Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Scare tactics not just for kids on Halloween

Over at Pandagon, Amanda's experience every Halloween growing up in Alpine, Tx, sounds similar to mine in Tyler - a lot of religious folks wanted the event banned entirely for its allegedly Satanic origins, and the whole thing every year became a ridiculously overblown controversy.

Back in my day, the big scare threat was razor blades in apples, though that never really occurred in the real world. Now it's scare rhetoric about sex offenders.

It's all pretty silly since nearly all child molestation happens in the home and with people who know the victim, not some stranger doling out Tootsie rolls.

Why all the scare rhetoric? I'd guess a trick or treater is much more likely to be hit by a car than to be molested - I could find no examples of that happening via a Google search, and I've simply never heard of it.

Just let the kids go get some candy and have some fun, for heavens sake, and if you're worried what will happen, tag along. It's called "parenting."

Attack of the Killer Ads: GOP breaks out long knives in Dallas judicial campaigns

With Dallas County poised to vote in a slew of Democratic candidates for the first time in more than a generation, it shouldn't be surprising the GOP is running vicious attack advertising - mostly direct mail so far - against Democratic judicial candidates in the closing week of the campaign. I've not seen the hit pieces in question, but Mark Donald in the Oct. 30 Texas Lawyer (subscription only) thinks the attacks go beyond the pale. Since I've not followed the races closely I'll just recite his analysis:
In all my years as a voter, which are many, I can't recall reading a direct mail piece that was so negative or left me feeling so dispirited about the future of judicial elections, as the one I read last week with less than two weeks left in this election cycle. This mailer happened to be a Republican attack piece, but there seems to be little preventing the Democrats from doing the same, if they should some day find themselves running scared and desperate to hold onto power. On its face, the ad says it was paid for by the Republican Party of Texas, but the two Republican judges with whom I spoke said the ad money sprang from the pockets of those GOP judges running for office.

In big bold letters, the top of the mailer frames the question: "What incriminating clues link these UNUSUAL SUSPECTS?" Then in a smaller font, the ad reads, "Local Democrats have lined up the worst group of judicial candidates in Texas history. They hope national politics will help them sweep our local courts."

To me, this last line sounds a bit hypocritical, since in the 1980s many Republicans challenging the Democratic dominance in the Dallas County courthouses depended on the Reagan Revolution "to help them sweep our local courts."

Below this line is a photo of what pretends to be a criminal line-up: five white guys in suits, four of whom carry briefcases, all of whom have a black bar covering their eyes, as if insisting upon disguising their identities so they don't incriminate themselves.

Their identities are further obfuscated by copy, which singles out unnamed "Democrat candidates" who have committed an assortment of alleged wrongs, qualification disqualifiers and bad career moves. "Several represent serial rapists and child molesters," says the ad, as if being a criminal-defense attorney poses an absolute bar to judicial office.

"The Republicans have pretty much accused us of being criminals and thugs," says Larry Mitchell, a Democrat running for a seat on the 292nd District Court.

Using the partisan jargon of Republican true-believers, the mailer touts the qualifications of Dallas County Republican judges, saying they have 550 years of combined bench experience "protecting our families and property." Also they are tough on criminals, don't legislate from the bench and stop frivolous suits.

"That depends on how you define a frivolous lawsuit," says Darlene Ewing, a Dallas solo and chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party. "The Dallas County Democratic Party was sued seven times by Republican judges trying to throw Democratic candidates off the ballot this election cycle. They lost each one. I call those frivolous lawsuits."
Thanks to Susan for the tip.

The face of the US military on the Texas-Mexico border?

No, it's not Cousin Itt.

I ran across this on the photo gallery at the website of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas commemorating Ezequiel Hernandez, the shepherd and American citizen killed in 1997 by US marines on the border hunting for drug traffickers.

This image depicts the camouflage used by marines who stalked and shot Hernandez. That seems pretty outrageous. Does anybody know if the US troops are using similar stealth tactics today along the banks of the Rio Grande?

Hernandez' killing caused US troops to be removed from their posts stationed along the Rio Grande at that time. Now President Bush promises he won't "militarize" the border, but what does that mean? Thousands of National Guard troops - many having come straight from Iraq or Afghanistan, are stationed there now.

As the German philosopher Hegel observed, history teaches us that man learns nothing from history. Given that the Hernandez killing happened on George Bush's watch as Texas Governor, it's troubling he and his advisors can't see that it's only a matter of time before the tragedy that befell Ezequiel Hernandez and his family repeats itself.

Bexar Commissioner responds on tent city trial balloon

Speaking of comments received yesterday, I don't think I've ever gotten a nicer note from a politician I'd criticized than from Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, one of the San Antonio pols who visited Arizona to see Maricopa County's tent city jail. I'd called the visit right before the election "grandstanding" in this post.

To his credit, Adkisson didn't take it personally. Here's the reply he left in the comments:
Dear Scott,

Thanks for your coverage on the tent camps, but very importantly, for your discourse on the critical issue of incarceration in Texas.

Tent camps are wildly popular, but we have made no decision to use them in Bexar County. However, we will leave no stone unturned in an effort to stem the hemorrhaging of seemingly endless amounts of money into our jails. We currently utilize many of the drug-treatment, ELM, work-release, and mental health diverting techniques to try to do the right thing.

In fact, on October 5, 2006 we here in Bexar County received the 2006 Gold Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association for our community-based programs, specifically for an innovative system of jail diversion involving community partnerships and collaborations, which has improved services, enhanced access to and continuity of care for persons with mental illnesses.

Finally, I have been working on this for practically all eight years of my time in office as Commissioner. Just because tent camps are "hot" doesn't mean I need this for illigitimate reasons, such as the election.

Much more could be said about the many challenging issues regarding jail population and I look forward to weighing in on the solutions. I regard Grits for Breakfast as one of the most welcome and helpful vehicles we elected officials have for understanding the problems and their solutions.

Tommy Adkisson
Commissioner, Precint 4
Bexar County
Awww, man, now I feel bad. I mean, the tent city is still a really stupid idea, but what a nice note! I think part of the reason I was so hard on this election-season trial balloon is precisely that I've been under the impression Bexar County really is looking seriously for solutions, though I understand the local district judges haven't always been very cooperative.

If you're looking for better options, Commissioner, let me suggest where you really need to visit is Houston: Bexar should mimic Harris County's system of pretrial services (described in this Grits post), which identifies likely candidates for release on personal bond instead of requiring bail from often indigent defendants. There are a lot of things I don't like about the Harris County justice system, but their pretrial screening system, IMO, might be the best in the state.

What kind of difference could it make? As of October 1, 2006, 57% of Bexar County's inmate population was sitting in jail awaiting trial. By contrast, Harris County had 42%. (Source: Monthly TX jail population report.) That's a direct result of Harris' pretrial screening program and greater use by judges of personal bonds for low-level offenses.

Even more significantly, right now Bexar is holding too many misdemeanor defendants before trial. Six hundred inmates in the Bexar County Jail on October 1 were being held awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges. By contrast, in much larger Harris County whose jail is more than twice as big as Bexar's, just 412 misdemeanants were awaiting trial. Do all those in Bexar really need to be there?

These data tell me there's plenty of room for Bexar to fix its overincarceration problems with the tools presently available to them. They don't need to build a new jail and they don't need to build a tent city. They need to manage the local justice system more intelligently.

I appreciate Commissioner Adkisson's flattering response. Thank you! And good luck trying to fix this mess once the election's over.

Are We Winning the War on Sniffles?

Do laws restricting pseudoephedrine sales "work" to reduce meth? I've argued that they've enriched organized crime, and that other states like Texas that mimicked Oklahoma's first-of-its-kind law were merely grandstanding while ignoring the obvious substitution problem. Kip Esquire brilliantly called the fad "the War on Sniffles." So are we winning? I guess it depends on what you thought the goals were.

Quite a few older Grits posts in the archives sometimes get comments, and this one came in yesterday here from an anonymous Okie that I thought was worth responding to:
The meth law in Oklahoma has closed down the "mom and pop" meth labs here. Children were being exposed to the noxious chemicals these labs produced, and the toxic waste that was being dumped on our backroads and in our rivers and streams has been halted. The restrictions on the sale of "pseudo" were directly responsible for these changes. Now instead of a thousand amatuer chemists, law enforcement can focus on the Mexican "superlabs." oh, and by the way, whining about the inconvenience of having to show ID to buy items containing this chemical sort of makes you look like an asshole (or a pissed-off tweaker that can't get his supply of "pseudo")
Here was my response:
If you think more addicts, more property crime and more violence means the law "works," then more power to you. Meth labs were bad - are they worse than organized crime? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? US drug policy is chasing its own tail. This law didn't improve things, at best it just shifted profits and enviro hazards to Mexico, at worst caused your addicts who used to cook at home to rob your house to buy the drugs from the Mexican cartels.

This is a silly law - further evidence that the best thing ever to come out of Oklahoma is still I-35. ;)
Michael at Corrections Sentencing has echoed that NIMBY-ish response, but with cartel feuding piling up bodies on the border, problems that he didn't want in his backyard are worsening problems in Texans'. (Michael, don't think I won't be looking for ways during the next legislative session Texas can dump some of our problems on Wisconsin! ;) )

What do y'all think? Was a reduction in environmental hazards of meth labs (or, rather, shifting the problem to so-called superlabs in California and Mexico), worth the consequences of enriching drug cartels, higher addiction rates, increasing overdoses from higher potency, and boosting property crime and violence associated with addicts getting money to purchase from the cartels?

Y'all know what I think, but I'm curious about readers' opinion: Was it worth it?

UPDATE: Michael at Corrections Sentencing responds here.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Work songs from a Texas prison

I don't know about y'all, but I thought this is pretty friggin cool; grim, but ... man, what dramatic footage. I'll bet it really was something to see, and something goddawful to be a part of. Still, somehow, the images of their raw, degrading forced labor retain a sense of dignity, don't you think? Men stripped to nothing, treated as beasts of burden, still maintained cultural bonds and personal solidarity through music, of all things, and right there in the face of the armed guards forcing them to work. Wow! "It makes the work seem easy, even when it's hard, when you're singing," says an inmate in the longer version of the film.

What a powerful force music is, isn't it? In this case the merger of work rhythms and musical rhythms, the political implications of retaining cultural symbols like blues music even in bondage, the simple functionality of the song (to keep people from hitting each other with an axe), all of it's fascinating to me.

This is just something I randomly found on YouTube. View the whole 29 minute film here.

UPDATE: More from the Underdog Blog.

ACLU comments on TDCJ sunset proposals

More information, this time from the ACLU of Texas Prison and Jail Accountability Project, responding to Texas' "Sunset review" of the Texas prison system. PJAP Director Nicole Porter has posted this notice on ACLU's website:

Currently, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee are under review by the Sunset Commission. (Ed. note: See past Grits coverage here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

The ACLU of Texas has submitted several documents to the Commission for consideration.

1. Comments regarding Sunset Staff Report; and
2. ACLU of Texas Report to the Sunset Commission

I've not read these documents yet, but wanted to get the links out there for those who are interested in reforms needed to keep Texas from spending $2 billion-plus to build and staff three new prisons.

Cities' safety scored: Border, Dallas burbs rank high in Texas

You're probably about as safe living in San Antonio (197) as you are in Tyler (193), according to an annual ranking of US cities based on FBI crime statistics, but you'd be safer living in Austin (158), McAllen (127) or El Paso (114), and the safest place in the state to live would be Round Rock (13).

See the complete national ranking list here, via Talk Left.

No Texas city cracked the top ten US safest places. Houston (325) and Dallas (338) weighed down the bottom of Texas' rankings, while a lot of the Dallas suburbs ranked very high - the six highest ranked Texas cities after Round Rock were all Dallas suburbs: Plano (40), Richardson (61), McKinney (64), Lewisville (69), Carrollton (83), and Garland (97).

Roughneck Odessa (104) came in safer than swankier Midland (131), while border towns like Laredo (161) and Brownsville (119) tended to be a lot safer than places you think of as much tamer areas, including Wichita Falls (232), Lubbock (233), Amarillo (235), Waco (266), or Longview (306).

Like TChris at TalkLeft, I'm not sure how much such statistics mean, but check out where your city's ranked for whatever it's worth.

There's a reason prisons have walls: Grandstanding pols overlook real solutions to Bexar jail overcrowding

Every politician wants to look "tuff on crime," I suppose, but the faddish idea of housing prisoners outdoors in tents is more stupid than tough, by a longshot.

In a pre-election publicity stunt, a couple of Bexar County Commissioners are flying to Arizona to view the tent-city jail in Maricopa County that represents the ultimate in "tough" incarceration policies - work in the desert sun, food of the cheapest, poorest quality, and everyone must wear pink clothing in an effort to humiliate them.

County commissioners from Bexar and Midland counties and the Cameron Sheriff say they want the Texas Legislature to make tent jails legal - right now they're not except as a temporary solution to jail overcrowding.

Problem is, tent jails are unsafe for everybody - guards, inmates and the public. They're easier to smuggle weapons into, easier to escape from, and put guards in jeopardy.

Think about it. If you want to smuggle a gun into the local jail, how would you do it? You'd have to come up with a pretty elaborate scheme, and probably have some help on the inside. Now think how you'd smuggle a gun into a tent city jail - you'd throw it over the fence.

There's a reason prisons have walls.

The outdoor jail in Maricopa County suffers from just those problems, reports the SA Express News ("Bexar County tent jail idea 'get tough' or gimmick?," Oct. 30):
Amnesty International has called it one of the world's worst jails. Dozens of lawsuits — many successful — have been filed over the years.

In 1996, the county settled for $8.25 million in the death of inmate Scott Norberg, and last April a federal jury awarded $9 million to the family of Charles Agster III.

In September 2002, Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Jefferson L. Lankford held Arpaio liable for the severe beating of an inmate.

Lankford wrote that [Sheriff] Arpaio "admitted knowing about and in fact intentionally designing some conditions at Tent City that created a substantial risk of inmate violence. (There is a) lack of individual security and inmate control inherent in a tent facility (with) the small number of guards, a mixed inmate population subject to overcrowding, extreme heat and lack of amenities."

Also, the tents have not negated the need for more beds in Maricopa County, and last year two new brick-and-mortar jails were completed at a cost of $394 million for 4,473 new beds.

The idea, really, is ridiculous to even contemplate, especially because there are lots of other ways to reduce overcrowding at Texas county jails, and in Bexar County in particular, without resorting to a dangerous showboating tactic that opens the county up to large legal liabilities. For Bexar, as I've written before, the key method would be to reduce the number of low-level offenders being held before trial.

CORRECTION: I misread the local jail report and the following was based on incorrect data. I apologize for the error.

Also, just like in Harris County, Bexar judges are sentencing low-level drug defendants unnecessarily to county jail time instead of drug treatment as a condition of probation on first-offense state jail felonies. Not only do they not have to do that, it thwarts the intent of the law to get these people into treatment, and fills up the county jail for no good reason.

This is a big and totally unreported factor in Bexar County jail overcrowding. Consider: In June 2005, only 19 such defendants were in the jail (see stats in this blog post) - according to the October 1, 2006 jail population report (pdf), last month there were more than 300 such prisoners.

I don't know what changed, whether it's one judge responsible those sentences or all of them changing their tactics, but that's a terrible and unnecessary outcome - bad for the taxpayers and for public safety.

Maybe once election season is over such grandstanding will recede, Bexar's county commissioners and local judges will stop with the "tuff" act, and more serious discussions can begin about overincarceration solutions at the local jail.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Good front lines blogging from Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer

Read three terrific posts from Jamie Spencer at the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer describing Travis County's S.H.O.R.T. Court (the local drug court), and busting wide open ill-informed arguments from Crime and Consequences against attorneys advising clients to participate in drug courts. Writes Spencer, "I know this is harsh, but I’ve rarely seen such hogwash from a self proclaimed expert." Then he backs it up. (There's more on the topic from Corrections Sentencing.)

See also Spencer's post on how the Austin Police Department will charge you for a police report but won't really give you one. Good stuff from somebody on the front lines.

UT Austin's Tarlton Law Library online

Thanks to this post at Prawfsblawg I've added a link in Grits' sidebar to the virtual library from the Tarlton Library at UT-Austin. They also let you search archived tables of contents from hundreds of law journals and related publications. In addition, I ran across a link there to a service where you can sign up to receive updates from new tables of contents for up to 1,263 legal journals - a great service for the academic set.

Given my interest in Mexico, I was especially happy to discover a marvelous set of resources - the best I've ever run across in English - on Aztec and Mayan law as well as modern Mexican legal resources. Very cool. More great stuff to add to Grits' now ridiculously long reading list.

US journalist gunned down in Oaxaca

An American freelance journalist, Bradley Will, was killed in what Beyond the Border blog described as a "shootout between police and the People's Popular Assembly of Oaxaca — a coalition of striking teachers and other protesters — and community groups."

Given the nature of Mexican politics, where power still grows out of the barrel of a gun, I have wonder if this was really a "shootout," or if it was a little more one-sided than that and police did most of the shooting. Reported the Village Voice:
"He was filming as the paramilitaries began their assault on the crowd," says Shannon Young, a reporter for Free Speech Radio News based in Oaxaca. "According to witnesses, someone grabbed Brad's shirt and said, 'Come on, let's go,' but he kept filming and he got shot."

Will was felled by a bullet to his stomach. He died while being transported to a Red Cross hospital.

The New York Times also portrayed the incident as the police surrounding the crowd and "moving in," not a "shootout" involving both sides - that misrepresents, from all I can tell, what really happened. The "shootout" portrayal doesn't make any sense; those protesting teachers have been camping in the streets of Oaxaca for many months - they're going draw down on the police now? This incident likely had more in common with Kent State than the OK Corral.

Bradley Will's death will deservedly draw a lot of attention, particularly because he's an American from New York City, apparently with many mourning friends in lefty NYC writer and journalist circles. He was a brave guy to stand there filming as the soldiers moved in. But it's important not to forget that many other journalists have lost their lives recently covering politics in Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

It's one thing when drug cartels kill journalists - they're criminal gangs, after all, organized crime, the modern mafia. They're criminals who need to be brought to justice. It's quite another when the government itself pulls the trigger. Who will bring the government to justice?

That question may soon be resolved on the streets of Oaxaca - the answer quite possibly is no one - or else this could just be the beginning of something much bigger than what's going on in that city's dangerous, tent-filled streets.

UPDATE: Beyond the Border blog has more updates by Dane Schiller from the streets of Oaxaca.

Friday, October 27, 2006

What to do if you can't afford a lawyer in Texas?

The Texas Fair Defense Campaign has created a brochure (pdf) to give a roadmap for people who can't afford an attorney to secure legal representation and protect their rights. Read it if you need it, or pass it on if you know someone who does.

A wall ain't gonna stop nuthin'

These photos depict the most obvious ways to defeat a border wall. Can you think of others?

If you don't live here, it's really hard to understand just how dumb this is.

See a roundup of reactions from the blogosphere.

When I was in prison, did you visit me?

"God doesn't call the qualified, he qualifies the called," says the Christian Restorative Justice Mentors Association. They're a prisoner re-entry group working with TDCJ that I wasn't aware of before, but I ran across their website this morning.

Here's an example of one of their local programs at the Wynne unit in Huntsville - they've got 8 active mentors there who go to the prison once a month for a couple of hours. There are also 15 prisoners at Wynne who've requested mentors but don't have one. Information about unit-specific programs (they're not at every one) are available in links in the sidebar. Here's a description of the group's mission from its website:
It's great to get out again, but in reality less than 5% of marriages even survive a prison sentence.

Hundreds of inmates like those above are released with just a bus ticket and a sack of their belongings. Most have no one waiting for them at the gate. Now problems have just begun, things like:
  • Finding a place to stay
  • Where to find a job?
  • Need some type of transportation
But it doesn't have to be that way ... because a mentor can make a difference! Almost 60% of those released will be back within 3 years, all because no one cared enough.
The group is holding an all-day volunteer training in Houston on November 11. Their site also promotes TDCJ's Operation Rebound program, run by a former director of Exodus Ministries, a Dallas-based prisoner after-care program. Here's a description of their role in TDCJ re-entry programming, again from their website:
The Faith-Based Community has now been asked by TDCJ to hold ReEntry programs in the prison system.

The first one is now going on at the Kegans State Jail in downtown Houston.

This is a collaboration of many different ministries working together to bring to the inmates the education and life skills they need to be successful when they leave the jail. It is all centered on Jesus, but has aspects such as values training, substance abuse and financial planning as well.

One of our most immediate needs is for Coaches/Mentors. We have men who will be leaving as soon as February 16th 2006!

We are looking for men to coach male inmates 2 times a month or more.
Because of the nature of the program, we have almost unlimited access to the men at any time of day, so there is a lot of freedom to choose when to visit. We need people who can commit to maintaining contact with the inmate for at least a year after he leaves prison, perhaps even picking him up when he’s released and taking him to his (hopefully) new residence.

We will be opening a new 58 bed Dorm at the women’s Unit at Plane State in March and will need women Mentor/Coaches for there, also.
This is a great example of religious charities fulfilling a role that really should be played by the criminal justice system and the state: helping re-integrate ex-prisoners back into society once they're released. A "coach" can only do so much, though. What they need is a job and a place to live. While some folks may dislike that such programs are "centered on Jesus," I don't see anybody else stepping forward with many alternatives. At least CRJMA is trying to help. Bully for them for taking the initiative.

Christ once asked his disciples, "When I was in prison, did you visit me?" They replied by asking him when were you ever in prison? He responded that if they'd never visited the "least of these," their sin was as great as if they'd failed to visit Christ himself.

If you're a Christian, answer me this: If you died today and met St. Peter at the pearly gates, and he said you can enter depending on the answer to just one question: When Christ was in prison, did you visit him? Would you get in?

If you would have to honestly answer "No," maybe you should consider volunteering for CRJMA.

Wretched Opinions: Dallas PD analyzes CCA cases

Wretched of the Earth offers up another update from the weekly Texas Court of Criminal Appeals "hand down" list, this time reporting good news: the CCA approved still another DNA-based exoneration of a long-ago convicted defendant- this time a man named Billy Wayne Miller, convicted of sexual assault nearly two decades ago. (I linked here to his first week's offerings.)

PovertyLawyer1 predicts more DNA-based exonerations in Texas coming soon, including one about which he has first-hand knowledge, so stay tuned.

I've been lobbying for this blogger, ribbing him, really, to title his new, regular weekly series summarizing CCA cases "Wretched Opinions," but as a practicing attorney whose cases may actually occasionally get to the CCA, that's probably asking a little much. Still, this is a really great blawgerly service for him to perform - I don't know of anybody else in the state doing anything like it - maybe the Texas Law Blog on the civil side, now that Bradley's back in the game.

See also Wretched's recent informative posts on Dismissal Without Expunction, and the possibility of re-opening the jail in the criminal courts building across from the old red courthouse in downtown Dallas due to overincarceration pressures.

Governor claimed phony drop in border crime, experts say

I've been waiting for this other shoe to drop ever since I heard Governor Perry's claims last week on TV about massive reductions in border crime.

Turns out it's a bunch of hooey. From the El Paso Times ("Experts question Perry's border crime assessment," Oct. 26):
Stunning borderwide drops in crime that Republican Gov. Rick Perry last week attributed to state border security efforts are more likely campaign calculations than accurate statistics, according to experts and some law enforcement officials.

In news conferences and campaign television commercials last week, Perry lauded state-led border security operations he said reduced crime 60 percent borderwide and kept Texans safe from terrorism.

But Perry's top homeland security official acknowledged that the numbers used to calculate the average crime decrease do not prove a sustained drop in crime from El Paso to Brownsville, do not include crime rates in major border cities, and do not account for other possible reasons for the decrease.

"The smart user and creator of data takes all those things into account, but the politician just uses data and ignores what's not convenient," said UTEP sociology and anthropology Professor Cheryl Howard.

So to calculate big crime reductions, they excluded statistics from all municipalities where most people live, only using stats from unincorporated regions. Then they only calculated statistics for a few counties, and only during periods when law enforcement was conducting five so-called "surge operations," reports the Times.

Talk about cooking the numbers!

It's too soon to know for sure, but there's a pretty decent chance when it's all said and done that Operation Linebacker and other border security initiatives didn't reduce border crime at all, not in the big picture. That's partially because they're spending the money on the wrong things, and partially because there's a limit to how effective supply-side enforcement solutions alone can really be at reducing immigration or drug smuggling.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bill language gives hazy view of wall specifics

In response to my request for information about specifications on President Bush's newly authorized border fence, Benders' Dan Kowalski sent me a copy of the actual enabling law. It basically tells them where to build the fence, but nothing about the specs except that it must be "reinforced," have two layers, and requires "the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors."

Is it just me or does that sound a lot like the Berlin Wall? Here's the full section on exactly where the wall will be built, and all we know so far about what it will look like:

Section 102(b) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (Public Law 104–208; 8 U.S.C. 1103 note) is amended —

H. R. 6061—2
(1) in the subsection heading by striking ‘‘NEAR SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA’’; and
(2) by amending paragraph (1) to read as follows:


‘‘(A) REINFORCED FENCING.—In carrying out subsection
(a), the Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide for least 2 layers of reinforced fencing, the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors—
‘‘(i) extending from 10 miles west of the Tecate, California, port of entry to 10 miles east of the Tecate, California, port of entry;
‘‘(ii) extending from 10 miles west of the Calexico, California, port of entry to 5 miles east of the Douglas, Arizona, port of entry;
‘‘(iii) extending from 5 miles west of the Columbus, New Mexico, port of entry to 10 miles east of El Paso, Texas;
‘‘(iv) extending from 5 miles northwest of the Del Rio, Texas, port of entry to 5 miles southeast of the Eagle Pass, Texas, port of entry; and
‘‘(v) extending 15 miles northwest of the Laredo, Texas, port of entry to the Brownsville, Texas, port of entry.

‘‘(B) PRIORITY AREAS.—With respect to the border described—
‘‘(i) in subparagraph (A)(ii), the Secretary shall ensure that an interlocking surveillance camera system is installed along such area by May 30, 2007, and that fence construction is completed by May 30, 2008; and
‘‘(ii) in subparagraph (A)(v), the Secretary shall ensure that fence construction from 15 miles northwest of the Laredo, Texas, port of entry to 15 southeast of the Laredo, Texas, port of entry is completed by December 31, 2008.‘‘

(C) EXCEPTION.—If the topography of a specific area has an elevation grade that exceeds 10 percent, the Secretary may use other means to secure such area, including the use of surveillance and barrier tools.’’
That still doesn't tell me what the wall will look like, just where it might go - that is, if the slope isn't too steep. Will it be five feet high? Twenty feet? What are the "additional physical barriers." I'm curious because, if, say, the wall will be ten feet high, it might be wise to invest in the largest Mexican producer of 11 foot ladders. ;)

If anybody hears of more details on specs for the wall, maybe from DHS, the Army Corps of Engineers or whoever will build the thing, please let me know.

UPDATE: REACTION FROM THE BLOGOSPHERE. Mark Parent thinks the fence will never be built. Conservatives at Freedom Folks are unimpressed ("Whoop-de-do" and "1,300 miles short"). Innovation Online also dislikes Congress' math. According to this MSNBC online poll, the public doesn't think a fence will work by a 2-1 margin. Hot Air has video of the President's press conference. (It's good for a laugh, e.g., we're going to "build on our successes," his administration has deported 6 million people, etc. - if so, then what's the problem?). Shining City Atop The Hill says the "damn fence" is "essential" but "unfunded." Piney Woods Rooter suggests electrifying the fence and installing land mines, while Texas Fred wants fence crossers shot on sight. This blogger wants the fence so the Mexican military won't invade! Divine emmina can think of better ways to spend the money. Don't Believe Everything says the idea bespeaks a "country club mentality." This fellow is mad that other nations have an opinion. Marcos educated himself and has changed his position because "complaining about immigration is like yelling at the rain." Will it be rabbit proof? Josh Nipps thinks the President has lost his mind. Bring it On! says the fence shows wasting money has become a GOP hallmark. News as Gossip suggests we place a giant "D" next to the barrier, while this blogger wonders when Halliburton will open its new fence production facilities.

MORE REACTIONS: Here's a response from LULAC. "Big Whoop," says Post An Apology. The Daily Background says the media dropped the ball. At ImmigrationProf blog we find an interesting essay by Houston law professor Michael Olivas called "Fences and Mushrooms." Blonde Sagacity can't think of any downsides, but posts a hilarious wall-climbing pic. Opinio Juris says the wall could be an ecological disaster. Pardon my English says "This half-assed attempt at border security isn't winning the Republicans any brownie points with me." Jake says the other 1400 miles of border will continue to operate on the "honor system." The Just News blog quotes former Border Patrol supervisor now-Texas Congressman Sylvestre Reyes calling the wall an "empty gesture." South Texas Chisme gives several reasons why it's a stupid idea. Addison Road says fear is the highest fence.

Does anybody know specifications for the new border "fence"?

Okay, so President Bush has signed legislation to build a "fence" between the United States and Mexico. Silly, but there it is.

I'm hoping readers can help me: Has anybody seen actual specifications for what this fence will look like? Texas Senator John Cornyn said it might be a "virtual fence," but I'm certain some physical barrier will be built someplace, if only for politicians to have their picture taken beside it for campaign commercials.

So assuming a real fence is built, how will it physically manifest itself on the ground? I've Googled and searched the blogs but can't find any detail. Here it's called a "double layered fence," but what does that mean? How tall will it be? What materials will it be made of? Will there be barbed wire on top? Will they embed concrete several feet down to deter tunneling? What will they do to stop people from just cutting a hole in it? In Texas it will be built in a river basin; what will be done to prevent the predictable erosion?

If you've seen any specific information about that sort of thing, I'd appreciate readers letting me know in the comments.

UPDATE: Here are a few preliminary answers from the bill language itself.

Prison Pups

Mostly I'm just posting this for the picture (I'm a sucker for dogs). Via the Austinist, this neat-looking show will premiere tonight at the Austin Film Festival:

"Prison Pups follows four prison inmates as they train puppies for the handicapped and hearing impaired on a minimum-security facility nestled in the rolling farmland northwest of Boston. The peacefulness of this landscape belies a controlled and regimented environment where these inmates live with and train puppies over a 10 to 14 month period. The benefits of taking responsibility and knowing unconditional love can be profound as inmates gain confidence and are empowered by their role as trainers.

"Click here for a blog and discussion of PRISON PUPS from Gather.com"

How much of Texas' budget surplus must go to new prisons?

I'm skeptical of large, election-season predictions of massive budget surpluses - they allow politicians to conveniently promise everybody everything, then break all the promises without consequence when the real figures come out lower in Januay. ("Perry predicts record budget surplus," Fort Worth Star Telegram, Oct. 24). But even if Texas' budget surplus is as big as predicted (I've seen estimates from $8 - $16 billion), it seems like it's already spent.

Says Governor Perry, “Our budget surplus is going to be so friggin’ big . . . why not lower the [business] tax rate down to three-fourths of a cent, or a half-cent? . . . I’m all for that.”

Problem is, about $7 billion off the top must go to the schools just to maintain the status quo - much more if Texans want teachers to have raises or secure pensions, not to mention programs really proven to work at preventing dropouts and teaching kids basic skills. (Half of minority kids in Houston drop out of high school.)

Perry also says Texas will re-appropriate millions taken during his tenure from Texas state parks. And he's seeking more than $100 million for Operation Linebacker and similar border security efforts.

Nowhere in this litany do I ever hear talk of new prison building. Texas currently operates 106 prison units, and the Legislative Budget Board predicts it will need three more just to meet current population projections by 2009, assuming the Legislature doesn't boost penalties even higher.

The figure one frequently hears bandied about for new prisons is $422 million in the next biennium, which in some sense might be do-able if the surplus really were that big, and if the Lege doesn't choose to spend it on other things. But that's really a low-ball estimate. The prison would be built with bonds, and the Texas Sunset Review Commission estimated the total cost to taxpayers for three new units would be more than $700 million by the time the debt was paid, plus $72 million per year more to staff them.

That means the total cost to Texas taxpayers for three new prisons would be about $2.1 billion over 20 years - a cool extra $100 million per year, on average, basically ad infinitum.

Here's the rub: Texas can't presently staff existing prisons - for years we've chroniclally hovered at about 3,000 guards short, with one in four guards quitting every year. Texas would need to fill those slots and add an additional thousand guards to staff three new units. That probably cannot happen.

So from a practical perspective, building costs aren't the only barrier - these units might actually sit mothballed once built, just like the overcrowded Harris County Jail which has prisoners sleeping on the floor but also more than 1,800 beds in an unused jail wing - not becuase of lack of space but because of lack of guards to oversee them.

Governor Perry vetoed a solution in 2005 that would have prevented this crisis and allowed for stronger supervision of more nonviolent offenders in the community. Without saying so, his vetoes represented a choice: more prisons instead of strengthening the probation system. IMO, it made the public less safe.

In my heart of hearts I don't blame Gov. Perry for his veto of stronger probation, at least on my better days - it was his decision to make, after all, even if I strongly disagree with it. But when the Governor makes a decision that will cost Texas taxpayers $2 billion they could spend on other things - like schools, roads, bridges, children's healthcare, and border security - he should at least be up front and tell the public that his veto already decided, in effect, how to spend big chunk of this "friggin big" surplus.

An Ode to Grits

Muse of the Moment offers a fun post on grits (the food, not the blog), but laments that she could find very little poetry out there on the subject. That's an inexplicable shame, so I thought I'd start to rectify the matter. Please add your own poetic suggestions in the comments.
From golden ground corn comes a flavorful feast
More tasty than flour, more cultured than yeast
It's good with your breakfast or any old meal
To add some pizzazz and some southern appeal
They call it polenta served down at the Ritz
But when in the South you need just ask for "grits."
See more from the Muse including some fine-looking grits recipes.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

More on narco-traffickers bribing US cops

From A Capitol Blog Texas state Rep. Aaron Peña:
The Los Angeles Times has two good articles about the growing concern of corruption on our border in the war against the drug cartels. The infamous former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu and his downfall is the subject of one of the articles.

Click here and here.
Reports the Times, "At least 200 public employees have been charged with helping to move narcotics or illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border since 2004, at least double the illicit activity documented in prior years, a Times examination of public records has found. Thousands more are under investigation." ("Rise of bribery tests integrity of US border," Oct. 23)

I've argued at length that new border security funding should go first to local Internal Affairs units and a new office at the Attorney General to prosecute law enforcement corruption. Otherwise, we're throwing good money after bad.

See prior related Grits coverage:

Lack of discovery means Texas defendants can't know evidence until trial

A lot of folks don't believe this when I tell them, but Texas state law does not require prosecutors to share accusatory evidence with the defendant before trial. Jamie Spencer writing at the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer has an item on this subject today entitled "Criminal Discovery Rules Allow State to Hide the Ball."

Travis County, he notes, lets defense counsel look at the prosecutors file on misdemeanors, but not for more serious felonies. I agree with most of what he says except this: The information about their case that criminal defendants are entitled to in Texas before trial hardly qualifies as "discovery" in any meaningful sense of the word - certainly not in the same sense civil attorneys get to use discovery in their cases. Spencer writes:
When someone gets arrested in Austin, Texas and comes to see me for help with their case, one of the things they are usually surprised to find out about the system is the length of time it takes to get a copy of the police report – several months for a misdemeanor, sometimes never on a felony.

That’s right: I said sometimes never on a felony – at least until after a witness has testified during trial, and has used the report to refresh his memory.

We are actually fortunate in Travis County that the prosecutors, at least on misdemeanors, are so generous with sharing “their police report” with the defense lawyers. The law in Texas does not require that they do so.

It's a travesty of justice to let anyone go to trial without having first shared the evidence that accuses them. How could anyone prepare a defense?

Spencer may think local lawyers are "fortunate," but the truth is Travis County prosecutors allow access to misdemeanor files to move cases through the system more quickly, hardly out of the goodness of their hearts. If a defendant knows prosecutors have him dead to rights and he can plea out to probation or a short jail sentence, the process works more smoothly for everybody when that information is shared.

For felonies, though, where defendants have a greater liberty interest and should arguably have a greater need to examine the evidence with which they'll be accused with in court, even Travis County doesn't let defendants see that information.

Texas legislation to allow reciprocal discovery (where both prosecutors and defense counsel would enjoy pre-trial discovery rights) passed the Texas Senate unanimously in 2005 but did not get out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee after receiving a public hearing. That committee will have a new chairman in 2007, so maybe the bill will benefit from fresh legs.

This is an idea whose time should have come years ago - like maybe in the reforms after the Salem Witch Trials.

Big D public defenders need more support staff, says transplanted PD blogger

Speaking of Injustice Anywhere, in this post she described the difference in the level of office support she encountered moving from the Dallas public defender office to her new PD digs in Washington State:
At my old office in Texas, we had one office manager, one receptionist, three secretaries, six investigators, and a Spanish interpreter. These people supported the approximately 60 attorneys in the felony, misdemeanor, juvenile, and family sections. At my new office, we have an office manager, two receptionists, five investigators, one social worker, and an unknown number of legal secretaries and file clerks. These support the approximately 20 attorneys that work in our felony, misdemeanor, juvenile, and family sections. It is a huge disparity, and one of the best things about this office as compared to my previous office. Right now, I share a legal secretary with two other attorneys! Two! That's what I had when I was at my fancy schmancy civil firm. I don't know if other offices in Washington or like this or if I just lucked out big-time, but it really makes a huge difference to not have so much of my time taken up by routine paperwork and scheduling appointments.
Wow, giving attorneys responsible for indigent defense the resources to do their jobs. What a concept! I'll bet it helps process cases more quickly.

I think every county should have a PD office, with salaries and budget pegged to those at the District Attorney's office.

Court of Criminal Appeals races too important to be this crappy

A reader emails to ask for an update to this Grits post from 2004 about the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the need for the current crop of judges to be ousted in the next election. The reader writes:
Now the election you mentioned is upon us.

"CCA Chief Justice Sharon Keller , along with Justices Barbara Hervey and Charles Holcomb are up for re-election in 2006."

I don't know about elsewhere - but there has been almost NO mention of judicial seats up for election in the Houston newspaper (the Chronicle has a monopoly) or by our local TV stations. What are your thoughts on the candidates?
Here's how I responded:
I'm afraid the Democrats didn't really field any decent candidates, sad to say. There's one guy on the ballot against Judge Keller, J.R. Molina, but I understand he's spent little money and is considered a non-starter in legal circles (a fourth-hand analysis - I haven't researched him). A pretty good indication, though, is that he's not even showing up for newspaper editorial board meetings.

The others don't even have D opponents, just libertarians. Really a disappointment. I'm mad at the Dems, basically, for not fielding viable candidates for these seats. In the current environment they might have won.
Jim Hightower once said that if God had intended for people to vote he'd have given them candidates. That certainly sums up the field in this sorry set of races. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is arguably the worst court in America - how is it that the Dems ran NOBODY against them?

Republican primary voters had a chance to replace Holcomb with retiring Austin state Rep. Terry Keel, but declined - personally I think that'd have been a big improvement. But we're stuck with the ones we've got, I'm afraid, probably for a good long while.

It's a friggin national embarassment.

Welcome back to the Texas Law Blog; visiting old blog friends and new

Bradley Clark is updating the Texas Law Blog, again after a hiatus following the birth of his son Brandon. TLB was posting prolifically before succumbing to the pressures of fatherhood. I'm glad to see him back. Head over and say "Howdy."

Also, I realized this morning I'd neglected to reinstall a link to Injustice Anywhere, one of my favorite public defender bloggers, once she got settled in and began blogging again after moving from Texas to Washington State. Despite such an ill-advised life choice (one moves to Texas from the west coast, dear, not from here to there - it really just isn't done in polite circles), IA remains one of my favorite PD blogs and I encourage you to visit her often.

Finally, see an excellent guide to public defender blogs recently compiled by Public Defender Stuff. There are quite a few new-to-me blogs here. Looks like a great one-stop shopping source for legal bloggers updating their blogrolls. (Grits received "honorable mention" - as a non-PD, I appreciate the props).

Choosing incarceration

Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in a recent op-ed questions what the state could do about offenders who choose to go to prison or jail instead of partipcate in supervision programs that would require they change their behavior?

In such instances, not only are offenders more likely to commit crimes once they're out, but taxpayers get soaked to boot. Citing incarceration patterns in Harris County DWI cases and the recent story of a man who robbed a bank because he said he wanted to go to prison, Levin writes:
While drunk drivers and bank robbers may prefer prison, it is a raw deal for taxpayers. Probation costs about $2 a day, half of which is paid with offender fees. Meanwhile, prison in Texas costs $40 a day. Moreover, legislators will be asked to appropriate more than $400 million for three new prisons when they meet in January. Prisoners are the only Americans with a constitutional right to health care and square meals.

There are several solutions to this quandary. Prison can be toughened, but the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment has been broadly interpreted to preclude painful punishments. Intense manual labor programs are constitutional and could make prison more of a deterrent, but with Texas short 2,000 to 3,000 prison guards, supervision resources needed to run work programs are scarce.

Given that Bowers is 63, his case also raises the issue of geriatric prisoners. Inmates over 60 cost Texas more than three times other prisoners for health care, but have a recidivism rate that is less than a third of younger inmates. Prisoners are not eligible for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, so state taxpayers bear the full cost of their health care. However, parolees can qualify for such benefits, even if they must live in a residential facility as a condition of parole.

Texas has a special needs program intended to release prisoners who are so old or frail that they pose little danger, but the program’s requirements are so strict that less than six percent of eligible offenders – 167 out of 2,821 – are actually released. The Comptroller’s office has recommended changing the requirement that inmates must be within six months of death to twelve months. More than 100 inmates die every year during the lengthy special needs application process. There are about 200 physically handicapped prisoners alone, mostly paraplegics and multiple-limb amputees.

We must also bolster programs such as probation that provide an alternative to prison for the least serious offenders.

Probation should be reformed so that it is a path to success, not a trap that leads offenders to select prison.
Prison not only isn't always the right punishment, for some it may not actually be the harshest one - learning to live straight in the real world is a more difficult task for some offenders than enduring regimented prison life.

A similarly paradoxical question arises from a story in Germany: Is prison still punishment for someone who wants to be there?
A 59-year-old German man who has spent the last 34 years in jail has turned down offers to be let out, an official said on Saturday.

"He rejected an offer to leave in 1992," Thomas Melzer, a spokesman for the Brandenburg state justice ministry, told Bild newspaper. "We can't do anything if someone sentenced to life in prison doesn't want to leave."

The man, identified only as Gerold H, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1972 when the area was part of communist East Germany.

This case raises another public policy conundrum: When incarceration is no longer punishment and nobody thinks the offender is a danger, what justifies the taxpayers' continued expense?

Our system has created some bizarre, irrational incentives when anyone would choose incarceration over freedom. From nearly any perspective it's a disservice to the taxpayers and leads to bad public safety outcomes because offenders are less likely to change their behavior.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Statesman: Law on suspended driver licenses causing practical problems

Tougher laws don't always reduce behaviors they target - sometimes they only complicate them and make things worse. Here's a case in point:

The Austin Statesman published a fine story today on problems with the state's law on driving with a suspended license, altered in 2003 by a counterproductive piece of legislation that The Wretched of the Earth also complained about this week in Dallas. High fees intended as revenue generators are clogging the court system when defendants can't pay, costing taxpayers much more than the fines actually produce. The number of people driving without licenses actually increased as a result.

See especially comments from readers below the Statesman article for individual stories of how the law affects average people. These fines aren't making anyone safer, they're just clogging up the court system. The 80th Texas Legislature should definitely move to repeal them.

More on this from the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer.

From the blogs

Here are a few items from around the blogosphere that may interest Grits readers:

A question for everyone watching the World Series
: Where would major league baseball be without Latin American immigration, and would we care to watch it? Via Benders.

Mama said the pistol was the devil's right hand. CrimProf Blog quotes a Harvard law prof announcing that more than 30,000 people die each year from gunshots in murders, suicides, and accidents. I understand more than 40,000 per year die in car accidents. Don't you think we should ban automobiles, too?

Evaluating punishment. Doc Berman brings news of an interesting looking conference on "Punishment: The US Record" at the New School, and free online event on the topic of re-examining drug courts Nov. 13, sponsored by the Harvard Innovators Network and the National Institute of Justice.

Budgeting and corrections politics. Corrections Sentencing explains why criminal justice policy so frequently ignores budget realities.

Police lying to get consent to search amounts to coercion. This time.

What's so special about government's search needs for probationers and parolees? Doc Berman also pointed to this interesting looking article that goes on Grits' reading list; from the abstract: "The general requirement that government searches be supported by warrant and probable cause typically has not been applied in penal contexts such as prison, probation, and parole. To justify this broad search authority, the Supreme Court has created a patchwork of categorical rules and skewed balancing tests based on diminished expectations of privacy. This Note argues that the Court's current approach is unsound."

The Columbia House Problem: More good blogging from The Wretched of the Earth on how defendants get trapped in a vicious cycle after being charged with driving on a suspended license.

Just come back at the end of the day. Skelly describes jail in American Samoa. It sounds a lot like Mayberry.

Happy Birthday, Pete! Let me encourage Grits readers to go to Drug War Rant, tell Pete 'Feliz Cumpleaños', and maybe give him some love for his laptop fund.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Resource for Lawyers: Wretched analysis of high criminal court cases

Regular readers know I think the Court of Criminal Appeals, by far, is Texas' worst court. But I've never devoted sufficient time to exposing on this blog exactly WHY that court is so egregious, and as a non-attorney never felt qualified to debate the nuance of their decisions on a case by case basis.

So I'm thrilled that PovertyLawyer1 over at the blog The Wretched of the Earth has begun what I think will be a great service - analyzing opinions each week from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' "hand down list." His fist two offerings are here and here. (At the risk of immodesty, PL1 points out in his first post that I encouraged him to undertake the task: I've long admired SCOTUS Blog and wished some attorney[s] would do the same thing for Texas' high criminal court.)

Wretched's first offering examines the case Davis vs. State, another example where the CCA appears determined to expand the concept of harmless error boldly where no American jurist has gone before. The second case analyzed was actually a rare pro-defense ruling. The CCA decided a capital murder defendant suffered from ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to present mitigating evidence that the defedant had suffered a long, signficant, documentable history of childhood sexual abuse.

I think this is a great idea for a blogger to examine the CCA's hand down list each week to explain the most significant cases. Any criminal defense lawyer wanting to keep up with current state of Texas criminal law should check Wretched's promised weekly updates on the subject.

Good blogging from a public defender working on the front lines.

More on phone profiteering at county jails and the right to counsel

I've been especially pleased with the progression of the debate begun in the comments to this Grits post, and continued here and here, on the subject of inmates' access to phones in prisons and jails.

Yesterday I asked if jail profiteering on phone calls to attorneys retards offenders' right to counsel? Blogging at the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer, Jamie Spencer responded,
I dare say he’s right, but unfortunately, it probably falls into the “there’s not much a lawyer can do about it” category. Trust me, no Texas Appeals court will ever reverse a conviction based on it. Perhaps a class action lawsuit on behalf of those families being bilked would be the right tack. But, bearing in mind that I don’t practice civil law, I doubt they would have the equivalent of standing to assert their incarcerated family member’s criminal procedure rights.
I'm no lawyer, but I agree with Jamie that Texas courts are unlikely to overturn any individual conviction based on such a cause of action. Like him, I have to wonder if some sort of class action lawsuit, probably under federal law (Section 1983), might get the issue into court?

Probably jail inmates themselves, not family members, would be the clients that attorneys would try to certify as a "class." Given many counties' regressive bail policies, it'd be easy to find clients who could only communicate to their lawyers via collect phone calls. You wouldn't have to limit the judgment to the cost of the phone calls, because the real harm is the denial of the constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel: What's the price tag on that?

What we need is some Big Gun trial lawyer to test the case out, maybe in Dallas or Houston another large city (see update below), where jail inmate populations are big enough - and potential judgments high enough - to make it worth their while. (John O'Quinn, Fred Baron, are you out there?)

Counties have plenty of discretion to solve this problem before a civil rights lawsuit orders them to. An email from Russell Hunt, Jr., president of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, brings the news that Travis County is pioneering a new system to allow jail inmates free phone calls with their lawyers. Wrote Hunt:
I read the comments about counties' profiteering on collect jail phone calls, which I think are spot on. ...

But the real reason I'm writing is to brag on the Travis county sheriff's office. We have worked with Major David Balagia to set up a free attorney phone call list. The way it works is that I have provided the office numbers of about 250 local criminal lawyers, mostly ACDLA members, and Securus, the jail phone provider, has put those numbers on the "free call list." Calls from jail to those numbers are free and unrecorded, but limited to 10 minutes duration, and can be declined by the attorneys' offices. Attorneys can call up to the jail and leave call-backs for inmates as well.

I am sure that Securus is not happy about the lost income, but the sheriff's department hopes to save substantially in transportation and visitation personnel costs. Not to mention the fact that attorneys should be able to more efficiently move cases and clients out of jail.

I am enthused about the program because any measure that increases the likelihood that attorneys will communicate more with their clients is a good thing in my book. Makes for happier clients, saves money for my ACDLA members, and helps to work out cases. Additionally because the calls are not recorded, there is even less of a dis-incentive to discuss the case on the phone.
If Travis County can implement that system, there's no reason others couldn't too. This whole issue of phone use by prison and jail inmates seems ripe for revisiting across the board.

UPDATE: I've not confirmed it, but an anonymous commenter on another string says Harris County has abandoned this practice: "Harris County had to kill this cash cow, probably due to lawsuit. All local calls are free from the jail now." If you know more details or have information about other counties' collect call practices, please let me know in the comments.

ACT UP: AIDS should have been bigger TDCJ Sunset focus

As prison healthcare costs continue to spiral out of control, it's becoming clear that keeping inmates healthy isn't just a cause for liberal do-gooders. Since many inmates today are serving decades-long sentences and taxpayers must fork over for their care, it also makes good economic sense.

Earlier I reported on what was in the Sunset Commission report for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Here's more from the Austin Chronicle ("Naked City," Oct. 20) on a big issue that wasn't discussed - skyrocketing medical costs related to AIDS treatment and policy recommendations to prevent HIV transmission among prisoners:
The Austin chapter of the nonpartisan AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP (www.actupaustin.org), which aims to end the spread of the disease, blasted the state's Sunset Commission on Oct. 17, for its failure to address substantive HIV/AIDS prevention and education in its report on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The report mentions the disease just once in its 174 pages, even though TDCJ inmates have rates of HIV infection five times higher than the general public, making the disease the No. 1 killer of Texas inmates.
It's long been known that prisons are incubators for HIV, Hep C, and a variety of sexually transmitted diseases. But I've never seen that statistic - that AIDS is the #1 killer of Texas inmates. (Honestly I'd have thought #1 would be other inmates, perhaps followed by staph infections - now that I think of it, I've never seen a ranked list of causes of death inside Texas prisons. Anybody?) In any event, HIV is a big medical cost driver for TDCJ. According to this fact sheet from ACT-UP:

Each new case of HIV disease will cost more than $300,000 to treat over the person’s lifetime, with annual per capita expenditures ranging from $14,000 to $35,000 depending on stage of the disease. Furthermore, these expenditures have been gradually rising as pharmaceutical prices and new drug options increase. For new infections among offenders, even after release, nearly all this expense will be borne by Texas taxpayers. Even though only about 1.7% of Texas state prison inmates are known to be HIV infected, more than 40% of the pharmaceutical budget of the correctional managed health care contracts is spent on HIV-related medications.

Forty percent of the TDCJ pharmacy bill is a lot of scratch! Anybody looking to reduce inmate medical costs would almost by definition need to start there to have much impact.

The solutions for preventing spread of HIV in prison are pretty obvious: Sex and needles are the reason the disease spreads, so condom distribution and clean, in-house tattoo parlors would dramatically reduce its prevalence. It may be against the rules, but the bottom line is that prisoners have sex and get tattoos and guards can't stop them - indeed, they don't even try.

So if the rules are a completely unenforced facade and their violation is causing diseases to spread, that leaves two options: Hire enough guards to enforce the rules, or change the rules to allow condom distribution and a safe venue for tattooing inside prisons. Texas can't find enough guards to staff prisons now - we're nearly 3,000 guards short, and one in four guards quit each year. So that leaves changing the rules.

Canada recently began distributing condoms and installing in-prison tattoo parlors to prevent the spread of disease, and I thought that was one of the smartest moves I've seen on the prison health front in quite a while.

I'm not sure if Texas politicians are ready for that yet, but ACT-UP is right - if they're not, it's at least in part because officials at TDCJ and the Sunset Commission haven't focused on the problem as much as they should.

See more from ACT-UP.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Census counts prisoners as rural residents

The Prison Policy Initiative has created a neat tool that lets various jurisdictions calculate the percentage of their population counted in the 2000 Census who are incarcerated in state prisons, including racial breakdowns. Here are the county-by-county results for Texas.

This esoteric exercise takes on real world implications when Congressional districts are drawn or funding formulas calculate who gets what money based on population projectsion - big cities where most prisonsers come from lose out, while rural jurisdictions where most prisons are get extra resources to manage a phantom group for whom they provide no services. The simple solution to the problem would be to count prisoners from the county they came from, not where they're incarcerated.

Here are the stats for a few Texas counties to show how their minority population statistics in the Census are skewed by prisons operating in their jurisdictions. Some of these are tiny places reporting signficant minority populations. Keep in mind that whenever you see exorbitant numbers in rural counties, larger cities are being equally undercounted.

Prisoners as a percentage of selected Texas
counties' minority residents under 2000 census

County Blacks Latinos
Anderson 49.70% 46.90%
Bee 82.4 16.3
Brazoria 19.6 4.5
Childress 69.6 31.6
Comanche 58.1 0.65
Concho 92.3 50.7
Dawson 69.6 31.6
Dickens 75.7 26.7
Hartley 95.8 58.6
Jack 83.1 17.9
Jones 75.7 32.7
Karnes 82.6 18.3
Mitchell 77.5 25.9
Pecos 87.4 6.8
Walker 38.3 36.4

There's quite a bit of interesting information here, including individual profiles of counties with the highest prisoner populations like Anderson or Walker.

Maybe more later, but for now check out the tool - they've got information available for jurisdictions nationwide. But of course, why would you care about anywhere but Texas? ;-)