Friday, November 30, 2007

Nominate Texas worst jail "hellhole"

Here are a few disparate items that deserve Grits readers attention:

"Hellhole" nominations
The Texas Jail Project is seeking nominations for which county jail deserves the appellation "worst hellhole" in Texas. Let 'em know which county jail you think is worst. (My guess: Dallas will be hard to beat.)

Drug court trend expanding across Texas
The Texas Observer has a feature interviewing drug court judges in Travis, Dallas, Nueces and Montgomery Counties.

TYC pepper spray policy temporarily changed
At least until next week when a new policy comes before a public hearing on Monday, the Texas Youth Commission has agreed to a temporary new pepper spray policy. See Grits testimony submitted for Monday's hearing, and a just-published public policy report from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Re-entry group expands scope
See a nice profile of re-entry work by the Dallas-based Mothers (and Fathers) for Advancement of Social Services, and their recent expasion to Fort Worth.

New duds
Texas prison guards will get a new uniform.

Prison Museum to Host Forum Featuring Texecution Witnesses on Lethal Injection's 25th Anniversary

Via The Back Gate, a press release from the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville lets us know about an event next week that I hope The Back Gaters will attend and blog about:
To mark the 25th anniversary of lethal injection in the United States, and to help shed light on an issue up for Supreme Court review in early 2008, Bill Crawford (the Austin-based author of Texas Death Row: Executions in the Modern Era) will moderate a panel discussion on Friday, December 7, 6:30 p.m., at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas, titled “25 Years of Lethal Injection: What Have We Learned?”

The featured panelists include reporter Michael Gracyzk, who has viewed over 300 executions during his career as a journalist; former Public Information Manager with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Larry Fitzgerald, who has witnessed over 200 executions; Texas State Prison Museum director (and former warden of the Walls Unit) Jim Willett, who has witnessed over 90 executions; and Paula Kurland, a victims’ rights advocate who served on the Death Penalty Initiative with the Constitution Project in Washington, D.C..

“Since recordings of executions aren’t maintained, the memories of those who have witnessed executions are critical to understanding lethal injections,” said Crawford. “In only a few months, the Supreme Court will determine whether lethal injection violates the Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Though the panel is timed to coincide with the first lethal injection 25 years ago, it’s also coming at a time in which Americans are increasingly aware of the controversy surrounding this method of execution.”

The panel discussion event in Huntsville is part of an exhibit at the Texas Prison Museum entitled “Texas Death Row: Executions in the Modern Era,” which will be on display at the Texas Prison Museum throughout the month of December.

The good news, says tiny Elsa PD: None of our officers have been arrested for smuggling drugs this year

Since I try to track drug-related law enforcement corruption along the Texas-Mexico border on this blog, it's worth putting a bow on a story Grits first described last year, via DRC Net:
In McAllen, Texas, a former Elsa police officer was sentenced November 21 to seven years in federal prison after being caught in an undercover bribery and drug string. Herman Carr, 46, had earlier pleaded guilty to taking $5,000 in August 2006 to provide protection for a vehicle he believed was carrying 11 pounds of cocaine. The drug dealers were actually FBI agents. Carr is the second former Elsa officer to go down in the sting: In May, Ismael Gomez, 27, got an eight-year sentence for taking $2,500 to protect a supposed 22 pound coke shipment.
Elsa PD was also the subject this year of a federal consent decree (pdf) over sexual discrimination and retaliation charges.

Describing the sentence, the McAllen Monitor optimistically concluded, without apparent irony, "Elsa’s police department has had considerable turnover since the men’s arrests; however, none of its officers has faced drug-related charges this year." That last line sounds almost like bragging, given what's happened in the last year at the tiny, rural department!

Defending the Damned on the Cheap: Do Public Defenders Deserve Bigger Budgets?

Via Gideon, Radley Balko has a book review at Reason in which he argues that public defender offices, far from deserving scorn, arguably deserve bigger budgets in light of what we've learned from dozens of recent DNA exonerations about how innocent people come to be convicted.

Yes, that's a senior editor at Reason magazine, the small "l" libertarian bastion, calling for increased spending on a government program. (I've been scanning science articles on Google News ever since looking for the inevitable story about genetically engineered, winged pigs.) Writes Balko:
underfunding, coupled with the threat of mandatory minimum sentences and an increase in the number of crimes on the books, results in an overwhelmingly high number of plea-bargained admissions of guilt, as prosecutors look to pad conviction rates and defense attorneys have no choice but to slough off burdensome caseloads. A 2005 report from the Texas Office of Court Administration, for example, found that less than 1 percent of felony cases in Texas ever make it to trial. The rest are resolved by plea bargains. The federal courts aren’t much better: Only about 10 percent of felony cases go to trial. In state courts across the country, it’s 7 percent.

“I can confirm from my own experience as a judge that indigent defendants are generally rather poorly represented,” the federal appeals court judge Richard Posner writes in his 1999 book The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory. But Posner, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and one of the country’s most renowned legal scholars, isn’t much bothered by this. “If we are to be hardheaded we must recognize that this may not be entirely a bad thing,” he says. “The lawyers who represent indigent criminal defendants seem to be good enough to reduce the probability of convicting an innocent person to a very low level. If they were much better, either many guilty people would be acquitted or society would have to devote much greater resources to the prosecution of criminal cases. A barebones system for the defense of indigent criminal defendant may be optimal.”

Posner’s position is widely shared. Indeed, most advocates of limited government would probably instinctively resist the idea of devoting more public resources to the legal representation of indigent defendants. But perhaps it’s time to reconsider that resistance.

The fundamental function of government is to secure the rights of its citizens. There has never been much problem generating support for the law enforcement side of that responsibility: courts, police, prosecutors, and prisons. The government seems eager to protect us from criminals. But it’s also obliged not to violate our rights in the process.

If we’re serious about giving everyone a fair crack at justice, indigent defendants need access to the same sorts of resources prosecutors have, including their own independent experts and investigators. If we’re going to generously fund the government’s efforts to imprison people, we need to ensure that everyone the government pursues is adequately defended and protected from prosecutorial overreach. The ongoing stream of exonerations in felony cases suggests we’re a long way from that goal.
Of course, in most of Texas indigent defendants are represented by private attorneys, who in some cases are paid more for entering into a plea bargain than for seeking a dismissal of the case!

Balko quotes Judge Posner declaring that poor-quality indigent defense may not be a bad thing "if we are to be hardheaded." What he left unsaid is that to be hard-headed about providing quality defense counsel, we must simultaneously be hard-hearted toward innocent people caught up in the system who do not receive a zealous defense.

There is little middle ground here - the overarching design of the adversarial system assumes each defendant receives an attorney's competent and zealous representation, but at the micro-level, underfunding thwarts that goal and makes mockery of claims to sure justice. Since Posner wrote those words at the end of the last century, advancements in DNA technology and the resulting exoneration of more than 200 people (so far) put the lie to his assumption that our system has "reduce[d] the probability of convicting an innocent person to a very low level."

Much has changed since then. We now know to a certainty that eyewitnesses frequently misidentify suspects who they didn't know previously, and that the failure to use "double blind" lineups can cause police assumptions to influence witnesses. We know that crime labs make errors and that forensic science is not the same as objective science. We know that informants will lie to reduce culpability for their own crimes, and that the average person only recognizes a lie when it's told to them about half the time, including prosecutors, judges and jurors.

Finally, as Balko points out, we know that public defenders and private counsel for indigent defendants are underfunded and frequently fail to adequately vet the system for flaws.

All of the primary reasons for wrongful convictions - faulty eyewitness testimony, mendacious snitches, sloppy crime lab work, slacker defense counsel, police or prosecutorial misconduct - inarguably occur in other cases besides the few where DNA evidence was gathered or preserved. (Jeff Blackburn, Chief Counsel at the Innocence Project of Texas, tells me he expects more exonerations to come before the Texas Legislature reconvenes in January 2009.) With more than 150,000 adults incarcerated in Texas prisons alone (more than 2 million nationwide), who believes the same flaws in the justice system haven't trapped hundreds or even thousands more people whose names were never cleared?

We need procedural reforms in all these areas, but Balko's right that the one element holding them all together is quality defense counsel. Creating new procedural tools to protect innocence won't help if defendants' lawyers don't aggressively avail themselves of them.

When even Reason magazine thinks government is underspending on one of its functions, it's hard not to think we might have reached a tipping point in regards to changing public perception in the wake of 200+ DNA exonerations.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Serious question, flippant answers: What would Jesus do about the death penalty?

Via Doc Berman, the Chicago Tribune's political blog has the story of GOP presidential candidates responding to a question from their "YouTube" debate: What do you think Jesus' position would be on the death penalty? The candidates punted on the substance, but it's a damn good question. Said Baptist minister and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office. That's what Jesus would do."

That's a smarmy politician's answer, dodging a legitimate query instead of addressing it seriously. (The Texas Moratorium Network has the video.) What would a more honest response look like?

Let me start by admitting we cannot know for sure. The Old Testament emphatically supported the death penalty, and certainly Jesus declared he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.

At the same time, New Testament teaching replaced the morality of "an eye for an eye" with "turning the other cheek." Certainly Christ intervened to stop the stoning of an adulteress, but without knowing more, can we universalize from that one example? On the cross Jesus forgave the thief next to him, but despite his divine powers over death, still allowed him to perish. Trying to divulge Jesus' position on capital punishment from these philosophical hints is like guessing the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

As Doc Berman pointed out, Jesus himself was subjected to capital punishment at the hands of the Roman Empire, though Christians believe he died sinless. If that is the case, then Jesus was an innocent man executed wrongfully. One imagines, then, at least at some point on Good Friday as he hung innocent on the cross, paying with his life for the sins of others, Christ must have endured some misgiving about the death penalty. Why, I wonder, didn't Rev. Huckabee mention that?

At a minimum, I wish this question had sparked a debate among candidates about the bevy of recent DNA exonerations and the likelihood that more innocent people are still on death row or rotting away in prisons.

Another clue: Early Christian societies considered snitching in death penalty cases an act that justified permanent, lifetime excommunication, damning the informant's soul to eternal hellfire.

Without question we can say that Jesus would not have supported capital punishment (or any criminal penalty) without at least two witnesses supporting charges against the defendant. Both Christ and the Apostle Paul affirmed the tradition from Mosaic Law that "two or three witnesses" were required to convict someone of any offense. Given that, and assuming the verity of the biblical passion story, I don't believe Jesus would have supported executions based on a single person's testimony or on the testimony of a compensated informant (like, say, Judas).

From the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that Jesus considered merely holding anger against someone as grievous an act as killing. (Matthew 5:21-26)
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
So while this passage insists that murderers should be "liable for judgment," so should those who carry anger in their hearts. The same judgment? Who knows? While we don't know what "judgment" Christ considered proper for murder, we can say Jesus would not support retributive arguments in favor of the death penalty. He would have considered the emotional component that causes people to demand retribution antithetical to the tenets of peace taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

What do the major Christian denominations believe about the death penalty? I found this useful compendium of the positions on capital punishment for the major US denominations. Roman Catholics, American Baptists, Methodists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Reformed, Eastern Orthodox, and the United Church of Christ all officially take an "abolitionist" or anti-death penalty stance.

I don't honestly know what Jesus' position would have been on capital punishment, but I do know this: Whether Jesus supported the death penalty, without question he established a requirement that his followers visit those in prison, including the condemned - perhaps one of Christ's least-regarded dicta among modern Christians, sad to say.

I like the YouTube debate format. Average people ask questions the professional journalists would never even think to bring up, and the results are frequently telling even when the questions get dodged. While the YouTuber's theological question remains unanswered, it's obvious that Christ had more empathy for prisoners and the condemned than Huckabee and the other pols on the stage demonstrated last night, that's for sure.

MORE/BLOGVERSATION: On Huckabee, Christ and the death penalty, from A Blog From Hell:
Well, Jesus may not have sought public office, (like being King of the Jews or something), but he seemed to have something to say about the death penalty, something to do with only those who haven't sinned should be "casting the first stone." ...

Huckabee tried to say that "forgiveness" doesn't mean you don't punish people. The hell it doesn't! Forgiveness doesn't mean anything if you're still punishing the person you are "forgiving." Saying you are doing both is Orwellian bullshit. The New Testament has a kind of economic model, forgiving sins is like forgiving a debt. You can't make someone pay a debt and forgive the debt at the same time. Forgiveness is not about you not feeling angry when you end someone's life.
Perhaps when Huckabee got off the dais he found a better answer to the question on his voice mail - the incident reminded Think Progress that Huckabee occasionally receives phone calls from God. At the Atlantic Online, Andrew Sullivan says "To use such a cheap line to score a laugh in a political debate is not something I find particularly admirable." Arkansas Blog recalled another instance where then-Governor Huckabee responded with similar flippancy to the same question, declaring that Jesus' silence on the topic implied his approval, which AB points out is a unique form of biblical exegesis, indeed. What kind of theology are they teaching out there at Ouachita Baptist University, one wonders?

Pepper Spray at TYC: A Report from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's Juvenile Justice Initiative has released a detailed public policy report entitled, "Pepper Spray in the Texas Youth Commission: Research Review and Recommendations" (pdf). I've not had a chance to read it yet, but wanted to post a link to make it available to Grits readers. Congrats especially to report author Leah Pinney, a past intern of mine gone on to bigger and better things, for her hard work on the project.

Lawsuit: Private mercenaries, police trainers in Iraq abuse steroids

If steroid abuse is a problem among police officers, who is surprised to hear allegations that up to 1/4 of private mercenaries employed by the Blackwater Corporation in Iraq may use illegal steroids or other "judgment altering substances"? Those charges arose in a lawsuit filed against the mercenary firm in Washington, which claims that the firm tolerated "widespread steroid abuse" among its designated "shooters" in Iraq.

Blackwater denies the allegations, but plaintiffs' attorneys say company employees have confirmed the company's knowledge of employee steroid use in depositions under oath. See the news story from CNN.

I'll bet this isn't just a problem at Blackwater. One of Blackwater's principal competitors, Dyncorp, operates US anti-drug operations in Afghanistan and South America and is the most likely beneficiary of President Bush's proposal to send private mercenary firms to train Mexican police. One wonders if Dyncorp employees faces similar problems with illegal steroid use?

Do we really want to send a bunch of juiced up mercenaries to Mexico only to suffer some 'roid-rage induced public relations fiasco?

More and more I think it's absolutely absurd that Texas plans to steroid test high school athletes but doesn't require testing for police officers, which I've argued previously "leaves officers open to coercion, blackmail, or at a minimum wrongly divided loyalties." The exact same argument can be made for steroid-using mercenaries if the US decides to send them to Mexico. But at least that offensive lineman in high school won't get an unfair advantage in a football game. Talk about misplaced priorities!

Bexar County can't keep contraband out of bricks and mortar jail: Would 'tent jail' be secure?

Reacting to news that a Bexar County Jail employee allegedly sold cocaine, marijuana and cell phones to inmates, Sam over at Man O' Law makes an excellent point: If they can't keep drugs and contraband from being smuggled into a jail built of bricks and mortar, what makes the new Sheriff or County Commissioners think they can keep a "tent jail" secure?

As I've written before, there's a reason prisons have walls.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Justice system should focus resources on "power few" criminals who drive most crime

I wonder if these two items are related?

First, over at Corrections Sentencing, Michael writes that:
A new study suggests that too much money is wasted on low-risk crime targets. Both crime and prison populations could be reduced dramatically by focusing on the “power few” criminals who commit the most crime, according to Lawrence Sherman, Director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and Professor of Criminology at Cambridge University, UK.

Using data across a wide range of research, Sherman shows that most crime is committed by a small fraction of all criminals, at a tiny fraction of all locations, against a tiny fraction of all victims, during a few hours a week. By focusing police, probation, parole, rehabilitation, security and prison resources on these “power few” units with the most crime, the study shows how society could stand a far better chance at crime prevention without raising costs.

“Billions of dollars in criminal justice costs are wasted each year on people and places with almost no risk of serious violent crime,” said Sherman, “while the high-risk targets receive far too little attention.” Citing rising homicide rates in Philadelphia since 2002, his research shows how more rehabilitation for a tiny number of offenders may have been able to prevent many of the murders.

The study shows that the key to making the most out of these extreme concentrations of crime would be to test prevention strategies aimed only at these few crime locations, times, situations, victims or offenders.
Then, in the Dallas Morning News, I find this item: "Man held in hundreds of Dallas County burglaries." Certainly focusing on suspects who police believe committed hundreds of similar crimes makes a lot more sense than some of the more random enforcement tactics police engage in, e.g., conducting "fishing expeditions" at traffic stops.

OTOH, this could be emblematic of a different problem - the periodic tendency for Dallas County to charge and convict innocent people. "I've been late paying my mortgage every month for the last three years," said the suspect. "If I broke into 200 homes, I wouldn't be in bankruptcy. ... I'm barely eating." Good point.

Whatever the truth of the charges against this one defendant, it struck me as interesting to read both of these items and realize the Dallas burglary case, if the fellow turns out to have done what police say he has, more or less exemplifies the empirical data and theoretical conclusions in the study described by Science Daily ("Less is more in fighting crime," Nov. 26).

In any event, prioritizing enforcement resources and incarceration space for more serious offenders makes enormous sense from a public safety perspective. I've never understood why the idea is often portrayed as such a radical thing - as former House Corrections Chair Ray Allen used to say, it's smarter to focus limited criminal justice resources on people who we're afraid of, not on those whom we're only "mad at."

Vote for Grits in ABA Blawg Poll

Thanks to the editors of the American Bar Association Journal for selecting Grits for Breakfast one of the nation's Top 100 Law Blawgs, out of a field of 2,000-3,000 law-related blogs identified. To make matters more interesting (or perhaps in a clever, likely successful effort to drive traffic to their list), the ABA Journal pitted their just-named Top 100 into several categories and asked their readers to vote among them. The category in which they placed Grits - "Crime Time" - includes some powerful competition, including some of my own routine reads and some good looking blogs I'd not seen before. But I think Grits delivers a pretty strong product, given the state of the blawgosphere, and if you agree please vote for this blog here. Vote early and often, as they say (or at least from as many different individual computers as possible); the online plebiscite ends January 2.

TYC Documentary Project Launches Website

Say "Howdy" to Emily Pyle and Co. over at their new website, the TYC Documentary Project. The film, which last I heard is scheduled to come out in January 2009, tracks the stories of four kids incarcerated in the Texas Youth Commission. I hope they come up with a catchier title before the movie opens! - just kidding, Emily. :)

Use of county jail by Smith County for child support scofflaws contributes to overincarceration

Smith County District Judge Carole Clark writes in to the blog Smith Counth: Tell the Truth to explain under what circumstances the county incarcerates probationers for non-payment of child support, a practice the county began in 2002. The optional program puts child support scofflaws on a "civil" probation that uses the county jail to enforce payments. Judge Clark said the program is:
aimed at the thirty percent of the population who do not pay their child support as ordered and for which there had not previously been adequate tools to enforce these obligations. The program uses laws currently in place which allow for people who have been found in contempt for failure to pay child support when able to do so to be on probation. This probation is civil probation but has many of the same requirements as criminal probation. They report to a probation officer regularly, pay a fee to support the program, work and pay their support.

The program began with 100 people and one probation officer. It now has six probation officers and appx. 1100 persons. The history of this program is quite amazing. For many of the persons on probation, working and paying support are new experiences and many owe tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent support.

If someone on probation does not comply with the probation requirements, their probation officer , after attempts to remediate the situation fail, will ask the Office of the Attorney General to file papers with the court requesting the probation be revoked. The maximum jail time is 180 days.

The most common conditions of probation I see violated are reporting to probation and paying the child support. An arrest warrant is issued and when arrested the person is brought to court on a Monday or Thursday afternoon. I see people twice a week as the law requires me to see them quickly.

If after hearing, I find a person did violate their probation and has no reasonable excuse for doing so, some jail time is awarded as a means of "getting their attention." Some of these people are not regulars in the jail and for them, it is usually a "wake up call." For some, unfortunately, jail for violation of probation is a familiar story.

After a time in jail, I call the person over to court and let them go to the AIC for more intensive monitoring. However, a number of these folks violate criminal laws while they are not paying child support and I cannot deal with their case until the criminal case is handled.

If AIC [ed. note: the Alternative Incarceration Program, discussed here] is appropriate, I send them. The results are very gratifying. Many are now working and paying. Last Friday, 149 were in the AIC. Not all are child support. Of those, 110 were working. Many have never worked at a legal job.

If AIC doesn't work, the law provides referral to the DA's office can be made for criminal prosecution for a state jail felony.

All in all, the programs are collecting in excess of 3.5 million dollars per year, plus fees for probation, court costs and child support.
Here's the problem: It costs more than $6,000 to incarcerate someone in the Smith County Jail for 180 days, more than $7,000 if they're housed in rented beds. So if the county jail handles a significant volume of extra inmates revoked under this "civil probation," there's an extra cost to the taxpayers in addition to the benefits to child support recipients.

If prosecutors put scofflaws behind bars for a state jail felony, that's a mandatory two-year sentence at an additional cost to taxpayers of $32,000. The county doesn't pay that money, but taxes paid by Smith County residents sure do, and it doesn't matter to the taxpayer, at the end of the day, which governmental hand is in their pocket.

Judge Clark's rendition of the process has her using jail to "get the attention" of civil probation violators the very first time they fail to meet their obligations and come before their court. I'm sure that does get their attention, but it's a big contributing factor to local jail overcrowding, and it's a lot more aggressive approach than other counties take with the same population. After all, if you incarcerate a person for any significant period of time, they leave jail unemployed and with no income to make child support payments.

It makes a lot more sense to use the AIC to keep these folks employed than in jail, even if the county has to pay their wages. Think about it: Is it worth up to $40,000 to the taxpayers to force compliance with child support payments that wouldn't come close to that amount over the same period? If you're going to do that, a cheaper approach might be for the county to just pay the child support and place a lien on future income.

I commend Judge Clark for explaining the program to a local blog, and recognize the good intentions behind the use of the county jail in this fashion - but they are the type of intentions with which the road to hell is paved, as these offenders have become a significant contributor to local jail overcrowding. Now that the AIC is in place (it wasn't when the program started), it should be the first-line sentence for these offenders instead of requiring "get attention" jail time. And given the cost of incarceration, it would behoove the county to create public works jobs, WPA style, compared to the cost of incarcerating those same folks.

This is a great example of how much of the overincarceration in Smith and other counties is mostly volitional, based on choices made by elected officials, not on population increases or big-picture demographics.

Getting people to pay child support is smart. Filling up Texas jails and prisons with non-criminals isn't. There has to be a way to achieve goals in civil society without only ever resorting to incarceration as a stick to compel behaviors we want.

RELATED: See "Greg Abbott's Cash for Kids," from the Austin Chronicle.

Lack of accountability explains why Texas counties dropping UTMB jail healthcare

The UTMB-Galveston Faculty Association blog identifies the common reasoning between Jefferson County's recent decision not to hire UTMB for its jail healthcare (discussed on Grits here) and Dallas County's decision to end its contract with the Galveston medical school: UTMB wants "to make mistakes and have the contracting county eat the resulting lawsuits."


UTMB recently obtained a contract to provide healthcare at the Galveston County Jail, and supplies health services for inmates at the Texas Youth Commission and for most Texas prison inmates, much of it via "telemedicine.

Libal supplies front-lines blog report from Burnet County uprising against private jail

It sounds like grassroots opposition to an entrepreneurial jail proposal in Burnet County (between Austin and Waco in Central Texas) may be as strong or stronger than in Tyler, where county jail bonds recently failed by a 69-31 margin.

So many people packed the courtroom for a town hall meeting last week, reported the Burnet Bulletin (11/21), that the fire marshal had to ask some folks to leave. "Residents spilled out of the courtroom doorways, stood in the back of the room, coveted the jury box, and lined up down the stairs and out the front door waiting for a chance to speak." The intrepid Bob Libal reports from the front lines at the blog Texas Prison Bidness after attending a boisterous community meeting on the topic at the Burnet County Courthouse.
I arrived for the 7:00 p.m. meeting around 6:30 to find the old courthouse nearly full. Opponents of the jail, who seem to be very well-organized, told me they'd mailed out 7,000 fliers and placed by an ad on the local radio station announcing the meeting. I was pleased to see that audience members were being handed Considering a Private Jail, Prison or Detention Center, a pamphlet developed by Grassroots Leadership and South Texans Opposing Private Prisons, as well as a chart explaining the jail's proposed financing.

By 7:00, the courtroom was spilling well into the halls with at least 500 people, nearly all seemingly opposed to the private jail scheme. The plan, similar to those increasingly common in many Texas counties, is to finance the construction of a new county jail by floating revenue bonds (through the Public Facilities Corporation) and paying back the bonds by profiting from the importation of federal U.S. Marshals or Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.

Opponents of the jail were allowed to speak first. Five Burnet citizens laid out the case against the jail, including the pitfalls of private jail companies, potential dangers in floating debt for private jail expansion (perhaps county officials should look into Willacy County where every resident is currently a staggering $8,700 in debt due to prison expansion), and a general sense that shipping inmates into Burnet County wasn't necessary or good for the county.
See the rest of Libal's story for more on the corporate players behind the Burnet County deal. With jail bonds going down in Houston and Tyler, this opposition bodes ill for local pols who support issuing jail bonds without asking voter support.

Stay tuned for more on this developing local movement in Burnet County against entrepreneurial jailing.

Overtime Pay for TYC Renewed: Full 2-year OT budget spent in first 2 months, now cannibalizing vacant positions

Good news for Texas Youth Commission employees: TYC yesterday reinstated overtime for Juvenile Correctional Officers (JCOs), reported the Austin Statesman ("Youth commission resumes overtime pay for guards," Nov. 28):

Extra hours worked during the past month since overtime pay was suspended will be paid in a special check to be issued by mid-December, agency officials said in a statement.

Acting Executive Director Dimitria Pope suspended overtime payments in October after top Youth Commission officials were shocked to learn that the agency had used most of its annual overtime budget in just two months. At the time, agency officials said that they could not properly track overtime payments and that they were investigating why so many extra hours had been logged.

The move angered many employees, who questioned why Pope and other Austin officials were so surprised by the cost, considering chronic understaffing in Youth Commission lockups in many parts of the state.

In the statement, the agency attributed that large overtime bill to "the shortage of juvenile corrections officers at numerous TYC facilities. ... Another factor was the lack of a uniform staff schedule throughout the institutions."

Pope said that a uniform staffing plan will be completed by early January to ensure that all overtime worked is evenly distributed among staff and to "develop strategies to work overtime more efficiently and consistently given the realities of current staff shortages."

The cost of overtime during the period it was suspended: $1.4 million, about what it was in the previous month.

The statement said that pay for all the extra overtime will come from money budgeted for staff positions that are vacant.

Three words come to mind: Gross. Fiscal. Mismanagement. Then after that, two more: Tick, tock.

When is that new conservator and permanent commissioner coming, Governor Perry? This is really getting out of hand.

OTOH, before now TYC officials claimed they didn't have a staffing crisis, and insisted at legislative hearings that they were meeting their 12-1 youth-staff ratios without difficulty and required no expanded staffing. This crisis has put the lie to that myth, and forced TYC administrators to publicly acknowledge that understaffing lies at the root of many if not most of the agency's problems. You can't fix problems you won't admit, so maybe this new revelation (known previously to everyone but the TDCJ transplants running the Youth Commission) will lead to new policies down the line that remedy the underlying problems instead of just the cosmetic ones.

That's a grim silver lining (that and the fact that TYC employees will get their overtime checks in time for Christmas). After all, the agency's problems are quite immediate, and as John Maynard Keynes said, "In the long run, we're all dead." But in the current dysfunctional environment, one begins to thank heaven for small favors.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Grits comments submitted on TYC use of force policy

The Texas Youth Commission's "Spray First" policy remains in the spotlight this week, with ongoing litigation at the Travis County courthouse and the comment period closing on a new use of force policy.

This morning I compiled and submitted comments and questions on the proposed TYC use of force policy published in the Texas Register earlier this month, including input from Grits commenters as well as a compilation of critiques and questions from past Grits posts. See the submitted comments here, and let me know what you think.

UPDATE: Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman reports there has still been no deal struck on lawsuit settlement negotiations related to TYC's pepper spray policy.

Monday, November 26, 2007

NIMBY opposition to East Austin counseling center threatens needed treatment

This is a personal request to Grits readers living in Travis County - it's my birthday today, so consider it a birthday gift - contact the Travis County Commissioners Court to ask them to support a proposed new East Austin counseling program to be operated by the adult probation department. (You can find phone numbers and emails for members of the Travis County Commissioners Court here.)

NIMBY infighting among long-feuding East Austin neighborhood interests threatens to delay or even stop creation of a much-needed outpatient drug counseling center. The Travis County probation department wants to open the center in a complex operated by Ebeneezer Baptist Church, a 125-year old black church which has been working toward building community service facilities in the area for more than two decades.

The area has been gentrifying, though, as a result of the recent in-city housing boom, and a handful of new residents, clustered in the Guadalupe Association for an Improve Neighborhood (GAIN), showed up at the eleventh hour last week to oppose the project. Said GAIN representative Buck McKinney, "the neighborhood has already voiced its opposition to this day treatment center and unless we see something in these materials that indicates otherwise, we are opposed" ... "emphatically opposed," he later added.

(See the video of last week's commissioners court hearing, as well as the hearing Nov. 13 where the project was discussed in greater detail.)

The center is part of new, specialized probation services funded this year by the state Legislature and discussed at inordinate length on this blog during the legislative session. East Austin needs this counseling center; the proposed location is ideal; the partnership with Ebeneezer Baptist Church makes a tremendous amount of sense. According to the Travis County CSCD (see their fact sheet on the topic, uploaded here, responding to questions from GAIN), there's a tremendous need for the services that would be provided:
Our waiting lists show that about 1000 individuals per year are required by the Courts to participate in treatment, but are they unable to get access because of a lack of treatment slots in Travis County or because of their inability to pay. This program will provide substance abuse counseling to approximately 1000 individuals on probation in the course of a year. In addition, we will provide short-term cognitive classes for about 500 people.
GAIN's McKinney claimed at length they had no opportunity for input, but Precinct Two Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt easily established a timeline showing the neighborhood had plenty of opportunity to get involved; the problem was they only ever gave the input, "We're opposed," failing even to fill out a questionnaire the probation department sent out asking for their specific concerns about the project.

Commissioner Davis said during the previous week's Nov. 13 meeting that he'd personally notified GAIN as soon as he saw the item on the agenda, but they didn't show up. Even so McKinney contradicted Davis, claiming GAIN had never been informed. Eckhardt rightly pointed out that other neighborhood associations had gotten involved in the process, the commissioners court agendas were public, that much of the information GAIN claimed not to have was posted publicly on the website, and other individuals from different neighborhood groups had attended the previous week's meeting.

A representative from Ebeneezer Baptist Church said the strategy of GAIN has been to "stall, stall, stall and delay" and oppose all development of community services at that site. Frankly that's been my observation as well regarding nearly every important community development project in the area, which is not far from my own home.

To me, at that point the commissioner's court should have just voted. GAIN was informed just like everybody else, they simply opposed the project and there's no significant chance they'll change their mind. The request for delay was made in bad faith, and granted purely as a function of form, bending over backwards to project an aura of inclusiveness.

Such annoying, 11th hour NIMBYism ignores the best interests of the broader community because of over-hyped fears of crime, as though living within a rock's throw of I-35 they can behave like they live in some elite, gated community. I've lived about a mile or so east of the proposed site for nearly two decades, and frankly I'd much prefer to have the counseling center behind my house than the cheap-ass condos they just constructed there on the Featherlite tract.

I understand why a politician would curry favor with a neighborhood association in his district, but in this case it seems like Commissioner Ron Davis is cutting off his nose to spite his face. (In the interest of full disclosure, Ron is a former campaign client.)

By enabling opponents of the counseling center, he's going against the best interests of the overwhelming majority of his district's residents to mollify a uniquely gentrified pocket of East Austin. GAIN wants to pretend that an area with myriad urban problems can be transformed through pure denial into some sort of suburban enclave - next they'll want a gate. It can't happen, and those folks who thought it could should never have moved there.

Travis County's money from the state for this counseling center was approved for spending by TDCJ-CJAD seven weeks ago. The county already has employee applicants for the new slots waiting in limbo to whom they'd like to offer positions. Discussions at last week's meeting over when the state "required" the center to open were frustratingly circular. Commissioner Davis said he felt "handcuffed" by not knowing how much time the county had to open the facility, but Nagy said several times that the county was supposed to begin Oct. 10, and had promised the state to begin operations at that time. In the previous biennium when operating funds weren't used, she said, counties had to return a portion to the state, and she anticipated that's what would happen to unused funds the county was supposed to have been spending since Oct. 10.

In other words, the county, at this point, is losing treatment funds every day they wait. If it goes on much longer, Nagy said, the state has said it may divert the funds to counties with existing, active programs who can immediately use it.

If you live in Travis County, please contact members of the Commissioners Court to let them know you support the 11th Street counseling facility. It'd be a shame if after all the effort to secure new funding for probation services Travis County didn't get our share.

Travis County Commissioners need to step up, ignore GAIN's rank NIMBYism, end these harmful delays, and support the new counseling center next Tuesday. Any other decision would harm public safety, worsen jail overcrowding, add red ink to the criminal justice budget, and sacrifice the public interest in ways I think most Austinites don't support.

Bits and pieces: Important but low-profile Texas criminal justice stories

Just a quick roundup of Texas criminal justice stories that I haven't had time to post on but which deserve Grits readers' attention:

Did Plano police conspire to set up motorist for phony DWI?
Robert Guest at I Was The State points to a troubling situation in Plano where officers allegedly falsified police reports and the city attorney is covering up for them. According to the Plano Star-Courier, three officers allegedly conspired to arrest a man as harassment on behalf of his estranged wife. Officers "claimed they had never met Sarah Boswell despite records showing the calls between the officers’ personal cell phones, both before, during and immediately after Boswell’s arrest." The city attorney defending such conduct in the story is a fool: With such a clearcut case of conspiracy, she's just going to add to the city's liability, IMO, by claiming their behavior was acceptable within their official capacity.

Jail deaths raise questions
North of Houston, the Montgomery County Courier is raising questions about three deaths in the county jail this year, one suicide and two alleged drug-related deaths. Five inmates have died this year at the much-larger Travis County jail.

Juvenile advocate profiled
Here's a nice profile of Mike Griffiths, Dallas County juvenile services chief and a respected, hands-on expert on juvenile justice matters who was an adviser to Ann Richards. He'd be an excellent choice to lead the Texas Youth Commission, if he could be convinced to take the thankless job.

Guv grants go to juvenile justice
I'm glad to see the Governor funneling criminal justice funding to incarceration alternatives and juvenile justice programs, but many of these services should be provided in state or county baseline budgets, not as one-time specialty grants. Still, the Guv deserves credit where it's due. (And I'd love to give him a lot more bloggerly credit if he'd appoint somebody like Griffiths to run TYC.)

Ne'er-do-well makes good

If readers will forgive an off-topic point of personal privilege, congratulations to my father, Tom Henson, for his recent selection as president-elect of the Texas Association of Defense Counsel (that's civil, not criminal defense attorneys). Reported the Tyler Morning Telegraph:
The TADC is a statewide association of more than 2,000 private practice attorneys specializing in civil defense trial law. Henson, who practices primarily in complex toxic tort and commercial litigation, is admitted to practice in the Southern, Eastern and Northern Federal Districts of Texas, in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and in Texas and U.S. Supreme Courts.
I suppose that means I'll be seeing the old man in Austin more frequently. I'm proud of you, Dad, good job, and good luck.

Expanding mental healthcare in schools would reduce crime

Though this blog focuses on the Texas justice system, the reality is the justice system is the dumping ground for failures of state and local government in other arenas, particularly education and mental health treatment. When the education system fails, when mental health problems or childhood traumas go unaddressed, those systems' funnel all their failures into Texas jails and prisons.

So I'm thrilled to see the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Steve Jacob present an excellent and informative article yesterday ("Mental health: Class dismissed?," Nov. 25) focusing on the need to improve front-line mental healthcare in schools, raising the profile of an issue that underlies quite a bit of criminal conduct. (I don't know comparable figures on the juvie side, but thirty percent of adult Texas prison inmates are former clients of the state's indigent mental health system.)

Here are some of the highlights of Jacob's article, but really you should go read the whole thing:

A 1995 study called schools the de facto mental health system for children and adolescents. Between 70 and 80 percent of children with mental health problems were seen by school personnel -- usually guidance counselors and school psychologists -- and for most of them, school was the sole source of care.

Yet that raises the question of whether school personnel with limited mental health expertise can adequately meet the clinical demands of treating emotionally and mentally disturbed children.

And funding? The Texas attitude seems to be: "Don't even try to go there."

An estimated 75 percent of children in the Texas juvenile system have behavioral health issues, and 30 percent of those in the juvenile system will end up in the adult system. An increase in the number of U.S. juvenile delinquents has been blamed in part on diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness. Since 1991, there has been a 33 percent increase of children 7 to 12 years old appearing in juvenile court.

The relentless imperatives of the federal 2001 No Child Left Behind Act -- and the associated state standards such as those of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills -- have school administrators focusing on little else. They cannot afford to acknowledge -- let alone address -- the fact that a significant percentage of the nation's schoolchildren have often-undiagnosed mental disorders or are mentally scarred by their inability to deal with life's insults: broken homes, hopeless living conditions, abuse by adults and peer intimidation. A 1999 U.S. surgeon general's report said that the rate of suicide by those 10 to 14 years of age increased 100 percent from 1980 to 1996. During the same period, the rate increased 14 percent for ages 15 to 19.

About 20 percent of children have a diagnosable disorder at any given time, and 5 percent have serious, ongoing disorders.

School is considered a natural setting for mental health services. School is a familiar setting for students, easing the stigma and intimidation often felt in more traditional mental health settings. Cost of care has been found to be less in schools, compared with private or community-based services.

Convenience is also crucially important. Less than one-third of children who need mental health services are receiving them. But researchers discovered that when mental health services were introduced in a school setting, 98 percent of referrals obtained service, compared with 17 percent of students referred to traditional clinic-based programs

A 2004 Texas Education Agency survey of school-based mental health and substance abuse programs statewide showed just how outgunned school counselors are in dealing with these problems. The survey of 8,000 public schools showed that elementary school counselors spent about 33 percent of their time on mental health issues, declining to 18 percent in middle school and 12 percent in high school.

A 2003 study that found 71 percent of Texas public schools had guidance counselors, but only 28 percent employed licensed mental health professionals.
Jacob declares the state is "crippled by a shortage of mental healthcare providers," particular in the Rio Grande Valley and areas outside the I-35 population corridor.

In the story's final paragraph, Jacob puts his finger on the main reason Texas fails to focus resources on this problem: Though he doesn't use the words, basically stupidity and ignorance on the part of the general public:
There are myriad reasons for such paltry mental health spending. The chief reason likely lies in a survey that showed 71 percent of Texans believed mental illness was the result of emotional weakness; 43 percent said victims of mental illness bring it on themselves.
If we were truly engaged in a "War on Crime," this underlying fallacy would be the equivalent of the period before the Iraq War when the majority of the public believed Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11. It's not just a misguided conception, but a starkly dangerous one.

For a "tuff" state whose leaders frequently adopt the mantle of "victims rights," this is an especially disturbing phenomena, since in more than a few cases the system punishes victims after the fact. All evidence shows victims themselves easily become predators when they cannot find justice or relieve their emotional pain, and that's even more true of juveniles. Practically speaking (i.e., setting aside for the moment what "should be" and focusing on what "is"), societal norms cannot reasonably be enforced on people with either an organic mental imbalance (like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) or an extreme situational one (like post-traumatic stress disorder from physical or sexual abuse), at least not without honestly considering the situation as it faces each individual. To adopt such a callous attitude invites increased crime and recidivism.

It's not "soft" or "liberal" to think that failure to finance juvenile mental health care contributes to crime. You just have to read past Grits posts on the Texas Youth Commission to see how frequently mental health services, or their lack, crop up in juvenile justice discussions. In many cases, those unmet mental health needs are big contributors to criminal behavior. It's not the only factor, but it's a major one, especially for the most chronic and difficult offenders.

The Exonerated

Having driven to Dallas Saturday night with a friend to attend a benefit for the Innocence Project of Texas (see AP coverage of the event), I got to meet quite a few exonerees from Big D and beyond, so I was pleased to return home to find Texas Monthly's Evan Smith on his blog pointing to a New York Times feature on DNA exonerations:
[The] New York Times has a long feature about the more than 200 prisoners who've been exonerated by DNA evidence in the U.S. since 1989. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of them are from Texas (the first two words of the story are the name of an exoneratee from Austin: "Christopher Ochoa"). Nice multimedia extension online: Go here to listen to them tell their stories in their own words. You'll surely get mad and depressed, as I did.
For a cold, rainy Saturday night on a holiday, I was gratified that several hundred people showed up at the DNA Blues Ball in Dallas. Jeff Blackburn, Chief Counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas (IPOT), told me at the end of the evening they'd raised enough to pay for 15 more inmates to get DNA tests to try to prove their innocence.

In addition, IPOT has formed an "exoneree council," Blackburn said, that intends to push for innocence reforms at the 2009 Texas Legislature.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Governor's fixer profiled, panned

Different people view Texas A&M administrator and former TYC conservator Jay Kimbrough in quite different lights. Emily Ramshaw offers up an almost ritualistic hagiogoraphy of the Governor's fixer in the Dallas News, while a letter writer in the Austin Statesman found recent comments by Mr. Kimbrough about an alleged insider deal on a questionable TYC contract "shameful."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Prison guards' blog: No more adult prison transplants to TYC; Is TDCJ-OIG asleep at the switch?

I swear if I knew how to hack into The Back Gate's new website and give their front-page articles permalinks, I'd have done it weeks ago, no doubt. I'd drive up to Huntsville and beg if I thought it would help. But in the meantime, I can only suggest you go read TBG's top article right now, pithily headlined:
Officer's are sleeping with inmates. Prison based violence is up statewide, drugs muled in by employees. Guess where TDCJ OIG will be this holiday season. If you guessed passing out car theft prevention information to the public at businesses, you guessed right!
With a title that specific, I don't have to tell you what the article is about, just go read it.

Another headline a couple of articles below will also interest Grits readers concerned about the Texas Youth Commission:
TYC Admin told to stop hiring TDCJ employees
If it's true, I guess better late than never. According to anonymous sources cited in the piece:
In no uncertain terms, TYC admin have been told to stop hiring their administrators from TDCJ. This request, which was said to have been directed towards current TYC director Demtria Pope's office ties in with the obvious halt in hiring from the adult prison agency by the TYC. The source, which has direct knowledge of the news, confirms that legislators, and others in high places have made the request based on the past incidents that have occurred within the TYC with TDCJ transplants.
Nothing like anonymous blog rumors to stir the pot, is there? Good stuff, TBG! Let's just get these articles some permalinks!

Houston PD to employ unmanned spy drones?

That's the report from a Houston TV station, via Wired Blog Network. And what, exactly, is the purpose of this device but to snoop in places where the law would otherwise require them to secure a warrant?

An assistant chief told reporters "the unmanned aircraft would be used for 'mobility' or traffic issues, evacuations during storms, homeland security, search and rescue, and also "tactical." She admitted that could include covert police actions and she said she was not ruling out someday using the drones for writing traffic tickets." I wonder if it will be armed like in Afghanistan so the unmanned spy plane can take out bad guys from the air?!

This is a great example of why I could never write fiction. I can never think of things more ridiculous, strange and bizarre than what we see in reality every day. Unmanned spy planes operated by the Houston PD? Chief Harold Hurtt has always had a surveillance fetish, but you just can't make this stuff up.

UPDATE: I've put up a reader poll in the sidebar asking whether folks thinks this is a good idea. If you vote "yes," let me know in the comments how you think these could be used to improve public safety without diminishing privacy. If you vote "no," let me know what problems you foresee with the technology.

NY Times: Small number of Houston neighborhoods receive most of cities' prison releases

A handful of Houston neighborhoods receive most inmates returning to that city when they leave Texas prisons, reports New York Times criminal justice correspondent Solomon Moore today("Trying to break the cycle of prison at the street level," Nov. 22 - click on the map to expand the image).

Relying on research that partially drove the expansion of new treatment resources by the Texas Legislature this spring, Moore adumbrates the results of a research and mapping project in Houston that identified neighborhoods most in need of ex-offender re-entry services. Reported Moore:

Last year, 32,585 prisoners were released on state parole in Texas, and many of them returned to neighborhoods where they live among thousands of other parolees and probationers.

Sunnyside is one of 10 neighborhoods in Houston that together accounted for 15 percent of the city’s population, yet received half of the 6,283 prisoners released in Houston in 2005, according to the Justice Mapping Center, a criminal justice research group.

That same dynamic is true in nearly every large city, and it makes all the sense in the world, both economically and morally, to spend money proactively in those neighborhoods on re-entry and diversion programs to prevent crime instead of paying to imprison folks after the fact. For now, though, reports Moore:
new parolees keep coming. Every few weeks, several dozen inmates assemble in the chapel of the state prison in Huntsville on the eve of their release for a two-hour orientation program by Christian outreach workers. The prisoners are offered phone lists of clinics, churches, shelters and drug treatment programs. Then they file out of the chapel and back to their cells for one more night of restless confinement.

It is a shoestring program and most inmates do not participate, said the Rev. Emmett Solomon, a prison minister who leads the classes. “Most of what they get to prepare them for their release, they get right here,” Mr. Solomon said. “But it’s probably too little, too late.”

Mr. Taylor, the Sunnyside drug dealer, was in a recent class. He left for the bus station the next morning, with about 40 other men, wearing tattered, unfashionable donated clothes and carrying their possessions in mesh bags.

As Mr. Taylor got off the bus in Houston later in the afternoon, a passing stranger who called himself Ice welcomed him home.

“Hey man, I know how it is,” he told Mr. Taylor. “I just got out, too.”

Texas Jail News Roundup

I wanted to reference readers to several important Texas jail-related news items I noticed recently:

Dallas Sheriff to commissioners court: Jail labor isn't free
Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez responds to criticisms that her jail is too generous giving low-level offenders good time credit, declaring the policy was in place long before she got there, and that she'd be happy to change it if county commissioners (one of whom, Kenneth Mayfield, was the main critic of the policy) would fork over a few million dollars extra per year to pay for it. Bully for her. The biggest irony: It'd be a lot cheaper to pay free-world workers for road cleanup than to fill up the jail solely for the purpose of extracting "free" labor that actually costs a lot more in the big picture. Another irony, at the same time county commissioners are berating the Sheriff for not keeping enough low-level offenders in jail to staff work crews, they're financing new, progressive jail diversion programs aimed at keeping just those type of offenders out of jail in the first place. Go figure.

Bexar jail strip search policy challenged

Bexar County has been sued over the jail's policy of strip searching every single inmate booked into the facility. Reported WOAI radio: Attorneys in the case "said they've tried cases like this before in other parts of the country and won. The most recent case was in New Jersey, where the attorneys said their clients were awarded millions of dollars."

Bexar Sheriff corruption may pave way for 'tent city'
An unexpected consequence of the resignation of the Bexar County Sheriff on corruption charges: The Commissioners Court has appointed as an interim replacement someone who supports their pet "tent jail" proposal which the previous Sheriff opposed. I've written before how foolish this is from a pure public-safety perspective: There's a reason jails have walls. Commissioners should wait until Bexar has another elected Sheriff, and not use the opportunity of a lame-duck puppet Sheriff to push through a bad idea.

Burnet residents oppose entrepreneurial jail
In Burnet County, local officials say they've outgrown their 98 bed jail, and so want to build a new facility six times the size of the current one, with the stated intention of turning it into an entrepreneurial enterprise housing out of county inmates. Problem is, people who live where they want to put the new jail don't want it:
Local residents are opposed to the new facility, which primarily would house violators awaiting trial in the county or serving out sentences on county offenses. So many people turned out to debate the possible new jail Monday night that the fire marshal had to get involved. A decision whether to use the site for a jail should happen sometime early next year.
Building a jail so much bigger than the county needs makes the county reliant on the current jail and prison boom continuing ad infinitum, or at least over the next 15-20 years while they're making bond payments. Maybe it will. So far other counties making that assumption have been lucky. But personally I don't believe the current growth in Texas' incarceration rate is sustainable, either pragmatically, socially or economically, so Burnet County: If 10 years down the line you find yourself making large debt payments on a half-empty jail, don't say nobody warned you. It's a bad idea, and not just for NIMBY reasons.

UTMB rejected for Beaumont jail healthcare contract
In Beaumont, Jefferson County Commissioners rejected a bid by UTMB Galveston to operate jail healthcare, relying instead on a company called NaphCare. The reason given: "UTMB doesn't offer indemnity protection, which NaphCare does, and CHM's best offer was $500,000 more than NaphCare's price." I'm interested in this because, in my opinion, UTMB's record providing healthcare in carceral settings has generally been very poor at the state prison system, at the Texas Youth Commission, and when they operated the jail healthcare in Dallas so poorly it drew down federal litigation. Whatever reason Jefferson County rejected UTMB, I think other counties and ultimately the state should revisit whether UTMB is up to the task. Their experimental reliance on "telemedicine" generates poor outcomes, and when they're questioned about poor results, all you hear are mealy-mouthed excuses.

Third time likely not a charm for Smith County Jail
Voters have rejected new jails two years in a row in Tyler, but County Commissioners are already making plans to put the idea on the ballot a third time. Personally, I think Smith County Commissioners are taking the wrong message from these two ridiculously lopsided votes against new jail building. I once predicted that votes rejecting a new jail in Smith County may become an annual affair, kind of like Tyler's Azalea Trail, and that may indeed turn out to be the case.

Seliger: Max probation for most crimes should be five years

Legislation passed in 2007 reducing probation lengths for state jail and third degree felonies is working well, but now the same changes need to be applied to a broader array of crimes, Amarillo state Sen. Kel Seliger told the Midland Reporter Telegraph ("Texas Senate mulls probation reforms," Nov. 21). He supports reducing probation lengths for most criminal offenses to five years, and expects legislation to that effect to be introduced at the Texas Legislature in 2009:

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Plano, sponsored a bill to shorten the maximum probation for third-degree and state jail felony theft and narcotics offenses from 10 to five years.

With 4,000 drug criminals put on probation for longer than five years in 2006, Seliger said the changes didn't go far enough.

"Probation officers around District 31 say they know in three years if a probationer will re-offend or not," the Senate Criminal Justice Committee vice chairman said.

"Some under a super long term have a technical violation, but it doesn't protect the public to fill up the prisons with technical violators. New prisons are expensive and it could be we'd be better off to raise the salaries of correctional officers and take care of our understaffing first."

Seliger is presently considering reforms in general terms and wants more input from legal officials before getting specific.

When asked if voters might be more concerned about crime, he said, "We conservatives are trying to get the most bang for the buck and take as little of people's hard earned tax money as possible."

He said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, has indicated he may support '09 legislation to limit probation for most offenses to five years.

The Midland DA raised a common fallacy about Seliger's proposal: "Midland County District Attorney Teresa Clingman is concerned about crime spawned by the oil boom and doubtful the system should be less strict." Perhaps it's counterintuitive, but the irony here is that long probation terms are what has made probation "less strict." Statewide, general probation caseloads are still well over 100 probationers per officer, meaning most probationers don't receive significant oversight and their P.O.s spend most of their time doing paperwork.

By moving to shorter, stronger probation, P.O.s can do home and work visits, check to enforce curfews, give more help to probationers who need to access job placement or other services, and generally provide a lot more oversight during those first three years when data shows all probationers are most likely to re-offend. That's the approach to public safety the Amarillo Republican is advocating, and the reality is Seliger's suggestion would make probation substantially more strict.

Though it seems relatively minor, this is one of the most important changes that could be made to reduce unnecessary incarceration and improve public safety. Offenders who succeed for 5, 6, 7 years or more on probation shouldn't then be revoked on felony charges for technical violations or minor offenses - they're just taking up bed space that could go toward housing more dangerous offenders.

The more important benefit, though, will be to improve safety by more closely supervising probationers during the period when they're most likely to re-offend, and ensuring Texas has ample prison space to house more dangerous offenders. That approach is both smarter on crime and easier on the pocketbook.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Reflections on Turkey Day at TYC's Giddings unit

I wanted to record a few observations from my Thanksgiving Day trip out to Giddings to visit the Texas Youth Commission's violent offender unit there with Ombudsman Will Harrell. Nothing I saw particularly surprised me, but the visit confirmed and reinforced quite a few impressions garnered from watching TYC politics over the last year:

Thanks to Gidding staff for a great visit
First, the staff I met, to a person, were wonderful, both welcoming and professional - it was a LOT different from interacting with staff at TDCJ units. I can't say everyone who works at Giddings is that way, but from all the grousing by employees on Grits, I think I expected folks to be a bit more alienated in their jobs. (Also, incidentally, most staff I met had never heard of Grits for Breakfast, so some of you TYC folks need to do a better job of spreading the word among your co-workers about this blog!)

Because of the holiday, I was disappointed not to get to see the metal shop and the chapel, both of which I was told were usually "must see" stops on the nickel tour, but both kids and staff were particularly proud of their welding/trades program and praised it in glowing terms.

Shut up and have a Happy Thanksgiving
As for the Thanksgiving dinner - because after all isn't that what's most important about the holiday? - the kids at Giddings had a hearty, traditional meal including both turkey and ham, yams, stuffing and cranberry sauce, with pecan and pumpkin pie for dessert. And it was good! If they'd served me the same thing in the Luby's I'd have felt just fine about it. Will Harrell tells me he's never had a bad meal at a TYC unit, though the portions are usually smaller than yesterday's holiday spread.

However fine the food, though, an odd atmosphere hung over the cafeteria since kids were forced to eat their "special" meal in silence within 20 minutes. Holiday meals emphasize the universal fact that eating in human culture is not only about sustenance - eating is a social event, a bonding ritual performed by social animals. A dog may take a bone and go hide alone to eat it; humans gather to eat with those they care about.

The rule against youth talking during meals supposedly is for the benefit of security, but it's not like the kids don't have plenty of chance to communicate with each other elsewhere. Seeing it imposed during Thanksgiving dinner especially emphasized to me the thoughtless bureaucratic cruelty of this regulation. The holiday message sent seemed to be: "Here, shut up and be thankful."

No 12-1 staffing ratio at Giddings
Much has been written here and elsewhere about staffing ratios at TYC, and yesterday's visit confirmed that understaffing continues to be a problem. I wished later I'd counted heads in each one, but not a single one of the pods we visited met the 12-1 youth to staff ratio required by law. Twenty to one was more typical from what I saw. Yes, it was Thanksgiving, but it's not like SB 103 said TYC must maintain a 12-1 ratio except on holidays. And since both employees and youth complained that Giddings regularly lacks sufficient staff, I suspect what I saw wasn't just a reflection of the holiday.

Pragmatism limits pepper spray effectiveness
I asked a lot of kids about the pepper spray question: Without exception, the first reaction of each of them was to laugh out loud.

Every kid knew the use of force policy had changed to allow more frequent use of pepper spray, and they could describe exactly how and when OC spray was applied on the continuum. In fact, they all knew the rules and the impact of new "Spray First" procedures much better than the administrators in Austin, who keep botching decisions on use of force in ways that keep dragging them back to court.

One kid in the capital offenders pod described to me an instance that shows the on-the-ground absurdity of the "Spray First" policy, which says that staff are required to use pepper spray before putting their hands on youth to control them. Since staff could not manually restrain him first, he said (while several other inmates giggled and added details that would embarrass the storyteller), when an overweight staff member tried to spray him, he ran to get away. (Shocking, huh?) He ran around the room, jumped over cots, bobbed and weaved around a table, and did all he could to keep from being sprayed. All the while the corpulent JCO vainly chased him about the pod, attempting to spray him but instead filling the air with a mist of OC spray that affected the other kids more than the offender.

The worst part, one of his giggling cohorts added, was that the event left several kids' cots soaked in pepper spray, and the sheets, he said, were only washed once per week. I can only imagine what it's like to sleep on pepper-spray soaked sheets, but the anecdote confirmed my sense that TYC administrators in Austin have not thoroughly thought through the new use of force rules (for which they will head back to court on Monday).

The truth is that several of the kids I spoke to would do a much better job of crafting a workable use of force policy than Dimitria Pope and "Bronco" Billy Humphrey have done. They knew exactly what worked, what didn't, and how youth responded to different situations. Maybe they should be given a little more input, and former TDCJ wardens should be given a little less.

Euphemism of the Day: Behavioral Management Program
As the juvie corrections field has professionalized, a pseudo-professional jargon has arisen, employing a variety of euphemisms that take the edge off of the harsher but more accurate descriptions of particular prison tactics. One of those euphemisms is the "Behavior Management Program," or BMP.

Kids "on BMP" are in solitary confinement. They live in what amounts to a dungeon, in small individual cells secured by thick metal doors with a slot at knee level for passing through food trays. It's known as a "Behavior Management Program" because supposedly kids earn their way out of solitary through improved behavior, at first being allowed to spend pockets of time with other kids, then slowly being integrated back into the general population. Six kids at Giddings (out of a total of approximately 450) were on BMP when we visited.

Most kids on suicide watch need mental health care
The same dungeon setting where the BMP kids are held also houses kids on suicide watch, though thankfully no one was there when we visited. The fellow watching over this section said that, in his experience at Giddings, most kids on suicide watch had a significant mental health problem. They either were there waiting for space to open up at the TYC mental health facility in Corsicana, or they had transferred from the Corsicana unit and probably needed to go back.

His observations reminded me of the situation in Coke County where a TYC youth was in suicide watch for weeks waiting for space to open up in Corsicana. By the time the facility was closed down over poor conditions, the youth was smearing his own feces on the wall and licking it off. Acting TYC executive director Dimitria Pope told a legislative committee last month she was unaware of a problem with delays in transferring mentally ill youth. However this JCO's comments made me think that wasn't just a problem at that Geo Group run facility in Coke County, but that Corsicana may just not have adequate capacity to handle kids in TYC with significant mental health needs. Or if it does, the bureaucracy cannot identify kids who need these services or transfer them quickly enough once they do.

Lack of programming worries youth
Ironically, I spent a lot less time asking questions of kids at Giddings than I did answering them, and the #1 concern expressed to me by youth was the lack of specialized treatment programs, especially sex offender and chemical dependency treatment. They wanted to know, basically, why it didn't exist or how they could get into those programs, which in many cases are required as part of their sentence.

One fellow told me his minimum two-year stay would be up in just a couple of months, but that his sentence required him to complete a sex offender treatment program that he hadn't even begun. And he wasn't alone - I was asked over and over by kids how they could get the treatment services they needed to complete their incarceration stint. These kids understood exactly what was expected and required of them, and for the most part they were willing to comply. But they were extremely frustrated that they weren't being given a chance to meet those expectations.
* * *

Those were the broad highlights. Thanks to Will Harrell for letting me tag along yesterday, and to everyone I met at Giddings for an enjoyable and informative visit.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

No holiday for TYC news: Should confession be a condition of release for youth who plead "not guilty" and lost at trial?

With Kathy out of town, I'm leaving in just a bit with my former ACLUTX boss and current Texas Youth Commission Ombudsman to spend Thanksgiving with the kids and staff at the TYC unit in Giddings. (Thanks to TYC PR man Tim Savoy for hooking me up with a media pass.)

On the subject of TYC, Holly Becka has a great article in this morning's Dallas News ("Confession a condition of release from TYC facilities") about the policy of requiring a confession from youth of the crime for which they were sentenced as a condition of release. Her lede describes the case of a:
McKinney youth [who] insists he's innocent of the attempted rape charge that landed him in TYC, and his case is on appeal. But the only way he can go home soon is to confess to the crime as part of his TYC treatment.
This is a longstanding policy, not something created by the new administration, and I'm glad to see Becka casting light on the topic. OTOH, TYC passed a rule this summer allowing waivers for youth who didn't complete treatment programs (part of their effort to reduce overall inmate populations) so the youth could still be discharged if the Director of Treatment and Case Management approved it. I'm not sure how that new rule fits into the picture, or why the Director of Treatment didn't provide a waiver for the kid from McKinney.

In any event, Happy Turkey Day to all.