousin Vinny where Joe Pesci uses newfound knowledge of southern cooking to confound a witness who he's personally interrogating on the stand:
Vinny Gambini: How could it take you five minutes to cook your grits when it takes the entire grit-eating world 20 minutes?
Mr. Tipton: Um... I'm a fast cook, I guess.
Vinny Gambini: [across beside the jury] What? I'm sorry I was over there. Did you just say you were a fast cook? Are we to believe that boiling water soaks into a grit faster in your kitchen than any place on the face of the earth?
Mr. Tipton: I don't know.
Vinny Gambini: Perhaps the laws of physics cease to exist on your stove. Were these magic grits? Did you buy them from the same guy who sold Jack his beanstalk beans?
The "entire grit-eating world." :-) You also don't hear folks talk about "a grit" very often. Outstanding. That was worth the cost of admission. Let me know if you're aware of any other good grits-related stories like that.

Here's a nice surprise: DAs race in Hays County focuses on solutions

Texas' legislation to deal more sensibly with low-level offenders may have been vetoed in 2005, but even if that legislative battle was lost, how Texans talk about such issues in the political arena may be changing.

A case in point: Three people including a commenter (Thanks, David!) excitedly let me know about a
TV news story today covering the GOP primary race in Hays County for District Attorney. Hays is a suburban/rural county south of Austin whose county seat is San Marcos. Both Repub candidates distanced themselves from the "merciless" approach of their predecessor to talk about diversion programs for low-level offenders, the best focus for valuable jail space and how to spend criminal justice resources to maximize safety. Reported Channel 8 News:
When it comes to prosecuting criminals, very little separates the priorities of Hays County Republican District Attorney candidates Wesley Mau and Paul Velte IV.

"We need to focus our real efforts in the trials that we do, on the hard core criminals like child molesters, rapists and murders," said Mau.

Velte agreed and said, if elected, he would spend time making room for those criminals.

"I'd get people out of jail that really don't need to be there. What we need to do is conserve jail space for the people that you and I need protection from," Velte said.

Both Velte and Mau said the current district attorney, Michael Wenk, has handled all cases, big and small, with the same merciless approach throughout his two terms. That, in addition to a growing county, has resulted in a backlog in cases both plan to address.

"I think if you manage your cases well and you work your cases early and resolve them before people arrive to court...you can reduce a whole bunch of that backlog," Velte said.

Mau agreed and said he plans to look at different techniques of moving cases through the process.

"We need to look at some of the new research on how to deal with cases and find out what's the best way to handle different kinds of crimes and rehabilitate those you're interested in rehabilitating," Mau said.

Let me tell, you, the DA's association could only benefit from more members in it who respect words like "research" and "rehabilitation" or who look at jail populations wondering who "really needs to be there" - in the past, DAs were the first ones at the Lege to fight the least reforms affecting their fiefdoms. That's how we got in this mess.

Regular readers know I've spent a lot of time gathering examples of different ways Texas counties can combat overincarceration in local jails - a problem exacerbated by overflowing state prisons, wasted beds from entrepeneurial schemes, then Hurricane Rita. At the local level, these problems may have reached a tipping point where they're simply too important to ignore any longer. Maybe that makes them safe to talk about. That both DA candidates in a GOP primary look at it that way (and they come from very different legal backgrounds) says to me there's a growing consensus in Hays County that it's time for a change in appoach.

If the Democrat in the race turns around and runs a bunch of tuff-on-crime ads against the Rs over this I'll be mad as a wet hen.

The Hurtt Prize

Turning the tables, or the cameras, on a terrible idea, Matt Asher has created the Hurtt Prize, a cash award which goes to the first person to capture Houston police chief Harold Hurtt on video committing any violation of the law. Contribute to the award - the bounty is up to $1,465 as of this writing - or grab your digital camera and compete for the prize. I like the idea of the commenter who said the prize should be broken up to give $1 each for amateur pictures of Hurtt engaging in banal activities throughout the day, just to see how the chief likes it. After all, why would you mind if you're not doing anything wrong? Via Jim Skipper.

UPDATE: Kuff has more, discussing this Houston Chronicle article. CK's point about no written guidelines is dead on: Texas doesn't have any.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Roundup: Things I'd blog about if I had time

Here are a few brief items that deserve more bloggerly attention than I have time to give them:

Digging drug courts on the right.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, says in a well-argued policy brief that drug courts are the "right prescription for Texas" (pdf). The document was authored by Marc Levin, whose recent op ed on overcriminalization I highlighted here.

Finding what works.
The Consensus Project has posted what looks to be an interesting report from the Washington State Insititute for Public Policy on "Evidence Based Adult Corrections Programs: What Works and What Does Not?" (pdf). Among the findings: Drug courts demonstrate statistically significant reductions in recidivism. The 20-page document makes recommendations to the Washington State Legislature.

Out in the west Texas town of El Paso ...
From Immigration Law Prof, check out Bill Hing's account of his recent visit with a delegation to El Paso to discuss immigration topics with the locals. Good stuff.

Okay, so there's like one guy, and they shot him. Molly Ivins and Clay Robison both say Harry Whittington, the Texas lawyer who Dick Cheney shot in the face last week, is considered a liberal among Republicans on criminal justice matters and an advocate for prisoners' rights. A couple of other long-timers have told me that, too.

Fronting the privateers.
Thanks to Catonya for pointing out that the City of Wichita Falls has agreed to finance the $550,000 annual budget of the North Texas Drug Task Force for the next 2-4 years, subsidizing 23 other area jurisdictions. The money will supposedly be paid back, as discussed earlier, with cash from prospective asset forfeiture cases. Reports the Times Record News, "The task force's funding will be run through the City of Wichita Falls. Because of a two to four year lag in seized fund availability, Wichita Falls will front the task force's operational expenses and wait to be paid back."

Reveal secret snitch agreements.
The 9th Circuit wants snitch agreements revealed to defendants before trial, says CrimProf blog. That's similar to some Texas legislation that cleared the House Criminal Juriprudence Committee last year but failed to finally pass.

CA tries deincarceration.
While on the subject of California, that state will shift 40% of incarcerated women from prisons to group homes to let them be near their families and have better access to education/job training, but OSAPian doesn't like it. Doc Berman wrote about it, too.

Congrats to Alaskablawg
on the big win. Apparently the occasion gave him the opportunity to use the phrase "lying sack of snitch" in a public setting.

Fallen Heroes: Texas Monthly's entire March issue is devoted to the Iraq war, including bios of all fallen Texas soldiers so far and excerpts from a Texan soldier/blogger. Thanks to Evan Smith for the media preview link.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Drop-in visits, progressive sanctions examples of stronger probation

I argue frequently that Texas' probation system should be strengthened, that it would make us safer if offenders received greater supervision in the first two to three years after low-level crimes, then had ways to earn their way off probation through good behavior. In terms of on-the-ground supervision, though, what would "stronger probation" look like?

An article from the Corpus Christi Caller Times ("
Ding Dong, Probation Calling," Feb 20) offers one example - home visits, in some cases including visits by District Judge Tom Greenwell alongside the probation officer! Violations are punished with short jail stints, at least at first, not automatically revoked probation, so offenders are given a chance to learn from their mistakes and still succeed instead of automatically winding up in prison on the taxpayers' dime.

Right now hardly any Texas probation departments do home visits (much less Texas judges - kudos, Judge Greenwell!), but
new funding in the state budget hinges on reducing probation revocations, giving counties incentives to try new things. Though the article doesn't say so, that's likely how this program is paid for - new state budget riders require counties to adopt "progressive sanctions" for probationers like those described in the article to receive extra funds. It's a neat example of what counties can do with the new money if they get creative. Hell, the truth is, home visits aren't even that creative - it just seems like going the extra mile in the context of a broken system. The Nueces County program is called "Aspire":
Aspire began in April, and offenders are required to look for work if they aren't already working and are encouraged to continue their education.

Rios said the program's goals are to get the probationers employed, substance-free and to help them learn positive life skills.

Javed Syed, director of Nueces County Community Supervision & Corrections, said he has been encouraging his officers to be creative in helping probationers and to get out of the office more.

It was with the help of Greenwell, a Republican who is running for re-election against Democrat Robert Zamora in November, that the program got off the ground, he said.

Probation officer supervisor William Shull said the probationers in Aspire are only part of the work that his officers do every day.

"Each officer has about 125 (probationers) on their workload," Shull said. "This is nice because it's a small group of 24."

Officer Monica Villagomez said the program offers something that many of the offenders need.

"A lot of them don't have structure in their lives," she said. "Our goal is not to put them in prison but to help them."

That's the kind of approach needed more broadly across Texas, but Governor Perry vetoed stronger probation statewide. Still, some counties have started new programs to qualify for money from the budget riders, including creating specialized courts to give probationers more attention. I hope we see a lot more no-nonsense programs like Aspire spring up around Texas.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Lock picking, explosives - SWAT cops party in Dallas

If the whole Texas SWAT (CourtTV) or Dallas SWAT (A&E) phenomenon is your idea of good reality television, some of your heroes will likely be at the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association's upcoming conference in Dallas April 1-6. It looks like quite a shindig, if you're into that sort of thing. The 2,000 member (yikes!) association was created to train and promote communication between members of Texas SWAT teams. Can you imagine such a testosterone-filled bunch getting together in Dallas to party? I wonder if anyone will order beer?

Participants in the trade show
read like a list of arms dealers. My favorite conference event, I think, is the session training cops in lockpicking skills and supplying them with burglary tools:
Covert Lock Defeating for Law Enforcement
This course will teach students the fundamentals of covert lock defeating, including lock picking and lock by passing. The course will include a starter lock pick set. A comprehensive manual covering all of the techniques in the class will be available for purchase during the class, for $20.00.

Covert Lock Defeating for LE 8 hrs. - Mon or Tues Host Hotel
Covert Lock Defeating for LE 8 hrs. - Mon or Tues Host Hotel

Instructor Biography - Darby Darrow

Darby Darrow has been a police officer for the city of San Diego since 1986 and is currently assigned to the full time SWAT unit. Mark Willhelm has been a police officer for the city of San Diego since 1989 and is also assigned to the full time SWAT unit.

Required Equipment
All needed equipment will be provided in the classroom, with the exception of pen/paper.
There are other interesting topics, too - cops who want to learn to use explosives to blow your front door down can attend a course at Texas Stadium (after all, the Cowboys' spring training hasn't started yet). Learn how to perform "bus assaults." Two cops from Houston will teach a course on "covert or deliberate searches." And it'd be interesting to be a fly on the wall to hear this discussion of Mexican drug cartels and border violence.

The fellow giving the training on how to handle the aftermath of police shootings authored a book in 2004 in which,
according to Publisher's Weekly, "He disparages 'antipolice activists and other windbags' and doesn’t seem to have interviewed anyone whose shooting was found to be unjustified." Probably a regular Grits reader, don't you think?

Via Terry Nall

Saturday, February 18, 2006

What's the difference between a pirate and a privateer?

Will Bailey: "I was just going to ask you if by any chance the First Lady is a distant relative of a pirate."
CJ Cregg:
"He wasn't a pirate, he was a privateer."
Will Bailey:
"He was a professional pirate."
CJ Cregg:
"Yes, but he worked for us and he was hired by the fathers of the Daughters of the American Revolution."

"The West Wing," Fourth season, Privateers, Broadcast 3-26-03
The North Texas Drug Task Force based in Wichita Falls has declared that, with federal funds dried up, it now intends to finance itself solely off seized assets, mostly interdicted off the highway - sort of like pirates living off the boats they plunder on the high seas. Err, excuse me ... privateers.

UPDATE: See more approving coverage from the Wichita Falls Times Record News (reg. required), including this recent forfeiture account.

Friday, February 17, 2006

MH funds not enough, but better than a sharp stick in the eye

Well it's a start. AP reports that Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick have agreed to free up $13.4 million of the $41 million needed to fix the backlog of mentally incompetent inmates waiting in county jails for space in the state mental hospital system. The Houston Chronicle quoted a mental health advocate whose views mirror mine on the topic:
"We are pleased to see the state hospitals get an influx of money to take care of people that would otherwise be languishing in jails," said Denise Brady, director of public policy at the Mental Health Association in Texas.

"However, if we had better funded community health systems, people wouldn't get into a crisis in the first place," Brady said.

"At some point, we have to see the bigger picture and stop slapping Band-Aids on it."

UPDATE: Surely the client decribed by Injustice Anywhere should be at the top of the list for new spending, waiting SIX MONTHS in the county jail after being declared incompetent for a state hospital bed to open up!! One of IA's commenters declares, "In Oregon, we sued the state to force the state hospital to take county jail inmates who were awaiting beds at the hospital so they could be evaluted. We won. The Ninth Circuit opinion is entitled Oregon Advocacy Center v. Mink. P"

See prior Grits coverage of this topic:

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Searching for consent at Texas traffic stops

A funny thing happened on the way to interpreting Texas' racial profiling data -- it turned out minorities weren't the only ones being subjected to unnecessary searches at traffic stops.

Thirty percent of searches at Texas traffic stops are so-called "consent searches" performed (ostensibly) with drivers' permission without probable cause, according to a
new report (pdf) published by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in collaboration with ACLU of Texas, NAACP of Texas and Texas LULAC. (Conflict alert: I'm listed as an editor in the report's acknowledgements and the authors, Molly Totman and Dwight Steward, are friends and colleagues.)

It's certainly the case that minorities were more likely to be searched at about 2/3 of law enforcement agencies surveyed. But TCJC's study reveals that large disparities also exist from department to department that in many cases are larger than disparities by race.

For example, at the Austin PD, 7.3% of searches at traffic stops were "consent searches"; at the Travis County Sheriff the figure was 10.9%. By contrast, just south of here in Hays County, 53.1% of searches performed by Sheriff's deputies at traffic stops were consent searches. At the San Marcos PD, the figure was 55.3%. (Both Austin PD and the Travis County Sheriff
require officers to obtain written consent before searching vehicles at traffic stops without probable cause.)

Bottom line: That means the Hays County Sheriff and San Marcos PD are focusing significantly more police resources, comparatively speaking, on searches where officers don't have probable cause to search than their neighbors to the north. Indeed, some departments are spending even more time than that on unproductive consent searches. In my hometown of Tyler, 67.2 percent of searches at traffic stops were consent searches. At the El Paso PD and the El Paso County Sheriff's Department, the figures were 76% and 77%, respectively.

Officers' time is a valuable resource, and spending it on consent searches that mostly discover nothing isn't worth the taxpayers' investment. Reported TCJC, "A police union representative told the Texas legislature in 2005 that in his experience, 'the vast majority of the time we found nothing.'" (The Legislature last year
passed SB 1195 which would have required officers to obtain written or recorded consent to search at traffic stops, but Governor Perry vetoed the bill.)

Looking at search figures by race reveals equally interesting patterns. Certainly racial disparities exist that are still troubling and important to address. At the Harris County Sheriff's Department, for example, blacks are 1.5 times more likely to be consent searched than whites, and Latinos are 1.3 times more likely to undergo such searches. In neighboring Fort Bend County, those figures are 1.7 and 1.4 times, respectively -- sounds pretty similar, right?

Digging deeper, though, it turns out drivers of all races are much more likely to be searched by the Fort Bend Sheriff's Department than the Harris County Sheriff. In Harris County, deputies consent search blacks at 4.6% of stops, Latinos at 4.1% of stops, and whites at 3.04%. In Fort Bend County, though, deputies search all races at much higher rates: Blacks were consent searched at 18.42% of stops, Latinos at 15.75%, and whites at 11.11% of traffic stops.

In other words, white drivers stopped by deputies in Fort Bend County are more than twice as likely to be subjected to consent searches than black people stopped by the Harris County Sheriff! The racial disparities are significant, but the Fort Bend Sheriff's Department engages in consent searches much more frequently than its more populous and racially diverse neighbor.

More to come soon on the details and recommendations from this fascinating report. But Texas bloggers (or the MSM, for that matter), who'd like to check out similar stats for their local jurisdictions should download the
full report (pdf), or look at these area-specific fact sheets on TCJC's website.

Over the top: Houston chief wants cameras in apartments, private homes

Houston police chief Harol Hurtt has a delusion -- several, actually, but the one I'm referencing at the moment is his notion that installing surveillance cameras will help Houstonians feel safer and reduce crime. Hurtt not only wants to put cameras in public spaces downtown, he also wants to force new malls and apartment complexes to install camera systems with direct feeds to the police department as part of the building permit process, maybe even in private homes.

As for privacy,
Hurtt told reporters, "If you're not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?" Uh, because you respect the Constitution and personal liberty, maybe? The KGB used that same line in Communist Russia, one recalls, on their way to filling up a system of gulags.

Beyond privacy concerns there's a bigger problem: empirically cameras simply don't reduce crime. London, England today is the
most surveilled city in the world. You supposedly can no longer walk outside in London without your image being captured by police on CCTV, or closed circuit television, as the Brits refer to it. Those cameras were installed in reaction to IRA terrorism, and are as integrated into their day-to-day police practices as any city in the world. Their cops have invested a lot of capital, political and monetary, into promoting them.

Facts are facts, though, and when the British Home Office (that nation's top law enforcement agency) last year released a long-term study on the topic, it revealed that surveillance cameras
didn't reduce crime, confirming previous research. Reported the 2-24-05 London Evening Standard:
The findings [came] as a blow to the Home Office, which has trumpeted CCTV as a key crime-fighting weapon for the past 10 years.

The report's author, Professor Martin Gill of the University of Leicester, said: "For supporters these findings are disappointing. For the most part CCTV did not produce reductions in crime and did not make people feel safer."

The only one of the 14 schemes found to be a success was targeted at car parks, where it led to a significant drop in vehicle crime. Other schemes in city centres, residential areas and hospitals produced no clear benefits.

I know Hurtt probably doesn't read the British papers, and to be fair this is a fad among many in US law enforcement, but London's experience shows that, as a crime fighting tool, surveillance cameras are an expensive, fruitless boondoggle outside very narrow, well-defined circumstances. I've discussed before reasons why that might be true. Plus, as I told the Associated Press:
"Cameras can be defeated with very high tech means, like sunglasses and hats and disguises," Henson said, laughing. "So it is very easy to thwart the cameras, but if something happens, officers have to watch hours and hours and hours of video. And while they are doing that, they are not investigating crimes."
That last bit about cops wasting time watching video isn't just me talking. I borrowed the notion from a London cop/blogger who wrote in January that "CCTV viewing occupies a disproportionate amount of police time with very little tangible result. This fact is well known to street criminals." When both cops and the street criminals know they don't actually combat crime, the only reason left to favor cameras is to fool the public into thinking you're doing something as a PR stunt.

While cameras may not make us safer, there's no question they make us
more exposed to possible privacy violations. Mayor White needs to shut down this bad idea before it gets off the ground. As I wrote earlier this morning, if Houston thinks they need more enforcement, the city should hire more cops - to quote a past Grits commenter, "There's no replacement for boots on the ground - none."

See also:
CCTV coverage from SpyBlog, and BlogHouston's discussion and followup.

UPDATE: Dallas PD wants more cameras, too, says DallasBlog.

Bloggers hyping crime stats should seek real solutions

BlogHouston has been on a kick recently trashing Mayor Bill White for Houston's understaffed police department, but they frequently appear more concerned with attacking a political enemy than fixing problems like police response times. I'm actually not a fan of Bill White, but that doesn't make unfair criticisms justified.

this post, Kevin quotes Chief Harold Hurtt spuriously comparing Houston to Chicago, declaring that the "number of officers per square mile in Houston is less than eight, while the country's next biggest city — Chicago — has nearly 60. " Well, yeah, and there's a one-word reason for that: "Sprawl." Heard of it? Chicago is an incredibly dense city, while Houston goes on for miles and miles. In terms of officer to population ratios, which is the more important way to look at police staffing, Houston's ratio looked a little worse after Katrina evacuees tacked on 10% to the city's population, but it's still roughly in line with other Texas cities - around 2 officers per thousand residents. Chicago's ratio is higher, but then they also have higher homicide rates than Houston, and again, they're a denser city with different needs -- how many cops in Houston walk a beat?

this item Kevin complains about declining HPD response times, but seems more interested in blaming Mayor White than finding solutions. Here's an easy fix for that I'll bet we won't see the BlogHouston folks trumpeting: Create a "verified response" policy for commercial and residential alarm systems requiring companies like ADT to confirm a crime has been committed before dispatching police to the scene. Right now false alarm rates hover in the 99% range in cities without verified response, wasting tens of thousands of officer hours each year. Stop that wasteful subsidy and it'd be like adding dozens of new cops on the street each shift.

Not to be outdone,
Anne suggests that eliminating bottled water purchases and disallowing city employees from receiving additional training might pay for more police (a notion for which Greg rightly slaps her), but her more serious revenue proposal - linking red light camera revenue to police funding - is an even worse idea. If that were to happen, the moment critics like her and Kevin start bashing the city next time around you'd inevitably see reductions in yellow light times to increase revenue, making everybody less safe at the end of the day. After all, a lot more people get hurt in car accidents than get shot.

It's worth mentioning that
according to the Washington Post, despite a hopefully short term spike in homicides, Houston's overall crime rate actually declined by 2% last year. Moreover, while Houston's homicides increased, they're still just over half the number the city experienced in 1991, when there were 608 homicides compared to around 326 last year (the last '05 total I could find.)

If Houston wants to hire hundreds of new officers, they won't pay for it with cuts in bottled water purchases and it'd be foolish to pay for it with red light camera revenues. That's why God created taxes. Raise them, if you want to. But for heaven's sake then don't whine about it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

SA suburbs may install red light cameras

The San Antonio Express News has a story this morning about two SA suburbs installing red light cameras at area intersections. As it happens I was quoted in the story:
"It's just a way to soak the taxpayers, and it doesn't benefit public safety in practice," said Scott Henson, director of the Police Accountability Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
One of the reporters, Patrick Driscoll, also has a good blog post providing lots more resources on the topic, including a link to a Texas Transportation Institute study (pdf) which he said was cut from the article. That analysis found adding one second to yellow light times would reduce red light running by 40%.

I've always wondered why, if cities like Houston, Garland or these SA suburbs are so concerned about traffic safety, they don't try lengthening yellow light times first. The only reason I can think of is that they're doing it to generate new revenue, not really to make the roads safer.

Texas Public Policy Foundation criticizes "overcriminalization"

Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, has posted a fine op ed on their website criticizing "overcriminalization" of minor, offensive behaviors in federal law, pointing the provisions under which Cindy Sheehan and Beverly Young were arrested at the State of the Union for wearing t-shirts with political messages about the war. Other unnecessary laws, he declares, could be used to prosecute anonymous bloggers. While charges against Sheehan and Young were dropped, Levin writes
the rest of us must live knowing there are thousands of similarly vague federal crimes lending themselves to arbitrary enforcement.

For example, annoying someone on the Internet is now a federal crime punishable by up to two years in federal prison. The provision is buried in the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act signed into law by President Bush on January 5, 2006. A provision entitled “Preventing Cyberstalking” was added to the bill by Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

The provision, which appears in Section 113 of the legislation, states: “Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under Title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

This new law could be used to prosecute anonymous blogs that ridicule politicians or even anonymous messages sent through dating websites. What the sender considers to be a romantic greeting could be found annoying by the recipient.

While on some days I can think of a few anonymous bloggers I'd like to see incarcerated, that's purely out of personal spite - it's astonishing that there might be a legal justification to criminalize anonymous blog critics. Levin thinks the "provision almost certainly violates the First Amendment in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, which struck down state restrictions on anonymous political pamphlets. Surely, constitutionally protected speech in print is also protected online," he writes.

I couldn't agree more. I'm also glad to see Levin's sensible conservative commentary regarding overcriminalization and immigration reform. He declares:
while immigration reform is needed, it also raises the specter of overcriminalization. Legislation passed by the House is pending in the Senate that imposes a three-year mandatory minimum prison sentence on anyone who, with an expectation of financial gain, “assists, encourages, directs, or induces” two or more foreigners to illegally reside in the U.S. While this provision is likely intended to apply to large businesses that employ illegal immigrants, it could also imprison ordinary Americans who unwittingly hire an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper, nanny, or gardener.
He's right - the proposed law amounts to swatting flies with a baseball bat. You might kill some flies, but you're also likely to leave big holes in your walls and bust up the furniture pretty good while you're at it.

As always, I'm glad to see TPPF addressing these subjects head on. Combating overcriminalization isn't a conservative or liberal issue. It's an American issue. Anyone who respects the Constitution and the Bill of Rights should be concerned. As Levin warned:

Ultimately, if the government is empowered to arrest us for annoying messages on t-shirts, all of our freedoms are in danger of being stripped away.

Tough on some crime: Former task force officer's conviction tossed on technicality

Why is it that cops in Texas seem to be the only ones anymore who get criminal cases thrown out because of technicalities?

Here's a case in point: Former Chambers County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Dearl Hardy was convicted in 2004 of pressuring one of his officers to perjure himself to make a false arrest against a man who'd successfully sued the department for racial profiling. But a Houston appeals court overturned the conviction because no witness was presented saying that the pressured deputy signed the arrest affidavit in the presence of a notary.

No one disputes that the affidavit WAS signed in front of a notary, it's just that no witnesses were presented at trial saying so.

Such "technicalities" for other defendants are routinely cast aside by Texas appeals courts as "harmless error," but when a police officer is the defendant, we see an overarching zeal for every i to be dotted. It's fine to say the judges are following the law, but how to explain the double standard? Reported today's Baytown Sun:

Hardy, who held the department’s number two slot during the first two years of Monroe Kreuzer’s tenure as sheriff that ended in 2005, was convicted of pressuring a deputy to file a false probable cause affidavit accusing Anahuac man Vernon Coates of drunk driving in September 2001. ...

Coates, a black man, had had several well-publicized encounters with Chambers County deputies that led to charges of racial profiling. Coates later filed a civil rights violations lawsuit against the county, for which he accepted a $120,000 settlement in December 2003.

Joslin testified that Hardy called him from home and told him he “wanted Joslin to charge Coates with a DWI or else.” Joslin testified he believed he would be fired if he did not charge Coates.
Sounds like a cut and dried case of retaliation, doesn't it? The District Attorney has asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider the case, since the decision was based on a 50-year old CCA case that a dissenting judge said was contradicted by facts in the case and other precedent:
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Leslie Brock Yates cites a 1995 appeals court case, Martin V. State, which defined an oath as “a pledge to act in a truthful and faithful manner.”

Yates writes that unlike in the Lowry case cited by the majority, in the Hardy case Joslin admitted he committed perjury because he felt threatened by Hardy. She also notes that other witnesses testified Joslin was visibly upset after the call from Hardy and “complained that he could not believe he ad to file a DWI against Coates.”

Yates cites two more recent appeals court cases, from 1995 and 2003 that suggest “a notarized affidavit may suffice for a legally administered oath.”

“These cases recognize the difficulty of demanding rigid adherence to searing formalities. Similarly, the existence of a technical defect in Joslin’s affidavit should not negate his testimony in which he admitted that he intended to and did commit perjury under (Hardy’) order,” she writes.
It's hard not to get the impression that judges in the majority were just looking for an excuse to clear the former officer, who has since launched an unlikely career as a Christian gospel singer. Hardy was assistant commander of the notorious Chambers County Narcotics Task Force, where according to the Texas Observer he pressured an undercover officer to make drug cases she didn't feel had been proven. The Observer also reported claims by a subordinate that Hardy pressured officers to stop and search vehicles without probable cause to boost the task force's asset forfeiture numbers. Thank heaven, at least, he's now out of law enforcement.

It's often said that Texas is a "tough on crime" state, but that statement deserves a caveat - we're tough unless the alleged crime was committed by a cop.

Accidental truth

A drug task force in Arkansas accidentally spilled some truth in a Pine Bluff newspaper article while complaining about the Bush Administration's drug task force cuts:
“We can go out and arrest somebody and we don’t have any jail space because we’ve got a jail full of people that commit violent crimes so we have to turn around and let them loose,” [task force Sgt. Dick Madsen] said. “It’s like fishing in a bass tournament. You catch a fish and release it and that way you still have a population of bass in the lake . That’s what we’re doing and we’ve never won a tournament.”

Even with a new jail under construction, Madsen said people are needed to “do the fishing.”

“You’re not going to catch the fish to put in the jail,” he said.
I've been saying exactly that - focusing on arrests for drug crimes by definition diverts attention from more serious offenses who actually harm or endanger others. Of course, task force officals try to conflate the two:
“There’s probably less than 10 percent of all crimes in our jurisdiction that are not drug related,” Madsen said. “There’s embezzlement to buy drugs, thievery from hospitals and pharmacies to get drugs, burglaries to get money to buy and drugs and they’re killing each other because of drug disputes.”
If you really think they're all the same people and the jails are full, why not spend more time pursuing embezzlers, burglars and murderers? After all, at most a small fraction of drug users ever commit more serious crimes. For most folks targeted by local drug task forces, their worst offense is purchasing and using drugs, or dealing at a very low level to support their habit.

But if you admit that it's harder to justify huge sums of federal pork coming your way. No wonder the Bush Administration wants to get rid of the Byrne grant program.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Now everybody's a terrorist

As Rep. Pena rightly points out, Texas border security problems are very real, and they're caused by drug runners feuding over lucrative distribution routes. But in pitching for federal money, Gov. Rick Perry and our Texas politicos don't seem to think the truth is enough to spur federal action, and instead insist on playing the terrorism card, an assertion for which there is no factual basis. This weekend the Houston Chronicle quoted the Governor saying:
"The illegal activity along the border is escalating. Well-armed narco-terrorists are becoming increasingly bold," [Perry] said.
The conflation of terrorism with drug running takes full form on Governor Perry's protectingtexasborders.com website where he queries, "What is America doing to keep terrorists from crossing the border?," pitching his border security initiative as directly combating Al Quaeda. I've watched government enough to understand why politicians hype threats when seeking to secure funding. You see it all the time. My problem is this - if you target the wrong threat, the money spent to "solve" the problem won't make anyone safer. Reforms aimed at "terrorists" won't stop the drug cartels. Reforms targeting illegal border crossings by immigrants won't stop the cartels, either.

Going after the drug cartels is
difficult enough - they just murdered two police chiefs in the Mexican interior and last week killed a journalist in Nuevo Laredo. For border residents, the public safety problems posed by illegal immigration pale by comparison, much less the chimeric threat of Al Quaeda crossing the border. Linking the fight against drug cartels to anti-terrorism work might draw down short-term dollars, but it will aim them at targets that don't immediately threaten us.

It seems like the only shooting near the border nobody has yet linked to "terrorism" is Dick Cheney shooting Harry Whittington. The week's not over yet, though ...

Monday, February 13, 2006

Of course marijuana is SAFER than alcohol

So why would marijuana be punished more harshly?

That's the question posed by a student-driven referendum from SAFER-Texas at the University of Texas at Austin asking the university to change its rules to make equivalent the punishments for off-campus consumption of alcohol and marijuana. Reported the Dallas Morning News ("
UT group fights pot penalty," Feb. 13):
UT students became energized about the effort, organizers said, when 18-year-old Phanta "Jack" Phoummarath of Houston died in December of alcohol poisoning after drinking at his fraternity.

"If you look at the rules about how you can be suspended from school, we believe the university is encouraging drinking," said Ann Del Llano, a civil-liberties lawyer working with SAFER Texas. "We see this as a life-or-death matter. If they had brought [Mr. Phoummarath] an infinite amount of marijuana and forced him to consume it, he'd be alive and breathing today."

That's a hard point to argue - between DWI deaths and alcohol poisoning, there's little question that abusing alcohol is a lot more dangerous than abusing marijuana. Campus officials appear somewhat open to the idea, but expressed skepticism that seemed a little silly if the article accurately portrayed their concerns. The Dallas news coverage continued:

UT health officials said that a year or two ago, the dean of students' office offered to stop kicking students out of the dorms if they were caught smoking pot in their rooms.

But campus housing officials balked, saying the smoke bothered nonsmoking students.

Dr. Chuck Roper, head of substance-abuse programs at UT's health services center, said he sees the logic behind the argument that marijuana isn't going to cause deaths like alcohol poisoning does. But organizers appear to be comparing recreational smoking to binge drinking instead of social drinking, he said.

"I'm not sure you're comparing apples to apples at that point," Dr. Roper said. "I understand the logic behind it but ... I don't think you should be encouraging students to break the law and get in trouble. Just like I don't think students should be encouraging students under the age of 21 to be drinking."

Well, I'm not sure Dr. Roper is comparing apples to apples - both marijuana and alcohol can be abused or consumed responsibly. But when alcohol is abused, often people die. The SAFER campaign is based on the successful effort in Denver by the same name, only the non-binding referendum is aimed at university campus rules instead of changing local or state laws. "Similar movements are afoot in Ohio, Maryland, New York and Florida," the News reports..

Sounds like a really good approach to me.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

SF columnist says Byrne grant cuts an indicator of Congress' budget cutting will

Speaking of the Byrne grant program, an item today criticizing the program from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Deb Saunders titled "Your tax dollars on drugs" was terrific.

Some news I didn't know: "The White House Office of Management and Budget studied the Byrne grants and gave the program a 13 percent rating for results and accountability. That's an F-," she wrote.

Citing the Tulia scandal and quoting several conservative critics, Saunders adroitly summed up what all this means in political terms: "If the president can't push Congress to kill a program that is 13 percent effective, then he can't cut anything, because there is no will to spend responsibly in Washington."

No kidding.

The End of Ideology on the War on Drugs, or the Beginning of Consensus?

Regular readers have perhaps long tired of my dissertations on Texas' Tulia-style drug task forces financed by the federal Byrne grant program. (Gov. Rick Perry recently announced shifting money from drug task forces to give block grants to sheriffs in border counties.) But since I don't really track Congress the way I do the Texas Lege, it surprised me to learn how widely Congressional animosity for that program had spread to other drug war policies. According to this press release from the Drug Policy Alliance, many Republicans in Congress (rightly) see the war on drugs as just another batch of pork barrel programs to cut:
As the war on drugs continues to waste taxpayer money, destroy families, and undermine the rule of law, more and more conservatives are speaking out. The Republican Study Committee (RSC), a Congressional caucus composed of more than 100 conservative House Republicans, recently came out for eliminating a number of failed drug war programs, including the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, the Safe and Drug-Free School programs, and the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Last year, the American Conservative Union, Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, and the National Taxpayers Union urged Congress to eliminate six failed drug war programs to save money in the wake of Katrina. Those programs included the three programs RSC targeted for elimination, as well as student drug testing grants, the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, and the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (aka Plan Colombia).
That's an interesting twist, isn't it? I sat on a panel in D.C. last year with representatives from the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union who both criticized the Byrne grant program, and you could tell their critique of the drug war went way beyond this one federal program.

The fascinating part about that panel was how those conservative activists, myself representing ACLU of Texas, and Nkechi Taifa of the Open Society Policy Center all came to the same conclusion - Byrne grant funding is counterproductive and has got to go -- from entirely different ideological perspectives. As recounted in this blog post, I actually agreed more with the right wingers' comments than I did with Nkechi!

These fellows were ideologues, not at all like the pork-driven law enforcement bureaucrats who pass off the drug war as "conservatism" at the Texas Legislature: Federalism, not forfeiture animated their views on the drug war. This recommendation by the Republican Study Committee confirms that those positions represent not just activists but a signficant portion of conservatives in Congress.

The signs of this shift toward a new consensus are everywhere. DPA's press release mentioned that "Maryland Republican Governor Robert Erhlich also passed treatment instead of incarceration legislation in 2004," but it could have added that Texas Governor Rick Perry signed "treatment instead of incarceration legislation" in Texas in 2003 (HB 2668). With Texas' prisons bursting at the seams, it's reasonable to expect more such legislaton next year, likely strengthening probation services to handle more drug offenders outside of prison.

I wrote last week how I was struck by Dan Kahan's argument that successful policy goals must be ambiguous to reach consensus - that different people had to be able to tell different stories to explain the outcome, to reach the same conclusion from different perspectives. That's what's happening, to my mind, on the drug war. There are now so many reasons to think our current approach is a bad idea, nearly anybody can join in the fun of criticizing it.