Wednesday, December 26, 2007

One year retrospective: A look at what Grits thought were the important stories when the year began, and where they are now

At the end of 2006 in this post, I created a top ten list of the most important Texas criminal justice stories, many of which still rank among the state's most vexing public policy dilemmas.

In a link-rich post, I described how Governor Perry's 2005 vetoes ensured Texas' prison overcrowding crisis, and the 80th Legislature responded with the worst possible scenario: Building prisons the state can't staff or afford to operate.

Innocence cases were the next on the 2006 top ten list, but despite the steady stream of DNA exonerations throughout the year, the Legislature did virtually nothing to reform the procedural flaws that we now know generate wrongful convictions.

As in 2006, immigration detention in 2007 continued to drive incarceration expansion, though the Texas Legislature also added thousands of new beds, both in secure lockdown facilities and in treatment and intermediate sanctions beds. It remains unclear whether it will be possible to staff those new facilities.

I predicted that local jail overcrowding would worsen, illustrating the section with a picture of Harris County jail inmates sleeping on the floor. There's little question that it has. In November, Harris County voters rejected new jail bonds by a 51-49 margin; today the county rents 600 beds from a private facility in Louisiana. Another proposed jail in Tyler was voted down by a whopping 69-31 margin, the second time in two years Smith County voters said "no" to a new jail. Throughout the state, increased pretrial detention is the main reason for increased jail populations, even where overall crime is falling. Voter antipathy for new jail building is forcing some counties to re-evaluate those expensive policy choices.

I'd named the federal investigation of TYC's Evins unit as one of the top ten 2006 Texas criminal justice stories, but no one (except maybe Nate Blakeslee or Alison Brock) could have predicted how the Youth Commission story would explode onto the national and international stage, to the point where the agency has become the subject of frequent NY Times editorials and coverage in recent months. TYC surely must be the most scrutinized agency in the state, but so far that hasn't meant that's it's been run any more ably.

The next top-ten story was the Court of Criminal Appeals thumbing its nose at the Supreme Court and President Bush. Things got worse this year, when the Presiding Judge Sharon Keller began to thumb her nose at the rest of her colleagues as well, presuming to turn down an appeal in a death penalty case without notifying the judge who should have made the decision.

A section called "Sex offender election hype promotes dangerous non-solutions" predicted nearly precisely what came to happen with "Jessica's Law": A sweeping and costly new statute that victim advocates argue will make it less likely pedophiles are reported. Time will tell.

In 2006, Texas' federal "Byrne grant" money was taken away from regional drug task forces and split among 16 Sheriff's departments along the border. Gov. Perry convinced the Legislature to institutionalize that model in 2007, with little oversight or reporting required for how they spend the funds or whether border enforcement strategies are productive. I'm convinced border enforcement must be a key state security spending priority, and consider the influence of drug cartels arguably the greatest criminal threat Texans face. But without spending resources to ferret out corruption among law enforcement, it's very easy for such money to go to people who themselves wind up helping the drug traffickers. I'm also afraid that's what will happen with President Bush's proposed funding for Mexican law enforcement.

Finally, in the honorable mention category, I suggested that in 2007, "Dallas Dems must now put up or shut up on criminal justice," arguing specifically that Sheriff Lupe Valdez and new DA Craig Watkins in Dallas County must each step up to solve problems they inherited from their predecessors. To my mind, one has and one hasn't. As of this writing, Sheriff Valdez in particular has failed to creatively lead her department in new directions, particularly when compared to Craig Watkins' national-class performance. In part I'm told that's because, unlike Watkins, she failed to bring in a cadre of new leadership loyal to her when she took over the department, and thus has less support from her top commanders than does the DA's shop. That should be a lesson for anyone assuming new control of executive positions after next year's elections: If you win, get folks in the top slots who you can trust.

I'm going to publish a similar retrospective piece on New Year's Day looking back at 2007. Tell me what you think were the biggest Texas criminal justice stories in 2007. Clearly the TYC meltdown will make the list, but what are some of the important stories hovering just a little further below the radar? Full prisons? Spooky databases? And which of the issues from 2006 should still make the list for 2007?

And while you're at it, give me your Texas criminal justice predictions for 2008, on whatever topic. Tell me you're opinion and I'll publish Grits' 2007 "Top Ten" essay on Jan. 1.


Anonymous said...

Jessica's law would qualify for the 2007 list and its impact will be felt in 2008.

Anonymous said...

Shunned ex DPS Trooper Mike Vennell shot and killed an unarmed Hispanic boy in the back of the head while fleeing from a suspected stolen vehicle after a high speed chase. Are police shootings of unarmed suspects so unremarkable that they do not find a place on your list?