Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Texas jail conditions too harsh for feds, other states

Via South Texas Chisme, see pictures from the Nueces County Jail that led one district judge to say inmates were being housed "like animals," reported the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

I guess it depends on whose animals: Truth be told, my dogs have a nicer place to sleep than a towel on a concrete floor.

Caller Times reported that US Marshall's service removed 55 federal prisoners from the jail this month "after conducting inspections June 7 and 14 and finding gnats crawling from drains and biting prisoners, overflowing toilets and other unsanitary conditions." Yesterday Nueces County judges held what may have been an illegally closed meeting to address the problem.

: Just in case you thought the Nueces Jail is an outlier, the Wizbang Bomb Squad offers up an account by a former jailer of incarceration conditions endured by a friend in a small Texas county.

ALSO RELATED: Idaho inmates housed in a
Newton County, TX private prison that was converted from a county jail staged a non-violent protest earlier this month to criticize lack of recreation time and inhumane conditions. "The prison fired one security staff member and disciplined two others after an April incident when six Idaho prisoners were forcefully cuffed and maced," reported the Associated Press. The Idaho ACLU has said it would prefer building more prisons to housing inmates in Texas - that's when you know things are bad.

Rick Roach sentenced: What comes around goes around

From the Delicious Irony section of the New York Times ("Ex-prosecutor in Texas draws long prison term," June 27):
A former district attorney in the Panhandle who had hounded drug offenders into jail while barely hiding his own methamphetamine habit pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and was sentenced to 18 years in state prison. The defendant, Richard J. Roach, 57, was already serving a five-year federal sentence on another conviction involving weapons possession. The terms will run concurrently.
See prior Grits coverage here, here, and here. And thanks to Wretched of the Earth for pointing to the original, extensive New York Times story on Roach which is still online.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Stereotypes wrong about immigrants, crime and history

The immigration debate frustrates me in part because a number of assumptions underlying arguments for "cracking down," whatever that means, seem patently false to me - factually false, not just a wrong interpretation - so it becomes difficult for the debate to reach a more productive stage. The claim that Muslim terrorists have already crept into the US across the southern border, for example, is one such myth I've discussed before - it's often claimed with such vehemence that when you deny it, the debate ends. But it's not true.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Often though, the immigration debate seems virtually fact-free. Some of the polling seems outright delusional. I thought I'd explore in this post two common public assumptions I perceive as "myths" about immigration. I'll suggest what I think is a more fact-based analysis, and would request that you, gentle readers, proceed to poke holes either in my arguments or in my straw men, as you like. Maybe I'm missing something. Let me know.

Myth: Immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and our prisons are filling up with illegal immigrants.

Reality: Immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S. natives across the board.

According to a
recent LBB report (pdf, p. 2), 5.3% of Texas inmates are Mexican nationals, with 1.03% coming from other Latin American countries. (Not all of those, by any stretch, came here illegally.) By contrast, the 2000 census estimated 13.9% of people living in Texas' are foreign born (roughly half immigrated legally). So that's actually a pretty small figure given the overblown rhetoric on the topic. In the big picture, it turns out, Texas' situation is typical - an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute found:
Data from the 5 percent Public Use Microsample (PUMS) of the 2000 census were used to measure the institutionalization rates of immigrants and natives, focusing on males 18 to 39, most of whom are in correctional facilities. Of the 45.2 million males age 18 to 39, three percent were in federal or state prisons or local jails at the time of the 2000 census — a total of over 1.3 million, in line with official prison statistics at that time.

Surprisingly, at least from the vantage of conventional wisdom, the data show the above hypotheses [that immigrants commit crimes more often] to be unfounded. In fact, the incarceration rate of the US born (3.51 percent) was four times the rate of the foreign born (0.86 percent). The foreign-born rate was half the 1.71 percent rate for non-Hispanic white natives, and 13 times less than the 11.6 percent incarceration rate for native black men ...

Of particular interest is the finding that the lowest incarceration rates among Latin American immigrants are seen for the least educated groups: Salvadorans and Guatemalans (0.52 percent), and Mexicans (0.70 percent). These are precisely the groups most stigmatized as "illegals" in the public perception and outcry about immigration.
As an aside, let's take a moment to look at that 11.6% figure for incarcerating black men 18-39 - all you can say is "Wow!". That's a huge number.

Just as striking, though, the analysis explodes stereotypes about immigrants posing a greater crime risk. It's just not true - they pose less of one.

Myth: We've restricted immigration for 200 years and now it's out of control.

Reality: Immigration restrictions are what's new and radical. They weren't part of the founding fathers' vision of America and are a historically recent, relatively modern phenomena.

Again, from the Migration Policy Institute: "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."

From the nation's creation until 1875 there were no immigration restrictions at all for people moving to the United States. Anyone could come, and they did. From 1875 to 1918 the US restricted criminals and the infirm from entering, but not able-bodied workers. Per country limits weren't established until after World War I as a result of so-called nativist movements whose ideologies still animate much anti-immigrant hysteria on the right. As far as today's debate, as mentioned above, numerical limits on Latin American immigration didn't start until 1965, and have never been effectively enforced.

So two key myths surrounding immigration - that immigrants are more likely to be criminals and that some golden age existed in the past when Latin American immigration was restricted - just aren't true. There are a few more common assumptions about immigration I also find annoyingly fallacious, but those myth-busting polemics must wait for another day.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

El Paso Sheriff won't continue immigration enforcement at traffic stops

El Paso Sheriff Samaniego has stopped his controversial practice of using traffic stops as a pretext for immigration enforcement, reports the El Paso Times ("Border Patrol won't be told of immigrants," June 24).

The policy shift came after an ACLU of Texas open records request last week revealed the El Paso Sheriff detained at least 860
suspected illegal immigrants and delivered them to the Border Patrol as part of Operation Linebacker-funded roadblocks and related traffic stops. (See prior Grits discussions here, here, and here.) Kudos to ACLU's Ray Ybarra y mi jefe Will Harrell who were in El Paso last week raising hell about Operation Linebacker stepping over the line. See ACLU of Texas' press release from Friday regarding the Sheriff's decision.

I'm sorry to say I've been too focused on work to blog on the latest immigration developments. For those interested, these sources will keep you up to speed:

Also, these groups are good information sources on immigration:

Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The Chicago Tribune says so. UPDATE: See Part Two. And Part Three.

New Hidalgo Public Defender office focused on bail reductions

Earlier I linked to a new report (pdf) by the Spangenberg Group analyzing new public defender systems in Bexar and Hidalgo Counties. I still haven't thoroughly read the 40-page document, but ran across this fact bite on sources of jail overcrowding in Hidalgo County. Thirty percent of Hidalgo Jail inmates are awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges, says the report, a huge proportion compared to other counties. (In Tom Green County, for example, 13% of jail inmates are misdemeanants, in Travis County it's 11%.)

That's why Hidalgo created a new public defender office specifically focused on representing misdemeanor defendants, as Grits mentioned last year. Said the Spangenberg Group after its site visit:

Jail overcrowding is a huge problem in Hidalgo County. It was suggested to us that bond is typically set too high and this contributes to the overcrowding. There are no recommended bonds or county policies on setting bond; the discretion is left to the justice of the peace or magistrate setting bond.

In addition, court-appointed lawyers are not appointed until after magistration, therefore defendants rarely have assistance of counsel when bond is set. If the client has posted bond, then formal charges may not be filed for one to two months. If the defendant is in jail on a Class B misdemeanor, a bond reduction hearing must be held within 15 days, and the same rule applies within 30 days for a Class A misdemeanor. In all cases, the defendant must see a magistrate to be informed of the nature of the charges, to ask for courtappointed counsel, and to have bond set within 48 hours.

Bond reduction hearings must be done before the judge that magistrated the accused. This may present a problem for the public defender attorneys who will have to travel around the county for hearings in front of various justices of the peace; however, if the charge has been submitted by a district attorney, then the public defender can go to the county court for a bond reduction hearing. Despite these problems, we were told that the public defenders are filing bond reduction motions as frequently as possible.
Hidalgo's example shows how jail overcrowding crises caused by excessive bail may find relief through creating a public defender: when indigent defendants have attorneys aggressively requesting their bail be reduced, they're more likely to get out of jail quickly. No big surprise there, but it demonstrates how a front-end investment in staff attorneys can reduce overall expenditures simply by excercising defendants' rights within the system.

There are other ways to accomplish the same goal: Other counties have created Pretrial Services divisions that identify defendants who should be eligible for release on personal bonds. There are a lot of ways to skin the overincarceration cat, and it's interesting to me to watch the various methods employed by different counties. There is no inherently right or wrong response to jail overcrowding, though some ideas like creating public defenders or empowering Pretrial Services to give more personal bonds seem to have few downsides. If that 30% figure declines, Hidalgo's new public defender will have earned its keep by any measure.

See related Grits coverage:

Friday, June 23, 2006

Changing pot penalties could boost enforcement, free up needed jail space

As Texas counties struggle with jail overcrowding, legislators looking toward 2007 should note a small but significant step they could take to reduce local overincarceration pressures and contribute to more rational criminal justice policies. Elsewhere I've described what counties could do, but this step would require a legislative fix: Change marijuana penalties for less than an ounce from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor.

My bet: It would reduce jail overcrowding and actually increase enforcement.

That can't happen in Texas, you may scoff. Well the idea's not a new one and in 2005 a bill doing just that -
HB 254 by Harold Dutton - passed unanimously out of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on a 6-0 vote. (See a fact sheet by supporters.) It never received a floor vote, but House committee supporters included three Republicans: then-Chairman Terry Keel, and also Mary Denny and Debbie Riddle, known proudly as two of the most conservative members of the Texas House. Texas' favorite son legislator-blogger Aaron Pena also supported the measure.

Those folks aren't liberals and they didn't vote for the bill because they want to legalize drugs.
(Terry Keel was by then positioning himself for a statewide race - he failed to win a runoff against the incumbent in the GOP primary for the Court of Criminal Appeals, but not because of this issue.) They did it because the current system irrationally favors symbolism over substance - it's a case where being tough on crime (favoring higher sentences) isn't the same as being smart on crime, especially for counties. Here's why:

Texas arrests about 49,000 people per year for marijuana possession, most of them for small amounts - that's a majority of drug arrests in the state. Today possession of less than two ounces of pot in Texas is a Class B misdemeanor, the penalty for which is incarceration up to six months in jail. Because it is the lowest level offense risking incarceration, that means all sorts of defendant rights take effect, most prominently the right to counsel. Also, at a minimum the defendant when arrested will be temporarily jailed, either until they're released on personal bond, until they make bail, or in a worst-case scenario (where indigence meets obstinence) until trial.

When the jail is full or the officer is busy investigating more serious crimes, it wastes officers' time and jail resources to arrest someone for mere marijuana possession, especially since statewide, jails are too full to incarcerate them for anywhere close to the full maximum term. Class C misdemeanors, by contrast, don't cost the county jail space nor indigent defense expenses, and actually generate new local income.

That's why enforcement would almost inevitably increase - restrictions on arrests imposed by jail space would be removed while new economic incentives would be created for departments to maximize enforcement. That's what happened when Columbia Missouri reduced low-level marijuana penalties from a jailable offense to the equivalent of a traffic ticket

It's important for counties to prioritize spending on jail, court and probation services for criminals who most need supervision
, but not every pothead in town. As former state Rep. Ray Allen has frequently said, Texas should focus on incarcerating people who we're afraid of, not those we're only mad at. Reviving HB 254 would be a good place to start if the goal is to lighten up pressure on jail space without reducing public safety.

Thanks to Andrea for the column idea.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Campaign contributions from bail bondsmen goes to Tarrant County decisionmakers

Writer Dan McGraw from the Fort Worth Weekly emails:
You asked us to look at campiagn contributions in Tarrant County from bond agents, so we did. It is in this week's issue
Cool, now that's service! Thanks, Dan! McGraw refers to this Grits post back in December where I highlighted his story on Tarrant County's pretrial services system, Jailhouse Blues. McGraw quoted an anonymous judge declaring, "We’re causing hardships for people who don’t deserve it, overcrowding the jails, and the only people making money off this are the bonding agents.” Reacting to that I wrote:
I hope McGraw's next step is to examine bonding agents' campaign contributions to judges and county officials, including the ones most aggressively shilling for the bondsmen's interests, and to file open records requests to document communications between the bonding agents' lobbyist Gib Lewis and local officials.
And lo and behold he did. (See: "Cell Blocked," June 21) You've gotta like that. What'd he find? Far and away the most contributions went to the District Clerk and the county commissioners court member who chairs the local bail bond board. Read the entire article, but here's a taste:
“Everything is political in this town, and you have to have some people on your side to make that work,” said bond agent David Gallagher. “There is nothing wrong with us contributing to political campaigns of politicians who have worked to make our criminal justice system work better. Attorneys make even more campaign donations, but nobody ever raises that issue. All we are trying to do is keep a system that has worked well for years, keeping people who don’t deserve it [from getting] the free bonds and free lawyers that the county has to pay for.”

What Gallagher is talking about is a county program called PreTrial Services that provides bonds for as little as $20 for most low-risk defendants accused of nonviolent crimes. The program is used extensively in other big-city Texas counties, but in Tarrant it’s been pretty much shunted to the side. The bond agents want to keep it that way, but pressure is increasing from judges and others to expand the program. And they’re looking to Johnson and Wilder in particular as their allies, on this and other developments they believe are putting the screws to their profits.
The article also contains some interesting comparative information about Tarrant and Travis counties' Pretrial Services programs that gives an idea of the range of difference between Texas counties in how defendants are processed.
[County Criminal Court Judge Daryl] Coffey, a proponent of pre-trial release, said there are some numbers that show how Tarrant County bond agents exert their political influence.

In looking at misdemeanor cases handled by his court thus far this year, Coffey determined that about 70 percent of defendants used private bonding agents, while about 10 percent used the Pretrial Services Program. The bonds set for the two groups were similar: Private bonds averaged about $1,000 per case, while the Pretrial Services’ were about $800.

The big difference showed up in how much it cost the defendants to get those bonds. Pretrial Services inmates paid 3 percent of the bond amount, or an average of $20. Those with private surety bonds paid 15 to 20 percent, or $150 to $200. “What ends up happening is that these accused [who get private bonds] spend too much time in jail trying to get money and then show up in court and say they can’t afford counsel,” Coffey said. “The show-up rate is the same whether it is private or Pretrial Services bonds. What happens is that our system puts money in the bond agents’ pockets, then the taxpayer pays for indigent defense. In so many cases, we could have that reversed.”

By comparison, Travis County, with about 15,000 criminal cases filed per year, uses the Pretrial Services Program for about 80 percent of its misdemeanor cases and about 20 percent of felony cases. Tarrant County doesn’t officially keep those numbers, but Tarrant County PreTrial Services director Michelle Brown said the agency handles about 250 cases per month, or only about 20 percent of the county’s caseload.

The difference is funding and, of course, the signs. Travis County’s PreTrial Services Program has 50 employees and an annual budget of $2.6 million per year. The Tarrant program has an annual $1 million budget and 16 employees. Brown expects the number of criminal clients to go up here once the signs are in place. “We don’t know what the impact might be, but I would expect we might not have the staff or the budget to handle it all,” Brown said.

Would an increase in budget for the Tarrant County PreTrial Services Program cost taxpayers money or save money? More than likely, it might save the county. Last week, Tarrant County jails held 1,951 unsentenced felony inmates, and 264 unsentenced misdemeanor inmates. If, as in Austin, about 80 percent of misdemeanor and 20 percent of felony defendants used PreTrial Services, that could mean 390 felony inmates and 210 misdemeanor inmates might be out of jail. At $50 dollars a day to pay for incarceration, that could work out to a savings of $30,000 per day or about $11 million a year.
That's a great explanation. Sometimes you gotta spend it to save it, as this example shows. Kudos to McGraw for following up on a blogger's suggestion with another important contribution to the local debate over bulging inmate populations at the Tarrant County Jail, how they got that way, and why.

See these prior related Grits posts:

Public radio: Left and right converge to support stronger Texas probation, avoid $1 billion in new prison spending

Texas must reduce prison sentences, fix probation, or spend a billion dollars on new prisons, declares this KUT radio story by Ben Philpott. The story quoted two knowledgeable Grits' favorites: Nicole Porter of ACLU of Texas' prison and jail project and Marc Levin from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).

RELATED: An hour-long audio file is available online from TPPFs June 13 public policy luncheon, "Breaking the Addiction to Prison, featuring House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden and Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire.
Check it out - I'm going to. I missed the event, but several folks I know tell me they attended and learned something.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Moussaoui lawyer headlines GRACE fundraiser in Houston

The Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE) is holding its annual fundraiser Friday, June 23rd in Houston, and if you're an opponent of the death penalty I'd encourage you to attend, send them a fat check, or at least learn more about the group.

The headline speaker at the fundraiser is Gerald Zerkin, a member of the defense team for Zacarias Moussaoui, who famously prevailed on a federal jury recently to reject the death penalty for the only defendant convicted of crimes related to the 9/11 hijackings. Mr. Zerkin will speak about his experience as defense counsel for Moussaoui and what this victory against the death penalty means for future cases in the U.S. (To RSVP for the fundraiser or to purchase tickets for the cocktail discussion with Mr. Zerkin, call 713-869-4722 or email Details can be found on GRACE’s website along with more information about their work.)

A conflict alert: The executive director of GRACE, Danalynn Recer, is a UT Law graduate and college pal of mine who founded the organization in 2002. (What a great southern name, huh?) I also did a little paralegal work for her back in the day. Danalynn's a long-time capital appeals specialist who practiced for years in New Orleans before moving to Houston to focus on representing individual capital defendants. That's a good place to start. A huge percentage of defendants on Texas death row come from Harris County.

GRACE focuses on preventing death penalty sentences at the trial level through aggressive front-end representation instead of appealing after the fact. In other words, getting murder defendants good lawyers up front does more to deter death sentences than does appellate work, especially in the Fifth Circuit. One of their clients, Shantia Jackson, had charges against her completely dismissed in March - a case where a possible wrongful conviction was prevented if she'd not had competent counsel. It's easy to see how that strategy might often preclude a death sentence, providing certainty for the victim's family and avoiding years of court-clogging appeals.

The fundraiser includes a silent auction of signed books, dinners, and vacations (who doesn’t need that!), as well as a casual buffet dinner and dancing. They will also present the Second Annual Judge Jay Burnet Fragile Gavel Award. And for those wanting to meet Mr. Zerkin, there is a special time set aside for cocktails and discussion.

I wish everyone at GRACE a successful event, not to mention future success in their fight to improve indigent defense in capital cases.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Reports analyze new Texas public defender systems

Since I'm writing so much about people sitting around in county jail awaiting trial on low-level charges, the subject of indigent defense comes easily to mind. Checking in at the website of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, two new items stand out on their publications page:
I've not had a chance to go through them yet but wanted to pass the links along to those interested in the recent growth of Texas public defender systems.

The Bexar/Hidalgo analysis is a 40-page consultant's report analyzing new public defender systems in those two counties. The Val Verde document is a five page description of the state's first multi-county public defender office, which will be operated on a contract basis by the nonprofit Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. I understand tiny Willacy County in South Texas will be getting a PD office, soon, and suburban/rural Kaufman County east of Dallas will launch a public defender office this fall as well.

Many counties find that public defenders fulfill indigent defendants' right to counsel in a more prompt, cost-effective manner than private attorneys. More Texas counties are moving in that direction with help from grants from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, and more should.

Midland Sheriff's Captain: "Cite and summons" for small offenses would reduce jail overcrowding

Another Texas county struggling with jail overcrowding seeks solutions besides jail expansion, but local sheriffs don't always seem to be offering commissioners courts any other options - they'd get more ideas if they cast their net a little wider. In Midland County, says the Reporter-Telegram's Colin Guy ("Jail story for Sunday," June 21 - odd title, huh? Anybody know if it's in the paper version, or is this a goof?), commissioners are considering a 400-bed jail expansion being promoted by the Sheriff. The Sheriff's Captain who runs the jail, though sees a different solution: Arrest fewer people.
The amount of overcrowding could be reduced, [Captain Richard] Sexton said, if Midland Police Department officers were willing to issue a "cite and summons" more frequently for minor offenses, as opposed to arresting individuals and bringing them to the jail.

"We're seeing their arrests growing by leaps and bounds for everything," Sexton said. "It takes just as much time to book them and get rid of them (for misdemeanors) as it does a murderer."

Bingo. It costs time and money not only to book them, but to house them, feed them and provide healthcare once they're arrested, especially when people can't make bail. Like San Angelo, whose jail problems I wrote about on Sunday, much of Midland's overincarceration problem stems from higher-than-average pretrial detention of low-level offenders: 68% of those in Midland's jail are awaiting trial compared to 50% statewide. (Not too many years ago the statewide average was 30%.)

The biggest disparity is among low-level offenders. The ratio of misdemeanants awaiting trial to total inmates in the Midland jail is 40% higher than the state average; the ratio of state jail inmates awaiting trial to the total is more than double the state average. In other words, misdemeanor and low-level offenders are taking up jail space awaiting trial in Midland at a greater rate than elsewhere in the state. See the latest county-level numbers (pdf) for yourself.

Sheriff Gary Painter tells the commissioners court he needs 400 beds to continue his current practices. They could spend that money, or they could join other Texas counties in
trying some new practices.

Commissioners have an incentive to look for more options. The article reports some of them are cautious because neighboring Reeves County recently got burned on an entrepeneurial jail expansion scheme. Reported Guy:

According to a press release from Fitch Ratings, a bond rating agency, Reeves County had its bond rating lowered from BB to CCC in 2003 on the $89 million of bonds, or certificates of participation, used to finance the Reeves County Detention Trust Center. The facility, which was expected to be filled with prisoners supplied by the FBP and the US Marshal's Service, had room for approximately 3,000 beds after an expansion in 2001, but had difficulty acquiring enough inmates to generate sufficient revenue to meet its debt obligation, which was to be paid by a PFC established by the county.

"While discussions with (the FBP) are ongoing, the continuing delay causes Fitch to be skeptical that the prior relationship between (the Reeves County Detention Trust Center) and (the FBP) will resume anytime soon, and the positive nature of that relationship was a key rating factor," Fitch Ratings officials indicated in the press release.

The county hired Randy DeLay, brother of Rep. Tom DeLay, to lobby the FBP to place prisoners in the detention center but his efforts were unsuccessful. Because the county had agreed to use the first two buildings in the detention center as collateral, it risked losing the entire center if it failed to make its payments. However, since then a private company hired by the county, Geo Group Inc. has helped manage the center and keep it filled with inmates. According to the Fitch Ratings Web site the bonds issued for the expansion are now rated at AAA for the long term.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Mike Bradford said the Commissioners' Court will carefully examine all the possible financial arrangements that are available to pay for a jail expansion. He said he does not disagree with Painter that a 400-bed expansion is needed, but that after looking at the costs involved "it could be that when you get the costs in, 400 beds is not reasonable."

"Reeves County built that thing with all these promises and it darn near bankrupt them and that's what we have to guard against," Bradford said.

The state prison system and Texas county jails, or many of them, are all in a similar spot: Full to the brim, and officials must decide whether to change policies or continue to pay dramatically increasing costs.

Midland, San Angelo, Tyler - that's the conservative base in this state and those local decisions may be, I think, a bellewether for what the state legislature will ultimately do. If many of the more prominent conservative counties go the route of Tyler voters, choosing smaller government and lower taxes over jail expansion, the Legislature, too, might change it's approach to stave off the looming crisis that House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden warned about last week.

Otherwise, not just the state but the counties, too, will spend billions collectively in the next few years to pay for locking more people up.

Snitch agreement gone awry in Fredericksburg

A Fredericksburg, TX police officer was convicted of a third degree felony for returning marijuana taken from a snitch in exchange for a promise to cooperate. Though his actions were illegal, reported the San Antonio Express News ("Snitch agreement goes awry," June 20), there were
some supporters in the law enforcement community who testified that he probably thought his actions followed an accepted practice.
I'd love to see the transcript of that testimony. I wonder if they testified he "probably thought" that was okay because he received poor training, or because other officers do it and it happens all the time?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Tom Green jail overcrowding a self-inflicted wound

Like many counties across the state, Tom Green County's jail out in West Texas is overcrowded, and County Judge Mike Brown can't think of any other approach than to hang another 200-bed addition onto the local hoosgaw. They're already paying to house dozens of inmates in other counties, and Brown told the San Angelo Standard Times the cheapest solution is to build another wing on the jail. ("Jail space a growing issue," June 17). No need to ask the voters, he says, the county can borrow the money without their approval:

Brown said the trouble is that no one knows why the jail population here is so high.

County jails are meant to be holding facilities for people awaiting trial. However, some state inmates are held in the local county jail as they wait to be transferred to a state prison. The county also houses some federal inmates as a courtesy because there is a federal courthouse in San Angelo.

Brown wants to schedule a meeting with local officials from all walks of law enforcement, including judges, attorneys and adult probation officers, to discuss the problem and determine a way to relieve some of the crowding issues.

''Right now, the number-one thing is trying to identify the problem and deal with the situation we have,'' Brown said. ''If we can identify that, maybe we can get some breathing room. If we decide to do the building, we will do it right.''

The cheapest option probably would be to expand the existing jail in downtown San Angelo, he said. The jail was designed for expansion to the west.

A 200-bed expansion would cost about $12 million to $15 million, Brown said. The county would issue certificates of obligation, which are similar to bonds, that investors would buy and the county would repay. The county does not have to seek voter approval to issue the certificates.

Hmmmm, no voter approval for a $15 million incursion of debt - that's convenient. I'll bet the Sheriff in Tyler is envious. Brown's wrong though, that the crisis stems from some mysterious ineffable force to which he has no choice but to yield (as a Texas state senator brilliantly said on the Senate floor last term) like a cheerleader at a drive-in. A quick look at Tom Green's most recent jail stats clearly shows the problem: Too many low-level offenders being detained without bail awaiting trial.
That's a problem which can be fixed.
Like that cheerleader, county commissioners have the option to say "no."

Statewide over the last decade, the percentage of county jail inmates incarcerated awaiting trial increased from about 30% to 50% of total Texas jail inmates as of May 2006. Counties which have seen the greatest increases in pretrial detention nearly all are suffering from an overincarceration crisis. In Tom Green County, 71% of inmates are awaiting trial. (
County jail statistics, May 1, 2006, pdf.) Those are people who haven't yet been convicted of anything (often prosecutors see incarceration pending trial as an especially strong incentive with which to coerce plea bargains).

The easiest way for Tom Green County to reduce jail overcrowding is to let more low-risk offenders have access to personal bonds and let them out of jail awaiting trial, especially misdemeanants, but also state jail felons who mostly are accused of low-level drug possession or small-time property crimes. Statewide, state jail felons awaiting trial account for just 8% of jail inmates - in Tom Green County that figure is 21%, or 159% higher than the state average. In the case of drug offenders, these are people who were caught in possession of less than one gram of a controlled substance - less powder, for example, than is in a
Sweet & Low packet.

Judges could begin giving more personal bonds on their own immediately, if they wanted to, but to fix the problem in a systematic way the commissioners court should set up a pre-trial screening system to identify low-risk offenders who can be released on personal bond. In Houston, offenders identified as low-risk by their pre-trial screening department abscond or get into trouble while on bail at a very low rate -
about 3% according to a consultant's report (Word doc) released last year. Why not give that a shot before spending tens of millions on a new jail?

Tom Green County is also housing about 40 federal prisoners on a pay-per-bed basis. If the county let the feds house their own prisoners and reduced their ratio of pretrial detentions to the state average, they'd more than sove their short-term overincarceration problem.

In the long run, judges and probation officials could use a system of intermediate sanctions to supervise probationers instead of just revoke them, and use early release provisions to give probationers incentives for good behavior. To work best, this would require investment in additional programming for probationers, but it'd be cheaper than building ever-more jail space. If the courts are run properly, there are plenty of tools at judges' disposal to reduce county jail populations, especially if (as in Tyler) their constituents don't want to pay for a new jail.

At least some local officials already have voiced doubts about whether building another jail wing was the best idea, chief among them County Commissioner Richard Easingwood who told the Standard Times

a new jail is not a panacea for overcrowding, and he won't support spending money on one until someone proves otherwise to him. He admitted he's not well-versed on how inmates are processed, but believes the problem can be alleviated somewhat if the right minds come together.

He also wants a meeting similar to the one Brown is proposing.

Until the system is improved, filling another jail would be easy, Easingwood said.

''We do have a problem, but we need to understand how we came to this problem,'' Easingwood said. ''Do we need another district court, more district attorneys to prosecute? I just don't know. But if you just build a jail, you haven't solved the problem. If you continue to do things wrong, then you will get the wrong results.''

I'm glad somebody out there in San Angelo wants to look before they leap. From the raw numbers, there's no need to build a new jail right now. Local judges have plenty of authority to find a solution and the county commissioners court hasn't exhausted its options. The links below provide some places to start for ideas.

See also:

Friday, June 16, 2006

What's the point of the Fourth Amendment?

"The point of the Fourth Amendment, which often is not grasped by zealous officers, is not that it denies law enforcement the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime."

- Johnson vs. United States, 1948
Seems like the John Roberts-era Supreme Court has missed the point. Police could already get a no-knock warrant, it just had to be approved by a judge. Pero no mas, after Hudson v. Michigan. As Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent, Hudson "represents a significant departure from the Court's precedents. And it weakens, perhaps destroys, much of the practical value of the Constitution's knock-and-announce protection."

Radley Balko suggests Justice Scalia and his cohorts should have studied up on law enforcement's "professionalism" in Tulia, Hearne, and the Dallas fake drug scandals before relinquishing more judicial authority to cops in the field.

UPDATE: Howard Bashman has the links of the day, and points to an NPR story this morning by Nina Totenberg.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

No knock, no problem: Supremes' copy of Constitution omits Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution was already a tattered shred of its former glorious self when we all woke up this morning thanks to a serious of terrible US Supreme Court decisions. By eveningtime, sadly, it was weaker still - how much longer will it protect anyone at all? Today the Fourth Amendment took another body blow in a 5-4 ruling that the failure of police officers to knock and announce themselves when executing a warrant doesn't trigger the exclusionary rule - in other words, the results of the search can be used in court.

Grits has long aimed to track the Fourth Amendment's macabre death march. Longtime readers may recall that when the Supremes ruled in
Illinois vs. Caballes that using drug sniffing dogs to look for drugs doesn't constitute a "search," I posed a revised version that accounted for the Court's recent decisions up until then. My new version:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized if an officer is looking for illegal contraband.
Now, though, even that de-fanged version of the Fourth Amendment is outdated. In Hudson v. Michigan the court ruled that "No Knock" searches are just fine, thank you very much Messrs. Roberts and Alito. So for the sake of legal accuracy, everyone please get out your own personal version of the US Constitution and make the following adjustments to the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized nor need entry be announced, if an officer is looking for illegal contraband.
How do you like it? Oh really? Your opinion wasn't asked. The federal judiciary has ground our 21st Century Fourth Amendment into just another bit of meaningless, pitiful legal nostalgia, like the Ninth."Bada bing, bada boom - whaddya mean? What's that? What Fourth Amendment? Oh, we got rid of that tired old thing years ago. Gotta keep up with the times."

This is beyond a slippery slope: It's downhill ice skating.
Thanks to Orin Kerr for pointing out that "originalists" Scalia, Thomas, et. al. looked up and found a "living" Constitution when seeking to justify expanding authority for police searches. Surprise, surprise. The blogosphere already has had a lot to say.

What can we take from this travesty? That federal courts will not protect the Fourth Amendment any longer, perhaps for a generation or more going forward. That much is clear. Legislators must now install new protections into law or we should basically just strip that sucker right out of there and be done with it.
The right to privacy is better protected and it's part of the blasted "penumbra" - we're talking about one of the original ten amendments in the Bill of Rights being run through the shredder before our eyes, folks, with nary a whimper from Congress nor the President - a gloomy day, indeed.

From prison bars to the bar exam

Here's a welcome, happy ending to a sad tale. The Christian Science Monitor focuses on the story of Christopher Ochoa, a Texan who was falsely convicted of the rape and murder of an Austin Pizza Hut manager, then cleared in 2001 after 12 years in prison thanks to exonerating DNA evidence. If that were the end of Ochoa's story it'd be a good one, but it gets better: he won $5.3 million from the City of Austin in a police misconduct lawsuit, then graduated from law school at the University of Wisconsin last month, only the second exonerated prisoner to do so.

Bully for him - congratulations, Mr. Ochoa.

Ochoa's conviction rested on a
false confession he gave officers after two days of interrogation. He later recanted, saying he thought was his only way to avoid the death penalty. The conviction was overturned thanks to the work of faculty and students working with the Wisconsin Innocence Project. Via the Stand Down blog.

New LBB publications track prison trends

Speaking of LBB, here are three new, statistics-filled publications from the Texas Legislative Budget Board on characteristics of adult and juvenile Texas prisoners, including the future population projections for adult and juvenile correctional facilities that Chairman Madden referenced in the last post:

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden promotes solutions for Texas' overincarceration crisis

The Republican chairman of the House committee that oversees Texas prisons says we can solve Texas' overincarceration crisis without building more prison units. The answer: Fewer probation revocations on the front end, increased parole rates on the back end, and using early release provisions to let probationers earn their way off supervision with good behavior. Not sexy stuff, but pretty important.

Modifying downward earlier projections, the Legislative Budget Board predicted this week that Texas prisons will exceed current capacity by nearly 10,000 inmates by 2010. (Earlier projections set that number closer to 14,000; I've said before I haven't always had a lot of confidence in LBB's inmate population projections.) House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden made public the new estimate and spoke about the problem at a forum yesterday in Austin entitled "Breaking the Addiction," sponsored by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. (As usual, Elizabeth Pierson did a good job on the topic for the Brownsville Herald - see
her coverage and the Daily Texan.)

In honor of the occasion, Madden's office issued an informative if little-heeded press release yesterday highlighting the choices facing the state prison system. He's aiming to educate the public about one of the most important, underreported public policy crises in the state, so I wanted to reprint his press release in its entirety here since I can't find it online. (It was forwarded to me via email.) Madden is an important Republican decisionmaker in Texas on criminal justice - it's partly his job to fix the overcrowding mess and he's promoting viable solutions for those who are listening. His press release was titled, "Legislature Predicts Prison Population to Exceed Capacity by 10,000 beds in 2010," and it reads:

This week the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) released new prison population and capacity projections for fiscal years 2006-2011. If capacity remains where it is today and the state does not build anymore prisons, the prison population will exceed operating capacity by 9,600 beds in 2010. Although this projection is less grim than the original numbers (last years projection was 14,000 beds short by 2010), it takes several years to build multi-million dollar prisons, so the legislature must act quickly to either curb this growth or start building.

Representative Jerry Madden, Chairman of the House Committee on Corrections, spoke on the new projections at a policy primer held by the Texas Public Policy Foundation this Tuesday. Madden feels that while 10,000 beds by 2010 is a steep challenge, it is doable. "The good news is that probation departments are decreasing the revocation rates and increasing early discharges- that means we are slowing the spillover of probationers being sent to prison". Last session the legislature allocated approximately $27.7 million per year in new diversion program funds to the Community Justice Assistance Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. These funds were intended to reduce probation officer's caseloads so that they can focus on the serious offenders, increase treatment and aftercare, and entice probation departments to use progressive sanctions models. Second quarter highlights show that felony revocations are down 7.43%, felony technical violations are down 13.72%, and felony early discharges are up 17.40%.

Madden is also looking at parole rates, "with a little help from the backend, we may not be in quite the dire situation that we were projecting last session". Right now parole rates are running at roughly 27%, whereas historically (in 2003 through 2004) they were running at about 30%. The LBB predicts that if the parole rates increased by only 2%, there would be no need to build any new prisons by 2010. Madden's main intent is to divert more people from coming into the system rather than letting them out the backend, but he says it is comforting to know that there is a safety net that does not require major action and would not require spending hundreds of million dollars to build more prisons. It is estimated that a 2,250 bed minimum-maximum prison will cost the state approximately $250 million dollars (that figure doesn't include the cost to actually run the prison, it is only the initial building costs). "If parole rates return to what they were in 2003 and 2004, and probation continues to make improvements using graduated sanctions and new money for treatment beds, then we can maintain our prison capacity".

To get the prison population down by 2010, Madden has big plans for this coming session. At the policy primer on Tuesday, Madden reiterated his request that the Governor reinstate some form of the criminal justice policy analysis group formerly known as the Criminal Justice Policy Council. "We have received outstanding support for this request from advocacy groups, public policy think-tanks, agency employees, universities, and legislators from both the House and Senate since my request went public last week".

Madden also plans to resurrect his probation reform bill that was vetoed by Governor Perry last year. "It will be brought back in a form that will be acceptable to the Governor, but I will not eliminate the components of the bill that are guaranteed to make our probation system stronger". Another top priority for next session is changing the probation funding formulas so that the state can focus more intensive programming early in the probation terms where you get more bang for your buck. The intent of HB 2193 was to divert resources from low-risk "model" probationers who are doing everything the state asks of them and focus resources on three things: high risk offenders, drug courts, and treatment. Changing the probation formula will compliment this plan and keep the state from building more prisons.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Cool statistics source: How many Texas defendants get appointed counsel?

I asked in the last post if anyone knew the statewide percentage of misdemeanor defendants who received appointed lawyers. Thanks to Dominic Gonzales who pointed me to the relevant data. The answer is 27.3% of misdemeanor defendants in Texas had lawyers appointed to represent them according to the latest available statistics (Oct. 2004 to Sept. 2005). By contrast, 62.8% of felony defendants had appointed counsel over the same period.

Those stats come from a great web-based source provided by the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, whose website is well worth digging around on.
Here's the page from which to access their data. Clicking on "Court and Case Info" takes you to this page. Select the boxes labeled "Show Poverty Rate," "Show Criminal Cases Added" and "Show Criminal Cases Appointed," and you'll get a very useful county-level chart from which you can calculate indigent appointment rates. Misdemeanor cases are the ones in the county courts while felonies go to district courts. Dividing the cases appointed by the cases added for misdemeanor, felony or juvenile courts in a given jurisdiction gives you the rate of indigent appointments.

This would be a good way for Texas reporters or bloggers to localize this story. While Williamson County appoints lawyers in just 9.4% of cases compared to the statewide average of 27.3%, defendants caught south of the county line in Travis County in Austin receive appointed attorneys in 50.7% of misdemeanor cases. That's a huge disparity.

On the other hand, a conservative-liberal divide separates Williamson and Travis, anyway. More significantly, the rates of indigent appointments vary widely even in very conservative areas of the state. In Smith County (Tyler is the county seat), just 6.3% of misdemeanor defendants have counsel appointed to represent them, while in equally conservative Fort Bend County, which is Tom DeLay's political homebase, 33.0% of indigent misdemeanants have lawyers appointed. Ideology can't explain all that difference. I wonder what does?

Check to see how your county stacks up. Look at the data yourself - what trends jump out? I'm going be interested to comb through this portion of the Task Force's website in more detail.

Dominic also mentioned that this Bureau of Justice Statistics report (pdf) from 2000 remains one of the best available analyses of national indigent defense practices, so I thought I'd pass the link along.

UPDATE (6/14): That 27.3% number appears to be a little low. Dallas, for example, shows zero attorney appointments for misdemeanor defendants on this chart - either those defendants were represented by their Public Defender office, or Dallas County simply didn't report their stats. Either way, more Texas misdemeanants certainly received state-paid attorneys than the figures on the Task Force site represent. If anybody knows the source of the discrepany (there are several counties with zeroes in their "County Criminal Cases Appointed" column), please let me know in the comments. For now, 27% should be considered an "at least" number.

Indigent misdemeanants denied lawyers in Williamson County may get relief

Austin attorney Andrea Marsh, Director of the Texas Fair Defense Project (TFDP) has filed a class action lawsuit against three judges in Williamson County and the county itself for failing to provide appointed counsel to indigent misdemeanor defendants.

Nationally, about one in three misdemeanor defendants are represented by appointed counsel; in Williamson County, that figure is 9%, reports Austin's
KUT radio in a profile of one of three lead plaintiffs, Sylvia Marrie Peterson. See also the Austin Statesman's coverage ("Class action lawsuit filed against judges, Williamson County," June 13). The 35-page original complaint is online here. It alleges, in part, that:
Williamson County and the judges who preside over its county courts at law routinely fail to inform persons accused of crime of their right to counsel, provide inaccurate and misleading information about the right to appointed counsel in order to discourage requests for counsel, encourage defendants to waive their right to counsel and speak directly to prosecutors, threaten defendants who assert the right to counsel, and delay or deny appointment of counsel to individuals who request an attorney and are eligible for court-appointed counsel under Texas and federal law.
Since the passage of Texas' Fair Defense Act in 2001, counties statewide witnessed rising indigent defense costs. Those like Dallas that opted for public defender systems have faced much lower rates of cost increase than counties paying private attorneys on a "wheel" system. But for the most part after the Fair Defense Act, all counties increased their percentage of cases using court-appointed attorneys, giving many more defendants access to counsel than before. I don't know the statewide figure (somebody tell me if you do), but I'll guarantee it's a lot higher than 9%. See this analysis on the Fair Defense Project's website comparing what happens in Williamson County to what's supposed to happen under state law.

Some of the allegations in the Williamson County case sound like testimony leading up to passage of that original Texas Fair Defense Act - basically prosecutors and judges bullying defendants into taking a plea bargain without appointed counsel with a motive of reducing costs. KUT quoted a county official citing two reasons judges would be skimpy about appointing counsel for indigent defendants - judges who the public thought were spending too much taxpayer money on attorneys for criminals might be challenged over it in the next election, he sketchily predicted (I don't believe that), and local lawyers wouldn't be happy because it would be "taking money out of their mouths" (I DEFINITELY believe that.)

Leaving aside for a moment the frightful symbolism of attorneys with money coming out of their mouths, neither of those are good reasons for not appointing counsel. If Williamson County wants to arrest and prosecute so many people, they must pay for the full entre', not just drinks and dessert. On a countywide scale, paying for attorneys for every arrested person who can't afford one costs big bucks, but so what? It's a fundamental constitutional right to have an attorney. Welcome to America.

“Williamson County judges and other county employees pressure defendants to talk to prosecutors without giving them accurate information about their right to a defense attorney,” said Andrea Marsh in a TFDP press release yesterday. “No one should be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit or receive a longer sentence because they didn’t understand their right to a lawyer or were denied an attorney even though they were too poor to hire one.”

“We’ve seen hundreds of misdemeanor defendants in Williamson County unwittingly stripped of their right to a lawyer,” said Dominic Gonzales of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC), an organization that has been engaged in court monitoring in Williamson County for over a year. “The Williamson county courts completely fail to meet public expectations of how a fair and impartial court system should work.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Andrea Marsh is a friend and I office at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition where Dominic Gonzales works, though I don't work on this project nor have any personal involvement with the lawsuit.

The irony here is that failing to appoint counsel - or even better, to create a public defender to represent indigent defendants - doesn't really save money. The cliche that comes to mind is "penny wise and pound foolish." Defendants without counsel sit out their time awaiting trial at the taxpayers expense, often getting plea deals only when their time served reaches what they'd likely receive as a max punishment. Jail space statewide is tight, and no one benefits when taxpayers must finance housing, food and medical care for defendants who don't really endanger public safety.

That's why Hidalgo County created a misdemeanor-level PD office last fall - to move cases through the system faster and process everyone who's eligible OUT of the county jail. Promptly appointing counsel for indigent defendants both protects their rigths and saves taxpayers' money overall - a two-fer, if counties will take it. To judge by this lawsuit, a few still need to be prodded.

Good luck to Andrea, Dominic and the lead defendants in this case.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Best line yet about Rick Perry's border webcams

From John Cornyn's Box Turtle at In the Pink Texas:
The Border Patrol already has surveillance cameras installed along the border, but they don’t make the images public because most people already have Univision.
Our friend Eileen, the Pink Lady herself, reacted drolly to her co-blogger's missive, "I know what I'm watching on Saturday nights. As long as it's not on too late."

I've been trying to figure out what to post about this webcam oddity - it's like the Governor turned over border security to Joe Trippi. Normally I like to make arguments on Grits, not make fun, but this is a pointlessly silly idea. There's sure no evidence it'll reduce crime along the border. Note to Governor Perry: There are too many ways to defeat this technology. Wires to cameras out in the boondocks will be cut. If the cameras don't have wires, they can be shot or smashed, and expect all coyotes and drug runners to soon own one of these (via Bruce Schneier). Cameras could even be used against law enforcement if drug runners use decoys to draw forces away from their transport routes. Plus, as JCBT points out, the Border Patrol already has cameras on the border, for all the good it does, so why spend $5 million on a redundant system?

The word for such a pointless expense is "Boondoggle": Everyone please repeat it aloud.

Webcams on the border won't stop anybody: It's just another $5 million from the taxpayers' collective hip pocket flushed down the commode. What else is there to say about it? All that's left is to point and laugh.

Sex offender laws must move beyond fear: Residency restrictions worsen public safety

The headline from yesterday's Beaumont Enterprise says it all: "Sex crime fear spreads residency restrictions from city to city." That's exactly right. Everyone recognizes that sex offenders must live somewhere, but fear it might be their town:
"We don't want to find ourselves in a position where we are one of the cities that don't have an ordinance," Dan Robertson, [Pinehurst] city manager and police chief, said Thursday. "We don't want to attract sex offenders because we don't have one."
Fear - that's what's driving the move toward Texas municipalities restricting sex offender housing, not any rational debate. It's a familiar spectacle, isn't it? If a politician repeats the words "sex offender" enough times, often it seems like they think any ridiculous idea may then be justified to the public. Sadly, that appears to be pretty much true. (I partly blame local TV news' "if it bleeds it leads" crime coverage for that.) At a certain point, though, people who've done their time deserve the right to build a new life and try to move on. These laws make that impossible for some.

Fear drives bad decisions everywhere in life. Security decisions, by contrast, must be driven by an analysis of targets, risks, rewards and resources to actually increase public safety. Even in the scariest situations, the best decisions are made by those who keep their head and calmly analyze what to do, not those who react to their fear. (To this day the best framework for making security-related public policy decisions I've ever seen was laid out in the estimable
Bruce Schneier's post-9/11 treatise, Beyond Fear.)

By any cost-benefit analysis, local sex offender residency restrictions are a public policy disaster. At best they only move the risk around, at worst they create a situation where sex offenders must drop out of sight of authorities simply in order to find a place to live. In California, some sex offenders who can't find places to live because of these laws must sleep on the floor in local parole offices, but others will simply abscond. At that point, they could be living anywhere and authorities wouldn't have any idea where to find them

That's too big a downside. As I
wrote a couple of weeks ago, however well intended, the unintended consequences of these laws actually make the public less safe.

Dallas PD cleaning house, officers grumbling

Nine officers have been fired so far and more terminations are expected this week as part of Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle's spring cleaning efforts aimed at improving the department's image. (Dallasblog and CrimProf blog have details. Here is the Dallas News coverage.) Unfair Park says the rank and file are grumbling, quoting a website called where Dallas cops allegedly badmouthed another officer who was a target of misconduct in anonymous postings.

Look for this episode to turn nasty quickly when the police association responds, I suspect, in a very public donnybrook. Chiefs and Sheriffs rarely risk the wrath of their officers' unions by engaging in serial terminations like this, no matter how justified. Anytime a department fires an officer, much less several of them, it risks substantial political backlash. In El Paso, for example, the sheriff deputies' association right now is running attack ads on the radio criticizing the local sheriff for firing two officers, South Texas Chisme reports.

Such bullying media tactics, discouragingly, work more often than you'd expect - it'll be interesting to see how the Dallas Police Officers Association responds, and how well Chief Kunkle sticks to his guns.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Counties explore solutions for mentally ill in Texas jails

Everywhere in Texas county jails find themselves awash with mentally ill offenders. Jailers aren't social workers. Their facilities aren't equipped to handle the mentally ill and their guards aren't properly trained. Inmates who've had psychotic breaks might improve after being given their medication, but can't stay on the treatments without help once they're out in the free world again. Nobody seems to have a great answer, but between them Texas counties are testing quite a few different solutions. Several recent news item bear that out:

KHOU in Houston this week looked at the story of troubled suburban teen and wonders
whether the mentally ill should be jailed or hospitalized?

In Dallas they're taking baby steps toward a third option - community based care. Parkland Hospital, Dallas' public hospital, will soon begin
providing medication to jail inmates for several days after they leave the county's custody to give them a chance to see a doctor and maintain continuity taking their meds. (MH advocates say they should be give seven days worth of meds, which seems eminently reasonable compared to the costs of incarcerating them again after a breakdown.)

Retiring medical director of the Bexar County Jail, Dr. John Spark,
lamented to the San Antonio Express News the one plan to address the problem he could never figure out how to implement - a special, statewide facility for mentally ill county jail inmates from all over Texas to resolve the space shortage at state mental hospitals (I've written about that ongoing crisis here, here, here, and here; legislative leaders recently ponied up a little money aimed at relieving the crisis, but not nearly enough.)

Meanwhile, as I'd
written last week, Austin is creating a new public defender office for the mentally ill, while San Antonio has created a crisis care center where officers can take non-violent offenders who need medication and treatment more than jail.

Finding ways to handle these folks as patients instead of prisoners, preferably outside the jail, is a hot topic everywhere in the state. A lot of different solutions are being tried piecemeal, but in the big picture locals everywhere are struggling with dilemmas caused by statewide defunding of the mental health system. This problem requires a fundamental change in approach by local offiicials toward criminalizing mental illness. Slowly, of necessity, some counties do appear to be re-thinking the right approach. That's a start, but at the end of the day it will also require a legislative appropriation with a lot of zeroes behind it.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Texas Jail Inmate Locators Online

Publishing criminal records online isn't just for drunks or sex offenders anymore. In some places, now everybody who's arrested for anything gets in on the fun.

Websurfing this morning I came across this page on, a genealogy site, listing county jail inmate locators on the web for all 50 states. (This is just for county jails; the Texas prison inmate locator, BTW, is permanently linked in Grits' sidebar.) Here are the ones they listed for Texas:

Texas County Jail Inmates and Arrest Logs

Arlington, TX Jail Inmate List

Baytown Crime Reports ; Who is in the Baytown Jail?

Bell County Jail Active Inmates List

Bexar County Jail Activity Report

Brazoria County Jail Records Search

Denton County, Texas Jail Records Search

Grayson County Jail Records Search

Gregg County Jail Records Search

Hardin County Jail Current Inmate Listing

Harris County Jail Inmate Search

Lamar County Jail Records Search

Lubbock County Online Jail Rosters

Montgomery County Jail Inmates Search

Parker County Jail Records Search

Smith County Jail Records Search

Texas Criminal History Database

Tom Green County Jail Records Search

Wise County Jail Inmates

Texas Arrest Warrants

Austin, TX Arrest Warrant Search Engine

Baytown Active Arrest Warrants List

Plano Outstanding Misdemeanor Warrants

Waco Arrest Warrants

Wise County Arrest Warrants Search

I can see arguments both ways for whether or not to put this information online. It's all public record, lots of different people have uses for the information, and newspapers report that stuff all the time. On the other hand, putting names of people online whose cases haven't been adjudicated seems potentially problematic. At the end of the day, though, if public records aren't available online it only leaves open the door for private businesses to provide that service for a fee - why make the public pay to access data they already paid to generate?

Just to try out the databases (and to check on the relatives), I ran the name Henson through several of them. It turns out I haven't been arrested, at least lately. But in Harris County two of the four names that came up in the inmate locator had no charges listed and had been shifted to the "inactive file."
I'm not sure I see a reason for keeping their names in a public, online database.

UPDATE: See also Travis County's Jail Inmate Locator, Dallas' Current Inmate Listing, and the El Paso Sheriff's Inmate Log Search. Leave links to others in the comments if you know of them.