Friday, June 29, 2007

Texas Criminal Justice News Worth Watching

I've been focused on writing up what I learned at the Restorative Justice conference and haven't paid much attention this week to the daily news, but I wanted to point out several items of interest that cropped up while my thoughts were diverted elsewhere:

Houston city councilman proposes inmate re-entry 'welcome center'
Harris County has a larger population - about 3.5 million - than more than half of US states. In addition, because of local prosecutorial and policing practices, they incarcerate a disproportionate share of their citizens compared to other large cities and the rest of Texas. So it makes a lot of sense, if you want to prevent crime, to pay attention to folks returning to your community from prison. Houston City Councilmember Peter Brown wants to create a welcome center where the Greyhound bus drops off inmates in downtown Houston to offer "job counseling and social guidance." I'll tell you right now, the two things they need are jobs and a place to live - help them there on the front end, and I'll bet Houston could prevent quite a bit of future crime down the line.

Collin County DA takes courageous stand against TV vigilantes
Big kudos to Collin County District Attorney John Roach for refusing to prosecute cases based on the NBC Dateline TV show's infamous "To Catch a Predator" series - he said he won't pursue indictments in 24 cases stemming from the show's investigation, the first district attorney in the country to refuse. He told AP "neither police nor NBC could guarantee the chat logs were authentic and complete." By comparison to Dateline, AP reported, "Eric Nichols, a Texas deputy attorney general, said that when law enforcement authorities pull an Internet sex sting, officers posing as decoys follow strict rules. Detailed chat logs are kept to ensure that 'sex talk' is initiated by the potential predator. That way, a defendant cannot claim entrapment."

Everybody wants to build a jail
The county commissioners court in Midland thinks a new jail is necessary. In Huntsville, Walker County officials foolishly are proposing new jail construction on the assumption that a new facility will "generate revenue for the county." (Wanna bet?) In Brenham a surfeit of female inmates is making it impossible to meet state jail standards. A new jail proposed in Bryan-College Station would require a 2 cent increase in the property tax. The billion dollar jail-and-courts bond package proposed in Harris County would result in nearly the same tax hike, estimated at 1.73 cents, or require massive cuts elsewhere to avoid a tax increase. In Palestine, voters approved a jail expansion plan with a low-balled budget, but construction defects and extra expenses may tie the thing up in litigation and keep it from opening. In Lubbock a new jail wing just opened that cost taxpayers $96 million plus interest. They'll need to hire 140 more guards in Lubbock to staff the facility, but I'd bet dollars to donuts they can't find that many people. The can't find enough guards in Dallas, that's for sure.

TYC ombudsman under fire
More on this soon, but the Texas Youth Commission's new ombudsman, who happens to be Will Harrell, my former boss from ACLU of Texas, is taking some media-generated heat from politicians who're criticizing his plan for the new office. Reading between the lines, this was a bit of a hit job by Austin Statesman reporter Mike Ward, who generated the response from legislators himself with an open record request and reported the story before Harrell had seen their letter. Will's response "I asked for $3.5 million (for two years), and I got $600,000 to do this job. And I have no staff until Sept. 1." Although the overhaul legislation took effect immediately, the new state budget does not take effect until this fall. "The Legislature has given me a huge unfunded mandate," he added. "I'm working right now on assistance from foundations and through grants." I've asked Will for a copy of his plan and the legislators' letter, so I'll post them soon and let readers see for themselves what the fuss is about and what y'all think about it.

Another day, another corrupt LEO
A Dallas County Constable has resigned amidst a corruption scandal, reports the Morning News: "Thursday began with a court hearing in which Mr. Dupree lost his final chance to avoid a jury trial that would have sought his removal. At trial, dozens of employee allegations – many of them sexual and criminal in nature – probably would have been aired." You tell me, is this justice? He pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge and will avoid jail, but here were the allegations in the removal petition:

• Ordered one of his deputies to plant cocaine on election opponents during traffic stops.
• Ordered the same deputy to shoot out his car windows so he could file a police report blaming an opponent for the incident.
• Made inappropriate social and sexual advances toward employees.
• Had an employee drive him around Oak Cliff so he could flirt with young Hispanic men.
• Ordered a deputy to dismiss traffic tickets written to young Hispanic men so he could see them socially.

America has more prisoners than ever
Finally, nationwide prison admissions have jumped more than 17% since 2000, and the US prison population is at its highest level ever at 2.2 million people.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see Mr. Harrell doing what other folks in TYC should have been doing a long time ago. He is fighting back! TYC as a whole has been burdened for years with unfunded mandates - and still is! These politicians put on a great show - but in the end it is the kids and staff who suffer. I think this guy is going to be a breath of fresh air.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Harrell,

Welcome to the real TYC! The one that's perennially underfunded to meet the unrealistic mandates of the legislature. Now you're beginning to learn first-hand what we at TYC have known for years. Do more with less. Maybe you should ask Jay to float you a loan, or use his influence with the Governor Goodhair to get your funding. It's a shame that there's no one in TDCJ that can even spell ombudsman, let alone have any idea what their purpose is. Dimitria could appoint you a staff in a New York minute.

Anonymous said...

The Harris County Welcome Centre is a fantastic idea! Sadly, it would be better located 6 months previously in every TDCJ Unit.....

Anonymous said...

Quorum Report had Harrell's plan and the response letter on Wednesday so you shouldn't have to wait for your former boss to respond. His plan is pretty weak. And Ward is doing his job.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Send the report along if you've got it, I think Will's been out of town.

Do you think its "weak" for any specific reason? Only getting 1/6 the money you asked for seems like a pretty good reason not to plan to staff ombudsmen at the facilities to listen to kids. $600K for two years isn't enough if that's the job. Perhaps the ombudsman is supposed to live out of his car on a perpetual, Hillary Clinton-style listening tour?

As for Ward, he's a good reporter, but in this case he chose not to write his story when he got Will's plan - then the focus might have been on what's the best plan. Instead he took it upon himself to share it with selected politicians and generated an artificial conflict to report on instead of the public policy issues. That may be his job, but if so it's not a particularly useful function. He typically does more substantive work than that, IMO. best,

Anonymous said...

It is great that you think Mike Ward does a good job.

However, someone somewhere isn't getting the facts straight, as evidenced in today's Austin American Statesman article about misdemeanor offenders not being released.

SB103 doesn't require TYC to release the misdemeanors it currently has immediately - it just doesn't allow TYC to take new commits for misdemeanors only.

The bill has a provision that says youth committed to TYC under the old law, which allowed misdemeanor commitments (of course, you had to have had least 3 separate adjudications, with the second offense committed after the first adjudication and the 3rd committed after the second to come to TYC for a misdemanor only), must be discharged no later than their 19th birthdays. Please explain the purpose of that provision if TYC isn't allowed to keep the misdemeanors it currently has until they meet discharge criteria.

Which brings up another point - most youth are not sent to TYC for a specified amount of time. Most youth are sent under an an indeterminate sentence.

Indeterminate means just that - no specified time. They are sent to TYC until they show they have been rehabilitated {or until they age out or end up in prison), which until recently they had to show by successfully completing the Resocialization program.

The time they were assigned was assigned by TYC based on their committing offense and is called a MINIMUM length of stay for a reason. It was the minimum amount of time they had to stay locked up.

Thus, it takes 2 things to get out of TYC - completion of the MINIMUM LENGTH OF STAY and completion of a rehabilitation program.

Ward says in today's article that TYC has several youth that "should have been released in 2005." I for one would like to know what that means. Does that mean that in 2005, these youth had completed their MINIMUM LENGTH OF STAY (plus any lengths of stay assigned through the TYC disciplinary due process hearing system) AND successfully completed their rehabilitation program?

Or, does it mean what I fear they are saying, which is simply that the youth had completed their initial assigned MINIMUM LENGTH OF STAY?

I for one would be very happy if someone at TYC who is speaking to these reporters took some time to learn how juvenile justice works so that the information being reported is correct and not merely designed to either stir up conflict or to simply make TYC look bad.

I don't think I'm alone in this, either.

Anonymous said...

You nailed it right on the head and I’m right there with you. The minimum length of stay was intended to be just that, the MINIMUM. Ward reports as if those past their minimum are being unfairly detained. Ward needs to brush up on his Human Resources Code. Better yet, all Ward has to do is call his ex-wife, Pamela Ward, who was our Public Information Officer. I can see why she divorced him because this is irresponsible reporting at best. This folks, is dirty journalism.